Fight, Megaman! (Mega Man X, 1993)

A quick note of clarification for anyone arriving from the future (which, I suppose, all of you are): I wrote my Mega Man retrospectives in sequence, and I’m now moving back in time to cover the Mega Man X games. You’re welcome to read them in whatever order you like, but this was written after my retrospective on Mega Man 11.

With that out of the way, let me say that the Mega Man X retrospectives are going to be quite different from the Mega Man ones, simply because I have a great deal of childhood memories associated with those games and I have next to none associated with these.

I grew up with those games. I remember them always being there as a comforting presence. They were too difficult for me to finish, but I always enjoyed getting as far as I could, scribbling down passwords, hoping that my 20th attempt to finish a stage the exact same way would, somehow, work this time. (I wasn’t much one for developing new strategies as a kid.)

Mega Man games were always among my favorites, but the Mega Man X games didn’t make much of an impression on me. In fact, I can share all of my childhood experience with them here, in a short section of this review alone.

I rented the first game, or perhaps a friend did. I do remember playing it, and I essentially just thought it was a Mega Man game on the SNES. My brain didn’t even attempt to process it beyond that. I was willing to believe that the X was a Roman numeral, signifying that this were the 10th Mega Man game, rather than that it was a spinoff or the start of a new series.

I’m sure I was baffled by the fact that the game dumped me into a level as soon as it started, rather than giving me a stage-selection screen. I’m sure I finished that intro stage and then tried each of the main levels at least once. I’m sure I struggled with the game and played it poorly. That’s about all I can say for sure. It was just another Mega Man game.

Of course, it wasn’t, but I thought it was. And I knew what Mega Man games were, so if Mega Man X didn’t grab me right off the bat, there was no reason to keep going. I knew the formula. I understood the concept. If I loved it, like I loved most of the others, great. If I didn’t, I’d never have to think about it again, and I’d miss nothing by moving along.

I was wrong. Much of what I’ll talk about here will focus on the fact that the game was recognizably Mega Man, but it differed in significant, exciting, and important ways. It was the rare spinoff that felt both true to its parent series and also worked as a unique deviation that was just as influential in itself. Young me, aged 13 or so, was a big dummy and dead wrong.

Mega Man X, 1993

…but you can’t blame me totally for being dead wrong. As much as Mega Man X is a solid and well-crafted experience of its own, it also leaves the door puzzlingly open for confusion.

If you go into the game knowing that it’s the start of an entirely new series, as it’s easy to do today, that’s no problem. In 1993, though, if you were just looking for something to play and saw the name Mega Man, you were probably going to be misled.

The cynic in me is happy enough to conclude that this was deliberate. A game called, say, Robot Fighter X with a character who looked completely unique might have sold very well. It also might have sold very poorly. There’s no way of knowing. But a game called Mega Man X with a character who looked very familiar was guaranteed to shift a good number of copies on the strength of familiarity alone. That may have been a calculated decision to make the game just look like another sequel, but that decision sure did work against anyone at the time understanding what the game was.

Let’s break down the similarities up front.

Mega Man X, 1993

The name of the game is Mega Man X. Okay, right, you know that already, but I’m making a point: The protagonist’s name is only X, but thanks to the game’s title and its English localization, we are basically calling the main character Mega Man.

The main character also physically resembles Mega Man; he’s a robot boy with similar boots, a similar helmet, and a blue color scheme. He looks different, sure, but everything looked different on a 16-bit system when you were used to 8-bit systems. This could have just been what Mega Man looked like now; we didn’t have a proper 16-bit Mega Man to compare this to. (The Wily Wars on the Genesis wouldn’t be released until the following year, and Mega Man 7 on the SNES wouldn’t be released until 1995.)

This character could be defined by the differences in his abilities, but, at the start of the game, you won’t notice any. His arm cannon fires what seem to be the same shots as Mega Man’s, at what seems to be the same rate. Hold down the button and you’ll charge up a shot, just like Mega Man. You can’t slide anymore, but that alone hardly suggests that this is a completely different character.

Mega Man X, 1993

The more you play the game, the more differences will become apparent. You’ll be able to upgrade your health, defenses, and charge shot. You’ll learn how to dash. You’ll figure out how to wall jump. But at first, here, seeing the game for the first time, controlling your character for the first time, working out in your mind what this game is for the first time, it just feels like Mega Man.

And though it is true that you’ll discover more differences between X and Mega Man as you play, you’ll also discover more similarities, balancing the scales a bit.

For instance, you’ll eventually get to the level-select screen, allowing you to choose from eight themed bosses in whatever order you like. When you pick a stage, you’ll see the boss appear on screen and taunt you with a threatening pose, with an SNES version of the same tune you heard when picking a stage in Mega Man 2 and Mega Man 4. (And Mega Man, I suppose, but Mega Man X includes the later refinements to that composition.)

You fight through the stage, of course, maybe having to battle a miniboss, then eventually defeat the pattern-heavy main boss at the end, who has his own dedicated health bar presented, like yours, in a decidedly Mega Man-like fashion. When you defeat him (because they’re all him, even if they’re no longer called Man), you get a version of his weapon to use for yourself. Equip the weapon and you change colors. That weapon is the weakness of one other boss, which will make defeating that boss easier.

So far, so similar, and it doesn’t stop there. Clear all eight main stages, and you’ll gain access to the fortress, a series of even more difficult stages that test your mastery, confront you with bigger, meaner bosses, and require you to fight the eight main bosses all over again. (This time, in a nod to the first Mega Man, you don’t choose the order; you refight them in a predetermined sequence as you progress.) Make it to the very end and you’ll fight the final boss in two distinct phases.

Are there more differences along the way? Absolutely. But when you lay it out like that, it’s hard to see how (or why) Mega Man X is part of a distinct series from Mega Man. It sounds far, far more like a sequel than it does a spinoff. If you only play it for a short period of time, that’s how it feels as well.

X looks and plays like Mega Man. Zero looks like and seems to serve a similar purpose to Proto Man. X’s handler Dr. Cain doesn’t make a physical appearance, but we assume that he’s the new Dr. Light. Big bad Sigma fills the same structural purpose as Dr. Wily. Instead of fighting Robot Masters, we are fighting Mavericks. As Jon Bon Jovi put it in his famous review of Mega Man X, “It’s all the same; only the names have changed.”

Mega Man X, 1993

Like I said, though, it feels that way if you play it for a short period of time. If you play it extensively, thoroughly, repeatedly, you understand what makes Mega Man X stand out: For the first time in the entire series, the protagonist has a character arc that unfolds not just narratively but mechanically. Let’s take a look at how that works.

Just to be clear up front, I am playing these games in the Mega Man X Legacy Collection for the simple reason of convenience when gathering screenshots. If something looks different from how you remember it on actual hardware, that’s why. (I have played all of these games on actual hardware, though.) Oh, and don’t judge me too harshly for the state of my health bar. It’s very difficult to play and take screenshots at the same time!

Also, as I dip my first tentative toe into the swirling mass of bullshit that is the Mega Man X series storyline, I’ll say that things are clear and effective enough up front. However, as the series progresses and the games descend into nonsense masquerading as lore and backstory, I’m going to lose my grip on whatever the living fuck is meant to be happening. Go easy on me when I get things wrong, because there’s very little that can be gotten right.


Mega Man X, 1993

The first thing we see when we load up the game — before actually entering the game — is an intro sequence from Dr. Cain’s point of view. We won’t meet him officially until the next game, but Dr. Cain operates some kind of computer interface to learn about a robot he discovered called X, sealed away in some kind of capsule by the robot’s creator, Dr. Light.

Dr. Cain also reads a warning (messagefromdrlight.docx) that explains that X was an experimental new kind of robot with “an innovative new feature — the ability to think, feel and make their own decisions.” Dr. Light wanted to confirm X’s reliability — dude had created a metric shit-ton of rampaging deathbots by that point so, yeah, good move — and sealed him into the capsule for 30 years of testing. According to Dr. Light’s signature on the document, this happened September 18, 20XX.

Dr. Light points out in the warning that he himself is unlikely to live that long, and so he implores whoever finds X to confirm his reliability before activating him, lest Dr. Light’s creation lead to another generation of rampaging deathbots.

Mega Man X, 1993

In 21XX, Dr. Cain discovers X and activates him, allowing Dr. Light’s creation to lead to another generation of rampaging deathbots.

This game’s English localization refers to the robot as Mega Man X, but he’s really just X, and that’s how I’ll refer to him in these reviews for the sake of distinguishing him from Mega Man. Anyway, from here, we need to step into inference and material gleaned from later games to understand what’s going on.

Dr. Cain — and presumably other scientists who benefit from the discovery of Dr. Light’s work — learn from X and create Reploids, which are basically new robots that replicate the technology and programming of X. By the time Mega Man X begins, Reploids are all over the place, and a number of them have turned from being helpful to hurtful, much as Mega Man’s initial set of villains were good robots who went bad.

Things are slightly different, though. Nobody took control of the robots here, as Dr. Wily did 100 years or so ago. Instead, they contracted a computer virus that turned them into Mavericks. These aren’t evil robots, in other words; these are sick robots.

Mega Man X, 1993

A Reploid named Sigma led a team of Maverick Hunters, who essentially tracked down and neutralized any Mavericks. He was good at his job, but ended up contracting the Maverick Virus himself. Now the most powerful Maverick Hunter is the most powerful Maverick, and X sets out to stop him.

Again, none of that is spelled out in Mega Man X, but we’re given enough information to largely understand who we are and why we’re fighting. Also, having to infer bits of the backstory is perfectly reasonable. Less reasonable is having to infer bits of what’s happening right now in this story, but so be it.

I like the idea that Sigma is a real threat due not only to his power, but due to the fact that he has formal leadership experience. Sigma going nuts and killing everyone is a problem, sure, but the fact that he learned how to lead squads of robots on the side of peace means that his new position leading squads of robots on the side of war poses a genuine crisis. Mankind no longer just has to deal with Mavericks as individual threats; they must deal with Mavericks as an organized force of destruction.

X is still choosing a boss from a list of eight and then heading out to kill it, but this backstory recontextualizes what’s happening; Mega Man took out a boss and then took out another boss several times over. X, by contrast, is gradually weakening a conquering army.

