*Review based on Mega Man X5’s release as part of Mega Man X Legacy Collection 2*
Capcom certainly knows when they have a good thing on their hands. Unfortunately, they don’t always seem to know when they have too much of a good thing. The original Mega Man X was a brilliant twist on the classic franchise, and X2 was a worthy follow-up. X3 was still a solid successor, but by the time we got to 1997’s X4, things got a little redundant. This was more than a little ironic, considering the first X was created to reinvigorate the Mega Man franchise, after the original series had grown a little fatigued in the NES days. After a much-appreciated two-year hiatus, Mega Man X returned in 2000 on the Sony Playstation with Mega Man X5, which was originally intended by producer Keiji Inafune to be the finale of the X sub-series. While the game’s story definitely has a feeling of finality to it, its by-the-books and often questionable execution made sure the X series would continue for three more entries. Though the series may have been best left with its original trilogy, Inafune was probably onto something when he wanted X5 to wrap things up. The series had simply run out of steam.
That’s not to say that Mega Man X5 is innately bad, it’s just very, very uninspired. The formula is the same as ever: choose between the eight different Maverick levels, defeat said Mavericks and gain their powers to use against other Mavericks, defeat all eight bosses to unlock the final set of levels. The big difference here being that you can choose between X and Zero at any time between stages, as well as a suited-up version of X with all the upgrades he got throughout X4! Once again, X is long-ranged, while Zero uses a sword.
A light RPG element is also in place, with the player able to choose different bonuses for the characters after a set number of stages are completed, with those bonuses being equipped on the level select screen. Despite the upgraded X being playable from the start, there are still secret upgrades to find – for the brand new Falcon and Gaia Armors – which are thankfully better hidden than they were in X4. The difference here is that none of the armor pieces take effect until their entire sets are found. A huge downside to these new armors, however, is that Zero can’t equip them. If Zero collects an armor piece, he just gathers it for X to use later.
The stages themselves are short and simple, and the eight Maverick bosses are pretty forgettable (only being notable for the references to Guns ‘N’ Roses in their naming upon the game’s western release, though that aspect has been removed in the Legacy Collection in favor of more direct translations of their Japanese names). There is still some fun to be had with the Mega Man formula, to be sure. But Mega Man X5, more so than any of the main series entries, screams ‘been there, done that’ at almost every turn.
As stated, there is a bit of finality to the story here. Sigma has been resurrected for the umpteenth time, and throws a fight against X, allowing his current body to be destroyed and the ‘Sigma Virus’ to scatter across the world to every Reploid, which will slowly turn them Maverick (why the virus spreads after this defeat and none of Sigma’s previous defeats, I’m not sure). At the same time, Sigma’s new right-hand man, Dynamo (a bargain bin version of Bass from the main series), has sent an entire space colony on a collision course with Earth, which will wipe out most of the planet’s life – human and Reploid alike – should the collision take place.
Mega Man X5 at least tries something new with its story, giving the player a set number of ‘hours’ before the space colony hits Earth (each stage or story segment saps away an hour or so in the game’s story). But what’s baffling is that this is a game that features multiple branching stories and endings, yet the player has little control over which way it goes.
The Maverick Hunters have two countermeasures to Sigma’s plan: a shuttle that can be used to crash into the colony, and a giant laser to blow the damn thing to smithereens. Naturally, both the laser and shuttle are split into four pieces each, with each of those pieces being in the hands of the eight Maverick bosses. Though the player can choose the stages at their own leisure and claim the pieces however they like, whether or not either the laser or shuttle destroys the space colony is all up to random chance. So the story has multiple outcomes, but without the player having any say-so which direction it goes. Though the callbacks to both previous Mega Man X titles, as well as the original series, are a nice touch.
If there is one absolutely unforgettable aspect of the series’ newfound emphasis on story and plot, it’s that the dialogue boxes of Mega Man X5 just don’t stop. One character in particular, Alia (your basic source of tutorials and exposition) will call either X or Zero non-stop to tell them the most obvious mechanics or plot threads. She’s basically Skyward Sword’s Fi before Skyward Sword’s Fi existed.
It is sadly not an exaggeration when I say there are instances where a stage will begin with a bombardment of dialogue boxes, at which case the player walks a few steps before they’re assaulted with even more on-screen text. What’s worse is that she’ll even explain – in excruciating detail – the very basics of the series. Remember that this is the fifth entry in the X series, and that they all follow the same basic structure of the original Mega Man series, of which there were eight at this point, and X5 of all entries has more emphasis on tutorials and explanations than any previous entry.
Another downside to X5 is that it’s just too easy… except when it isn’t. For the most part, this is the easiest Mega Man X title up to this point (which may be more forgivable if the level design were more creative, as was the case with the fifth entry of the original Mega Man series). Perhaps the more frequent checkpoints and having your powers refill to maximum after each death aren’t the worst changes, but the level design itself is just too much of a cakewalk to what you would come to expect from Mega Man at this point.
Of the eight main stages, only one of them provides a steep challenge. Even then it’s only because its opening segment features a high-speed motorcycle section. The irony here being that this stage features a change in gameplay (which you’re immediately thrown into, no less), and yet it’s just about the only section in which Alia doesn’t feel the need to explain things. Besides this, only the Sigma levels at the end of the game provide any real difficulty, but by that point you’re so accustomed to the easier gameplay that the extreme spike is kind of jarring. But I guess the homages to end-game bosses from the first games in both the original and X series are another nice touch of nostalgia.
Visually, X5 is an improvement over its predecessor. The early 3D backgrounds of X4 are replaced with much more appealing 2D environments, while the character sprites are even more detailed and polished than before. Though on the downside of things, only the intro video retains the anime style of its predecessor, with the rest of the cinematics being static images with, you guessed it, text boxes. Sure, the voice acting of X4 was pretty bad, but resorting to more text boxes seems like a big step backwards in production.
Perhaps the biggest highlight of Mega Man X5, however, is its soundtrack. While one expects Mega Man music to be good, it seemed like each subsequent X title’s score wasn’t quite as good as the last. But with Mega Man X5, the soundtrack seems to be back on track. The tunes may not be as iconic as those of the original series or the first X title, but it’s a big improvement over the past few entries, and even seems to dabble in more styles than its predecessors as well.
Mega Man X5 may not be a bad game in the usual sense of the term, but it does feel like it’s simply going through the motions, with very little heart going into the effort. It’s capable of providing some good fun, it still looks great, and sounds even better. But if you’ve played any Mega Man game before, you know the drill by now. Even when the original series began to phone it in, the level design was still clever, but that sadly can’t be said for Mega Man X5. And even when X5 does start to pick up, you’ll probably be stopped in your tracks by in-game text. Because being forced to stop to read that a rock is immediately in front of us is exactly what we want in an action side-scroller, right?