Commonly thought off as one of the worst games in the series, there is a lot of truth to that sentiment. At its best, Mega Man X6 is an imbalanced mess of a game that delights for moments but infuriates as a rule. As the second game made by the same team without Keiji Inafune's influence, it's clear that they had an eye on the weaknesses of X5 and they aimed to correct them. Yet, while their intention was good in some cases, their aim was woefully off, and nearly every change the game made was for the worst.
Take the expanded levels for instance, which in theory addresses the main issue of unimpressive stage design in X5. These levels are indeed more expansive, yet they repeat their gimmicks in a mind-numbing fashion in certain instances, while having one of the most imbalanced and frustrating placements of enemies and obstacles in the series. Seemingly, the game itself knows it's unfair since it throws extra lives at you in the form of Reploids you have to save, which is a promising system that suffers from the same overzealous expansion the rest of the game suffers from. Unfortunately, this expansive mentality did not affect the game's story, which is ridiculous in its insularity from the rest of the series. It's a poor follow-up to the climactic ending of the previous game; completely erasing any drama regarding Zero's supposed death.
Also, for the second console Mega Man game in a row, Capcom showed that they cared very little about the franchise with the clear low budget the game had. Not only is the Japanese voice acting not dubbed, but the game has some of the weakest sprite art in a Capcom game, including one of the 8 Maverick bosses.
I started the game hoping that my poor memory of it and its generally negative reception was overstated. Yet, I was met with frustrating game design at every corner, and only when I managed to significantly increase my character's power was the game slightly fun. By then, it was apparent that its challenge was due to poor design, and that, other than an excellent soundtrack, this is seriously one of the weakest games in the series.
The best thing to say about it is that it isn't as terrible or as unplayable as some mention it to be. It is easily beatable once you figure it out, but reaching that point's not much fun.
The story, which is the first instance of this game fumbling, takes place right after the ending of X5 after the Eurasia space colony crashes into Earth. Stupidly, despite your best efforts (and Zero's supposed sacrifice) in the previous games, Earth still became a shambles. In effect, all humans had to relocate into underground colonies.
Apparently, all of this change and carnage happened in only three weeks!!!.
Such inconsistency shouldn't be mentioned, but the fact the writers thought it an acceptable timeline between the story of the games suggests the lack of care that permeates through the entire plot line. A plot line that is insultingly thin even by the franchise's standards. Not that you would be able to ever fully grasp it, since the writing is rife with grammatical and translation errors.
The gist of it is that one Reploid scientist, called Gate, decides to unleash a new virus into the world to essentially kill off weaker Reploids and then use the remaining to eliminate the humans, ostensibly creating a paradise for the new and stronger Reploid race. Naturally, X rises to defeat him and his eight "investigator" allies.
Zero is somehow revived with little to no comment or fanfare about it, and Sigma shows up like a nasty tumor at the end. There is no drama or cool scenes that somehow salvage the story. Admittedly, the game does a better job at providing a back story for the eight Mavericks than previous games through dialogue and exposition, but a lot of it is extremely poorly written.
There are two major changes and some consequential minor ones from X5. These changes are not the only reason the game is an imbalanced mess, but the stupid way they have been implemented is a huge part of it. Let's start with covering the major changes.
First, is the addition of the nightmare system to the game, which introduces special nightmare enemies that carry soul orbs as well as a special nightmare section in each game. Additionally, entering any stage in the game introduces nightmare effects (such as falling lava balls or additional metal blocks) in two or three other stages. In theory, this adds more complexity to the game and increases the size of the stages. However, it's all introduced randomly and haphazardly which makes traversing the levels less fun and consequently makes visiting the nightmare sections (basically playing more of the game) a bane rather than a bonus.
Second, is the renewed focus on saving Reploids, which can be found in stages and are the new method of gaining Armor Power-Ups (not to be confused with Armor Parts). In theory, this shouldn't be bad at all, but like everything in this game's design, the team went in with too much of a good idea, morphing it into something terrible in the process. There are 16 such Reploids in each stage, and they are situated haphazardly through the stage with no thought towards good level design. To add insult to injury, these Reploids can permanently die if captured by one of the nightmare creatures floating about, which can spawn the moment they appear on screen leaving you with no chance to save them unless you were clairvoyant (or just loaded the stage again after losing them for the tenth time).