Mega Man X, 1993

All of that is good, but the intro raises a fascinating question: If the innovation X represents in the field of robotics is the ability to feel and make decisions, then could Mega Man have ever actually been a hero? Or was he just a machine, doing what he was told to do? If Mega Man had been built or purchased by Dr. Wily instead, would he have been just as quick to fight for that side of the conflict?

This isn’t hugely important — again, Mega Man X has incompatible continuity with itself, let alone with Mega Man proper — but I do find it interesting to think about. “Mega Man didn’t have the ability to make decisions” is also a truly mind-blowing retcon when the big gimmick of that entire series was the ability to choose which stages to tackle in which order, ensuring that two players of the games could have — and almost certainly would have — taken entirely different paths through them. (Also, Proto Man’s reluctance to return to and serve Dr. Light does sort of suggest that he would have been the first robot capable of making decisions but, hey, we’ll live.)

The “new” ability of robots to make decisions for themselves does have an extremely wonderful (though very small) effect in Mega Man X: Some of the enemies will pause for a moment to chuckle if they hit you with an attack. That’s completely unnecessary, but what a flourish on the part of this game’s designers. After all, it makes perfect sense that if robots can think for themselves, some large portion of them are going to become absolute dicks.

Mega Man X, 1993

The intro stage is a Mega Man first. It would become a staple of the Mega Man X series and appear in a few Mega Man games to follow, but in 1993 it was pretty unexpected to be dropped straight into the action, without getting a chance to scope out the bosses ahead of time and decide where you wanted to start. (It’s extra funny that X is the one who can make decisions yet is also the one who isn’t allowed to choose where to begin.)

It’s a good level in a few ways. The enemies are weak enough that you’re rarely in real danger, and they’re varied enough that you’ll have to quickly master firing at different heights, firing quickly, firing more powerful shots, and so on. There are also two minibosses who collapse the highway beneath them as they die, forcing you to learn how to use the wall jump.

The wall jump is a massive innovation for Mega Man X, and it’s something that never found its way back into the main series. (It would very much inform the Mega Man Zero series, but that’s a story for another day.) This is a simple mechanic — which I mean as a compliment — but it has huge implications in terms of how the game can be played.

Mega Man X, 1993

I don’t think Capcom realized just yet exactly how much it shakes up the gameplay. Most of the time, it seems like the developers expect you to simply wall jump for the sake of overcoming obstacles, as you’re taught to do here.

Jump toward a wall and X automatically clings to it, sliding down slowly. Jump while you’re sliding down and you’ll gain height. Repeat the process to scale a vertical wall. That opens up some level design possibilities — and Capcom takes advantage of that several times over — but it also opens up combat possibilities, which I don’t think pay true dividends from a design perspective until later games.

Basically, any time there’s a vertical wall, you’re no longer limited to how high you can jump; you can climb all the way to the ceiling whenever you like. Where does this matter most? Well, during boss fights, where you always (with the exception of Storm Eagle) have tall vertical walls to scale. Whereas Mega Man could hop over and slide under projectiles, he was still always at the mercy of any given Robot Master and its attacks. Mega Man would far more often have to react than act.

X, however, thanks to the wall jump, has infinitely more mobility than any of the bosses in this game, meaning that they are at his mercy. The only thing you have to do as a player is master X’s moveset and get comfortable with climbing. Once you do that, it’s the Mavericks who will be forced into reacting. Instead of needing to master the moves and patterns of eight main bosses, you only really need to master the movement of one protagonist. After all, unless they can fire a projectile that reaches the ceiling, you don’t have to worry at all about what they’re doing down there.

Mega Man X, 1993

That’s neither good nor bad; it’s just a fact. Climb into the upper corner of a room and wall jump quickly enough to stay there and few Mavericks will even be able to hit you. They’re simply not equipped to handle that level of agility, and they’ll almost always have to rely on you fumbling the timing and falling back down to where they can reach you. If you don’t fumble that timing, however, you will always have the advantage. You can choose to drop down only when it’s safe, fire a few small shots or one charge shot, and then hop right back up where they can’t reach you.

Perhaps Capcom figured that few players would bother learning the movement mechanics well enough to turn them into such a significant advantage. Perhaps Capcom didn’t realize it was even possible. It’s hard to say, but the set of Mavericks in this game are absolutely hamstrung by your newfound ability to keep out of reach. I don’t see this as a problem — new players won’t master the mechanic that quickly or easily — but I’m certainly pleased to report that Mavericks in later games won’t be quite so exploitable by default.

Mega Man X, 1993

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. At the end of the intro stage, you fight Vile, one of Sigma’s powerful lackeys. He uses Ride Armor — basically a bigger robot body into which you can climb, and which itself will become another series staple — and you are destined to lose the fight.

Vile is bigger, stronger, and more durable than you are, and it’s impossible to defeat him. Maybe you did well in the intro stage. Maybe you didn’t. Either way, Vile leaves you broken and defeated and Zero, an ally X is meeting for the first time, shows up to save your sorry ass.

You are guaranteed to realize the same thing from this scene that X does: You’ve got a long way to go, kid.

Mega Man X, 1993

Let’s step back.

Mega Man 7 eventually took a few cues from Mega Man X. One of them was the intro stage, which in both games is a broken highway in a city under siege. Both Mega Man and X fight their way down the ruined road, looking very similar to each other, using a very similar weapon to each other, and at the end they each encounter the Big Bad’s highest-ranking crony, who attempts to put them in their place.

In Mega Man 7, though, you can win the fight. It’s Bass there, and if you fight carefully enough, you can overpower him. You certainly can lose to him, and easily, but you don’t have to lose to him. You can humiliate him just as much as he intended to humiliate you, sending him home to lick his wounds.

That makes sense. It’s a video game. Play well and win, play poorly and lose.

In Mega Man X, though, you can’t play well at this point. X is physically incapable of subduing Vile. This means something, and it further defines the contrast between that game’s protagonist and this game’s.

Mega Man X, 1993

Mega Man, basically, was not weak and therefore never felt weak. He was limited only by your own abilities as a player. If you didn’t know what you were doing, he’d die a lot. But if you were good at the game, he was able from the very start to handle anything that the stages, enemies, or bosses could throw at him. He was ready for the adventure. You may not have been, but he was.

X is different. X is not ready, and Mega Man X is the story of X becoming ready, fight by fight, stage by stage, upgrade by upgrade. X is sent into battle, but cannot win. He is doomed to failure, unless he grows, changes, and becomes more powerful.

When Dr. Wily underestimated Mega Man, it was at his own peril. It was because he had an inflated sense of self and refused to accept that he could be bested by a super fighting robot. When Sigma and his loyal troops underestimate X, though, you can’t blame them. X is basically an insect at this point. He might win a few skirmishes through sheer luck or resilience, but he is literally incapable of winning the war.

Dr. Wily felt secure, in other words, because he failed to view Mega Man for what he really was. Sigma feels secure because he views X exactly for what he is.

Mega Man X, 1993

There’s no real “better” way to design games, of course. I certainly have no problem with the fact that Mega Man never felt weak. However, because he never felt weak he also never felt strong. He operated from the start of each game to the end at the same baseline level of competence. There was no real growth. X feeling weak at the start, by contrast, means that he can feel like a powerhouse by the end, because Mega Man X built itself room for that transition to take place.

This gives each series a different identity. When playing a Mega Man game, you as a player would experience the growth and learn how to overcome challenges. When playing a Mega Man X game, that increase in competence belonged at least in part to the character instead. Both approaches are valid, and Capcom’s attempt at the new approach works brilliantly here.

How did they accomplish it? Well, if you look at X’s life bar in the screen shots from the intro stage, you’ll get some idea. It’s absolutely minuscule compared to Mega Man’s…but, hey maybe folks playing the game for the first time might not realize that. Whenever you square off against a boss, though, you’ll see just how much longer their life bar is by comparison. It will be made immediately clear to you just how outmatched you are, and how much harder you will have to work than they will. They can afford to make more mistakes than you can; you’re the weakling.

Mega Man X, 1993

That does a pretty good job of establishing you as being a relatively fragile character, but that’s just the start of the journey. The game is designed to take you gradually from that state to being a fully powered-up war machine.

It does this by squirreling away upgrades in each of its main stages. In Mega Man, of course, you would finish a stage and receive a new weapon, which was nice, but it never changed the fundamental way in which you interacted with stages or how durable or powerful you were. Sometimes you’d snag a utility or two along the way, but usually you didn’t, and even those just helped you avoid a platforming challenge or two.

Here you still get a weapon for defeating a Maverick, but the empowerment comes from exploring those Mavericks’ stages. You can find a heart tank in each of the levels, which extends your life bar just a little bit so that you can take more damage. You can find four subtanks, which allow you to replenish your health. (You fill these by picking up health when you don’t need it, and you can reuse the subtanks as many times as you like, both of which are very welcome changes to the one-use-only E-tanks of Mega Man.) You can find more of Dr. Light’s old capsules, each of which upgrades some aspect of X’s technology.

Mega Man X, 1993

Because you find those things by exploring rather than fighting, you are not only encouraged to engage with the main levels in a new way — and probably repeatedly — but you are able to increase your abilities at a steady pace, even if you aren’t able to defeat any of the bosses yet. If you’re really struggling, you can visit a stage, find whatever upgrades you can, die, and then try another, where you might find even more upgrades. You retain your items upon death, which means that you’re no longer stuck if you’re struggling to defeat a boss; you can still seek out other ways to give yourself an edge.

The feeling of gradual empowerment is sincere. It’s the main theme of the game, in fact, and it’s presented, explored, and felt through gameplay. Mega Man relied on raw skill alone, but Mega Man X offers a bunch of small ways to tip the odds in your favor as the protagonist grows into a more capable hero. X’s journey is one of significant and lasting growth.

There’s a bit of a strange imbalance here, though, when it comes to how these upgrades are distributed, and I can’t tell if it was deliberate or accidental.

I’ll explain. There are eight main stages and eight heart tanks, so each stage gets one heart tank. That’s expected and makes sense. Then there are four subtanks and four Dr. Light capsules, so you’d think that each stage would get one of those two things as well. That would also make it easier for folks to remember which stages they’ve “cleared” and which still have an upgrade or two left to discover.

