I have a confession to make regarding these series Retrospective blogs: Mega Man X4 was always a favorite of mine and I was worried about my own bias when playing the game. I expected to give the game a bit more leeway regarding its faults, and to praise its strengths more than usual. However, it turned out that my fears were a bit unfounded since it turned out that X4 did not need any defense or inflation; it's just that damn good.
As the first game in the series to make Zero a fully playable character, X4 automatically gets huge points for getting his signature playing style right from the bat, which in my opinion is a superior and more fun play style than playing as X. The melee-focused Zero has a more risk//reward pull to him, and it encourages a more kinetic and engaged playstyle. That's not to say that X is now forgotten and ignored. He is just as mobile as he became in X2 without the unnecessary upgrades of X3.
Playing as either character is incredibly fun thanks to the expanded level design this time around, with much larger levels that take place across multiple sections while still maintaining the breezy style of the game. With two protagonists to choose from with widely different play styles, you are encouraged to go through the game twice, and it's short and fun enough to hold your interest easily.
Also, the game had some of the best sprite work of the 32-bit era, with expertly crafted and animated sprites in the middle of gorgeous backgrounds. Mega Man never looked this good before, and aside from some terrible voice acting, it was also accompanied by a very good soundtrack.
Ironically, none of the game's good points made a splash when the game was released, as it was instead criticized for being "too similar" to past games in the series and for not innovating enough with the 3D capabilities of the PS1. Actual professional critics with eyes suggested the inclusion of more 3D effects in place of the sublime sprite-work and backgrounds we see here. It was a different time where anything 2D and traditional was automatically slated while mediocre and frankly ugly graphics (FFVII anyone) were widely celebrated.
One thing to note about the game's release as part of the Mega Man X Legacy Collection is an annoying sound glitch I encountered when playing as X. He occasionally makes an annoying sound when he jumps, suggesting one of the sound effect samples is busted.
Freed from the cartridge limitations of the SNES, Inafune was finally allowed to expand on the story with X4 as much as he liked, for better or worse. Previously, there was a strong hint that a conflict was inevitable between Zero and X, and this game lays the grounds for that conflict in its clumsy exploration of what it means to become a "maverick".
The game starts with Repliforce, one of the two Reploid (intelligent robots) military forces, being declared a maverick organization, and it's up to maverick hunters such as X and Zero to put a stop to them. It's clear from the start that a shadowy figure (clearly Sigma) is behind Replifroce's uprising, and that's what the two protagonists discover just as they destroy all of Repliforce. There is a difference in the story depending on which character you choose, but a similar philosophical answer at the end.
Zero discovers both that he was originally a maverick and that he was created for an evil purpose (the player at this point should realize that Zero was created by Dr. Wily), while X is struck by the possibility that all Reploids will become mavericks someday. Again, the push toward a tragic confrontation between the two is EXTREMELY heavy-handed, but the story is picking up nicely at this point.
New to the series is the inclusion of pre-fight conversations with the bosses (which helps flesh them out a little) and some anime cut-scenes to depict major moments. It is these anime cutscenes that the Mega Man games are infamous for, with some of the WORST voice acting ever performed for a videogame.
This is a new section where I am going to focus on additions and differences of the game from past Mega Man games and highlight them to a greater degree. X4 has two major differences from its predecessors.
First, is the fact that stages are bigger than before. Several stages have two sections (with a checkpoint in between) now with each roughly being the same size as an SNES stage. Thanks to the checkpoint in between, the stages are still breezy and never drag. It also allows for more obstacle ideas per stage, and some of the more thematic stages (such as the jet-ski chase and the train ride) don't feel like wasted slots.
Second and more important is the inclusion of Zero as a playable character. While he was technically playable in X3, he controlled like a worse version of X with an even worse charge shot mechanic. Here, plays completely differently with a complete focus on melee attacks. Being close and personal is a bit antithetical to the franchise's mechanics so far, but it works due to Zero's increased power and mobility options once he gains a few upgrades. The X series always increased the kinetic energy with each installment (except the terrible X3) and the addition of Zero was an exponential jump.
As I discussed above, the stages are expanded this time around, which allows more time for the excellent action-platforming mechanics of the X series to shine when playing as either character. It also allows for a greater variety of stages, from the multi-layered jungle of Web Spider's stage to the vertically focused Split Mushroom lab.