On the minor side, Zero's moveset and signature combo was changed for the worst, X's Armor choices are worse than his default Falcon option and are only needed for easier access to some Reploids to save. The ranking system from the fifth game is back but is massively tweaked, not depending on how many nightmare souls orbs you have. Also, it is directly linked to how many Armor power-ups you can equip, which you get from saving Reploids as I mentioned above.
Unlike the previous two games, you will always start with X as the default here. To unlock Zero, you must enter one of the nightmare sections and reach the boss at the end, who is revealed as Zero's phantom and is a great boss fight thanks to recycling the same fight (And music) from X5. Thanks to Zero's saber, which you get as a nice continuity from the last game, the fight is easily won and you can then play as Zero. I wouldn't suggest swapping between the two characters, but I also wouldn't recommend using Zero unless you equip him with the shock absorber power-up since he is incredibly weak and this is an incredibly cheap game.
It's an incredibly cheap game because it conflates difficulty and challenge with frustrating and unfair game design. In general, there are too many enemies on screen, the nightmare effects add another layer of frustrating chaos that kills your momentum, and the platforming is incredibly imprecise which is especially egregious thanks to the wonky hitboxes of spikes. This is without considering the compound effect of trying to save all Reploids. What's frustrating about this is that Capcom is usually masters of level design, but they knew they messed up here, as evidenced by the obscene amount of extra lives they throw at you.
This is before we consider some of the game's specific sins regarding stage design, which culminates in a few core examples. Key among them is the worst level in the franchise's history, which is Blaze Heatnix's stage. In this monstrosity of a stage, you fight the same frustrating donut mini-boss five fucking times. Not only is this bullshit boss moving about with its massive hitbox at great speed, but he also shoots four nearly unstoppable shots, and you even fight him in an area with a rising volcano.
Other levels are not as bad, but nearly every stage has its share of poorly designed sections that are an insult to the player. How about an uphill climb on a slippery surface with flaming comets raining at you and some ice balls sliding down? Or what about a level with random room generators and no health-dropping enemies that set you back from the beginning if you lose? If those were shit experiences, then we apologize by giving you two suspiciously short levels with great music since we blew away all our budget.
Only in the last stages does some semblance of decent-level design become apparent, and by then, all you would have been thinking is that some cool backgrounds and 2D art were wasted on this game. To be a little fair, it should be noted that Rainy Turtletoid's and Commander Yarmmak's levels are fine.
If, after struggling through a rather difficult stage with some bullshit obstacles, you thought the experience would tragically culminate with a bullshit boss, then you should rest assured that is not the case in X6. Instead, the game swings in the opposite direction, providing what is probably the most pathetic set of bosses in the entire franchise. I am not even sure a weakness circle is important to consider, but here it is: Commander Yarmmak> Ground Scaravich> Blaze Heatnix> Blizzard Wolfang> Rainy Turtloid> Shield Sheldon> Infinity Mijinion.
Other than decent fights against Shield Sheldon and Blaze Heatnix, the remaining fights are either extremely pitiful or add annoyance to their simplicity. Even the supposed highlight fight against Blizzard Wolfang consists of two easy-to-avoid moves and a laughable lack of threat. When playing as Zero or utilizing their weakness, these "bosses" become even more pitiful and weak.
To a certain extent, we should be thankful that the X6 team showed some restraint from making the bosses extremely hard or cheap, but they did show their potential in making one extremely cheap battle against Gate in one of the final stages. Ironically, the usually challenging and borderline cheap Sigma battle is the easiest in any X games so far.
Still, let's get back the sorry set of Mavericks in the game. Some cool designs and designs were wasted on weak battles, although we should mention the fact that Infinity Mijinion's (such a stupid name) sprite may be the worst sprite ever made by Capcom on the PS1. I think this showed the lack of ability in the tea for creating engaging but fair battles, and I could imagine these battles being much harder but couldn't imagine them with more creativity.
This may also be evident with the boss weapons themselves, which are cool/decent in their regular format. However, almost four of the weapons share the same charged attack, and the other four don't fare much better on that front. For Zero, his moveset is just plain butchered in this game, and I don't think he ever had a worse loadout since.
After using multiple composers for the last few games, Capcom went back to having a single composer making the entire soundtrack with Naoto Tanaka at the helm. As expected from any game in the franchise, no matter how bad it is, at least the music will be good. That is certainly the case here, and Tanaka provides an excellent sample of his stylistic breadth in the composition of this work, which is clear in my top three tracks selection.
