Making a sequel to the excellent Mega Man X was never going to be an easy task, and Mega Man X2's divisive reputation is a testament to that. Regardless of its merits as a follow-up act, it could never compare to the massive pioneering impact of the first SNES Mega Man game. However, and I am revealing my cards earlier than usual here, I think that it is a much better game when comparing the two games purely on their own merits without taking influence into account.
While the first game is undoubtedly credited with the new look of the SNES games, as well as the introduction of X's various movement options from dashing to wall jumping, I frankly don't think it fulfilled its potential. In contrast, I think that Mega Man X2 has better-designed levels that take advantage of X's expanded movement options, and it pushed the SNES hardware much further than the first game ever did.
To be fair to the critical reception at the time, Mega Man X2 wasn't a big jump in quality like the second Mega Man game was to the first, and the advances it made were not considered enough. Yet, that has always been the nature of this franchise, and X2 actually carries on the excellent work of the first game quite well.
Personally, I have my own bias for the game, since this is the first Mega Man game I played. I watched my uncle play the original games on the NES, but I wasn't allowed to play them at the time. Later, I played X2 in a cousin's house where I somehow figured out a password that got me to the final stages, which helped since I never could beat the game on my own at first. Years later, when I eventually finished the game, the memories of those few hours in my cousin's house probably enhanced the game's reputation in my mind.
Before I jump into the rest of the retrospective, one thing is worth noting about how to play the game today. Despite having a reputation for frame drops in its original SNES form, it performs slightly better than the first game in the Mega Man X Legacy collection, which is a bit weird.
Narratively, X2 continues the story of Sigma and the mavericks without making any major changes to how the story unfolds. An opening scroll still does most of the story introduction, and dialogue cut-scenes are as rare as in the first game. One thing the game does better is in its more "cinematic" presentation of some scenes. The opening of the game with X and his fellow hunter riding motorcycles in the desert while being shot at is golden.
After the opening stage, a mysterious group, calling themselves the X-Hunters, reveals themselves and their plan to resurrect Zero and turn him into a Maverick. To facilitate their plans, eight Mavericks took control of key locations to distract X and the other Maverick Hunters. The game allows you to collect Zero's parts and disrupt their schemes, but the ending doesn't change much. The only difference is that you get one of the best fights of the game against Zero if you don't collect his parts.
In the end, the group reveals that they are working to resurrect Sigma by creating a new body for him. When you defeat Sigma, he turns into a virus of sorts (foreshadowing what he will become in the next games), but he questions why Zero is not turning evil since he was the last creation of "The Doctor".
Overall, the story is not at the forefront of the game and is still limited in its presentation. However, the team at Capcom is showing more confidence in creating interesting set-pieces and some cool, but still rather cliche, anime tropes. The upside of this is that the games are yet to go into the realm of ridiculous voice acting that it is known for in the PS1 era.
Since this is the first game you fight Zero, I thought it would be a good idea to talk about the character before he starts becoming playable in the next few games. According to Keiji Inafune, Zero was the first design that was going to be used for X, but it was such a big departure from the good-guy image of the character he was instead made into the secondary character. As such, he was purposely designed to be a strong and cool character, and his design evokes every anime trope in the 90s to pull off that image.
Red color. Check
Long flowing hair. Check.
Uses a cool sword. Check.
So, it's not at all surprising that Zero ends up with a more complex and compelling storyline than X, he was purposely created to do so. That stems from his potentially evil roots, being made by Dr. Wily, as well as his more morally grey outlook. He is not a good two-shoes like X, and that's cool. This is before you start playing as him, which is a high-risk high-reward style that is honestly more fun.
Ultimately, Inafune liked Zero so much as a character that he pitched a sub-series for him to star in, and so the Mega Man Zero games were born. I will discuss the differences the character goes through in those games later. For no, just enjoy the character's amazing intro theme (which says more about the character than I could ever write):
While Mega Man X introduced the new mechanics of the X sub-series and the more organic construction of levels, I felt that it didn't go far with either element in the actual level design. As such, X2 can be considered a big step forward in that regard. Its levels are varied and make visual and spatial sense, and the obstacles in each level are thematically good and better conceived than anything in the first level. Just compare Bubble Crab's level, where you chase a submarine underwater before you go into an underground base to the boring slog of Launch Octopus's stage.
