Mega Man X 3 is like a whitewashed tomb: its pristine and beautiful exterior belies the putrid, rotting corpse within. I don’t usually subscribe to the whole graphics versus gameplay diametric, but this time the relationship is definitely inverse. In Capcom’s efforts to make a better looking, better sounding Mega Man, they actually forgot how to make a Mega Man game in the process. Deliberately unforgiving level designs densely populated with death machines hell-bent on your destruction give way to sparse, open, and redundant rooms, sometimes filled with nothing at all. The former – characteristic of the NES originals – was frustrating yet strangely fulfilling, to the point where you may find yourself yelling to no one in particular, “I AM A HARDCORE GAMER!!” after some astounding feat or other. The latter will have you scratching your head, wondering when the game will suddenly kick into gear and become a real Mega Man game. This, of course, never happens.
I kid you not, some of these rooms exist for no reason whatsoever. You run into the room, only to immediately run out of it again (you even unlock a door on both ends). And yet, during both these events, the ‘camera’ slide-transitions as if to signify ‘this is the next area’. That’s just stupid! If I was the artist, I’d be pissed, not only for wasting a perfectly serviceable room, but also for wasting my valuable time.
X 3 is full of these unnecessary flourishes that force you to expect more than it can hope to deliver. The polished visuals and cyperpunk settings scream ‘anime’, but its back foot remains firmly planted in the NES era. The ‘story’, ‘acting’ and dialogue is especially cringeworthy, and while I’m sure it’s no worse than what you’d expect to find in Mega Mans (Men?) 1 through to 6, at least they were upfront about their intentions: to be games. By bringing the presentation forward, Capcom have announced their anime aspirations. By leaving the rest behind, the game appears naked and antiquated. The playable ‘intro’ would have been nice if it wasn’t just a pre-game wank. You’re Mega Man, you run in there, blow up a few things, only to get punked by a former ally within the first minute (“you’re far too trusting, Mega Man!”).
This is the game’s ‘Raiden’ moment, where Zero (a robot replete with ridiculous anime hair, originally groomed to be the star of the X series) must rescue Mega Man. Except, instead of saying “I thought this was called Metal Gear Solid because it had Solid Snake in it”, you’ll be saying, “I thought this was a Mega Man game!” Once you’ve rescued him, though, it’s back to business as usual, and Mega Man will be handling things from here, thank you very much. This ‘intro’ seems to have served no other purpose than to show off a playable Zero character, only to neuter the titular character in the process. For the rest of the game, Zero is relegated to piece work and similarly showy cameos.
I tried oh so hard to love this game, but I couldn’t help but compare it to its uglier, more frustrating cousins – you know, games with some semblance of level design. And then it dawned on me that level design, important though it is, is never graded by the mainstream gaming press alongside the bullet points of graphics/sound/gameplay/replay value. Even though graphics should be servant to level design; good gameplay is a symptom of good level design; and replay value is a symptom of good gameplay. Followed closely by: how many poorly designed videogames got a pass on those four bullet points alone? Answered by: probably this one, for starters! And then I started thinking about games with good level design, and booted up a new game of Super Metroid.