Mega Man X4 and X5 are hitting PlayStation Network as PS1 Classics over the next two weeks. These two unique entries in the series mark a turning point in the franchise’s history. As the series has slid in popularity and all but vanished from Capcom's line-up, we can trace many of its later developments to these two games. They’re as much a historical document of Mega Man’s decline as they are solid platformers of their day.
Mega Man had made a shaky step into the PS1 era with Mega Man 8, after appearing only once on the previous generation. The X series, more directly tied to the Super NES, felt like a better fit for the new generation of hardware. The developments forged by Mega Man X4 and X5 took some positive steps: more characters in a richer world, a more contiguous story, and a largely familiar feeling of action-platformer done bigger and better. It was also, for better or worse, where the series started to go off the rails.
Mega Man X4
Though X3 allowed you to play as X's partner Zero in short bursts, X4 gave him a starring role as the second fully playable character. This emphasized a melee style of play, without the ability to pick up power-up parts as the player could when taking control of X. All of the gameplay components from the SNES games were in place, from refillable health tanks to an assortment of eight animalistic bosses.
As adding Zero gave a new wrinkle to the gameplay, the story got its own dose of complexity. Sigma was ultimately the villain again, but X4 laid the groundwork to explain that Zero himself had been a Maverick when Sigma was a Hunter. This also tied back to the original series, with heavy implications that the Maverick "virus" was created by Dr. Wily, and that Zero was something of a sleeper cell to deliver it. It certainly put the spotlight more on Zero, who series creator Keiji Inafune wanted to star in the new spin-off from the start.
On the whole, X4 was a sign of a promising sign for the Mega Man series. Accompanied by fellow spin-off Mega Man Legends, the Blue Bomber appeared to have a bright future ahead.
Mega Man X5
That future was dimmed somewhat by X5. While it was by no means a bad game, it gave us glimpses of some bad habits for the series itself, and Capcom's treatment of it.
The level design and bosses were still rock-solid, as Capcom had developed a knack for these kinds of encounters. Even the undeniably silly choice to name the bosses after Guns N Roses band members couldn't sully that aspect. X5 did add some new tweaks of its own, however. The story centered on a crashing space station and efforts to stop the destruction, giving both a time limit to finish missions, and making collectables more valuable to increase the chances of success. This also lent it multiple endings, not just between X and Zero, but also based on the success of the mission and other story events.
That story confirmed that Zero was the harbinger of the Maverick Virus, now renamed the Zero Virus. In fact, this was meant to be the swan song for Zero himself. Zero dies no matter which ending you get, which Inafune intended to close the book on the X spin-off series and lead neatly into the "Mega Man Zero" series on Gameboy Advance. The Mega Man creator, for his part, had largely removed himself from the process.
"I had very little to do with 'X5.' I just told the team to 'finish off the series with this title,' and left it at that. That's why the game itself has a real feel of finality to it," Inafune said in the Official Complete Works in 2009.
More and More and More Mega Man
Though we didn't hear of Inafune's intent to end the series with X5 until years later--the game was released in North America in 2001--it retroactively makes sense of many of Capcom's moves afterwards. Mega Man Zero was meant to be the continuation of the series, but the subsequent release of X6 and more made the continuity muddled and senseless. Suddenly Inafune had to ret-con his own works, attempting to bridge the unnecessary gap.
This was the era of Capcom plugging the Mega Man name into several different sub-series. We had Mega Man X, Mega Man Zero, Mega Man Legends, Mega Man Battle Network, and later, Mega Man ZX and Mega Man Star Force. The constant saturation and confusing franchise treatment gave even some ardent fans fatigue.
The X series itself reached three more numbered sequels after it had been intended to wrap up. X6 had X look to revive Zero once again, a la Search for Spock. It was similar to X5 but ultimately lifeless and sloppy, feeling more like a cheap cash-in than a deserving sequel. X7 attempted to bring the series into 3D, poorly, and introduced yet another playable character, Axl. X8 went back to 2D stages but rendered in 3D, and while ultimately more successful than X7, it was still a sign of a limping series. One more game, Mega Man X: Command Mission, took Final Fantasy-like RPG elements and placed them in a Mega Man universe.
Inafune was barely involved, and later openly apologized for his hands-off approach to the series.
"I had honestly planned to for 'X5' to be the last title in the series, but somehow I found myself with 'X6.' I feel like I owe the fans an apology, but I have to admit the series was starting to go in a direction that was out of my control," he said. "I plan to reexamine the situation and be more careful with how I handle the Mega Man name from now on."
"No Where Higher"
While Mega Man certainly wasn't the only property being mismanaged in Capcom's care, the quote shows how frustrated Inafune was growing by 2009. Only a year after making that commitment, to show more care with Mega Man projects, he left the company entirely. After years of criticizing Japanese game development and expressing feelings of stifled creativity in his high-ranking position, his departure notice pointed out, "There's nowhere higher for me to go."
As of the time he left, the Mega Man X series had gone dormant, along with its spin-offs Zero and ZX. The only new Mega Man games in production were Mega Man Legends 3 and Mega Man Universe. Both were canceled within a year of his departure.
For Everlasting Peace!
The story doesn't quite end there. Mega Man may be on Capcom's back-burner, but Inafune has been all too happy to keep making games that are strikingly similar to his own creation. He recently teamed up with Inti Creates for Azure Striker: Gunvolt, a handheld game that is similar in many respects to later Mega Man games like Zero and ZX. (Plus its name unabashedly a loose synonym for "Blue Bomber"). He's also successfully funded a Kickstarter campaign for Mighty No. 9, which harkens back to the classic Mega Man series. The message to Capcom seems clear: if they're not going to make Mega Man games, he'll file off the serial numbers and do it himself.
As a result, Mega Man lives on, in a sense. And the impending release of these two classics on PSN will let us re-experience a time before the series lost its way, just before it turned from Blue Bomber to outright bombs.