From the high and epic drama of Infinity Mijinion's Stage to the calm and electronic sounds of Shield Sheldon's track. Tanaka also goes for groovier and jazzier sounds as he did in Rainy Turtloid's Stage, but is also capable of shredding a few guitar riffs as he does in the music of the final stages.
Even if you are never going to play this game, you owe it to yourself to listen to its music:
3. Rainy Turtloid's Stage:
As I noted above, Rainy Turtloid's Stage theme has the grooviest sound in the soundtrack. At first glance, the jazz-fusion sound doesn't fit the stage it is set in, and that may be the case for the majority of tracks, but that doesn't diminish the quality of the song itself. The song starts with groovy bass strings with synth keyboard backings, creating a heft for the main "synthaphone". I call it a "synthaphone" because it follows the cadence of a sax but with a completely different sound font.
Regardless of the instruments used, the main melody starts with the same tempo as the opening beats, with a call and repeat of the same melody until it starts seriously grooving at the 34 seconds mark. As more backing instruments come in, the second melodic section answers the first with a strong, yet still chill resolution, looping back into the opening groovy beats. Of particular note is a soft guitar sound in the background that fits the rainy backdrops of the stage well, although I am not sure if it was intended or is a figment of my imagination.
2. Infinity Mijinion's Stage:
I have no idea what a Mijnion is, and I have no idea why this boss's sprite was so bad in this game. Still, there is mistaking the quality of this stage theme, nor the reason it sounds as epic as it does. Set in a weapon development center, the stage has you running down a staircase while a giant robot rains terror at you from the background of the stage.
The epic, militaristic, opening of the tracks fits the military nature of the stage, as synthy brass horns welcome you in. Soon, you are met with the gravity of the situation as the guitar starts rocking in the background. The main melody transitions to a more hopeful synthetic organ with electronic sounds before a guitar shreds mercilessly to convey the supposed desperation of the situation. From there, the tracks loops and interchanges between the hopeful organ section and the frantic shredding of the guitar, each sounding more polarized because of the other.
1. Shield Sheldon's Stage:
My favorite track in the game is also one that showcases the diversity of the full soundtrack, sounding like no other song in the game. Starting with some groovy bass guitar in the background and mysterious chimes, a rapid drum beat welcomes the first melodic section. A tinny glockenspiel/vibraphone or something similar plays a fast and mysterious melody that evokes the secretive nature of the Laser Labs (if not its mundane looks) before it ushers in the first "chorus" of the track. Here, there is a call and response between the keyboard percussion instrument and what's most likely a keyboard organ that ushers in the second melodic phase.
I am not sure what instruments are being synthesized here, but this sound very close to the underwater tracks in Super Mario 64, where a melody is repeated in a more watery way until it culminates by looping into the start of the track. I honestly think that this should have been a water level since the style and mood of the music reminds me of Bubble Crab's stage. Nevertheless, this is a masterful track regardless of its boring environment, switching between melodic phases brilliantly while keeping a sense of mystery and secrets throughout.
Usually, I am suspicious when a large group of fans unanimously dislike a game. In some cases, I learn that a relatively minor change was blown out of proportion and unfairly used to reflect badly on the entire experience. This is not the situation here, as Mega Man X6 is a deserved reviled game. So much that my usual caveat when talking about the franchise may not even apply.
I usually say that there are no bad core Mega Man games, but X6 may be so badly designed in places that it can actually be considered a bad game. Personally, I think the good things it has for it, from the excellent soundtrack to the mostly brilliant sprite work, are enough to elevate it beyond being a dumpster fire.
Ironically, I think the worst things about the game are made as an answer to some of the criticisms about X5. Levels were made more complex, the challenge level increased, and the ranking system was changed. Yet, these changes were done in such a haphazard and imbalanced way that it created uneven levels, frustrating difficulty curves, and an annoyingly repetitive gameplay loop. Worse yet, the game has the weakest collection of bosses in the franchise's history.
All these flaws lead to an experience that is frustrating 60% of the time, boring for 30%, and only fun for a minuscule 10%. It fails in some basic game design ways, and frankly only succeeds where there is residual brilliance from the franchise itself that wasn't rubbed off through inane decisions when making this game.
Rankings: Aside from its music and graphics, X6 fails at nearly every level that makes a Mega Man game fun to play, and that's why it's deservedly bottom of the pile at this point.