Mega Man X, 1993

In practice, though, Flame Mammoth and Storm Eagle get one each of all three upgrades. Boomer Kuwanger and Launch Octopus — or Octopardo, as he liked to be called — only get a heart tank. There’s certainly no rule of game design that says that the distribution of upgrades must be even, but I’m not sure why a decision was made to keep it uneven, when that would only make it difficult for players to intuitively understand when they’ve found everything.

Also, Launch Octopus’ stage feels weirdly long and sprawling to contain only one upgrade; there are a whopping five minibosses here — some of them being optional — so for one upgrade alone to be hiding here, it feels oddly lopsided.

As long as we’re on the subject of upgrades, let’s talk about the Dr. Light capsules, because these introduce their own problems.

The most obvious one has to do with the narrative and, to be fair, is something that will only be a problem as the series progresses.

Right, so, Dr. Light wasn’t certain that X would be “reliable,” hence the three decades of testing. Dr. Light also wasn’t certain that he himself would live long enough to verify X’s reliability. We can therefore infer that these four capsules scattered around contain upgrades that Dr. Light would have given to X anyway, assuming X came through testing okay and didn’t have to be destroyed or something. These capsules, basically, were a way for Dr. Light to prepare upgrades for the robot, but not install them, in case something went terribly wrong and X turned out to be insane or murderous.

Mega Man X, 1993

Sure enough, when you find these capsules, a holographic recording of Dr. Light shows up to welcome you and install your upgrade. Dr. Light’s recording also indicates that he’d hoped X wouldn’t need to have his offensive capabilities upgraded at all; he wanted X to awaken in a world of peace rather than one of conflict. That’s all fair and fine.

As the series progresses, however, X keeps finding capsules. He has to, because each game needs a set of upgrades to keep the feeling of gradual empowerment alive. But the Dr. Light holograms stop delivering vague “I’m sorry I died so long before you were born but I hope this helps,” messages and start commenting on the present-day state of the world, referring to things that happened and characters who were created after he died. He is also aware in later games that the world is actively at war, and is no longer optimistic that X might be living in an era of peace.

So is the Dr. Light hologram some kind of A.I. that learns and develops new upgrades based on what X needs at any given time? Or is he, as Mega Man X suggests, just some old man who did his best to plan for the future? He can’t be both.

Again, that’s not the fault of this game, but it gets pretty silly later on, when Dr. Light goes from saying “I sure wish I could have lived long enough to meet you,” to “I know what you’re going through and I’ve got a gift for you.” Personally, I think Capcom at some point just forgot the guy was meant to be dead as opposed to hiding away in a bunker somewhere but, again, we’ll get to that later.

Mega Man X, 1993

Also, Dr. Light picked some weird places to hide his capsules. You find them here in a forest, a factory, an ice cave, and a military airfield. Nothing totally impossible to accept, but in the very next game he somehow installed one in a moving tank shaped like that stage’s boss…around 100 years before that boss was ever created. In Mega Man X4 he’ll have miraculously managed to install one in cyberspace as well. In Mega Man X5 he’ll have somehow managed to install one in a sunken Spanish galleon. BUT AGAIN THAT IS NOT THE FAULT OF MEGA MAN X SO I NEED TO CHILL OUT OKAY

Then there’s the question of whether these capsules are meant to serve as hidden rewards for thorough explorers, or natural and fundamental elements of X’s growth as a character and a fighter. Either is fine, but they’d require different executions, and I don’t think Capcom ever really made a decision.

More specifically, I think that they indeed intended for them to serve as important milestones of growth for X, but I’d argue that two of them are hidden too well for most people to find, one of them particularly so. Because of that, they can be too easily overlooked, and people will complete the game without realizing that they’d missed out on part of X’s personal journey of growth…which is the core theme of the game.

Mega Man X, 1993

You can reward players who seek hidden items, certainly, but eight heart tanks and four subtanks already do that. The Dr. Light capsule upgrades should be uniformly easier to find, even if they’re difficult to access. That’s in fact the approach that the later games often took; the capsule would be in plain sight, but you’d need to figure out how to reach it, and I think that that’s the right way to go about things.

In Chill Penguin’s stage, the capsule is impossible to miss; it is in a corridor through which you must pass on your way to the boss. You can’t go around it, either; you have to activate it and receive the upgrade, essentially ensuring that you will learn how this system works. It’s a freebie, and that’s fine.

In Sting Chameleon’s stage, you need to climb a wall that leads to a new area. That’s a fair thing to expect of players in a game in which they will have already learned that they can climb walls. Once you’ve done that, you’ll face a miniboss. The capsule isn’t visible until you win the fight, but players will intuitively understand that a hidden miniboss is guarding something, so there’s enough of a chain of logic here to lead players to the upgrade. Also fine.

Mega Man X, 1993

Storm Eagle’s capsule is debatable, but I’ll come down on the side of saying that it’s just slightly unfair. If you pay attention to your surroundings, you can notice that an ominous downward passage doesn’t lead to death, but to other platforms. That itself means that you can safely hop down there and snoop around. That much is fine, but accessing the capsule requires you to get past a series of upright canisters.

They look destructible, and they are, but they take a lot of hits before they explode. First-time players will probably see them, try to blow them up, and give up, assuming that they don’t have the right weapon to destroy them. If the canisters didn’t take so much damage before they explode, that would be fine. If the canisters displayed gradual damage, establishing that your shots were working, that would also be fine. Instead, I think the game is incorrectly teaching players to come back later…which is something they don’t have to do and may forget to do.

Then there’s Flame Mammoth’s capsule, which is unforgivable.

It relies on players noticing that a few grey blocks look different from the other grey blocks in the stage, and they’re placed overhead, which is not a direction the game ever teaches players to look, outside of vertical passages.

Mega Man X, 1993

If you do notice that the blocks are different, you may try to destroy them with a weapon, but no weapon has an effect, so you may well give up and move on without realizing that you missed anything.

If you somehow notice them and understand that you need to do something other than destroy them with a weapon, you’d still have to make the wild guess that you need to physically touch them. Try doing that, though, and you’ll find them very difficult to reach. It’s doable, but as first-time players are still getting used to the controls and movement quirks, they may not spend the time necessary to learn exactly how to dash and leap from the platform on the right in order to just barely reach the blocks. Most likely they’ll try a few times, conclude that it can’t be done, and move on…and that’s if they made it this far in their chain of reasoning to begin with.

Then, if they do manage to intuit all of that, they will also need the helmet upgrade from the capsule in Storm Eagle’s stage, otherwise they won’t be able to break the blocks. If they don’t have that, they may conclude again that — even though they’ve noticed and figured out how to reach the blocks — the blocks can’t be broken.

Then, if they figure all of that out and have the helmet upgrade, they’ll have to make sure they jump perfectly enough to break the blocks in such a way that they can keep wall jumping up into the vertical passage to find the capsule. If they only break a block or two, they won’t be able to reach the vertical passage again unless they exit the stage and return, respawning the blocks and giving themselves another chance.

Mega Man X, 1993

That’s absolutely appalling design. For some kind of very valuable (and very optional) upgrade or goody, it’s perfectly fine to hide something in an area that will be easy to overlook or difficult to access. For something essential to the character’s central journey — as I have to imagine these were intended to be — that doesn’t work at all.

Another problem introduced by the capsules is something that we can’t really discuss until we go over what the upgrades are, so…let’s do that.

Storm Eagle’s capsule upgrades your helmet, allowing you to break blocks. This is almost never used outside of accessing Flame Mammoth’s capsule, and even worse is the fact that the demonstration of this ability is performed on blocks that look nothing like the blocks you’re meant to break in Flame Mammoth’s stage. The series would never quite figure out how to make helmet upgrades worth getting but, hey, you’ve got to start somewhere.

Mega Man X, 1993

Flame Mammoth’s capsule upgrades your X-Buster, letting you charge your shots to even greater effect and charge your special weapons, giving each of them a secondary function.

Sting Chameleon’s capsule upgrades your body, significantly reducing the amount of damage you take. In conjunction with your ever-lengthening life bar, this upgrade is a huge help when it comes to surviving difficult stages and bosses. It’s definitely one of the least flashy upgrades — it doesn’t actually let you do anything new, so it’s hard to “feel” the difference — but it’s very welcome.

Then there’s Chill Penguin’s capsule, which upgrades your boots and gives you the dash ability. This is the only ability with its own dedicated button, and because the capsule is unmissable, the dash becomes an essential part of the experience of the game. All of that is fine, and the ability to dash is beyond handy; it feels closer to necessary.

Mega Man X, 1993

X is slow and serves as a large target. Sure, you can learn to outmaneuver any number of enemies and obstacles, but it would be so much easier if you could move quickly out of the way, wouldn’t it? Anyone coming to this series off the back of Mega Man — who had the slide as an option for immediate dodging — would have been used to having something like this. The dash feels so essential to the game that every sequel would include it from the start, seemingly acknowledging that it shouldn’t even be an upgrade; it should just be part of who X is and what he can do.

There’s a secret capsule in Armored Armadillo’s stage, which requires players to follow a completely unintuitive set of steps to access, but it’s also very clearly an optional Easter egg, as it gives X an ability from Capcom’s Street Fighter series. It’s a joke inclusion, basically. A handy one, sure, but not part of the intended experience.

Why does all of this matter? Because, of these upgrades, the most important and significant one is also the easiest one to find. It’s so easy to find that you can’t not find it. And once you do find it, you’ll visit Chill Penguin’s stage first on each subsequent playthrough, just so you’ll have the dash available for more of the game.

Mega Man X, 1993

The problem? That comes when you take into account Mega Man X‘s other great innovation: environmental changes to stages, based on which ones you’ve completed.

We’ll finish that thought, I promise; but first, let’s talk about why that’s a good idea on paper.

Mega Man had essentially one way to empower himself: Defeating bosses and copying their weapons. X is able to do that in addition to upgrading his parts, finding subtanks, extending his life bar, and completing stages, which changes the way other stages play out and makes them either more or less difficult depending upon the effect.

I like that a lot. That allows for more options when it comes to progressing in the game, as you have numerous ways of making a stage easier to complete, and those options don’t always rely on which weapon you are able to bring to a fight.

The moment I provide actual examples, however, we’ll learn the problem.

