De-constructing the game: Mega Man Zero

This will be the first of a series of articles entitled De-constructing the Game which will pretty much just be me revisiting games I have beaten with a critical view toward the game design. If you like them, don’t like them or whatever, please, let me know.

I recently beat Mega Man Zero, a game that is notorious for being a balls to the wall tough as nails game. While it wasn’t perfect, in the end the pro’s far outweigh the cons to the point where it was another quality effort in the long standing Mega Man series. As a product included with 3 sequels on the Mega Man Zero Collection it stands out as a reason to keep playing the compilation.

First, what I didn’t like about MMZ, or just found to be problematic.

- In case you didn’t get it the first 10 times: If there is one thing I hate, in real life or otherwise, it’s having to be told the same thing over and over. MMZ decided it would be cute to have save points take place right before conversations that cannot be skipped so that once you die and have to start over (which you will probably do several times over in many sections of the game), you have to read the same stuff over and over. Every time you fight a boss, the same dialog repeats and is also impossible to skip. Plus a lot of the dialog writing ranges from “eh” to downright laughable so it’s not like I would give a fuck if I accidentally skipped some ice gorilla robot’s evil self aggrandizing monologue.

The oversight of forcing a gamer to sift through the same slow moving script over and over is a problem that many games face, and it smacks of lacking an appreciation for the finer details in usability, something Mega Man Zero tends to have troubles with overall. As a hardcore gamer, I can move past those issues with relative ease (though I do also get frustrated and just start tapping away at the A button over and over while not even looking at the screen) but I could see how anyone but the most dedicated might get turned away from any game that requires constant reading of repeat instructions without anyway to skip it.

- Less Mega Man more Zero: There should have been somewhere in the game that just said, “Hey, focus on the sword, it’s the best thing in the game and will make your life a lot easier.” The sword is really powerful, but with the weapon being relegated to sub weapon once it has been acquired early on, it kinda makes the weapon seem.. well not as useful as it should be portrayed. Also, you don’t start with the sword, which seems counter intuitive. The sword gets infinitely better once it’s upgraded, which would require you to realize early on enough that it is the de facto weapon and use it enough to upgrade it and yet you only have the Z-buster for the whole beginning stage.

It’s almost as if the first Zelda game had given you a boomerang as your first weapon instead of the sword and just never made a big deal of getting the sword. You’d be playing the game with the boomerang wondering why it takes 20 hits instead of 2 to take down an enemy. I feel like that was just a poor decision from a game design standpoint to never explain the importance of the sword to the user. In a game that spends so much time forcing you to sit through poorly written banter between robots, one would think that some in game character could take a line or two to just highlight it.

Not helping the situation is the fact that an NPC will keep loading you up with useless other weapons creating a lack of focus and further confusing the end user (aka me).

I’m pretty sure the the only reason the sword is a sub weapon in the first place is because holding R down to use the  Z buster is just more difficult from a control standpoint, which is ok as long as the gamer understands that “sub weapon” doesn’t really mean “not as useful as the main weapon” at the same time.

-Chicken Noodle soup, with a can of useless on the side: Coming back to my earlier beef, why exactly are there 2 other weapons in the game, when the sword can wreck any enemies shit as easy as pie and the Z-buster (or whatever it’s called) is still very powerful as a secondary?

Why is the rebel base an open area and yet so boring to wander around in and why do almost no NPCs that are scattered around the area ever say anything of importance?

Why are there so many “Cyber Elves” to collect, when only a handful are useful and it takes too much item farming (kill enemy, go off screen, repeat) to collect enough energy orbs (chips?) to upgrade the ones that need to be brought to maturity in order to be used? I know that sentence probably doesn’t make much sense, but when you play the game, you’ll understand.

These questions smack of the continued lack of attention paid to the games details. These problems leave the game feeling a bit emptier than it really should. Had the game focused on simply providing a well flowing action experience, it would have been much better off. Instead it gives the appearance of depth by offering a large empty area that is basically useless to explore and a collection item (cyber elf) that doesn’t add enough to the game and is too cumbersome to fully utilize.

Plus the useless sub weapons, as detailed above, can detract from the usefulness of the games main weapons by adding a distraction that left me in a lurch toward the end of a level because I had focused on leveling up the wrong weapon through the whole level only to get absolutely hosed on the boss.

- Where’s the great music?: One of the things that always stands out in Mega Man is the music. It’s used to set the pace of a stage or add emotion to a scene. I still listen to the soundtrack from 1, 2 and X all of the time and yet nothing is particularly notable about the MMZ soundtrack. Hell, I remember the password screen music in Mega Man X and I can’t even remember a single stage’s music in Zero, some 2 hours after finishing it.