It starts from the beginning stage, where an exhilarating wall jump sequence lets you know that wall jumping would be utilized heavily in the game, and that's true. Wall jumps will help you navigate a more vertical game, with dashes used for the long horizontal jumps. Later, when you unlock the air dash, you will be moving with a speed and grace that outdoes anything you have seen before in the Mega Man games.
This is supported by great level design and interesting set pieces such as escaping through the neck of a volcano as lava rises. Other levels have their unique design or gameplay hook, from a level inside a behemoth of a tank to a desert chase on a motorcycle. The game rarely repeats itself, at least not when you are not backtracking. Like the first game, you will be looking for Armor and Health upgrades in the levels, and here you will need to use the weapons you get from bosses or the abilities you unlock from Dr. Light's capsules. I already mentioned the air dash, but another brilliant upgrade is the Arm double charger, which allows you to store a charged shot, and is much better than the supercharged shot in the first game (which caused the majority of frame drops).
In my opinion, any objective comparison between playing the levels of X and X2 would expose great bias in continuing to rate the first game as obviously superior, because the levels in the second game are much better constructed and utilize more of X's mechanics than the first game ever did. This extends to the visual aspect, where both games excelled in creating logical levels, but the second game is much better at making lush backgrounds and brilliant effects (such as the brilliant changing weather effects of Wire Sponge's stage). The first game was great-looking, but this one is just gorgeous.
One minor criticism I have about the game is the placement of one of Dr. Light's capsules. All power-ups are placed in locations with varying challenge levels, which is great, but one of the capsule's locations makes no logical sense. How the hell did the professor manage to hide a capsule inside Wheel Gator's moving tank?
From a design perspective, the Mavericks this time around adhere more broadly to the angular and edgy art style of the X franchise, which is fine with the core eight Mavericks but is a bit overdone for the three X-Hunters. Again, most of the Mavericks are based on animals, but one of them is inexplicably based on a sponge!!. My suggestion is to go for the sponge first since he is not that difficult and his level has a useful sub-tank. If you are interested in knowing the weakness circle, which is more difficult to figure out than the first game, then it goes like this: Wire Sponge> Wheel Gator> Bubble Crab (saws to go through the crab shell)> Flame Stag (this makes sense)> Morph Moth> Magna Centipede> Crystal Snail (weird elemental territory)> Overdrive Ostrich.
Regardless of which boss you tackle first, as long as it's not Magna Centipede then you will be okay with your base stats, although the extra health and sub-tanks can work. The base fights are almost all great fights, from Overdrive Ostrich running in the distance and jumping at you from above, to the water shenanigans of Bubble Crab with his bubble shield. However, as has been the case with the series, the fights become more trivial when using the correct weakness against each boss.
Unlike the first game, the fights don't become extremely easy, but that's not always a good thing. Thanks to the main function of each weapon weakness stun-locking the boss into a certain pattern, some bosses (like Wheel Gator) just become incredibly boring. As usual, this wastes some great potential fights. Sure, using magnet power to separate Crystal Snail from his shell is hilarious and doesn't actually ruin that fight, and Morph Moth is still challenging even when trying to burn her, but the majority of the other fights are just downgraded too much, which is a repeated concern at this stage in the franchise.
As such, I will always recommend playing all the Maverick fights without weakness and reserving those for the gauntlet at the end. However, if you choose not to use the boss weapons against the bosses, they are still useful and fun to use in the game at large even if the weapon selection this time is not as good as X1. Their charged versions are also fun to use, and it's nice that the fully charged Buster doesn't completely dominate the game's balance.
Other than the eight bosses, there are two times when you can fight the X-Hunters, which are some of the best and most challenging fights in the game. The first time, the three X-Hunters will hide in regular stages where you must find them to get back a piece of Zero's armor. These fights are hard due to not being fully upgraded, and it's important to note that you MUST start them the moment they start appearing. Otherwise, you won't be able to fully get back all of Zero's parts. Still, there is a good argument for NOT getting all of Zero's parts. After all, that unlocks the best boss fight in the game against Zero himself.
Immediately, this soundtrack is surprising, especially to fans of the first X game's soundtrack, for how different it is. On the NES, despite each game having its own style, they all shared a similar soundscape due to the limited possible instrumentation. On the SNES, a different sound style also brought completely different instrumentation sometimes, making the differences between soundtracks more apparent.
