Developed at the tail end of the 16-bit era, Mega Man X3 was as anachronistic to the times as Mega Man 6 was at its release, even being ported itself to the burgeoning 32-bit consoles. However, if you thought this meant that like MM6 before it, this was going to be a culmination of the franchise's SNES experience into a brilliant but misunderstood package, then you are unfortunately mistaken.
X3 was indeed a culmination of everything before it but made in such a way that undermined the very foundations of fun the franchise was built on. Instead, here was a sloppily put-together game, filled with questionable design decisions at every point, and consequently is one of the worst games in the entire series. It boggles the mind that Capcom made a Mega Man game that feels like this.
Except, it turned out, that Capcom didn't actually make this game. In a move that Keij Inafune himself said caused him "psychological turmoil", the game's development was outsourced to Minakuchi Engineering, who were known for making sub-standard Mega Man ports on other systems. That, to my mind, explains why the game doesn't "feel" like any other game I played in the series.
Maybe they fixed it in the ports, I initially thought, but that turned out to be wishful thinking. Other than a remixed soundtrack and questionable anime opening scenes, the game is largely intact with some added hiccups. At least the admittedly beautiful sprite work and level backgrounds were kept intact.
In fact, if anything is of value in this game, then it's the always brilliant art direction, sprite work, and a solid soundtrack (which suffers from its own issues, but more on that later). Finally, it's worth noting that the game's release in the Mega Man X Legacy Collection is the SNES release, and it doesn't fix any of its well-documented technical issues.
With Mega Man X3, the concept of Sigma (the villain of the first two games) manifesting as a malevolent virus solidified. It turned out that regular Reploids turn Maverick due to a virus in their system that isn't unlike that of Sigma. In the aftermath of the two incidents caused by Mavericks, the world clamored for a solution to the root of the issue, and in that world comes Dr. Doppler, a genius who created a program to stave off the Maverick virus.
Naturally, to have a game, Dr. Doppler's plan failed, and a new batch of Mavericks started wreaking havoc on the world (including the doctor himself). In the end, you realize that the Sigma virus was more powerful than Dr. Doppler's solution and that it will always fight against the notion of peace between humans and Reploids that X and people like Dr. Doppler (who redeems himself in a late-game sacrifice) believe in.
Like the other SNES games, the story isn't expanded on with dialogue outside of a few scenes, but the plot and themes are clear to follow, and the scene direction and anime sensibilities are clear to see. Also, the game's ending heavily implies the tragic fate of the peace-loving X, where in order to achieve it, Zero must be killed.
As of this game, the story is still mostly in the background, providing a general flavor to the game without adding much to it or being expanded upon, but it is obvious that Inafune had something specific to tell, and future games will reveal his hand.
From the outside, X3 should look almost exactly like the first two X games, with similar mechanics and level-design philosophy; nothing to deserve my ire about the game. That's true at the start of the game, but then it starts to "innovate". Like in the previous two games, X gains armor upgrades from Dr. Light capsules that modify his moves, and it is with the leg and arm "upgrades" that the game's major flaws manifest themselves.
Like in the second game, the leg upgrade adds the air dash ability, which was such a great addition to that game. Here, however, it is a case of subtraction by addition, with the addition of an "Up-Dash" move. As you can imagine, the up dash adds the ability to do a vertical dash in the air, similar to a double jump, which sounds cool in theory. In practice, the up-dash takes a few frames to charge, making it useless as an evasive move, and what's worse is that it kills the fluid momentum of the movement in the game.
At least you can safely ignore the up-dash for the majority of the game, but you don't have that luxury with the arm upgrade, which is a case of division by addition here. In X2, you could charge two shots simultaneously, choosing when to shoot both or keep one, which increased the fluidity of combat (you won't be forced to hold the charge button as often). The genius idea in this game was to add the ability to shoot both in sequence, creating a super shot that covered half the screen. Not only is the execution of that shot finicky at best, or that it caused the frame rate to stutter, but it also forces X to stop DEAD to shoot.
Get that. It forces the player to STOP AND SHOOT IN A MEGA MAN GAME.
That upgrade basically kills the momentum of the game, actively making it the worst Mega Man game you could play from the moment you get it. Of course, you could always choose not to get the "upgrade" (which is the best choice) but that means you won't have access to the special weapon charge moves (locking you from some upgrade), or the ability to get all of the game's armor. Speaking of the special weapons; they would have replaced the charge shot as my weapon of choice if they were in any way decent, but these are some of the worst selections in the franchise's history.
But it can get worse if you ever choose to summon Zero to play as, who has a pitiful defense and a suicidal tendency to STOP AND SHOOT that can easily get him killed, and you only get one life as him in the game.
Finally, to round up the game's list of flaws, let us highlight the addition of useless collectibles and upgrades like the robot suits and upgrade chips. The robot suits are situational at best, and total waste most of the time, while you get punished for getting any of the chips because it locks you out of the special golden armor.
Usually the highlight of any Mega Man game, the bosses can elevate a weak game or sink a stronger one in some cases, but there is no salvaging this game at all even with a decent cast of villains. Continuing the design style of X2, you have more angular and edgy anthropomorphic robots to fight, many corresponding to actual elements this time, but that doesn't always make sense in the weakness circle: Blizzard Buffalo> Toxic Seahorse> Tunnel Rhino> Volt Catfish> Crush Crawfish> Neon Tiger> Gravity Beetle> Blast Hornet.