Mega Man X, 1993

Flame Mammoth’s stage is…well…fiery. It’s full of molten lava, making the stage difficult to traverse, rendering one of the upgrades impossible to reach and making the floor in a few rooms deadly. Sounds pretty dangerous, no? Well, it is, but one of the environmental changes in Mega Man X is that if you complete Chill Penguin’s stage, Flame Mammoth’s stage ices over.

Why? No idea, but it does. Now the floor won’t kill you, you can easily grab the heart tank, the stage overall becomes much less treacherous, and so on. The issue is now apparent; since you’ll want the dash, you’ll beat Chill Penguin first. Once you do that, you’ll never even see the “proper” version of Flame Mammoth’s stage; you’ll only ever play through the less-challenging version.

Of course, you could decide to not fight Chill Penguin until later. Or you could visit Chill Penguin’s stage, grab the upgrade, then kill yourself enough times that you can exit the stage and try another one. At that point, though, you as a player are trying to find ways around Capcom’s own flawed design. You’re trying to fix the game for them, and for no real purpose. Their own design works against players experiencing the game in full.

The house of cards doesn’t stop falling there.

Mega Man X, 1993

Storm Eagle’s stage will likely be one that players do soon after Chill Penguin, as his wind attacks push you backward. They don’t hurt you, but they can easily blow you into a pit. Once you get the dash, you’ll intuitively understand that you can use it to keep him from blowing you into the abyss, and you’ll be right. Now his attacks aren’t dangerous at all and you’ll defeat him easily.

Do that, and his aircraft crashes into Spark Mandrill’s stage (I think; again, the game isn’t clear about why finishing one stage affects another), turning off the power. This removes a number of electrical traps from the stage and robs the miniboss of its most powerful attack. Once again, just by progressing logically through the stages, you’ve robbed this entire level of its danger.

Granted, the lack of power means that a few rooms are darker than they otherwise would be, but it’s never difficult to see where you’re going. I believe that the intention was to change the specific kind of difficulty you’d face in the stage; instead of dodging powerful traps and attacks, you’d have to learn to advance through darkened areas. Nice idea. In practice, however, the latter isn’t even slightly challenging, as you can still see the platforms just fine.

Mega Man X, 1993

The only other environmental change that I noticed is that defeating Launch Octopus floods one of the lower areas of Sting Chameleon’s stage. I’m sure that that makes perfect sense to somebody, somewhere, but I’m at a loss to explain it.

That’s it, and it’s easy to see how Capcom could have fixed this. They could have made more stages alter each other in this way, so that even though a few stages get easier, others would become more challenging, balancing things out. Or they could have had some of the effects work differently. For instance, what if defeating Chill Penguin meant that Flame Mammoth’s stage got much more difficult instead of easier? Then there might be an actual reason to delay getting the boots upgrade. Or, of course, you could just put the boots in a completely different stage that didn’t affect how others played out.

Really, they could have done anything to improve this, so it’s a huge disappointment that they basically scrapped the concept of environmental interactions after this game. I know there’s at least one in Mega Man X3, but it doesn’t really come back into any kind of actual focus until Mega Man X6, where I’m sure it works wonderfully and will make everybody happy.

It’s disappointing that Capcom hit upon such an interesting idea with these different versions of the same stages, and then abandoned it without refining it. I’m not going to complain too much — I like a lot of things about the way in which the series evolved from here — but that is a very disappointing missed opportunity.

Then again, maybe that’s for the best. With Mega Man, Capcom only had to dream up eight new bosses and weapons for each game, in terms of anything that would really affect the gameplay. In this series, each game would require eight new bosses, eight new weapons, at least four new capsule upgrades for X, and — based on what we saw here — new ways for the levels to interact. That was probably too tall an order for every sequel, and they sacrificed the right thing.

I’m just disappointed that the concept was only really used here, and also happened to be executed so poorly that we never got to experience its full potential.

Mega Man X, 1993

As far as the stages themselves go, they’re pretty decent. I wouldn’t rank many of them as standouts, but I also wouldn’t say that any of them are bad, or even close to it. By this point, Capcom had spent five games learning how to design a great Mega Man stage on the NES, and though Mega Man X has a different enough approach, it’s not so different that Capcom is left starting from scratch. The lessons learned there serve them well here.

For whatever reason, I end up comparing it in my mind to the way the first stretch of Simpsons episodes can be really rough with glimmers of greatness, but when Futurama started, it was hitting greatness from the start. They were very different shows, but the team learned enough from working on one that they could benefit from those lessons when starting the other. Mega Man X is definitely a Futurama situation in that regard, as it starts off on firmer ground than the previous series did, and that’s a win for us as much as it is for Capcom.

In fact, years ago, after I taught myself to complete each Mega Man stage without taking damage, I tried my hand at Mega Man X. To my surprise, it wasn’t only doable; I found it comparatively easy. Was that because I was great? Well, no; it was because there weren’t as many design quirks that I needed to work around and account for. Capcom had level design nearly down to a science at this point; I’d rarely get caught unaware as long as I paid attention. Mega Man X isn’t easy, but it’s certainly fair, and that made a big difference.

Mega Man X, 1993

The only stage that took me more than three or four attempts was Launch Octopus’, and that was mainly due to the Maverick himself, whose attacks need to be handled with good reflexes. Even then, it didn’t take me very long to complete the stage without getting hit; it just took slightly longer. I’m sure the later games would have been harder, but I don’t think I attempted those. Perhaps one day.

The Maverick fights don’t do much that’s unfamiliar to Mega Man veterans. Flame Mammoth and Spark Mandrill are much larger than any standard bosses on the NES, which doesn’t make them more difficult but it’s nice to see Capcom embracing what they could do with the new hardware.

Flame Mammoth’s fight also takes place in a wider boss room than usual, and Storm Eagle’s fight doesn’t take place in a room at all, but rather on top of an airship. Fights like that stand out in ways that I really enjoy, as it demonstrates a willingness to experiment. Does a longer boss room really matter for Flame Mammoth? Nope, but you never know until you try, and I love that Capcom did more than just give us animal-themed bosses this time and call it a day.

Mega Man X, 1993

They were trying to tweak everything to some degree. The movement. The weapons. The exploration. The bosses. Everything got some kind of attention that, strictly speaking, wasn’t necessary. Not all of it worked perfectly, of course, but this was a new series. It was the beginning rather than the end. Mega Man X wasn’t flawless, but it was loaded with potential, and that’s what mattered. (And it was also pretty darned great, to be honest.)

All of this does an excellent job of giving Mega Man X a very different personality to the main Mega Man games. Superficially, they have a lot in common. (Too much, I’d argue.) Fundamentally, though, the experience is completely different and feels unique. So much so that anyone who attempts to play this like a Mega Man game — without learning how to take advantage of what makes X different — will find themselves failing, stopped dead multiple times, and frustrated at just about every junction. And that’s exactly how it should be.

Mega Man X takes the Mega Man foundation and builds something completely different on top of it. It’s familiar enough that we will already understand much of what we need to know, but the learning of new details, wrinkles, quirks, and abilities starts quick, and it continues throughout the entire game. It’s impressively designed.

Was there anything I didn’t like? Well, yeah, of course, I’m still me.

Mega Man X, 1993

The Sigma stages sadly follow in the tradition of the Wily stages as being…pretty crap. If I remember correctly, some of the later ones are much better, but the ones in this game are just long and difficult without much real personality. Particularly annoying are the vertical climbs — sometimes without a safe place to land — while durable enemies shower you with attacks.

There are easy ways through this — charging up either the Rolling Shield or the Chameleon Sting will render you invulnerable — but I don’t like that there’s not a fairer way to get through these sequences. You can either take a lot of time picking off enemies and making slow progress, or you can use a weapon that makes you invincible and barrel through it without any thought at all. I tend to feel more engaged when I can proceed in some way between those two extremes, but that’s not a huge deal.

At one early point in the Sigma stages, you square off against Vile again. This should be a great time to feel how much you’ve grown. You’d get to go from getting your butt kicked in the intro stage to holding your own in a fight against him, and that would be great. Instead, for whatever reason, the game still requires Zero to show up and save you. You do get to fight and defeat Vile, but not without Zero sacrificing himself to weaken Vile first, which dulls the feeling of personal growth somewhat.

Mega Man X, 1993

Also, Zero is a great character, as we’ll see, but he doesn’t do all that much in Mega Man X. He makes the theme of the game explicit in the intro stage, telling you that you need to get stronger if you’re going to defeat Sigma, and then he shows up here to help you on your way. That’s about it.

None of that is a problem, but considering how important the relationship between X and Zero becomes to the series — and to Zero’s own series — it’s a little strange to see him make only brief appearances here. That’s another “problem” that only exists in retrospect, I admit, but it’s worth bringing up.

Interestingly, if you didn’t pick up the X-Buster upgrade from Flame Mammoth’s stage, Zero gives you his own buster at this point. It behaves exactly like the powered-up X-Buster, but this is the first example of the narrative playing out differently depending upon decisions you make throughout the game. That will become a major aspect of this series — not always in a good way — so it’s worth spotlighting here, as one singular, early instance of Capcom testing out the idea.

…which leads to another bit of retroactive strangeness, as Zero’s main weapon would soon be established as the Z-Saber, which isn’t even seen in this game.

Mega Man X, 1993

Hmm…what else? Well, the bosses are a bit too easily demolished by their weaknesses. You can choose to not use their weaknesses, of course, but it would be nice if their weaknesses just made them easier rather than turned them into outright pushovers. Launch Octopus at least holds his own against his weakness, so that’s something.

In a similar vein, there’s an interesting aspect of the Boomerang Cutter. If you use it against Flame Mammoth or Launch Octopus — neither of whom are weak to it — you can shear off bits of their bodies, preventing them from using certain attacks. That is an interesting idea, and it’s similar to the way in which the Thunder Bolt in Mega Man 7 has special interactions with Spring Man and Turbo Man.

Like the special interactions in that game, though, this feels like the developers got partway into implementing a larger idea and gave up. It’s strange that only one weapon triggers boss responses along those lines, and it only happens with two bosses. (The Electric Spark causes Armored Armadillo’s armor to fall off, rending him more vulnerable to other attacks, but that weapon is his weakness so I don’t think it’s worth counting. Nice touch, though.)