This, in my opinion, is one reason the X2 soundtrack is a bit underrated by fans, since they expected something similar to the grungy rock style of the first game but were met with something different. X2's soundtrack has a mixture of high-energy tracks and more atmospheric and ambient tracks, with subtlety now being more possible thanks to the SNES's upgraded sound capabilities. In my opinion, those unusually atmospheric tracks are some of the game's best (which is why I selected the stage themes of Crystal Snail and Bubble Crab) and are a big part of the soundtrack's appeal.
It may not be as good or iconic as the first game's soundtrack, but don't think that this game doesn't have a great soundtrack of its own, as can be seen from the following tracks:
This is one of the softer and groovier tracks in the soundtrack, and one where the theme and look of the stage itself manifest themselves in the music. The track starts with a xylophone/glockenspiel beat that sounds as if mallets were hitting the crystal bedrock of the stage itself. This section quickly makes way for the main guitar riff which dramatically builds tension as Mega Man goes further into the cave, resolving into another xylophone/glockenspiel section with a faster and more dramatic rhythm than the first section, accentuated with quick-fire and perfectly placed hits from the backing organ. Of course, to truly appreciate this track, you must consider the amazingly groovy background bass and what it does to highlight the sick guitar solo in the middle, it just works together wonderfully and fits the danger and mystery of the stage very well.
You know that a company likes a track they made when they reuse it again, even if for a cameo or bonus section, so how about it being the main theme of stages in TWO games? Bubble Crab's stage theme was so good, and so evocative for an underwater stage, they had to use it for a similar stage in X5 as well. The track begins by establishing the bass rhythm of the song and with a big Xylophone melodic section that is truly the star of the song every time it loops back into it. However, the backing strings soon kick in to let you know this is a big dramatic moment, and then the clarinet melody starts, evoking the underwater feeling of the song while containing hints of dramatic struggle and triumph. Those latest notes are confirmed by the heroic organ chords (which give me strong F-Zero vibes) that end the song, seemingly asking the player if they are ready to drive onwards before it loops back to the brilliant beginning.
The first X-Hunter stage music, also known as "Absolute Zero", is the track most similar to Mega Man X's soundtrack, except with clean rather than grungy guitar sounds. It follows the trend of other first end-game stages in the series with a general "siege the castle" feeling. The song starts with rapid desperate guitar wails announcing the heroic and fast paced main guitar riff. As the guitar riff concludes, a short section at the end brings the song back to its desperate start through a brilliant changing repetition of a single melody. The track is only about 25 seconds, but it doesn't feel boring no matter how long you listen to it because you find new things to focus on every time it loops.
It's obvious that this retrospective is written with a comparison to the more well-regarded Mega Man X squarely in my mind, and if anything, that's a testament to the first game's lasting legacy (which is undisputed). As such, I find that Mega Man X2 objectively carries on from the foundations laid by the first game and improves on them in almost every way. With much better usage of X's new mechanics, the levels are much better designed, and the bosses are also generally more fun with or without their weaknesses. Also, with more experience with the SNES hardware at this point, the game is also visually more varied and looks a bit better across the board.
True, the advances this sequel makes are not even close to the magnitude of improvement Mega Man 2 did to the original, and I suspect that's the source of the lukewarm reaction to this game. Even though it's undoubtedly a better-designed and better-balanced game, playing it after the legacy-defining Mega Man X may not feel as impressive. Which is exactly the type of effect I aimed to avoid in making this series retrospective, to judge each game as if they were all released at the same time.
Another aspect that I feel unfairly jeopardized fans' opinions on the game is its different soundtrack style, which I actually think is brilliant, if in a different way to the iconic soundtrack of the first game. It uses the advanced capabilities of the SNES soundtrack to make more subtle songs that are still brilliant, and the few songs I highlighted here are worthy of any Mega Man soundtrack in my opinion.
I admit that I might be biased a bit towards this game, which actually is the first Mega Man game I played, trying it at a cousin's house at a time when the series was too hard for me. In a way, this mirrors the inherent bias of everyone that played the first game first. However, I trust that once someone actually tries and look at he two games side by side, and compares the level themselves and how X's moveset is better utilized in the second game (especially with the air dash), then then can agree that X2 is really the culmination of 16bit Mega Man games.
Rankings: At this stage in the rankings, the differences between games 1-6 are really minimal. These are all great games, with very good games behind them. So far, only Mega Man 7 and 4 are games that I lightly dislike and think have critical design flaws.