All stages are presented well thanks to the excellent 32-bit sprites and background art compromising the game's graphics, which work to create the lush environments of the aforementioned jungle level and the creepiness of a lab run by a Toxic Mushroom. Again, I must stress that the graphics in this game are among the best 2D art to be produced at the time and still look great today.
Mechanically, both X and Zero (as I discussed above) control well. As you upgrade X by finding Dr. Light's capsules, you gain all his excellent movement options from X2 with the addition of a useful and easy-to-implement hover maneuver, but the charge shot is changed again. Before you get flashbacks about X3 botched upgrade, know that you have access to two choices of upgrades this time around, both of which work well.
Zero doesn't gain any armor parts from Dr. Wily (who is apparently a cheap bastard), but gains special moves like air dashing and double jumping by beating the game's bosses. Speaking of boss upgrades, this selection is a return to form for the series, especially considering you can always use the buster while one special weapon is equipped. Nearly every weapon is useful and fun to use even if the buster shot still is more than sufficient to destroy everything.
Here, we must address some part of the game's reputation that I think is unwarranted. Mega Man X4 has a reputation for being a hard game and that's simply not true. Not only do you get generous checkpoints within each level, but the upgrades you find (energy tanks and heat upgrades) should make it possible to defeat every boss and obstacle in the game. Playing as Zero could be a bit tougher since you need to be close to your enemies, but even that is counteracted by how strong the Z-Saber is.
The talk about difficulty nicely segues into this game's bosses, who should theoretically offer the most resistance to the player in the game. The Maverick selection this time around has the interesting choices of a mushroom-based Reploid, but all the others make more sense in their design, and some sense in their weakness circle: Web Spider> Split Mushroom> Cyber Peacock> Storm Owl> Magma Dragoon> Frost Walrus> Jet Stingray> Slash Beast.
Thanks to the pre-fight dialogue, which is different depending on whom you are controlling, you know more about each Maverick's personality. However, as always, their personality shines more thanks to their design, animations, and attack patterns but the extra dialogue does add a bit more personal touch to the fight.
Classically, nearly every fight except that against Cyber Peacock (which takes too long) and Frost Walrus (the jump-over-the-charge variant) is excellent, especially the epic fight against the Street Fighter-inspired Magma Dragoon and the aerial duel against Storm Owl. Interestingly, when I first used the correct weakness against Web Spider, which stunned him only once before the battle resumed as usual but a bit easier, I thought the game corrected the franchise's repeated flaw of trivializing its boss fights. Unfortunately, that's only the case for half the fights, with the other half (including the three best fights) being either completely obliterated by their weakness of stun-locked into a repetitive and boring pattern.
Thankfully, Zero doesn't suffer from this problem even when using the correct weakness against some of the bosses. That's due to him not having the elemental weakness for every boss, and for the "weakness" for most bosses to be a move that is easier to land against them safely rather than one that shaves a lot of health from them. This trend will continue throughout the series, which becomes a big part of why I prefer playing with Zero over X.
Now let's talk about the end-game bosses who run the gamut from unimpressive to great despite their few numbers. Both X's and Zero's fight against the sword-wielding Colonel is great, with Zero's naturally being a better fit for the fight's epicness. However, Zero's fight against Iris in a robot pales in comparison to the great fight X has with Double. Finally, the fight against the General is boring for X and a colossal pain in the ass for Zero. Finally, the fight against Sigma is challenging but fair and can be easily overcome with one energy tank but you have access to two.
Unlike the jump from the NES to the SNES, the franchise's musical jump to the 32-bit era was not as complex, as proven by both Mega Man 8's and Mega Man X4's soundtracks being composed by a singular vision; Toshihiko Horiyama in this case. Taking advantage of the expanded soundscape of the PS1, Horiyama's tracks are less melody-driven than the series is known for, with rhythm and ambient noises taking more of a central stage in some tracks.
Also, thanks to the addition of cut-scenes, there are even several scene-centric compositions in the soundtrack, but none of them were impressive enough to contend with the main themes in the game, including the battle tracks which are not throwaway like I previously noticed in the series.