Mega Man X, 1993

Also, there are a pair of sound effects associated with the subtanks. When you add health to a subtank, you hear a quick series of sounds that brings to mind a stack or a pile of something getting slightly larger. When you completely fill that subtank, you instead hear a nice, twinkly sound that suggests a feeling of completion. In the later games, if memory serves, those sounds are reversed, running counter to the mental associations each sound conjures so easily. Again, that’s not the fault of this game, but if I don’t mention it here, I’ll forget to mention it later, so you have to live with it.

The music is also not quite what I would have hoped for. Most of it is pretty forgettable, and while I appreciate Capcom’s attempts to take things in a more atmospheric direction, I just don’t think it works. I do think it works better in the later games, but the compositions here tend to just…be there. I realize that I am in the minority on that but, hey, I’ve got to be honest.

I do really like the Storm Eagle track, which is indeed perfect for a 16-bit hero smashing his way through an airforce base and then taking to the sky. Spark Mandrill’s is also nice and energetic, if not especially memorable. My favorite, though, by far, is Armored Armadillo’s frantic, energetic, barrelling tune that perfectly fits the underground chaos of his stage.

That’s also the only ground-based stage I think I’ve truly loved in any of these games. It’s far too quick and easy — you ride on little carts through most of it and just fire your weapon so you don’t collide with enemies — but it’s fun, and it’s a nice breather. Also, again, great music, meaning that I save it for last every time, as my little reward for being good.

Mega Man X, 1993

That’s about it as far as complaints go, and those are really all varying shades of “minor.” Mega Man X was and remains a profoundly confident step in a new direction, and though I could pick it apart for whatever flaws I think it has, it’s far easier to celebrate just how good it is.

It looks great. It feels great. It’s full of great ideas, many of which are executed well and even more of which will be executed well in its sequels. It’s a remarkable achievement, and though I didn’t truly give the game the attention it was due until I was an adult, that’s entirely down to me and the fact that I didn’t engage with it long enough as a child to realize how much it had to offer.

Mega Man X, 1993

In a very large way, that was my loss.

In another way, it meant that I could discover as an adult, for the first time, a whole set of brilliant retro games that I’d never gotten to properly experience before. That’s a kind of magic in itself.

…okay. Maybe not a whole set.

Best Maverick: Launch Octopus
Best Japanese Maverick Name: Burnin’ Noumander
Best Stage: Storm Eagle
Best Weapon: Boomerang Cutter
Best Theme: Armored Armadillo
Overall Ranking: X (Once again, this will make sense later.)

Fight, Megaman! (Mega Man 11, 2018)

I’ve always been in love with Mega Man, and in the time following Mega Man 10, my love was at its highest. That game was good. Its predecessor was great. I replayed the series. I learned how to finish each level without taking damage (up to Mega Man 8, at least; I didn’t have an easy way to emulate the games from that point forward, and restarting them on actual hardware each time I took damage was far too time consuming). I started exploring the spinoffs and subseries that I’d never gotten around to.

I’ll mention now that this was when I had my first proper exposure to Mega Man X. I’d rented that game at some point near release, and while I didn’t hate it I also didn’t stick with it. I’m not sure if I even bothered with Mega Man X2 or Mega Man X3, and I certainly didn’t play the others. After Mega Man 10, however, finally, with my love of the Blue Bomber as great as it had ever been, I gave that entire series a shot.

If you’re interested, maybe I’ll do a similar set of writeups about those games. For now, I’ll just say that I enjoyed them a great deal. Not as much as the main series, but Mega Man X and many of its sequels represented an admirable and fascinating evolution of the formula.

Mega Man 11 (2018)

Then I played through the Mega Man Zero games, which I fucking loved and which are now my favorite series under the Mega Man banner as a whole. I played many of the RPGs, which were fine. I played through Mega Man ZX and its sequel, which were flawed but quite good. I played Mega Man Legends and its sequels, for a bit at least, but never quite found myself enjoying them.

That’s okay. All of that is okay. I’m sure there are those who dislike Mega Man Zero but love Mega Man Legends. I’m sure there are those who only enjoy the RPGs. I’m sure there are those who swear by the Mega Man X games but feel that the main series is archaic and needlessly difficult.

All of these are valid opinions. My only point is that I was willing and able after Mega Man 10 to track down everything I had missed, replay everything I already loved, and immerse myself in the franchise in a way I never had before. It was at this point that Mega Man — however you’d like to define Mega Man — cemented itself as my favorite series. I didn’t love all of it, and some of it I didn’t even enjoy, but I experienced as much of it as I could. I loved it even through its flaws, its idiocy, its worst impulses.

Mega Man 11 (2018)

For most series, I simply love the games that I love, and I ignore or spend much less time with the games that I don’t love. That’s…well, that’s just healthy. For Mega Man, though, I’d find myself replaying even the games that I disliked. Sometimes my opinion would improve (a bit), but most of the time I’d only find my dissatisfaction reinforced. And then I’d come back again and again and again anyway.

I loved these games, even the ones that I hated.

And so when Mega Man 11 came out in 2018, I was excited. I’d had years of dedicated Mega Man experience behind me, and I would finally get a new installment to dig into and fall in love with. And, hey, even if I didn’t like it, I’d be guaranteed another set of Robot Masters to perfect, another set of theme tunes to add to my iPod, another game to simply play through from front to back whenever I felt blue.

I got none of those things. I bought it. I played it. I promptly forgot about it. I played it again at some point and forgot about it even more quickly. I’ve tried several times to work up enough enthusiasm to write about it for this series, and I couldn’t do it. Even now, four years later, I’m struggling.

Mega Man 11 (2018)

It’s not that Mega Man 11 is terrible. Mega Man X7 is terrible, and I’m positively dying to replay that just so I can tell you, at great length, how terrible it is.

The problem is that Mega Man 11 is worse than terrible; it’s uninteresting.

There are aspects of Mega Man 11 that I feel are very good. There are aspects of Mega Man 11 that I feel are very bad. However, the overall product — the ultimate experience of playing it — just leaves me feeling…nothing. The game has high points and low points, but even its highs and lows feel so generic that my brain can’t retain them. They just slide into and out of my consciousness without making an impact, man.

Mega Man 11 (2018)

All of which makes it difficult for me to want to discuss Mega Man 11 for this series. I’d like to cover it — that’s the whole point of Fight, Megaman! — but I don’t feel right telling everyone to gather ’round for another discussion just so I can launch into several hundred variations of, “It’s kinda bland and it kinda sucks.”

Maybe it’s worth taking a different angle, then; why doesn’t Mega Man 11 leave an impression? Why are so few fans of the series talking about it? Why did it disappear so quickly from everybody’s minds?

We will explore those things. And we will explore them by asking two more questions. What is Mega Man 11? And what is Mega Man?

Let me first take a look at a pair of other releases from 2018, each of which similarly attempted to tap into nostalgia for very specific older games.

Mega Man 11 (2018)

I recall a review of Timespinner (which I think is similarly bland, though I’m certainly in the minority on that). The reviewer said that the game was so inspired by Castlevania: Symphony of the Night that it even borrowed what the reviewer thought was a strange quirk: In both games, attacking stops you in place, but if you hop before attacking, you’ll be able to keep moving.

The reviewer was baffled that anybody would think to adopt that design choice in their homage. I disagree completely; nobody is obligated to implement that feature into their Symphony of the Night-inspired game, but it is a mechanic that people remember from Symphony of the Night. (The reviewer clearly remembered it, too, otherwise he couldn’t have mentioned it.) If you’re hoping to tap into players’ mental and emotional associations with that game, it’s not a puzzling choice at all.

I also recall a review of the Secret of Mana remake, which disappointed many people right off the bat by featuring bland and lifeless visuals that replaced the lush, gorgeous spritework of the SNES original. It was a video review. The reviewer was doing her best to give the game the benefit of the doubt. She wasn’t enjoying it, but she was trying to engage with it on its own merits.

She found a cannon, Secret of Mana‘s fast-travel system. On the SNES, this sequence was memorable and entertaining. Your party would climb into the cannon and get blasted into the air, the world would spin around beneath you, and then the camera would zoom in as you landed at your destination. Like everybody else who played the original, she was curious about how the remake would handle it. It turns out that it didn’t handle it; the entire sequence was omitted, and the game cut right from the cannon to her party arriving wherever they were going.

Her face fell. YouTubers exaggerate for effect constantly. Her disappointment, though, was clearly genuine.

Mega Man 11 (2018)

These are two things that, in truth, are extremely minor aspects of their respective games. In one, it’s an inessential movement mechanic. In the other, it’s a non-interactive cutscene. Neither is likely to be cited as part of either game’s larger identity, and yet one new release feels far closer to its inspiration thanks to a decision to include it, while the other feels so much farther away thanks to a decision not to.

I am attempting here to illustrate the fact that these seemingly small decisions — what to include, what not to include — amount to more than it probably seems like they should. Timespinner feels more like Symphony of the Night than it otherwise would, specifically because it stops you in place while attacking. The Secret of Mana remake excises an unnecessary animation from its fast-travel sequence, and instantly feels miles removed from its source material.

Every game developer is allowed to make whatever decisions they’d like to make, but the differences in how a finished game feels are often far larger than the seeming size of the decision. As Tristram Shandy would have it, “Never, O! never let it be forgotten upon what small particles your eloquence and your fame depend.”

One tiny word, a line of code, a dead stop while swinging a weapon, a few seconds of air travel…small particles all, and yet they inform what we perceive as a game’s identity.

Mega Man 11 (2018)

Let’s step into a different series, another one that is close to my heart: Fallout. Specifically, we’ll look at Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas.

Bethesda took over the series beginning with 2008’s Fallout 3. Personally, I love that game; it’s one of my favorites full stop. Bethesda’s detractors, however, tend to claim something along the lines of, “It’s good, but it’s not Fallout.”

In a way, this makes a lot of immediate sense. The game is displayed in 3D rather than the top-down isometric perspective of Fallout and Fallout 2. It offers real-time combat as opposed to mandatory turn-based encounters. It requires players to traverse a large region instead of navigating quickly through empty areas from a map screen. The visual style is completely different. The game is primarily built and presented as a first-person shooter. It takes place in a different geographical region.

