Mega Man Zero: Mass Cyber-Elf Killing
Mega Man has never had a drought of spin-offs to play around with, and the Game Boy Advance was quite possibly the most lucrative time to be a fan. Not only is there the fantastic Mega Man Battle Network series, spanning six titles (we’ll get there soon! I’m just waiting for the re-release!)There was the Mega Man Zero series, a subseries of the brilliant Mega Man Zero series, which in itself was a subseries of Mega Man. As compared to the more RPG-like Battle Network, Zero was more or less the handheld version of the core Mega Man experience. Despite retaining the hard-as-nails core of the early titles, Mega Man Zero technical beauty and more mission-based gameplay sets it apart from its predecessors - even if its systems aren’t quite as satisfying as one could hope.
My history with Mega Man is pretty limited, truth be told. I played the original two back in 2011, as part of a ploy to impress a girl (we’ve been together more than a decade now), and somehow I managed to beat them - probably thanks to save states and whatnot. I also played the hell out of Mega Man X, who’s edgier and greater ‘wow’ factor won me over. But that was a long, long time ago, and outside of occasionally messing around, my time with Mega Man is sparse. But, as someone who read far, far too much Bob and George back in the day, it’s a franchise I want to experience quite a bit more of and so, naturally, it wouldn’t be too long until The Game Boy Abyss sinks it’s claws in one of these series.
More than a hundred years after the events of… one of the Mega Man X games (I only played the first two, what do y’all expect?)Zero is awoken by Ciel, a Reploid (basically robots), who along with a base worth of fellows, is being hunted seemingly by X and his own army of rampaging robots. Threatened with extinction, Ciel bets everything on Zero, a legendary figure in her time, to defend her Reploid base and put a stop to the threat X poses to her community. Look, no one plays the core Mega Man games for their plot - I love the Mega Man and X games that I’ve played, but the story was always the last thing on my mind. In all honesty, whilst it’s still relatively basic, Zero’s tale is enjoyable all the same. The mystery of why X, the hero of a hundred years past, is the one hunting down these seemingly harmless Reploids is fascinating, and seeing Zero try to come to terms with everything happening is pretty great to see. As you progress through the game, the various Reploids around Ciel’s base will have things to say, and by the time you’re nearing the end, these residents may very well have become even a little bit dear to you. Mega Man barely needs a story in the first place - a framing device, sure, but not an actual story - but Zero showcases the fact, twenty years ago, that you can tell a simple, yet gripping tale without compromising on the core of what makes this series Mega Man. It also helps that the art for the various Reploids - even the random civilians occupying the base - is adorable, giving the game a bit of a cutesy angle at odds with its rather dark premise.
The core of Mega Man Zero’s gameplay is pretty similar to its predecessors - you’ll be running and gunning (and slashing (and stabbing)) through various sci-fi environments, taking down robots and fulfilling missions for Zero’s… handler? Buddy? I dunno, but you’re doing this all for Ciel, the robot girl who reawakened Zero. Much like X, Zero is armed with a blaster and a blade, along with a few other weapons he’ll unlock across the game, and you’ll be blasting, slashing, and leaping up and about whatever creatures are hellbent on wiping him out. Coupled with Zero innate dash and wall jumps, controlling our red robotic Reploid is an incredibly satisfying experience, especially in several stages that put a greater focus on this oh-so-fantastic platforming. Across the game you’ll gain access to several more weapons, and each of these can be ranked up by simply using them, giving them new charge attacks and seemingly raising their damage. The big difference, as compared to previous Mega Man and Mega Man X titles, is Zero’s more mission based structure. Ciel will offer Zero a particular list of missions, giving you a choice of where you want to focus your efforts - this came in handy particularly when I’d get stuck on a certain boss - I really didn’t want to skip any missions on my playthrough, so I’d switch it up if I was getting stonewalled on a certain foe. Whilst it shares the pseudo-non linearity iconic to the Mega Man franchise, each mission doesn’t have a unique area, though it rarely, if ever, doubles up on bosses or objectives. One mission in the desert is a traditional ‘reach the boss’ affair, whilst a second opens up an entirely different section of the dunes, being more focussed on locating a hidden base and rescuing captured androids. In the end it doesn’t really change that much what you’re actually doing at the moment, but the context somehow makes all the difference.
Boss fights are a huge part of Mega Man, and in Zero that is no exception. Overall they run pretty similar to the encounters present in Mega Man X - bombastic, high-octane affairs where the slightest lapse in judgment can spell utter destruction. In true Mega Man fashion, you’ll be forced to remember patterns and attacks to even stand a chance against these Reploid foes. Across the game you’ll unlock various elemental based abilities - if you pass their respective missions - and part of the fun is identifying which foe is weak to which element, granting you a significant damage advantage against these terrifying bosses.
One of the things that intrigued me most about Mega Man Zero from the jump was references to the game fitting into the Metroidvania subgenre. Seriously, the concept of a Mega Man game with a big, somewhat open map, with items to hunt down and new paths to unlock, sounded like a dream come true. Unfortunately, whilst Mega Man Zero has the most basic tenets of this subgenre, it’s little more than optional set dressing. As a part of the mission-based gameplay, after completing a stage, most of which will be set in a new area, Zero can return to dig through these sections to find Cyber Elves. Beyond that, at least as far as I’ve seen, there isn’t a whole lot of reason to explore the overworld, except perhaps to grind Crystals to power up Cyber Elves to actually use them. It’s pretty cool you can re-explore these areas, but once you’ve actually nabbed Cyber Elves, or even gotten them during the missions, it’s little more than set dressing. It’s not really a negative, but it just feels a bit like a missed opportunity.