Overall, I think this is a very good soundtrack, but it's not as memorable to me as that of the best in the series. However, these three tracks are one that I will never forget, so give them a listen:
I think Web Spider's stage is the perfect first stage for any X4 player for all reasons. Not only is Web Spider a relatively simple but still clever boss, and the stage design and graphics of the level are gorgeous, but the stage's theme is a perfect intro to the kind of music the soundtrack of X4 has. The track starts with the central rhythmic beat, made with drums and marimba while constantly being accompanied by a pan flute. This beat conveys the jungle theme well, but as more instruments are added to it, starting with a bass guitar and a mysterious synth piano at 8 seconds, then an electric organ with a simple back-and-forth key exchange at 20 seconds, the jungle beat starts gaining an air of mystery about it.
When all the different instruments coalesce together in a single rhythmic beat, it does give the track the thick feeling of a mysterious jungle, and then something special happens in the second half of the song. Suddenly the beat changes, with the bass and the synth piano building towards something, which is a crazy synth guitar solo that perfectly underscores the fact that Zero/X is infiltrating a hidden jungle bass. When the theme loops back after the solo, it feels like the rhythm didn't stop at all and only got louder, culminating with a different guitar solo than the first.
Magma Dragoon's Stage theme may be the most memorable and iconic track in the game, which is a sentiment I agree with despite preferring Web Spider's Stage theme. The track starts with a heavy rhythmic drum and a droning electric bass guitar that go throughout the track providing a background that fits the rumble of the volcano the stage is set at. The actual track starts once the first hints of synth guitar music starts, then the main melody is introduced and it's different from the rumbling of the volcano. It has an energetic sound that fits the sci-fi style of Mega Man and not the naturalistic rumble in the background. At first, the track has a call-and-response between the main guitar and the backup guitar, providing a cheerful response to the main melody. However, the stage is ending with a fight against a previously close friend, and so the melody ends at a suitably serious and desperate note where even the rumble of the volcano gains a few slaps in its rhythm.
We were so enamored with the internet in the 90s that "cyberspace" and anything related to it was crammed into several pop culture properties, including Mega Man, and that meant that it of course had its own "sound". From the distortion effect at the start and keyboard arpeggio in the background, the theme of "cyberspace" is established. With a hint of chanting in the background that gives the track a mysterious atmosphere, the melody is then introduced with an echoing harpsichord or harp, which is then by a faster-paced string-heavy response with more downward energy to it before the pattern is repeated. However, the second time it repeats, the track goes into its final phase with a desperate "cyber" solo resolving into the beginning of the song again. The arpeggios in the background, chanting, echoey instrumentation, and heavy synth effects all combine to give an alien feeling to this song that fits the theme of being trapped in "cyberspace" well.
There are in my opinion five seminal games in the Mega Man franchise; games that are important in how influential they were in the development of subsequent games in the series. The first game naturally introduced the entire concept, while the second game vastly improved on it laying the foundation of kinetic Action-Platforming mechanics that the rest of the series would follow. Then came Mega Man X which moved the franchise up a generation while introducing new kinetic and style guidelines to follow.
Mega Man X4, in its introduction of Zero as a fully playable character, is the fourth seminal game in the series. Zero isn't simply a second playable character, but is a character that completely changes how you play the game, and accordingly the kinetic rules you were used to all that time. Personally, once I tried playing as Zero, I realized that playing as Mega Man or X is always slightly less fun.
With its influence clear, I just had to look at the whole game holistically, and I wasn't disappointed at all with what I saw. The franchise moved nicely into the 32-bit era with larger and more detailed stages while retaining the beautiful sprite work and 2D animation and background the series is known for. All while not sacrificing the core kinetic philosophy of the series, proven by some excellent boss battles (even though the classic balance issue with weapon weaknesses remain).
So, in a way, the series remained the same with X4 on the surface, which is what some critics criticized at the time. However, its progression of the core formula with the X gameplay is undeniable, and its introduction of Zero was revolutionary. At that point, I don't think any 2D side-scrolling game had anything as close to the smoothness of Zero's movement. Sure, the game didn't have the 3D bells and whistles that secured the high ratings of critics from the past, but that's a big reason why X4 aged so well and is a much better playing (and looking) game than the darlings of that era.
Rankings: As someone who prefers Zero's play style to Mega Man, I naturally regard X4 highly since it introduces it perfectly, with several greatly-designed stages and boss battles, which means even playing as X is great in this game.