The list of superficial — and immediately noticeable — changes is a long one. Fallout 3 is indeed very different from its predecessors. It’s understandable that somebody who played Fallout and Fallout 2 would look at Fallout 3 and have the immediate reaction that it didn’t feel right.

Mega Man 11 (2018)

But then 2010 came along, and we got New Vegas, which is now widely considered to be the best game in the series, even though it retained every single one of Fallout 3‘s deviations from the established formula. How is it possible that Fallout 3 is good but not Fallout, while the equally different New Vegas is the best Fallout?

Well, it’s easily possible; it’s just that the difference between what people perceive as “Fallout” and “not Fallout” goes beyond the superficial. They may not realize that — they may conclude, initially, that the shift in genre or perspective were the problem — but anyone who sees Fallout 3 as a failure for the series and Fallout: New Vegas as a success will have to accept the fact that the problem is something deeper and less easily articulated.

I won’t get too far into those games here — we’re going to talk about Mega Man 11 at some point, I promise — but it’s an instructive example. Ask someone why they feel New Vegas is the better game, and they will likely answer with something vague, such as “it has better writing” or “the quests are designed better.” People are of course allowed to believe those things, but they’re things that can’t really be measured outside of our own personal, internal scales. They’re also thoroughly debatable.

Mega Man 11 (2018)

“Better writing” sounds clear enough, but it’s not that simple. In my opinion, for instance, New Vegas too often spirals into extended bloviation. Does the writing contain more interesting ideas than Fallout 3‘s writing? You bet. Is it also overlong, repetitive, and tiresome? Once again, you bet. Fallout 3 says less, but it says what it says more efficiently. New Vegas was in dire need of an editor. Is writing better when it achieves less, or when it overreaches?

Quest design can be considered in a similar way. Does New Vegas offer more quests and more ways to complete those quests? Without question. But is it also buggier to the point that quests break more often, fail to trigger, or close you out of certain solutions through no fault of your own? Without question. So what’s better? More options that often bug out, or fewer options that are more reliable? How could one even answer these questions?

I find the debate interesting. One of the most common reasons I see for people preferring New Vegas is that “the story is better.” I’ve asked a followup question about this a few times: What is it that you find interesting about the conflict over Hoover Dam? I’ve never gotten a direct answer. That is the story of New Vegas, but it’s not what people think of as the story of New Vegas because, in execution, it just feels like set dressing. New Vegas tells its central story so poorly that it doesn’t even feel like the central story. Many times, those who praise the story are trying to praise something else, but fail and fall back on the language that they actually have. Because they are unable to articulate how they really feel, they end up praising something else that they at least think they understand.

Mega Man 11 (2018)

All of which is to say that everybody can “feel” when a game (or movie, or television episode, or novel) fits its series, and they can just as easily “feel” when it doesn’t. We will always have different opinions about which of those games or movies or episodes or novels are the outliers, but we all recognize them when we see them. There’s something that just doesn’t feel quite right. Sometimes we can articulate it. Sometimes we can’t. Other times we articulate the wrong thing just for the sake of articulating something.

We are allowed to get it wrong. We are allowed to misunderstand our own response to things. But it’s worth figuring out what it is that we’re attempting to say. It’s instructive to at least try to unravel our own thoughts. Maybe we get nowhere, but we might understand ourselves better in the process.

So, hey, great. But what makes a Mega Man game a Mega Man game?

On the surface, there’s an easy answer: You are offered a selection of levels and can go wherever you want. You fight difficult enemies in punishing environments. You square off against a boss and take its power, which prepares you better for whichever stage you select next.

Mega Man 11 (2018)

And yet, that’s not right, because I’ve just described around 50 indie games that do the exact same thing. (I’ve not been the only one exploring my love of Mega Man in the time since 2010.) Indie games and fan games aren’t Mega Man games, even if they do all of the things I just listed. Therefore, whatever makes a Mega Man game a Mega Man game has to amount to more than an overall approach, just as Fallout wasn’t only defined by its perspective or combat mechanics.

Okay then. Do Mega Man games need to be 8-bit? Of course not; Mega Man 7 feels like Mega Man. Do they need chiptuned disco beats? No; the piano-heavy alternate soundtrack for Mega Man 11 is one of this game’s few true highlights. Do they need eight main stages? Well, the first game had six, so probably not.

We can make a list of all of the things that we think add up to create a Mega Man game, and we’ll find an exception to every one them. Each game adds and removes features to the point that all we’re really left with is…Mega Man himself, and clearly that’s not the answer; would a game of checkers with a Mega Man avatar become a Mega Man game?

What is a Mega Man game then? I don’t have an answer. And yet, I do have an answer that I know isn’t a valid one: In a Mega Man game, you freeze in the air when you hop through the boss gates.

Mega Man 11 (2018)

Now, of course, that’s utter shash. There’s more to a Mega Man game than that. And yet, with it missing in Mega Man 11, I found myself fixating on its absence. And, once I did that, I started to notice all of the other ways in which the game felt off.

The lack of freezing in the air through the boss gate transitions is this game’s missing cannon blastoffs. It’s this game’s lack of coming to a dead stop while attacking. It’s this game’s “bad writing.” It’s the thing we focus on because we have so much to say, but can only understand one small piece of it. It’s emblematic of our overall disappointment, and it’s what we talk about not because it’s the best way of making our point, but because it’s the only thing we understand well enough to confidently explain.

Jumping into the boss gates and hovering there as you float into the next room is a part of what makes Mega Man games feel like Mega Man games. Ditto the ability to fire your Mega Buster just before you touch the door, resulting in an even cooler sprite. It hangs there on your screen as a reward for hitting those two buttons in the correct order with the correct timing, allowing you to confront the boss with genuine retro flair.

Doing this isn’t difficult, to be clear. It’s less a challenge than it is a simple, satisfying flourish with which to end a long, arduous trek through the stage-long gauntlet.

Mega Man 11 (2018)

You’ve made it. You’ve succeeded. The big duel is about to start, and you get to assert yourself with a victory pose. It’s the equivalent of a wrestler’s big entrance. You conquered this level, and now you’re going to boot its boss right out of it.

It’s not necessary. Nothing is necessary. But it makes Mega Man feel like Mega Man.

And so when Mega Man 11 decided to just drop you to the ground after its boss gate opened…well…that’s okay, right? It’s minor. It doesn’t really make a difference. Even the bad Mega Man games do the fun boss gate thing, don’t they? It’s not a seal of quality or anything. Who even cares?

I care. Because at the end of every stage I was wired to leap into that boss gate and draw my Mega Buster, and at the end of every stage I fell right to the ground and then walked through it as though what was happening was not important at all.

Boss gate after boss gate rejected my flourish. The rejection adds up. (I’m a writer, so I know this.) As it does, I’m forced to wonder what it is, exactly, that Mega Man 11 is doing. It doesn’t have to do everything that the previous games did (no Mega Man game does everything that the previous games did), but what is it doing instead?

Mega Man 11 (2018)

The cynic in me immediately wishes to argue that it’s doing very little, but it does have a handful of major innovations that are worth discussing.

There’s the focus on story, most obviously. A few previous games — most notably Mega Man 8 — had an interest in crafting an actual narrative, but all of them boil down to Dr. Wily going mad again and Mega Man having to off his minions, one by one, before storming his base and stopping him. Mega Man 11 goes a little bit farther this time around, though, giving us significant series backstory in the process.

We see Dr. Light and Dr. Wily in their university days, arguing with each other about the future of robotics. Dr. Light wants to research independent thought and allow robots to make decisions for themselves. Dr. Wily wants to…well…basically arm them to the teeth and make them go crazy. For some reason, the other researchers side with Dr. Light, and Dr. Wily’s research is cast aside in disgrace.

Mega Man 11 (2018)

In the present, Dr. Wily wakes from this nightmare / flashback — wearing skull pajamas, in one of the game’s few moments of cute creativity — and remembers the Double Gear System he was working on.

What is the Double Gear System? That…doesn’t really matter or make sense. Basically, it allows robots to either temporarily beef up their offense or increase their speed as they see fit. Wily hotwires eight Robot Masters, installs the Double Gear System in them (I think…more on that in a moment), and…nothing changes, really.

The Double Gear System does have an impact on gameplay, but not a major one. Mega Man is outfitted with it, so that he’ll be able to square off against Wily’s powered-up goons.

Dr. Light tells Mega Man at the beginning that he’ll be crushed like a bug if he doesn’t use the Double Gear System himself, but in reality the Double-Gear-powered-up Robot Masters are no more difficult or complex than Mega Man bosses usually are. Sure, as Mega Man, I can now use these new functions myself, but I never need to use them, so it feels pretty silly to frame them as being essential to my success.

Mega Man 11 (2018)

The Robot Masters, I think, are ostensibly meant to have access to both functions of the Double Gear System, but in practice they each only use one. Reduce their health enough, and Blast Man, Block Man, Impact Man, and Torch Man will activate the Power Gear, while Acid Man, Bounce Man, Fuse Man, and Tundra Man will activate the Speed Gear. No matter which of these they use, it just amounts to a new attack or two for each boss. (There’s a notable exception, but we’ll get to that.)

That’s nothing special, to be clear. Bosses — in this series and certainly elsewhere — get new attacks all the time. The Double Gear System is presented as a huge complication for the narrative and the gameplay, working hard to justify something that hasn’t needed to be justified for decades. They aren’t more dangerous attacks, either; they’re just different attacks.

Mega Man gets to use both the Power Gear and the Speed Gear, and I like that in theory. Giving Mega Man and his enemies the same big new ability could have led to something interesting. It could have changed, in some way, the entire feel of Mega Man 11 and helped it to stand out as an individual game rather than just the latest entry in a long-running series. In practice, it again changes nothing and Mega Man 11 fails to stand out at all.

Mega Man 11 (2018)

The Speed Gear is by far the more useful of the two. When you turn it on, everything slows down. This allows you to make tricky jumps onto and off of falling platforms, for instance, without having to rely on impossibly quick reflexes. It could also allow you to weave your way comfortably through a hail of bullets, or slow down an approaching death trap to give you more time to think. It’s a solution to a problem that the series never really had to begin with, but it’s at least something interesting to play around with, and the game invents a few decent sequences that justify its inclusion. We’ll get to those.

