Wednesday, September 11, 2013

More Random Thoughts


    Yeah, so, kinda funny how for some reason listening to Mega Man X-related musical arrangements always leads me to sudden revelations about that series' gameplay, huh? This time the album in question was Mega Man XA, a fan album containing a variety of tracks from various well-known games of all genres rearranged in the sample set from the SNES Mega Man X games and framed as the OST of a fictional game in the franchise, presumably eponymous.

    It''s okay. It's free, so it's certainly worth a download and a listen, and it's far from bad. Always nice to  hear those old synth sounds again. But I don't think the framing device really works; Mega Man X games always had, at least on the SNES, a very distinctive style of composition called 'metal', and these tracks just don't sound like authentic music from those games even with the chiptune makeover. But that's a flaw in the framing, not the music itself, and it's reasonably enjoyable.

    I had more fun speculating about the non-existent game itself, though - what might the Maverick bosses (all named in their stages' track titles) have been like? Their stages? What twists on the classic mechanics might have been present? What would the Japanese original names for the bosses have been? (My bet is Venom Viper would have been Poisontooth Viperon and Burning Lion would have been Burnout Lionhand, but you are all free to your own lesser opinions.) Music does that to me creatively.

    Anyway, this train of speculation naturally led to general thinking about the mechanics and design choices of the series as a whole, and I got to thinking about how they might have fitted Zero into the game, since 'fitting Zero into the game' tends to be a perennial problem.

For one thing, the poor guy has an awful habit of dying
all the time. Puts a real damper on his employee attendance record.

    Now, I understand that Keiji Inafune always liked Zero better and wanted him to be a playable character from the very start. That's cool, I like Zero, too, and multiple playable characters can - can - add a lot to a game's depth. But, as I've said before, I think the PSX-era Mega Man X games botched this idea horribly, resulting in watered-down gameplay with little in the way of extra content or depth in return. So, I got to thinking a bit about how Zero might have been worked into an SNES-style Mega Man X game in a way that fulfills three conditions:
  1. X must still be the primary character. This is his series, after all, and though he's always been a touch bland in his personality, it is his name on the marquee.
  2. Zero must be a fully playable character. No one-shot cameos or gimmicky mini-game sections - we want him to be fully designed and to play a key role in the player's main experience of the game.
  3. X and Zero must retain their own very different and distinctive play-styles without watering the gameplay down to accommodate both of their shortcomings. We want the stages to be just as tightly designed as they were in the first and second games of the franchise.

    What I came up with, remarkably quickly (it was very late/early and I couldn't sleep, you see), was this: instead of making Zero either a one-time summon the way Mega Man X3 did or an alternate and fully independent playable character the way the PSX games did (very badly), I propose to my imaginary development team that we redesign the stage dynamics to incorporate both characters in complimentary and distinct roles.

    Each Maverick boss's stage should use the following formula: the player begins by controlling Mega Man X as he makes his approach to the boss through the stage via the usual mechanics. Sometime around the mid-point, when the player has gained an idea of how the stage's obstacles work, Mega Man X will come upon an obstacle or enemy he cannot defeat directly (sort of like Vile in the Highway Stage of Mega Man X), and call upon Zero for backup. The player will then switch perspectives to Zero, who will begin a different approach with the goal of eliminating the obstacle that stands in X's way. Zero will go through his own separate part of the stage, designed specifically for his unique mechanics, and at the end will remove the obstacle or mini-boss blocking X's progress. Zero will pass the stage back to X, who will resume where he left off and progress through the rest of the stage until the lead-up to the Maverick boss's chamber, where the player will have the option to proceed with X or call Zero to fight the Maverick.

    This formula would be an improvement over the ways that the series actually handled Zero's involvement in four ways:

  1. X and Zero would be working as a team. The games' plots make a big deal about how X and Zero are a great 'team', but the gameplay almost never reflects this; I think Mega Man X and Mega Man X3 are the only games in the main series that even attempt to show it (I don't count gaiden games like Mega Man X: Command Mission), and the first did not have a playable Zero while the second was just kind of lame all-around, a bloated, directionless mess of a game. Every other game in the series has featured either X or Zero doing things, with only the most token and half-hearted attempts to pay any more than lip-service to their friendship or teamwork. This idea, on the other hand, would allow the two comparable screen-time while showcasing them using their complimentary strengths to accomplish things neither could do alone.  [EDIT: I never played through Mega Man X7 or Mega Man X8, so I don't know how those games handled it. I couldn't stomach trying them after the incredible debacle that was Mega Man X6. Sorry.]
  2. Every playthrough would force the player to play both X and Zero, while still maintaining X as the clear protagonist and Zero as the backup, fulfilling the series' original intent as a feature of gameplay.
  3. X and Zero would each get to make full use of their skills and abilities in stage areas designed specifically for them, instead of having to compromise on bland shared challenges.
  4. The need to have distinct sections of each stage with their own distinct gameplay goals would allow for, and even encourage, far more varied and carefully designed stages - the varying possibilities for things to block X's progress would allow much more freedom in crafting challenges for Zero beyond 'go here and kill this Maverick'. Since the Mega Man Zero games featured exactly this kind of design (questionably executed in some areas, but still present), I am certain the development team would have enjoyed the chance to mix things up while still maintaining the classic formula, and this is just the way to do it. It would be a real expansion of the game's structure without discarding anything about the original formula that worked.

    So...yeah, that's about it. If anyone out there is thinking about making a Mega Man X fangame (preferably in the SNES style), this one's a freebie. Hop to it.

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