Release Date: September 12, 2006
Mega Man has seen quite a bit of action on handheld systems lately. The well-received Mega Man Powered Up and Mega Man Maverick Hunter X (remakes of Mega Man and Mega Man X, respectively) for the PlayStation Portable hit stores in the first quarter of the year, while Mega Man Battle Network 6: Cybeast Falzar and Cybeast Gregar quietly landed on the Game Boy Advance in June. Fans of the series must be psyched, but at some point, shouldn't the well run dry of fresh ways to invigorate the icon after some 20 years of existence?
Mega Man ZX for the Nintendo DS marks the beginning of a new series of Mega Man titles, though it shares many things in common with the Mega Man Zero titles for the Game Boy Advance. To its credit, Mega Man ZX does try to switch up things a bit, offering two playable characters, a new Biometal system, and a unique way to navigate the world. In a style reminiscent of recent Metroid and Castlevania games, almost every level is interconnected, eschewing the menu-to-level style of previous Mega Man titles. Sadly, the big new addition also ends up being the game's biggest flaw, making Mega Man ZX a tough game to recommend.
In the world of Mega Man ZX, reploids (human-like androids) coexist with humans in society, and they have lived together peacefully for years following a past conflict. As is the case with many futuristic games, there is an outside aggravator: the Mavericks. The Guardians, armed with an airship helmed by a young girl, take it upon themselves to investigate the Maverick situation and try to protect the world from an unknown new threat. As Vent or Aile, a young boy or girl, you join up with the Guardians following the death of your friend and boss, Giro, and use the power of the Biometal to become Mega Man.
First off, what's up with the use of young characters in recent iterations of the Mega Man franchise? I still remember the bizarre-looking, middle-aged man from the cover of Mega Man for the NES. Despite the age issues, your choice of Vent or Aile does not have a big impact on the game you will play and what you can do within it. The characters are largely interchangeable, so make your decision based on who you feel less guilty about putting into danger: a little boy or a little girl. The only major physical differences between the two are that Vent doesn't get shifted back as far when hit by an enemy, and Aile is able to navigate the levels more quickly.
Defeating bosses in Mega Man ZX will grant you the ability to use Biometal, which can be swapped at any point to use special abilities. As a human, Vent/Aile can do only a handful of things. You can crouch and crawl in tight spots, float in water, and talk to select NPCs. Equipping a Biometal changes things considerably, giving you an attack, along with other abilities. After being granted the Model X, it merges with Model Z to become the Model ZX Biometal (game title for the win). Players can swap between a projectile weapon with a charged shot or a saber akin to the one Zero typically used in previous Mega Man titles.
Beyond that, the other models have more specific abilities. Model HX allows you to glide and dash through the air, both of which are necessary in the areas of the game covered in spikes. Model LX contains the ability to swim and move freely in the water, and Model PX can hang from ceilings and other platforms. Additional models are obtained as you approach the end of the game, and some of the model types use the bottom screen of the Nintendo DS to either monitor the health of nearby enemies or display a helpful map that highlights secret items or areas. Your use of the various Biometal types will determine your success in the game, so be sure you understand the abilities of each.
In lieu of self-contained, themed levels, Mega Man ZX connects them all via doors and other entrances, much like in the Metroid games. It adds a level of grandeur that the series has not seen before, and theoretically should have enhanced the experience. Unfortunately, the idea is half-baked, adding only frustration to the mix. The map screen displays each area as a little nugget on the map, and you cannot zoom in to get a more detailed view. This wouldn't be a huge deal if, say, the map were filled in from the start, or the progression from area to area was well-defined. Neither is true.
Want to enjoy Mega Man ZX? Print out a fan-created map or FAQ. A complete map will enhance your experience in ways you cannot even imagine (unless you've already played the game). Without such a map, you will wander aimlessly, wasting miserable hours in the process. How come? It has a little something to do with the nonsensical nature of the map layout. For example, at one point, you must get to area L-4. One might think to start in K-1, or maybe K-4. No such luck. In fact, the L areas are connected solely to the H areas, which are connected only to the A areas. The map doesn't tell you this, so be prepared to check out every opened section until you find your way there.
I cannot slam the game for attempting to create a larger experience, but I can certainly take it down a peg for poor execution. The layout is so confusing and bizarre that it sucks much of the fun out of the title. Another look at my map reveals the E sections to be connected only to the C and I sections. To make things worse, E-1 connects to E-2, which then connects only to E-4, which is then connected to E-3, E-5, and E-6. Honestly, it feels like it was done intentionally to artificially extend the length of the title, or perhaps it underwent little to no play-testing prior to release.
While Mega Man ZX does occasionally make use of the lower screen, the game almost never makes use of its touch-screen capabilities. In one way, this is appreciated, as it could slow down the action (like in Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow, when you had to whip out your stylus to draw a symbol on a boss). However, it seems like a greater effort should have been made to make better use of the system. As it is, Mega Man ZX feels like a slightly improved Game Boy Advance game, which is in no way a compliment. Much of the time, the bottom screen will simply display a still image that says "M.E.G.A. System."
However, it is worth noting that the game does look quite good on the Nintendo DS. While still composed entirely of sprites, the characters are well-animated, and the backgrounds are vibrant and excellently detailed. Many of the backgrounds have several levels of detail that move independently as your progress forward or backwards on the side-scrolling plane. Interestingly enough, Mega Man ZX also has a handful of anime clips interspersed throughout the adventure, complete with a Japanese voiceover and English subtitles. Granted, the video quality is low, but the mere existence of it on the DS is a welcome addition.
Mega Man ZX is a bit of a misstep for the venerable franchise. While much of the gameplay is similar to what you've seen before, the wretched map system makes Mega Man ZX merely tolerable, rather than enjoyable. It may end up being a step in the right direction for future installments, but the game lacks the polish that a larger, side-scrolling adventure requires. Compared to Metroid and Castlevania, Mega Man ZX is simply outclassed.