How each 2D sidescrolling Mega Man subseries improved on the gameplay formula (and didn't)

time gear

Eternity in an hour
Within the Mega Man franchise, there's a total of 3 subseries in addition to the original classic series in regards to the 2D sidescrolling gameplay formula, each building on top of the gameplay from the previous. These series are the X Series, Zero series, and ZX Series. Other series use entirely different gameplay formulas, so I will not be discussing them here. I wish to cover how (in my opinion) each subseries improves on the gameplay formula of the previous (and doesn't) and then an overall look on how positive and negative each series was in relation to each other.

What I am NOT discussing here: Story and theming. While I do feel as though each subseries brought it's own interesting changes in this regard, it is still an entirely different discussion than what I'm intending on here. I am limiting the topic to just the core gameplay. As such, I respectfully ask that replies stick to this same formula. If you have biases for or against particular games because of their story or overall theming, there are other topics to discuss that in already.

This post will be long, so to save space I will condense each section down into a spoiler. Consider this to also be an actual spoiler warning, as while I will not be discussing plot details I will be discussing unlockables. If this is the kind of thing you are unaware of and wish to be surprised by when you play the games, do not expand the spoilers.


1. Mega Man Classic

The original classic Mega Man series features a primarily room based gameplay style with fairly simple movement and combat, and a focus on precision platforming. Mega Man can run left and right, jump, and shoot. Sometimes, he can charge his shots and slide as well depending on the game. His basic and charged shots always shoot straight forward from his current position, so aiming is limited to how high you can jump and your timing. As Mega Man defeats bosses, he unlocks new powers which each have their own Weapon Energy bar, acting as their ammo pool. Each of these does critical damage to specific bosses, allowing for quick and easy wins against them. Health and Weapon Energy can be restored by picking up items that sometimes drop from defeated enemies, or are found in preset locations within the levels. Screws can also be collected, which can be spent on items within a shop such as Energy Tanks which refill all your health, Weapon Tanks which refill your Weapon Energy, and the Energy Balancer which causes your weapon with the most used Weapon Energy to be prioritized when touching Weapon Energy restoration pickups.


2. Mega Man X

While built on top of the same overall foundation as the Classic Series, the X series shifts it's priorities around a bit while also implementing some quality of life fixes. First of all, the slide has been replaced with a new Dash ability, which increases X's speed like the slide but does not allow him to get under most tight spaces. Instead, he retains his ability to jump and shoot, with shots fired while dashing being slightly closer to the ground allowing for aiming at lower weak points on enemies. Secondly, X can now effectively climb walls via a new wall jump ability which defies momentum and gravity by allowing him to continue hopping up the same wall. It is possible to combine the wall jump with the dash to perform long jumps off walls.

In the first MMX, each of these new abilities is tied to the new upgrades system in which X can find Dr. Light capsules hidden throughout the levels. Each one contains an upgrade to his movement or combat capabilities in the form of armor upgrades. In MMX2 onwards, the dash and wall jump become base form standard.

This all effectively amounts to a priority shift from precision platforming to fast paced movement. Environments within the X series are generally much more open than in the previous series, and the player is encouraged to take advantage of their improved mobility to explore these environments. This gives the game a much better sense of speed and flow, and makes general movement feel less tense most of the time as you are usually punished less for a lack of precision, though there are still sections that require it.

Like in the previous series, X can obtain new powers by defeating bosses each of which does critical damage to a specific boss, and uses it's own Weapon Energy. However, it's generally possible for X to obtain an upgrade that allows him to charge up these powers into even stronger versions, and sometimes even make the base versions not use WE. This adds variety and utility to each of the weapons, as the charged versions are often entirely different than the base versions and are required to access certain hidden/locked away areas.

Energy Tanks are no longer a thing anymore, replaced instead with our first quality of life improvement: Subtanks. Subtanks permanently stay within your inventory when you find and collect them, and you can hold up to four. They start out empty, but collecting Life Energy pickups while your health is already full transfers it instead to a subtank as long as one is available. You can then transfer the contents of a subtank to your main health bar at any time, though this will empty them in the process.

Another quality of life improvement are the Life Ups. These are permanent upgrades hidden throughout the levels, each of which permanently increasing your health bar capacity, effectively amounting to a defense increase in a practical sense.

In X3 onwards, Zero appears as a playable character, though only in a limited capacity in 3. In X4 onwards he has a larger focus on melee attacks, and mostly doesn't make use of Weapon Energy. In addition to dashing and wall jumping he can also double jump, and both characters can air dash.


3. Mega Man Zero

Zero largely plays like how he did in the X series, though with tighter movement that makes the player feel even more in control and with some tweaks to his moveset including the removal of the air dash. Each of his attacks now have hit priority levels in regards to inflicting invincibility frames on bosses and whether or not damage can still be done during said frames. This creates combo potential that was impossible in the previous two series. This often results in boss fights feeling like a careful dance of death in which similar to previous series you are trying to avoid taking hits based on getting used to the bosses attack patterns, but unlike previous series you are encouraged to get in close and how much damage you can do is largely dependent on your skill. This causes the combat to feel very satisfying to master.

