Mega Man X4 Review (Sony PlayStation, 1997)
If there’s one thing you can count on when it comes to Capcom it’s sequels. There’s like what, fifty different iterations of Street Fighter by now? Of all the big name developers Capcom seemed the most hesitant to move their franchises to 3D in the 32/64 bit era. Sure, they made plenty of original games in the third dimension, but their big name franchises stayed 2D for a long time. Mega Man is a prime example of this. Capcom milked the series for all it was worth on past consoles and they continued this trend on the PlayStation. Surprisingly Mega Man X4 was announced as a sprite based game. Unfortunately the previous installment was a big let down. Fans had high hopes the move to new hardware would be a refresh. Does Mega Man X4 restore the blue bomber to his former glory? Keep reading to find out!
Mega Man X4 picks up where the last story ended. It’s set in the future where machines have artificial intelligence with Mega Man X being one of these such creations. Sigma is long gone (but we all know how that goes) but the rogue machines called mavericks are still running amok. To help the maverick hunters eliminate them a second group has emerged called the Repliforce. Things go awry when they turn on our heroes and are declared rogue mavericks themselves. This is the basis for Mega Man X4, and the boss characters this time around are based on the former allied group. In my opinion it’s kind of a neat twist and veers away from the previous titles in this regard. In typical Mega Man fashion these moves are all revealed to be a plan from behind the scenes by a familiar face. Capcom kind of dropped the ball.
Either way, the big change they made to the formula for this installment is the fact that right out of the gates you can choose between either X or Zero. This will be your character from start to finish, and they both scenarios have some pretty big differences in their narrative. What’s also nice is the fact that the developers included multiple FMV anime sequences to depict the story. These are really well done and despite the horrible voice overs are surprisingly enjoyable to watch. I didn’t expect that Mega Man X would benefit so much from being more cinematic, but there it is. The story is pretty basic for the franchise but I liked it well enough. You have to be pretty familiar with what has already happened in previous installments for it to make much sense.
Now on to the gameplay. Mega Man X4 is a side scrolling action platformer game at it’s heart, but retains the classic Mega Man formula. You play as either Mega Man or Zero and blast your way through an army of robotic foes. While both have to play through the same opening stage after this you can choose the order of the remaining ones. These are thematically based off of a different maverick, and these are robots designed after real world animals. There’s quite a bit of strategy in choosing the order to complete these levels. This is because you gain the weapon of the boss character upon defeating them, and each is weak to the primary shot you gain from one other. You start with just your standard weapon so you can choose any to begin, but after that you’ll be most successful by targeting maverick weaknesses after this.
Like in any platformer game you can walk left/right and jump. No matter which character you choose gameplay is far more acrobatic than in other similar titles. For example one of the major mechanic here is gripping on to walls. You can jump off of them to gain height, and are often required to do so repeatedly to overcome obstacles. There’s also a dash command by default allowing you to zoom forward a short distance. This is used to dodge enemy attacks, but also to gain momentum in your jumps. You’ll need this move frequently to overcome large chasms but because of the excellent controls this soon becomes second nature. Both characters have a health bar on the right side of the screen and when depleted you lose a life. Mega Man X4 is no walk in the park so it’s best to accept this will happen often.
The line-up of mavericks is pretty good this time around. Storm Owl is an obvious rip-off of Storm Eagle, but I kind of like the new guy better to be honest. Split Mushroom is a unique concept if not a little weird but it works. Then there’s Web Spider which is probably my favorite. Magma Dragoon is one of the edgier designs and it seems a little tryhard, but I have no real complaints about it. The others include Frost Walrus, Jet Stingray, and Slash Beast which are a bit generic but a step above the normal offerings. Cyber Peacock is the only one I flat out didn’t like. Honestly that’s a pretty good ratio, and some of X’s new weapons are unique. The aiming laser for example is hard to use but turned out to be one of my favorites. Same goes for lightning web and soul body.
Much to my delight both X and Zero gain entirely different weapons from the mavericks, and they’re quite different functionally. X’s arsenal is traditional projectile attacks with the mega buster being his primary. Zero starts out with an energy sword which can perform three hit combination attacks. The maverick upgrades give him new moves that are implemented directly into gameplay. These include a double jump, a spinning attack mid-air, and various elemental qualities added to his primary attack. What’s neat is the fact that you don’t need to equip them; once acquired they’re set to button presses and do not deplete energy. This is a very new concept to the franchise and makes playing as each character a very different experience. X can also find armor upgrades hidden in stages that add a few perks and abilities, but Zero lacks these.
Because Zero’s primary attack throughout the game is his energy sword he offers a different experience from your typical Mega Man gameplay. His strikes are more powerful than the blue bomber’s projectiles so he can cut through enemies like butter. Unfortunately you have to get up close and personal to actually cause damage and because of this I would say he’s overall the more difficult character. The innate abilities he gains from mavericks make him more versatile as well. The double jump alone adds new areas to explore that X simply can’t reach. It can be jarring when you play through as one, and then choose the other. I got fatigued playing as X with how many shots it takes to destroy each foe, but loved the changes in strategy between them.
The level designs are excellent and rank among the best in the series. As I mentioned earlier Mega Man x4 will keep you on your toes. There’s some very intricate platforming using the dash jump, and you’ll also have to be precise when gripping the walls. These aren’t gimmicks because entire stages, and most of the boss encounters are based around these mechanics. I loved Web Spider’s jungle area, as well as Storm Owl’s sky level where you jump between airships. Split Mushroom has a pretty strange domain but it’s at least interesting to say the least. The winter based arena for Frost Walrus copies too many mechanics from previous iterations but it’s acceptable. After completing the maverick based levels you move on to a set of pre-determined ones which are a little weak to be honest. The high point of these is the boss rush which is a re-tread.
Graphically Mega Man X4 is absolutely beautiful. Both characters animate exceptionally well with many more frames for just about every action. I love all of the added effects such as the lighting effects from X’s weapons as they’re shot and reflected off of his arm. The backgrounds however are the biggest upgrade. These feature a ton of animation and detail and I found myself absolutely amazed at the art direction of them. Mega Man X4 is also extremely colorful which is a major plus in my book. It’s not quite the same level of upgrade as we saw from the NES to SNES, but it’s close. The soundtrack is good but even with redbook audio doesn’t quite match the original. Don’t get me wrong; I like the music and it’s all crystal clear. I just think the compositions didn’t seem as inspired this time around.
Mega Man X4 is everything you could hope for in a 32-bit installment in the franchise. It features some of the best weapons in the series, a huge upgrade to aesthetics, and amazing level design. Most importantly however is that it feels like a natural progression. If you don’t like Mega Man X it won’t change your mind. On the other hand if you’re a fan it will keep you hooked from start to finish. Even some of the story elements were really interesting in how they added to the lore. Without spoiling too much I loved the hints at Zero’s origins. If you’re a fan then you need to get this game, and the PS1 version is a mighty fine way to play it.
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