Naturally, your experience with the game's bosses can be significantly impacted by the time you get the arm upgrade, which makes every fight harder and more annoying than it should ever be, so take that into account. For me, I should have made a note of that when I played the game because a couple of boring and easy fights would have been frustrating and unfair with that "upgrade" on.
In regular fights, there were some standout fights against Toxic Seahorse and Neon Tiger, which were challenging but not cheap. In both cases, my opinion may be colored because I had to jump and shot a lot (which negates the stopping motion of the upgraded charge shot), but other fights like the ones against Blizzard Buffalo and Tunnel Rhino all revolved around the boring jump-over-the-charge action.
Unfortunately, almost all fights devolved into trivial affairs once you used the correct weapon, with a combination of extreme damage-output or sleep-inducing stun-locking that reflects kindly on the excesses of the first two X games. Blast Hornet was an extremely hard challenger that is made impotent with the Gravity Wall. I don't understand Capcom's insistence on short-changing the best parts of their game.
Thankfully the non-maverick fights are almost all fun. Both the fights against Bit and Byte are intense but fair, while the fight against Vile is an improvement over the first time you fought him in the first X game. The more experimental bosses in the Dr. Doppler stages were also fun, but Sigma was as cheap as always (almost making the Golden Armor a necessity to fighting him).
Being developed at the tail end of the 16-bit era, the X3 has the unique distinction of having two different soundtracks, one for the SNES and another for the 32-bit consoles. Interestingly, there isn't any consensus on which soundtrack is better, with the 32-bit OST remixing Kinuyo Yamashita's songs haphazardly at times. What can be gleaned is the incredibly short amount of time that was afforded to the music, which not only explains the sloppy arrangments of the PS1/Saturn soundtrack, but also the lazy writing of the usual throw-away tracks of the SNES games, with some of the worst boss/menu/password screen music in the franchise's history.
Thankfully, the bulk of the soundtrack didn't suffer much with the majority of tracks being rather good. Stylistically, this is closer to the grunge rock influence of the first game rather than the atmospheric tendencies of the second, even if a few tracks had more subtle rhythms to them. As a result, I think people that were turned off by the second game's soundtrack may have appreciated this one more, but I think that it is the weakest of the SNES soundtracks, giving me fewer things to gush about than usual.
As always, there are a few standouts to listen to, so let's give them a listen:
Two tracks in the game define the X3 soundscape, and that's Toxic Seahorse and Volt Catfish (which narrowly misses out). Both follow the hard rocking style pioneered by X soundtrack but with a different style of guitar playing, what I have seen described as "Sad Guitar", and that's clear in this track. It starts with the bass guitar establishing the rhythm of the song along with the percussion bits before the main guitar's melody kicks in. The melody starts slowly-almost asking a question-before it builds up dramatically with some held notes heralding the end of the track. Here, the bass line changes up, and the main guitar absolutely shreds, answering any posed question at the start. If you notice, the guitar sound is a bit muffled, giving it a "sad" vibe that is common to the rest of the soundtrack.
The first Dr. Doppler stage theme is a straight-up Heavy Metal anthem. It starts with the guitar revving up while the backing bass fills in the space, and then the guitar kicks in for a fun back and forth before it starts seriously shredding with a wailing solo that feeds nicely back into the loop. Even if the guitar sounds in the X3 soundtrack are described as "Sad Guitar" sounds, there is nothing downbeat about this track's guitar riffs. Despite its short length of only 31 seconds, this is one of my favorite tracks for how energetic and rocking it is.
If any track in the game is similar to tracks in X2 then Blizzard Buffalo's Stage theme is the one. It starts with a slow and mysterious wintery melody before it gets busier with a more energetic counter melody coming in the second part of the song. The main melody sounds like it's coming from a snow-stuffed organ with faraway organ chimes completing the icy picture, but the persistent drum beats betray the song's tonal shift when the backing organ suddenly comes to life with a decidedly more active rhythm which the main organ responds to suitably. Like many of X3's tracks, it's far too short and loops too often for comfort, but at least it doesn't get too boring.
I think that even without its mechanical shortcomings that Mega Man X3 would come up short compared to the first two X games, but not quite as much. Its soundtrack has its share of issues, with many tracks having seriously short loops, and both the level and boss designs have their share of weaknesses. However, any of those flaws can be forgiven, and I can imagine some people preferring certain elements in the game to the other two.
Yet, the moment you engage with the game on its own terms and unlock the arm upgrade, any hope of salvaging the game goes out of the window. Simply put, I think that there is a special flow and rhythm to playing Mega Man games, one that depends on a certain feeling to the movement of momentum of the player character, which this game completely kills. The "upgraded" charge shot in this game is an egregious design flaw that kills the flow of the game.
It doesn't feel like playing a Mega Man game anymore.
Ironically, it feels almost right that the frame rate drops whenever you manage to pull off the stupid supercharged shot move, which means the game doubly punishes you for engaging with it. Making things even worse is one of the worst special weapons sets in the franchise, removing the option of using other weapons to sidestep the issue.
This critical flaw makes this one of the few games in the main franchise that I wouldn't recommend. Inafune was right to have those nightmares about other developers tinkering with a loved property because they butchered Mega Man in a way Dr. Wily and Sigma could never hope to replicate.
Rankings: This is a game that has the most critical design flaw in any Mega Man game and so deservedly occupies the bottom spot, which I hope is never bested by another game in the series.