Released three years after the masterful Mega Man X4, X5 was a game made at a time when 2D platformers were looked at with disdain as relics of the past. It didn't have the same budget as the previous game (explaining the lack of bad English dubs), and apparently did not even warrant the involvement of series veteran Keiji Inafune who was busy overseeing the Mega Man Zero spin-off and the Onimusha series. This background may explain some of the shortcomings of the game, which is as a total package clearly inferior to its predecessor in terms of production assets.
The drop-off in perceived quality, along with the infamous localization choice of naming all the Maverick bosses based on the band Guns 'n Roses, may have contributed to the divisive reception of the game by fans. Among all the PS1 X games, this game had the most polarizing reception.
Fans of the game would point out its dramatic and more involved story, excellent soundtrack, and ever-brilliant gameplay of Zero as proof of it being a very good game. On the other hand, detractors would point to a litany of minor and major flaws that overcome the game's strongest assets.
Personally, I think that the game's stronger points do enough to raise its level above its flaws that the game manages to be a good game overall, especially when playing as Zero. In my experience, very few games nailed the Action-Platforming excellence of the X series when controlling Zero, and that's still a big feature in this game like it was in X4.
Here is where the story of the X series comes to a head, where everything teased in the previous games is concluded with a massive fight between X and Zero. It's commonly mistaken to think that Keiji Inafune always planned for X5 to be the conclusion of the story to prepare the groundwork for Mega Man Zero and/or Legends. That's only partially correct: Inafune did suggest that X5 becomes the conclusion of the story, but it was never planned or agreed to actually follow that suggestion.
Nonetheless, the feeling behind that suggestion must have stuck, since the game's story does have a note of finality to it. Sigma, the villain from the past few games who live in the world as a virus (sometimes) causes a large space colony to start crashing into Earth, threatening the total annihilation of the human race. Naturally, X and Zero must stop it, and to do that, they must collect enough parts to construct a weapon to destroy the colony or build a shuttle to reach and directly destroy the colony themselves.
In the middle of this straightforward narrative, two interesting things happen. First, is that when fighting "Mavericks" to get the parts needed, most of whom are not directly affiliated with Sigma, you get a bunch of dialogue that suggests that being "Maverick" may not be as clear-cut as it was presented to be previously. Second, the nature of Zero as a creation of Dr. Wily is made more explicit, with the game clearly spelling out that he is a potential danger to the world at large that is even greater than Sigma's.
It's not a complicated story, but it never needed to be. It sets up a great fight between X and Zero, with one of the endings (more on the multiple endings later) heavily suggesting a timeline where MMZ and/or Legends make sense, and it ends up being a satisfying story and conclusion in a cliched-anime sort of way.
For four games the story suggested a fated encounter between X and Zero, and it pays it off in this game with one of the franchise's best fights, accompanied by one of its best songs.
With Zero now an established character where you could freely choose between him and X when choosing a level, there is little mechanical change between X4 and X5, but there are a lot of minor changes, and not all of them work. From the start, you should notice that there is a ranking system after each mission, which grades you based on speed, damage received, the damage inflicted against bosses, and pacificism (the more enemies you destroy the lower points you get.). In my opinion, the ranking system is an antithesis to the spirit of the series and is a cheap attempt at extending replayability.
It is something that you can ignore though, even if it has a small effect on other additional systems in the game. For example, boss levels (health) increase based on your ranking, and defeating bosses with high levels provides a random assortment of parts you could equip. The majority of parts are not significant game changers, and the annoying bit about this system is its random nature.
One change that you can't ignore is the multi-armor system for X. Once you unlock four parts each for two new armor, you can choose which armor you go on stage with. The Falcon armor, with its near-infinite flight ability, is a huge mechanical game-changer that almost trivializes all of the game's levels.
Finally, a big note of caution should be made regarding getting the game's multiple endings, which of all things, depend on freaking luck. Seriously, there is a percentage chance that whatever you do to destroy the colony fails, and that unlocks the "bad" ending. The only solution is to replay the last few stages and hope for a different outcome. Maybe I am forgiving towards this massive flaw because I got the endings I wanted from the first try, but I can imagine someone really being unlucky with it.
When you start the game, you are given a choice between X and Zero, but it doesn't matter much which one you choose since you can alternate later (although choosing Zero first removes the option of using X's default "Fourth Armor"). Personally, I think that you should play the game twice, each time playing exclusively as one of the two.