It speaks volumes when an SNES game can tell a story through music and well timed sound effects and yet a newer game totally misses the point. That seems to be a problem as games get more advanced, that the music just suffers or becomes too ambient for it’s own good. There are some good tunes in the game, it’s just they aren’t memorable enough and are often on the verge of being too ambient.

-Mission Disorder: The way levels are given to you is through a mission menu that is on a drop down text menu. You never know what’s going to happen in the mission and what boss you might be about to battle. This is ok on the surface. I enjoy a surprise and it goes with the games overarching story. The system becomes a problem when you get to a point where you should have done a mission further down on the menu first and come back to a level a little later with your new found chip or maybe a few more lives in tow. There are no hints toward this, and it took a little gamefaqs trip to truly understand what I needed to do in some situations.

Another problem is that if you lose all of your lives on a stage, you can either reload your save or you actually miss out on the stage. Stages can never be redone, so anything you miss will be lost for good. I guess on some perverse level this is supposed to help the gamer out of difficult situations, but hell, at one point every stage was a difficult situation and every time I died I had to reload my save…. and sit through the same old story nonsense again… and again… and again….

Now, what I liked.

-The potatoes: The regular (non open area) parts of the game and the control of MMZ were both very spot on. Mega Man has always limited your movement to very controlled movements with left, right, a jump and a dash of some sort in later games. You are usually never given the ability to duck and shooting in any direction besides left or right is usually a no no. Some would say that this is a detriment but I feel that this is what is so brilliant about the game’s design.  Enemy placement is often set up that you can hit enemies perfectly so long as you time your jump and attack correctly. You are constantly forced to worry about proper vertical or horizontal placement and the action is so frantic that a duck would only slow things down.

The levels, as usual have some nice hidden items here and there, and as much as it was a bitch for me to get through, there is this one level where you are tasked with collecting bombs in about 2 minutes with some of them being in some very tricky parts of the level to get to. Sure, there is some trial and error to getting through the levels, and enemy spawning just as you walk 2 steps off screen is still prevalent and causes some areas to be extremely testing, but hey, that’s Mega Man in a nut shell and if enemies stopped respawning I’d probably be more upset.

Mega Man Zero was created not too long ago with some of gamings currently most hated aspects, infinite enemy respawing, levels with too few checkpoints and trial and error sections. Oddly enough these are highlights of the game’s design.

- Who needs Captain Planet?: MMZ ignores the classic Mega Man standard of offering a bunch of bosses on a chart with an option to tackle any of them at any point with each boss yielding a new weapon that another boss will of course be weak against. Instead the game offers up 3 elements to equip on top of your standard power and each major boss has a weakness to either the fire, ice, electricity or the base attack. With a little experimentation and some common sense you will figure out the system quick enough.

A great aspect of this system is that the game uses a very visual system to show the gamer that the weapon is doing some extra type of damage with a large effect, like catching on fire or freezing, happening to a boss when the weapon is “super effective”. In a game with a whole lot of extra filler, it is great to see that the designers managed to simplify this often overcomplicated weapon selection system. “Oh, the fire bat is weak against the poison snake ball. That makes sense!”

-It’s T R I C K Y to rock a Maverick: The bosses in this game are designed in a way where they can be both extremely easy and aggravatingly hard at the same time. It’s all about which element you equip and/or the weapon you choose and if you can figure out the patterns quick enough. That is what Mega Man is all about and it works as well as ever here. Even with all of that figured out, against some bosses, a wrong timed dash or jump can lead to a large amount of energy lost in one shot. I respect that.

This aspect challenges gamers to be quick on their feet and utilize all manners of maneuvering through the environment while utilizing some common sense puzzle solving skills at the same time. Though I never would have guessed that a robot in the desert would be exceptionally weak against fire, but I guess I should have figured out that since he looks like Anubis, and Anubis is king of the dead, that the best way to get rid of the dead is with fire…

- There’s a reason these books exist: I really liked the art style of the series from the get go so many years ago; it was quite a departure from the X series of old, and I really appreciated that. All of the character designs in Zero, from the bosses to the good guys, is all really top notch as usual without being too contrived or derivative. Plus the bosses are all very well thought out; I especially like the E. Honda inspired elephant boss. The only question that remains is why do so many of the characters, including Zero himself, have discolored areas that look like underwear?

- Robotocalypse: It may be an extension of Mega Man X, a series that majorly jumped the shark story wise extending the storyline well beyond the intended ending point, but Mega Man Zero’s story, despite some poor to bad dialog choices, is pretty good overall. Not award winning by any measure, but enjoyable nonetheless. I like Ciel, the female who revives Zero, a lot; she has this ambition that I can really get behind.