On that note - what are Cyber Elves, you ask? Well, in some ways they’re both the item and upgrade system that underpins Mega Man Zero’s mechanics. Found by killing bosses, certain numbers of particular enemies, or hidden throughout each area, Cyber Elves are both consumable items and permanent upgrades for Zero. The former type can perform such abilities as stopping time or blocking bullets, whilst the latter are permanent upgrades that increase your health or defense levels. These more powerful Cyber Elves require you to grind out Crystals, dropped by enemies, to ‘grow them’. Additionally, each Cyber Elf is a single-use item - once it’s used, in the menu it’ll be listed as ‘resting in peace.’ So… uh. Yeah. They just die. These make up the primary modifiers in the game, along with elemental chips to elementize your weapons, obtained at the end of certain levels. It’s kind of strange that using Cyber Elves are kind of discouraged by the game - what with the fact that they BLOODY DIE when you use them, and the fact your ranking points are dropped the second you use any of these. It’s even stranger, because I genuinely can’t imagine anyone trying to beat this game, at least without a huge amount of practice, without using the Cyber Elf system.
Because the fact of the matter is, even with the Cyber Elf upgrades, Zero is a really, really hard game. Not quite as brain-smashingly frustrating as the earliest Mega Man games, but sweet Jesus - this is brutal at times. Enemies can overwhelm you with sheer firepower - especially if you get unlucky and they don’t drop HP - and without any Cyber Elf upgrades, bosses will carve you apart in three or four hits. Even with them this game isn’t a remote cakewalk, feeling like a gauntlet to actually reach the boss fights and Souls-esque endeavors for the actual main events. There wasn’t a single encounter in the game that I didn’t have to try at least three times to get through, and there’s a few that pushed me even further. This difficulty is supplanted somewhat by one of the other notable twists Zero places on the Mega Man formula. Missions in Mega Man Zero are divided into two categories - critical and non-critical. Any missions deemed non-critical can be failed if you run out of continues, but the game will continue, albeit with missing out on any rewards unique to that area or missions, like certain Cyber Elves or elemental chips that modify your damage type. It’s an interesting mechanic, one that still forces you to
Matters are made worse by the fact that not only are Cyber Elf crystal costs obscenely hard for some of the more decent upgrades, actually obtaining said crystals feels nothing more than an artificial grind. Hell, I couldn’t even find any good places to grind - I simply used one of the first areas in the game, a vent that spawned a bunch of mini bee-like robots who’d usually drop a decent amount of crystals, but even then, it took way too long to grind out these upgrades, and genuinely almost impossible to attain the amount needed just by luck. Additionally, even though rankings do nothing, even using a permanent upgrade Cyber Elf will put a permanent negative modifier on your ranking for the remainder of the game. Again, rankings mean nothing, but it feels like a bit of a kick in the balls to be told ‘you suck’ because you needed the most basic upgrades to survive against this game’s grueling difficulty. It’s cool for the pros, but when it comes to myself - and I expect the majority of the people picking this game up are just looking to push through the game.
But in better news, this game is gorgeous to behold, rising above even the already-beautiful Mega Man X games from the SNES era. Zero and his foes animations are on the simpler side, that’s true, but it does nothing to diminish how satisfying it is to watch Zero cut through hordes of deranged robots with his Z-Saber. Whilst it’s not quite on the level of its SNES predecessor, it’s a pretty cool example of how well the GBA could emulate the power of the SNES. Occasionally, when there’s a notable amount of projectiles or enemies on screen, the game can suffer some slowdown, but these are far and few between. The soundtrack isn’t quite on the level of the visual design - it’s not that it’s poor or anything, but a lot of the general stage themes run on kind of short loops, so you’ll very quickly be hearing the same beats again and again, especially considering how difficult some of these are. Boss themes are pretty solid, though I kind of had the situation where the fights themselves were so stressful I had to look them up after to remember what kind of bops they were.
Overall, I had a pretty good time with Mega Man Zero. At its core, it’s just a slightly more open Mega Man game, with gorgeous graphics for the GBA and a surprisingly dark, heartfelt story at its heart. Boss fights were fantastic, but they’re let down by the genuine brutal difficulty of the game, one that seemingly encourages you to avoid any mechanics that might help you, y’know, actually progress. It’s a title that feels amazing to rise to its challenge, but I can’t imagine anyone but the most hardcore fans getting a ton out of Mega Man Zero. It’s a good game, be sure of that, but unless you’re happy with getting reeeeeal gud, or failing a bunch of missions, i t might not be you. On that note, I’d die for Zero or Ciel.
Thank you for reading my review of Mega Man Zero! Since I was off last week, I’ll throw up another review next week - it’ll be a much smaller, less notable game, which is exactly what I need after the week I’ve just had. As always, you can shoot me an email at email@example.com if you have a question or a request, or contact me on twitter @Lemmy7003. As always, thanks for reading, and I’ll see you next week for another review.