In the stage select screen, you may be alarmed by the countdown clock, which goes down every time you enter a stage. However, there is enough time to go into all stages, nearly twice, and you get a chance to revisit stages for powerups with no concessions once you complete all eight stages. And that's something you will need to do since many powerups require the use of X's two new specialized armor to get to, and you can only use them once you have all four parts of each armor. To date, this is the X game with the most backtracking for me. Which isn't a big deal since the stages are short.
Yet, the fact the stages are short is a big disappointment after the more expansive and elaborate stages of X4. Simply put, the levels are not up to par despite some interesting ideas in some stages. For instance, Spiral Pegasus's stage has an interesting "destroy the bomb" gimmick, but it's too short to use it well. Other stages are plain boring, like that of Volt Kraken which begins with a motorcycle section and then introduces a boring gate locks gimmick. Also, the game wastes one of its most beautiful tracks, a remix of Bubble Crab's stage music from MMX2, on an autoscrolling level of extreme boredom.
One other negative thing worth noting is the excessive tutoring in some of the levels by Aile, who calls in to tell you about an upcoming obstacle and how to avoid it as if you have never played a platformer in your life. These moments can get really frustrating in killing your rhythm, even if their impact is admittedly minimal in the grand scheme of things.
That's not to say that these flaws kill the fun in the game, which remains fun at its most basic level since the same movement mechanics of the past games are here and are as wonderfully dynamic as ever. Yet, you are not given the chance or the reason to use them as much as you would like to. In fact, if you wear X's Falcon armor, you can almost opt out of all the challenges in any level altogether, which is just another reason why controlling Zero is the way to go.
If X5 falters a bit due to some unnecessary additions and some of its stages, it recovers nicely with some great boss battles, and one of the best renditions of the final gauntlet at the end. The Maverick selection this time around is an excellent mix of creatures with a lot of "cool" designs. It's always best to start with the pitifully easy Crescent Grizzly, who also gives Zero his best move, and from there the weakness circle goes like this: Tidal Whale> Volt Kraken> Shinning Firefly> Dark Necrobat> Spiral Pegasus> Burn Dinorex> Spike Rosered. Notice that I have not used the original "Guns 'n' Roses"-inspired localization names, but for a taste of that, appreciate the majesty of Tidal Whale being called Duff McWhalen.
Like in the previous game, your character choice will influence your experience with each boss. As X, the fights are more about evading the enemy and analyzing their patterns, and more than half of the bosses this time around provide an exciting challenge unless you use the weapon weakness in which case only two or three bosses remain interesting. While Tidal Whale is pathetically stunned by a Crescent Shot and Shining Firefly is made impotent easily with Tri-Thunder, Spiral Pegasus is a fairer fight when stopping him momentarily for some big damage. Yet, the real weakness of each boss is when playing as Zero, who goes for the extremely quick kill instead of focusing on defense, and he makes short work of most bosses without resorting to weakness attacks. It appears that the eight Mavericks this time around are nothing special.
However, as I suggested at the beginning of this section, the true worth of these fights is clear in the final gauntlet. With more health at their disposal, the boss fights are longer and more interesting for the majority of fights, especially when playing as Zero who can no longer depend on destroying the boss before his life meter depletes. At least, that's the case for the bosses that are not trivialized by X's use of their weakness, or in the case of Crescent Grizzly who remains pitiful regardless of the size of his health bar.
Better still, while the boss gauntlet redeems the eight Mavericks somewhat, the value of this game's bosses has always been in the final stages. Another incarnation of the Yellow Devil is always challenging to fight, and the final battle with Sigma in this game is one of the most balanced and fairest fights in the series. Yet, these battles have nothing on the masterful battle we have always been waiting for, which is another showdown between X and Zero.
Regardless of which character you are controlling, you are on for a dramatic and amazing fight. These fights are not only the height of drama but are the pinnacle of gameplay as well. Trying to attack X as Zero while he unleashes projectile after projectile feels like every Mega Man boss's experience throughout the year, and is satisfying when you succeed in dodging everything and landing a strong slash attack. Sadly, both characters are so devastating that the fight doesn't last long. I feel such dramatic fights should always have lower damage outputs to prolong the battle, but that's not something that this series ever learned to do (so far at least).
With more focus on story than any other Mega Man game, the soundtrack for X5 naturally has a more dramatic breadth to it. From the somber and mysterious title track to the dramatic cut-scene-specific songs. While these extra songs do give the soundtrack a more well-rounded feeling, it is the main tracks that would make or break it, and boy does it make it.