A highly noteworthy upgrade to the formula is the addition of Primary and Secondary weapons. This allows you to have two weapons active at a time, each of which can be charged independently and at the same time. This increases the skill ceiling and general flow, as now you are not helpless while waiting for a weapon to charge.

Enemies operate based on a new elemental system that functions similar to Rock Paper Scissors. There are neutral enemies that take medium damage from all sources. From there Fire beats Ice, Ice beats Shock, and Shock beats Fire. This causes double damage. In the opposite direction, enemies take half damage or are even immune.

Unlike previous series, enemies are not weak to specific weapons. Instead, Zero has a chip system in which he can equip various upgrades including charging his attacks with elemental powers. As long as he has an elemental chip equipped, he will do that type of damage with each of his charged attacks. This is slightly different in Zero 4 in which elements are attached to specific attacks (the Z-moves) instead. In each game, Zero unlocks new attacks in various different ways. Z-Moves are unlocked by defeating bosses after entering their stage with an A rank or higher, or in Zero 4 by defeating the boss in their ideal weather conditions. In Zero 1 and 2, some moves are also restricted behind an EXP system in which using the same attack over and over gradually upgrades it to allow for the next hit in it's combo until you reach its max.

Zero can make use of various Cyber Elves unique to this series, each of which does something different such as raising Zero's health or defense, increasing his attack power, following him around to attack enemies, cause enemies to drop more item pickups, etc. Each Cyber Elf is single use only, with only some of their upgrades being permanent. Zero 3 introduced the ability to manage them whenever you want instead of needing to be at a Transerver, and Zero 4 merged them into a single elf that you level up to increase it's abilities.

Subtanks make a return from the X series, though now using them doesn't always empty them entirely. If partially emptying a subtank results in you reaching full health, it will stop emptying. Additionally, they retain collected life energy between levels, so you don't have to worry about having to refill them every time you enter a new stage.

Life Ups are gone, instead your HP is determined by factors such as Cyber Elves or armor.

Overall, the Zero series improves on the general movement, combat, and flow from the X series, which did the same thing in relation to the Classic series. However, the Zero series is a step down in regards to unlocking your full moveset, as now there are arbitrary requirements to obtain moves such as EXP systems or having to beat bosses under certain conditions. If this were to have been removed entirely and you simply needed to find upgrades hidden in the levels or beat bosses in general to obtain new moves, this would be a lot less tedious.


4. Mega Man ZX

The current latest and shortest of the 2D sidescrolling subseries within the franchise, it's also the biggest mixed bag of positives and negatives on the formula. Let's start with the positives.

The ZX Series' most iconic change to the formula is the ability to transform into multiple different forms, each with their own attack style, mobility, and elemental attacks. This increases the exploration potential significantly, which is what you would expect when making a genre shift into a Metroidvania. Specifically noteworthy is the Model H forms in both games, which grants you an air dash, upward air dash, and slow fall. This is a huge upgrade to overall mobility.

Primary and Secondary weapons return, though not for every form and every form only has one or two weapons.

Life Ups make a return from the X series, and now you only need to find four of them in each game to increase your health to maximum.

Subtanks make a return, and function identically to in the Zero series. However, keeping them full before missions is much easier on account of being able to fill them in safe areas. You can also collect Energy Tanks and Weapon Tanks, which function identically to the Classic series but you can only hold one of each at a time.

Weapon Energy makes a return from the X series, and is tied to specific forms in ZX, and is shared between all forms in ZXA. In ZX, you can upgrade WE capacity by buying repairs from Flueve. In ZXA, you simply find four BM Upgrades within the levels to upgrade to max capacity. In ZXA, it also automatically refills at a slow rate over time.

You have a base form, which has no attack capabilities in ZX and only has basic buster shots in ZXA but can swim on the surface of water and crawl under tight spaces.

Each game features two playable character options, each of which playing slightly differently. Vent and Aile are mostly identical but Aile crawls faster and takes more knockback while Vent crawls slower and takes less knockback. This ultimately amounts to Aile being the superior option from a practical perspective, as there's a chip to eliminate knockback but not one to increase crawling speed. Grey and Ashe have a much larger number of differences, but the primary two are that Grey can fire three shots at a time and shoots normal charge shots while Ashe can fire two shots at a time and fires reflective charge shots.

There are now sidequests which are distributed by NPC's, each granting rewards for completion and some of these rewards being permanent upgrades such as chips and Subtanks.

In ZXA, you can warp to individual sections of the levels you have been to before, even if you haven't cleared the level entirely. Though, the individual warp points each cost 100EC, which you get primarily from enemy drops and quest rewards.

Now onto the negatives.

