Written for XPGain, recreated with permission.
Played on the PS Vita (Also available on PS3 and PSP)
Action platformer is something of a dying breed, losing ground to the more modern action adventure genre populated by 3D platforming, gunplay, swordplay, and an increasing amount of RPG elements.
There are still standouts, especially those like the excellent Shovel Knight and Super Time Force, but they are mostly found on the indie circuit than elsewhere. Which is a shame for their lack of ubiquity, as there’s a large history of excellent standouts in the genre that could be easily overlooked in an industry with annual Triple-A franchises and an exploding indie scene are covering genres that have never previously existed.
As a result, taking time to settle down with classics like Megaman X4 can be a welcome reminder to what made the genre so iconic in its day. Published by Capcom in the early years of the Playstation, it was the first title in the Megaman X series to arrive in that generation of consoles, and suffers from not quite having the imagination to really use a more powerful machine. There are a few elements that use the increased abilities of the console, but a majority of the game feels quite similar to the previous outings with Megaman X, X2, and X3 on the Super Nintendo.
Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing; the game is visually busier, with more going on in the fore and background, more effects following the various attacks and blasts, and everything seems bigger and flashier. Otherwise, the action is still light and fast without being reflex-dependent, the enemy patterns and designs are still cleverly deployed and challenging, without relying on aggressively skilled play being absolutely required to make the game workable. It’s not at all challenging when compared to the original Megaman series that preceded the X series, but certainly has enough to challenge the average player familiar with the at the time more modern game design. It relied less on arcade-level challenges and more on using the mechanics that evolved naturally to be less punishing because there’s more room for content.
However, X4 introduced something new in the shape of a second fully playable character, Zero. Although Zero has made occasional gameplay appearances previously in X3, he had become his own character with a fully separate move list, mechanic, and armor upgrades. This is a very welcome addition, as Zero’s close-range playstyle serves as a very large contrast to X’s slightly more distant, cautious playstyle. In addition to that, his powers are skills and maneuvers aren’t weapon energy-based (with the exception of one) that make his character skills feel very different, and that seems to double the amount of content because of how different the stages feel between the closer and longer ranged characters, without changing the stage or boss design in any way. It’s an appreciable balancing act, but one that happens seamlessly. Without really picking through the stages as both characters, the sheer amount of detail that goes into the little quirks working for both characters is an interesting dynamic that is too easily overlooked.
Which is to say that the details are what make the Megaman X series commendable. The platforming is crisp and demanding without being unfairly punishing, and the enemy attacks and patterns still retain an edge of occasional surprise and villainy without feeling aggressively challenging. As a result, the control can sometimes feel a little clunky in comparison to not just modern games, but also compared to Megaman X3. In addition, sometimes enemies will have overhead attack patterns that exist almost exclusively to punish X players who miss attacking them early, whereas the longer-ranged enemies will be unfairly punishing on Zero players before they can close the distance. Given these occasional movement struggles, the stages can be a little reliant on memorization and tighter execution than they should be at times, and the tools to get out of tight spots won’t feel as responsive as their modern equivalents would. It feels dated in that way, and the more modernized visuals sometimes make the game seem like it should be more brisk in letting the players input quickly to adjust for little errors.
As a result, Megaman X4 is a game that feels a little bit out of time. Modern feeling in some places, retro in others, and comes together to form an inconsistent experience. However, minor quibbles aside, it’s still an example of a solid action-platformer, and to some critics, one of the best games in the series. Worth a look, and definitely worth a play, especially for players who admire the retro-inspired action indie titles but find the original Megaman series too challenging.