The Power Gear, though, is fucking worthless. And I mean that literally. It has no value whatsoever to the game or to players.

The Power Gear is meant to power up your projectiles. That’s fine; having some kind of option for turning our weak basic shots into more powerful blasts is a nice concept. And it was indeed nice that we were finally allowed to do that…back in Mega Man 4.

That game had the elegant, natural idea to let the player hold down B for a short period to build up some extra power. Release the button and Mega Man would fire a larger, more damaging shot. It worked well. Holding the button down to increase power made intuitive sense. The delay before firing meant that it couldn’t be abused. The necessity of charging it first meant that you had to aim your shot carefully, lest you miss your target and waste your shot. All of that worked great.

Mega Man 11 (2018)

The Power Gear is that, but as a toggle. It offers nothing that a charge shot doesn’t offer, but you can abuse it and you no longer have to think about aiming, because you can fire as much as you like, which also removes the risk/reward balance of the charge shot. That’s fine if firing blindly is what you prefer, but the default Mega Buster already allows you to do that. The Power Gear still doesn’t make anything easier, in that case; it just makes enemies require fewer shots. It doesn’t change the way you play the game or accomplish your goals at all.

The truly strange thing is that the charge shot was missing from Mega Man 9 and Mega Man 10, meaning that Capcom made the conscious choice to bring it back for Mega Man 11, and then also gave us a new mechanic that did the same thing. If the charge shot were still missing, the Power Gear would make sense; it would be understandable as a replacement for a mechanic that we lost several games ago. Instead, it’s a less-elegant, less-intuitive, less-interesting way to achieve the same thing we can already do. What’s the point? Mega Man 11 decided to fix what had never been broken…while still leaving the previous, better fix in place. It’s baffling.

In a way, the Gears are representative of the best and worst impulses behind Robot Master weapons in general. The Speed Gear is like a good Robot Master weapon, because it changes the way in which you interact with the world, enemies, and obstacles around you. The Power Gear is like a bad Robot Master weapon, because it just changes the shape and damage of your projectiles.

Even then, the Gears fall down, because Robot Master weapons are earned. If you want one, you have to fight for it and take it. The Gears, by contrast, are given to you at the outset of Mega Man 11. They’re part of your default moveset, which implies some degree of significance.

In reality, though, you’ll try the Speed Gear and say, correctly, “I’ll rarely need this.” Then you’ll try the Power Gear and say, correctly, “I can already do this.” It’s disappointing when Robot Master weapons are rarely useful, but for core mechanics of the game to be rarely useful, that’s more than disappointing. That’s downright bad design.

Mega Man 11 (2018)

Speaking of Robot Master weapons, it’s worth pointing out that holding the fire button does not charge those up, while the Power Gear does. That’s a fair distinction, but it’s worth remembering that the Mega Man X series had demonstrated eight-ish times over by this point that holding the fire button to charge its special weapons worked and felt just fine. There’s no benefit to implementing a clumsier system than what fans were already used to using.

And forgive me for harping on about this, but the Power Gear is rendered even more worthless by the fact that the charge shot can be used any time at all, while the Gears draw energy from a dedicated meter. You can only use the Gears briefly; keep them active too long and they overload, causing you to be unable to use them again until they cool down. That’s fine, but they overload so quickly that you end up having to manage their on-off switch more than you’re actually firing or platforming.

Using the Gears is a nuisance because you can’t just flip one on and do what you want to do; you have to flip one on, do some portion of what you want to do, flip it back off, wait for it to cool down, flip it back on, do more of what you want to do, flip it back off, and repeat until you’re done. It’s annoying, more trouble than it’s worth, and in the time it takes you to manage the Gears designed to help you, you could simply learn how to accomplish whatever you’re trying to do without using them at all.

Mega Man 11 (2018)

Again, for an optional utility or Robot Master weapon, that’s fine, if disappointing. For a core mechanic framed as the defining new aspect of Mega Man 11, it’s just evidence that Capcom never figured out why either of these things should matter. The increased focus on narrative makes sense now; without the story reminding us many times over of how important the Double Gear System is, we’d never arrive at that conclusion ourselves.

Mega Man 11 does introduce little pickups that enemies can drop, which will immediately cool your gears down, but those are dropped randomly, just like health and weapon energy, meaning that you can’t rely on getting one when you need it, further discouraging anything but the most conservative use of the Gears. And if you aren’t actively using a Gear that very moment, snagging one won’t help with anything, because the cooldown happens automatically.

The pickups mean nothing unless you’re actively using the Gears, but you can’t count on them dropping often enough to justify actively using the Gears. How did nobody identify this as a problem?

Mega Man 11 (2018)

Fortunately, the Double Gear System isn’t the only innovation that Mega Man 11 brings to the formula. It’s the most significant and disappointing one, but there are a few more.

For starters, you have dedicated buttons for the Rush Coil and Rush Jet. I like that. Those aren’t weapons, really, so having to select and “fire” them as you did in previous games never felt exactly right. Allowing them to be summoned with one press of a single button while you are doing whatever else you need to do is a great way of keeping things moving. That’s an extremely small step forward, but it’s still welcome.

Then there’s the fact that the charge shot now forces enemies to drop their shields, letting you attack them openly. This is…okay. Part of me likes the idea, but the rest of me realizes that this just removes the care and timing necessary in previous games to defeat shielded enemies. In those games, you’d have to avoid their attacks and bide your time until they became vulnerable, then sneak in a hit or two and repeat the process. It was…y’know…a game.

Now, you just have to knock their shield away with a charge shot and fire a couple more quick pellets. That’s it. No timing, no thought, no brainpower. And since the charge shot will necessarily be your first shot — you need to power those up, remember; you can’t just fire one off whenever you feel like it — that means that your very first shot will always create an opening for more. At that point, why bother giving us shielded enemies at all?

Mega Man 11 (2018)

Another innovation is that Mega Man gets different helmets and accoutrements while using special weapons. It’s a cosmetic tweak only. It’s fine, but I think changing his suit’s color was a perfectly reasonable way of letting players see at a glance what weapon was equipped. I don’t think having a bunch of accessories hot-glued to him makes things any clearer.

Also, speaking of special weapons, I love the idea of making the weapons demonstrations interactive. That gives us an opportunity to play with our new toy without having to worry about ammunition or damage.

However, those screens also contain instructions and button commands, which makes the whole thing feel cluttered and confused. The game inundates players with text that explains everything, while giving them at the exact same time the chance to experiment and figure it out for themselves. Either approach can work, but doing both at the same time makes it feel like nobody cared enough to make a decision.

If you’re tired of listening to me complain, I’ll say something nice: I think Mega Man 11 implemented some kind of tweak that makes it less likely for you to fall off the edge of a platform when you get knocked back. Sometimes you do fall, but the game seems to be a bit more forgiving and give you a little more grace than previous games did. That’s a positive change. Look at me being positive.

Mega Man 11 (2018)

All of this probably sounds like I dislike Mega Man 11 because it’s different, but it’s not that. Every Mega Man game is different to some extent, in its own way. Every Mega Man game does something unique. Every Mega Man game experiments.

Sometimes those experiments work. Often, they don’t. No matter what, I try to engage with them on their own merits, and I do my best to appreciate each game for what it is rather than what I would like it to be. Sometimes, of course, I come away still not liking the game. Other times I’ll feel that the game is flawed but gets enough right that I appreciate its effort.

No matter what, however much or little a single game tries to shake up the formula, I want to treat it fairly. I replay these games many times. I give them every opportunity to either win me over or to charm me. So, ultimately, no, I don’t dislike Mega Man 11 because it’s different. I dislike Mega Man 11 because it’s pretty bad.

In fact, let me prove that I’m willing to accept things that are different. And I’ll do it by complaining some more!

Mega Man 11 (2018)

See, the soundtrack to this game is awful. Not just disappointing by Mega Man standards — which would be easy, because the soundtracks in this series are some of the best in all of gaming — but actively lousy. Every single song sounds like…nothing. It’s just endless, dreary electronic swirling. It’s the aural equivalent of caulk.

It honestly sounds as though somebody told the composer, “Mega Man has electronic music,” and she took that as literally as possible and no further. The music is flat, droning, and thoroughly devoid of personality. That’s something I could never say about even my least favorite soundtracks in other Mega Man games. (Well, we’ll see; I may take that back if I ever cover Mega Man X.)

But here’s the thing: As a pre-order incentive for the game (and, I believe, free DLC now, so grab it if you can), there was an alternate soundtrack. It’s called The Wily Numbers for reasons I can’t fathom, but the compositions are performed by live instruments and musicians instead of whatever flatulent robots were enlisted for the main game’s soundtrack.

…and it’s great. It sounds nothing like a Mega Man soundtrack, at all. It’s piano heavy. It feels organic and lively in a very human way as opposed to funky or danceable, which is how the soundtracks usually feel. It sounds like a bunch of musicians in a studio jamming along to one basic concept or another and it’s great. What’s more, it feels great while playing. It shouldn’t. If you’d asked me if a jazzy piano soundtrack were the right approach for Mega Man, I’d have said no…but this proves me wrong. It’s excellent. It fits. It’s different…and I love it.

Mega Man 11 (2018)

Still, that only puzzles me more. These songs have melodies that work in service of their stages, and they’re all present in the main soundtrack, but they’re buried beneath groaning digital nonsense. The Wily Numbers songs let those melodies breathe and flourish. The same melodies are there in the originals, but are either impossible to hear or difficult to focus on. Either the performance or the production renders them inert.

The Wily Numbers brings them back to life. The icy dance of Tundra Man. The murky bubbling of Acid Man. The campfire march of Torch Man. All of it is excellent, and all of it is based on compositions in the main soundtrack that feel so empty and dry. This means that the composer — Marika Suzuki — did indeed compose songs that work well with every stage…but the execution of the main soundtrack is, for some reason, just fucking dismal.

I don’t know if that’s her fault. I’m willing to guess that it’s not, now that I’ve actually heard how these compositions can sound, but somebody somewhere went out of their way to package the game with the worst possible interpretation of every last one of them.

