How Mega Man X rewrote the player/character relationship

How Mega Man X rewrote the player/character relationship

“So you came.”

The capsule lies alone, sealed in an abandoned part of the tunnel under the snow. As X approaches, the device comes to life. It turns on and slides open. A life-size projection of Dr. Light, creator of Mega Man X, appears. There is no greeting, no trace of joy in the normally jovial face. Instead, the expression is stern, stern even, as she utters the words “So you came.”

In video games, there is an implicit understanding that you, as the player, and the on-screen protagonist, your digital counterpart, are on the same side. You’re united by a common goal, battling Bowser as Mario to save the princess, or working as Master Chief to stop the Covenant in Halo. But sometimes, and perhaps more interestingly, the player and their digital avatar are encumbered with incompatible goals, and the relationship is defined by one-sided control, rather than trust and cooperation. One early example – and perhaps the greatest example of all – is Mega Man X.

Megaman X.

Originally released in 1993, Capcom’s Mega Man X was intended to be a next-gen leap for the popular Capcom series, taking it from the NES to the new SNES console. The game received rave reviews for its 16-bit graphics, outstanding soundtrack, and mature storytelling.

Set decades in the future, Mega Man X himself, or X, is the first of what would become a new type of machine, capable of thinking, feeling and acting entirely on its own – a true be created artificially. From its conception, a technical revolution would come, and a whole generation of machines with the same thoughts, emotions and free will as humans would be born. These are the reploids.

Like humans, reploids possess morality and a conscience. They also have desires and a sense of fairness. A co-operative society is plagued by exploitation, and as humans have done many times before, a group of reploids begin a violent revolution, leading to the events of the game. These revolutionaries are nicknamed Mavericks, while the Reploids struggling to restore peace take on the name of Maverick Hunters.

Megaman X.

X is the rare example of a tragic video game hero, one who is deeply opposed to the actions you take while playing the game. A pacifist at heart, he joins the Maverick Hunters, aware that he is committing acts of violence and knows that there is no guarantee that his actions will lead to anything but more violence. Unlike the previous Mega Man series, each enemy X defeated is a life taken.

As a player of the game, speeding up levels and taking down enemies is second nature. Each defeated boss adds to your arsenal of weapons, giving you new tools to explore, uncover secret bonuses, and exploit enemy weaknesses. There is no hesitation in the face of the atrocities committed, in other words. The fast, smooth action is extremely rewarding, and the thrill of combat is exceptional motivation to keep playing. And it’s completely antithetical to the being that X wants to be.

This is an unusual position for video games. When games create an awkward disconnect between a player and a protagonist, it’s far more common for a game to force players to perform actions they don’t want in order to continue. There’s Call of Duty’s infamous “No Russian” mission, where you’re forced to take part in a massacre of civilians at an airport. Or there are the times we stand idly by while Arthur Morgan buys you-know-who’s lies in Red Dead Redemption 2. Or the countless horrific moments in The Last of Us.

Megaman X.

“X, I’ve taken too much damage.” Blood flows from the corner of his mouth. “Automatic repair systems can’t handle it. My power is fading fast.” X kneels silently next to his deceased friend, whose body has been obliterated from the waist down. It was Zero who saved him from Vile the first time they fought. Zero who cheered him on, reminding X that he wasn’t designed to be a war machine, but he still had the ability to get stronger. And it was Zero who lay dying, having blown up his own body to destroy Vile’s seemingly invincible armor.

There is a visible cost to war in Mega Man X. The first level takes place on a city highway. Abandoned and destroyed vehicles line the road. The damage on the highway created deadly traps. The surface is deteriorating, crumbling where commuters once drove.

Widespread destruction isn’t unique to Mega Man X. Aliens destroyed parts of the world in the Contra series, a massive fleet attacks Corneria in Star Fox. But X is the agent of much of the destruction, and the damage done has visible consequences.

Megaman X.

Board the airship and defeat Storm Eagle and it crashes into the power station, turning off the lights and disabling the electrical obstacles. Overcome Chill Penguin in the snowy mountains and the streams of molten steel in the factory are frozen. Put an end to the Octopus Launch in the Marine Base and the flooding of the forest.

For the player, these changes are beneficial. The factory floor is no longer a death trap. The extra buoyancy of the water in the forest makes it possible to reach secret areas. There are fewer dangers in the Powerplant. But in the game, they are ecological and civil disasters, with long-term ramifications that could take years to recover.

Megaman X.

Sigma, the leader of the Mavericks, has seemingly been wiped out. X stands on a cliff overlooking the Mavericks’ floating fortress as it burns and crashes into the sea. There’s no joy on her part, just a wistful reflection. X looks at the destruction he helped cause and wonders why he chose to fight. Was there another way?

Beating the final boss is a moment of jubilation for players. Overcoming obstacles, developing skills and abilities, and challenging the antagonist in a grueling multi-stage battle is an adrenaline-fueled triumph. But it’s a one-sided joy.

The ending of Mega Man X, where X stands solemnly overlooking everything that’s happened, is where it all really goes downhill. As a player, we are treated to the inner monologue of the protagonist. Rather than satisfaction, he feels regret. Regret for those who have been lost. Regret for his role in the destruction. And the regret of not knowing a better way to end the violence.

Like many games of the era, Mega Man X ends with X stepping back through one of the levels, while the game’s characters are introduced. It is equal parts recall and In-memoriam segment. With the exception of X and the player himself, everyone featured died violently during the game.

It’s only after the final credits and a “Thanks for playing!!” message, that a final scene is being played out. An image of Sigma appears on a CRT monitor, revealing that the body that was destroyed was a temporary shell, and that he will soon return for X. It’s a final moment of joy for players, that a sequel was certain. to come, and a stabbing for X, whose violent actions and loss ended nothing.

It’s a reminder of the last lines of the scene at the edge of the cliff:

“How long will he continue to fight? How long will his pain last?

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