Even if X5 doesn't have the best total soundtrack in the series (and I personally think it's a strong contender), I think it can claim to be the soundtrack with the best top 3 songs, which run the gamut in genre and style in a huge way. The credits for this album are shared among the three composers, with the only song known to be composed by a single composer being X Vs. Zero, which is composed by Kamisaka.
Even if you are one of the detractors of X5, you can at least appreciate the pure awesomeness of these tracks:
Opening stage tracks do a lot of heavy lifting for a game, both introducing the game and its soundtrack to the player. There are two opening stage themes in X5, and the one that plays if you start with Zero is the better song. It is so good that the game reuses it later as Zero's own theme in a key cut scene.
The song starts with a soft synth melody with strong electric bass thrashing in the background. These opening notes convey the nostalgic notes of the piece before the determined electric guitar-driven melody starts as the bass thrashes heavier in the background. The guitar melody is joined with a few synth notes here and there, joining the nostalgia of the piece to the determination at its core. This culminates in the final retrospective synth notes before the final guitar shred that showcases the extreme determination of the character. From a narrative point of view, this track perfectly captures the softness at the heart of Zero (which allowed him to fall in love with Iris), as well as single-minded determination and skill which is the reason he is the highest-ranked Maverick Hunter.
This crazy track is probably the only Techno-Rock-Dance mixture in the history of the franchise, and it stands out massively thanks to that. The track announces itself with classic techno beats accompanied by crazy percussion for 17 seconds before the song's main melodic structure begins. This synth melody repeats two times, ending with some questions that are answered in a softer rendition of the same melody. Yet, that's just the beginning of this crazy track, as the soft melody concludes at the 1-minute mark, a few isolated percussion drum beats suggest the beginning of a new phase in the track.
And what a phase it is.
Here, a guitar solo starts playing amid the techno beats and the percussion beats for 26 seconds until a final distorted wail ushers in a new loop. This solo is what defines this track as a final stage theme as it showcases the determination of the player character in the face of all the chaos they faced so far. It's pure adrenaline as they have already faced the emotion of their toughest fight yet and all that remains is to beat up the bastard that set it all up.
And here it is, the track for the fight the X series has been building up to since the start, and boy does it deliver. This is easily one of the best battle tracks in the entire franchise, and it is a brilliant piece in construction and theme. The track starts with quick and dirty guitar riffs that suggest the clash of two powerful opposing forces with nothing held back, and then the strings start.
The beautiful sound of the strings accompanied by the background guitar suggests the desperate and epic nature of the battle, while the organ that carries the melody afterward underlines the core tragedy of the fight between two friends. When the main electric guitar kicks in and the track starts building up into a glorious crescendo, threatening to raise the stakes of the fight even further, it instead subverts all expectations into a beautiful finale with descending dreamy synth bells and chimes. At the end of the loop, the song keeps hold of the hope at the center of this destined fight, that these two friends won't have to destroy each other after all.
Unfortunately, it is entirely possible to never actually hear the end of a single loop in this track when actually playing the game. As I mentioned earlier, these characters are so devastating that you may end up defeating the other or getting defeated by them before the bells kick in. Still, we always have the opportunity to listen to the track by itself, which perfectly tells the story of the fight without the need for any visuals.
As a direct follow-up to Mega Man X4 three years later, more was probably expected from X5. However, now we know, we were lucky to get another 2D game on the PS1 at that time. Still, there is no denying the fact that this is a game with many niggling flaws. From weird decisions like the excessive hand-holding in most stages, to the lower production design. Personally, I hate the fact that introduced a ranking system to the franchise.
Yet, even with all of its flaws, the game still has some great boss battles, excellent music, and the fun of playing as Zero. It also does an excellent payoff to the X vs. Zero storyline that has been hinted at since the first X game. I think that the good in the game overcomes its flaws easily.
In fact, the worst thing about the game is the missed opportunity of building on the excellence of X4 in regard to level and production design, and that wasn't the developer's fault. At this stage in the industry, 2D games were simply not considered important enough to secure decent budgets.
With those restrictions in mind, I think what the team ended up accomplishing was remarkable, hitting most of the right notes, and frankly fun to play all the way through. At least when Aile shuts up and lets you get on with it.
Rankings: I can't be in the camp that disparages this game, if only due to the brilliant music, X vs. Zero fight, and the excellent boss gauntlet at the end.