Each game has it's own problems with progression. ZX has a horrid map system which makes navigation confusing for newcomers and is entirely useless to seasoned veterans. ZXA fixes the map but separates off several of the levels from the rest of the interconnected map, going against the sprit of a Metroidvania. ZX locks progression behind color coded doors and keycards to open those doors. ZXA mostly does away with this, but instead of doing anything interesting with your new forms for progression you simply use them in rooms that require their abilities to progress through them. It's so much closer to right, but not quite there.

The levels are also not very interconnected and mostly keep to themselves, which also goes against the spirit of a Metroidvania.

ZX's mission system while functional is notably worse than the one in ZXA. In ZX, you need to manually activate all missions individually at a Transerver, even sidequests. You can only have one mission active at a time, and must finish or forfeit your current mission before you can activate another. In ZXA, you simply speak to the NPC that distributes a mission to obtain it, and then it's automatically active. You can have as many active missions as you want. You can also tell which NPC's have missions to obtain or turn in based on icons floating over their heads.

In regards to ZX in particular the problems with it's map and mission system together can be infuriating to newcomers when combined, as if you don't know where each area is connected to each mission, you're going to end up desperately searching around for the mission locations until you happen to get lucky with not much in game help in finding where to go. This was thankfully remedied in ZXA, though a few missions are still a bit confusing.

There's not as much flow to the combo system during boss fights. Making the most of the system involves manually transforming mid-combo, which breaks up the flow and makes combat feel slow. Each form also has much less to work with than in the Zero series, so even the ZX form can't combo as well as Zero can in the previous series due to it's smaller moveset. The closest you can get is the Ox form in ZX with it's infinite Overdrive, but you still have to manually re-enable it every time you take a hit. The form is also post-game only.


5. Overall

The X series is more or less a flat upgrade on top of the classic series, though that depends largely on whether you prefer the speedier gameplay of the X series or the more precision based classic series. There is merit to both, and which gameplay you like more depends on how fast and fluid you prefer your gameplay. Overall though, I'd refer to the X series as the series that is the most positive addition with the least downsides strictly discussing gameplay.

The Zero series is almost another flat upgrade in the same way. Almost. It's similar in regards to it's combat being a matter of preference, with previous series being more ranged and straightforward while the Zero series encourages getting in close to do melee and features a unique combo system. The controls are tighter allowing you for much more precise movement, and the new elemental system is a fun and interesting mechanic that adds variety to the type of attacks you can use against bosses and still be effective. However, the methods you need to use to reach your full potential are much worse and less interesting, so while I prefer the gameplay overall I'd have to say it's a notch under the X series in regards to it's positive to negative scale.

Unfortunately the trend continues with ZX. ZX overall can be summarized as a lot of missed potential, as while it does do a lot of interesting new things and bring back a lot of old stuff too, a lot of what it does isn't handled very well. The potential is there for ZX to easily be the best of all four series by combining and refining everything they did right in other series while trimming the fat of what didn't work, but it would need to be handled much better in a sequel for that to become a reality. While what we have are still tied for my favorite games alongside the Zero series, I can't allow that to bias my judgement here and so I have no choice but to place this a notch under the Zero series.

From here, I will rank each series between 1 and 10 for their positivity and negativity, with 5 being neutral, 1 being all bad and 10 being all good. This is of course all just my opinion, and is as strictly practical viewpoint of each game without taking which are more my favorite into consideration.

MMC: MMC is the starting point, so it doesn't improve on any previous series. It gets a perfect medium 5 rating.
MMX: The X series I view as largely just an upgrade with not much in the way of downsides, so I will give it a 9 rating. There's no such thing as the perfect game, and some people might still prefer the classic series.
MMZ: It refines a lot on top of the X series, but also does some things worse, so I'll drop that down to an 8.
MMZX: It continues the same trend as the Zero series, so despite both series being tied for my favorite it drops another few ratings down to 6.

In order from best to worst, that places everything in this order: MMX, MMZ, MMZX, MMC.
 

Icarus

Phantasy Savior
I'm not that huge of a MM fan but most people are agreeing that the best were MM2 and the first X.

I'm still interested into the Zero and ZX series.
 

time gear

Eternity in an hour
I'm still interested into the Zero and ZX series.
If you are interested in trying out the Zero and ZX series, I'd heavily recommend starting with the Zero series. It starts out a little rough around the edges on account of the EXP system, but Zero 3 while still not perfect is one of the best games in the entire franchise, and it's difficult to fully appreciate what ZX had going on without having experienced the Zero games first, especially on account of ZX's poorly handled shift into the Metroidvania genre. If you do ever get around to playing through the ZX games properly, I recommend using a guide to navigate through the first game, because the in game map is not very helpful for finding your way around, and is still slightly confusing even when you've been everywhere already. It's really not anything at all like Symphony of the Night or Super Metroid or etc. and can be pretty jarring to enter into unprepared.
 

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