As such, I can’t even play Mega Man 11 with the standard soundtrack. It’s nearly unlistenable. With the Wily Numbers versions, though, I not only get some truly excellent music, but I get a glimpse of an exciting new direction that soundtracks for future Mega Man games could take. Seriously, even if you have no interest in this game, I’d recommend listening to all eight of the Wily Numbers tracks. They’re gorgeous.

Mega Man 11 (2018)

Now that I’ve namedropped some of the Robot Masters, I guess we might as well look at the stages. They run the gamut, to be fair. There’s good stuff in there. The problem is that most of it is as bland as a Mega Man stage can possibly be.

The absolute blandest stage is probably Block Man’s, which is so non-descript that the level elements all feel like placeholders. Being as he’s called Block Man, I suppose the fact that his stage is just full of…blocks is fine, but there feels like there’s no love here. It feels at best like a concept nobody bothered to execute, and there’s no real gimmick unless you count the fact that blocks fall from the ceiling sometimes. I’m not suggesting that every stage needs a gimmick — gimmicks in these games can be pretty awful — but it needs something, and it instead has nothing.

Weirdly, this is the stage that was used as a demo for the game. I remember playing it and wondering why they chose something so completely unmemorable as the demo, ultimately concluding that they must have wanted to save the more surprising levels for the game itself. Fair enough, but I was wrong. Block Man’s stage is exactly as surprising as Mega Man 11 is on the whole: not even a little.

Mega Man 11 (2018)

You do some light platforming. You shoot some enemies. You move to the next room and do it again. Sure, that’s technically Mega Man, I guess, but doesn’t this stuff usually feel…fun?

Of course, I now know why they chose Block Man’s stage: They wanted to trick us. Block Man’s boss fight is the one time that the Double Gear System seems like it might make an actual difference to the way the game is played. Other Robot Masters just activate their Gear and either move more quickly or hit harder. Block Man, by contrast, transforms.

Mega Man 11 (2018)

Block Man is the only boss in the entire game to get another phase that consists of more than a new attack or two. He starts as one boss, becomes a second boss, and then reverts back to his original form with new behavior. It’s interesting. I won’t say that it’s good, but somebody invested some care into here the idea.

The other bosses, though? Nothing. Capcom gave us Block Man in the demo so that we’d be tricked into thinking that this was how Robot Master fights in Mega Man 11 would go. They gave us an outlier so that we’d assume it was the baseline and pull out our credit cards. Joke’s on you, Capcom; I buy whatever crap you make anyway!

Fuse Man’s stage is nearly as bland. There are a few platforming sequences that require some degree of timing, but really it’s about as basic as an electricity-themed stage can get. You usually get a good view of what the hazards involve so very little of it seems unfair, but none of it feels creative. Except for the miniboss, I guess. I don’t know what miniboss I would have expected here, but a Rasta-man dynamo wasn’t it. Technically that makes it creative, I think?

Mega Man 11 (2018)

Speaking of minibosses, every stage has at least one, and I never realized what a pace breaker that can be until Mega Man 11 drilled it into me. They’re rarely difficult, but they certainly get tedious fast. Other games use them sparingly, which is both a good idea in general and helps the stages in which they do appear to stand out a bit. In this game, they’re everywhere, making them feel less special and more like a chore.

It doesn’t help that few of them feel…right. Bounce Man’s stage has an inflatable frog piloted by a little robot who reinflates it each time you puncture it. That’s cute. Tundra Man’s stage, though, just has a woolly mammoth skeleton on a plate. Who gives a shit? Block Man has a stack of discs, just to ensure that everything about his stage is the least interesting thing imaginable. Impact Man has a guy in a shovel mech. Acid Man has some kind of toilet scrubber. Torch Man has a screaming chicken. How many of these sound like the creations of people who loved what they were doing?

Mega Man 11 (2018)

The best of the minibosses, without question, is the one in Blast Man’s stage, which involves hopping around two roller coaster carts loaded with explosive enemies.

You need to avoid the vehicles and shoot the enemies so that they collide with the coasters and deal damage. It’s actually pretty great, requiring forethought and solid reflexes. I like that one a lot, and it makes me realize how much more I’d enjoy the game if we got fewer minibosses, so that each of them could each have had more attention paid to their design. I’d rather have three or four good ones than eight basic ones that just require me to hop over bullets and shoot them until they keel over.

Mega Man 11 (2018)

Next is probably Impact Man’s stage, which isn’t much better but at least tries some new things. At various points in the stage, Impact Man’s limbs will fly around and make it difficult for you to navigate certain rooms without taking damage. It sucks, but it’s also kind of interesting, I suppose. I mean, I hate it, but it’s something.

In the grand tradition of ground-based Robot Masters, Impact Man’s stage is a bore. No pun intended. Unless you liked it; in that case, I intended it.

Then there’s Bounce Man’s stage, which is at least colorful, marking a massive leap forward. It’s still not great, though, and something about the whole thing felt unintuitive to me. For instance, it took me ages to figure out how to ascend the long vertical passages lined with bounce balls. Am I moron? Probably, but I was a frustrated moron until I figured out that I just need to leap into them and hold down the jump button. That’s it.

Mega Man 11 (2018)

Should I have figured that out more quickly? Maybe, but I’m still not sure what there was to figure out. Holding jump on a row of horizontal balls bounces me higher vertically, which makes sense. I could therefore intuit that holding jump on a row of vertical balls would bounce me farther horizontally…but, no, it actually moves me vertically again.

How was I supposed to guess that? What’s the logic behind that working? And now that I have figured that out, am I supposed to enjoy it? Does holding the jump button for a few seconds while the game does all the work count as gameplay?

I’m still not sure how the slap-hand boxes work. If you shoot a hand, it flops over. If you’re standing on the platform after a few seconds, the hand returns to its upright position and slaps you off. That’s fine, but sometimes it slaps me across large gaps, which seems to be intended, and other times it slaps me right into the same gaps, and I can’t figure out why the outcomes are so different when I approach the situation the same way.

At the very least, the main soundtrack here sounds like it’s trying to be playful. It’s still not great, but it’s a nice break from the cascading electronic wheeze that we hear throughout the other stages. (Seriously, listen to the Wily Numbers versions instead. It’s actual music, and you’ll be surprised how rich it sounds in comparison.)

Mega Man 11 (2018)

Tundra Man’s stage is a bit better, I suppose. It’s still largely dull, though, and it ends with an annoying series of jumps through narrow passages during a wind storm, which is not a great way to conclude things. Also, the stage keeps giving us tight corridors during enemy encounters which, yes, does make them difficult, but also doesn’t quite qualify as creative design.

On the bright side, the Wily Numbers version of this stage’s theme is fucking fantastic. (Have I mentioned how much I enjoy the Wily Numbers songs?) I always save this level until last for that reason alone; it’s a very high note to end on.

The Tundra Man fight itself is the best in the game. He’s a memorable Robot Master with a strong personality, unlike…whoever most of the others are meant to be. Tundra Man is an ice dancer, announcing his moves as he goes and encouraging us to dance along. Sure, he’ll kill us and do so with pleasure, but he wants us to participate. Learn his moves, react in kind, and the fight gets easier, sure, but it also gets immensely satisfying. He reminds me, in a way, of Sword Man from Mega Man 8. That fight played like a duel, and this one plays like a duet. It’s lovely stuff, and it really does elevate the entire level.

Mega Man 11 (2018)

Moving into the better levels overall, we have Acid Man’s stage, which isn’t great but it has a lot going for it. I like that this game’s water stage isn’t full of water, but rather a substance that is far more dangerous. The acid doesn’t actually damage us during the submerged sections, but just knowing that it is acid keeps us on our toes and prepares us for how dangerous things are.

Sadly, there’s a huge reliance on death spikes in conjunction with tricky (and varying) water physics, as well as narrow, moving platforms that will carry us right into the spikes if we aren’t careful. As such, I tend to remember this level as being one that drains my lives a bit too quickly to feel fun.

It’s doable, and it’s not unfair, but it’s also not fun enough to justify the irritation, especially when you just barely clip a death spike near the end of the stage and get rocketed all the way back to the checkpoint, forced to navigate mazes of instant death traps all over again.

Mega Man 11 (2018)

Torch Man’s stage is, in some ways, my favorite. It has an absolutely wonderful campout aesthetic, which is a unique idea well executed. That comes with all of the expected superficial visuals, sure, but it also means that the stage takes place at night, requiring you to keep a source of light around — usually in the form of an enemy — in order to see where you’re going.

There’s a lot of creativity on display here. The lantern owls, the kettle critters, the sentient camp stoves you can turn off briefly to use as platforms…it’s good stuff, almost throughout.


Mega Man 11 (2018)

Then we have the forest fire segments, which are great ideas, but not enjoyable in the slightest. These sections give the Speed Gear a chance to shine, as you’re chased by a wall of fire that kills you on contact, but the window to react is far too narrow. You’re forced through tight passages and required to hop quickly between small platforms, usually while besieged by bullet-sponge enemies that hem you in, and it’s simply not fun.

It is bad enough when one of Acid Man’s spikes sends you back to a checkpoint, but that usually comes down to carelessness that was reasonably within your control. Here, the fact that you didn’t flawlessly execute a pixel-perfect hop through a winding corridor at the end of an overlong chase sequence just makes the stage feel unnecessarily arduous.

Add to this the fact that Torch Man himself moves quickly and — for the first few attempts, at least — unpredictably, and you’ll end up having to replay the stage many times. Plodding through these long forest fire sequences, hoping they don’t rob you of your lives before you even get to try fighting the boss again, seems sometimes like you’re being punished by the developers rather than tested by them.

It’s doable, certainly. I can do it. But I can do everything that Mega Man games have asked me to do. I don’t think that that inherently means that everything they ask us to do is equally fair.

Mega Man 11 (2018)

Then, finally, we get to the lone stage that I’d truly call good: Blast Man’s.

This stage is just wonderful. Like Torch Man’s, it has a fantastic concept, here being an explosion-based attraction at an amusement park. This could have been (and should have been, in all honesty) explored further. There should have been more in the way of silly advertisements and attractions and whimsy, instead of the standard crates-and-girders layout we get here, but it’s something.

The concept is executed just well enough that I can still appreciate it, in spite of the fact that I wish it went far beyond this. Exploring a deadly carnival attraction is wonderful, as is the fact that the little explosive robots in this level aren’t just enemies; you can use them to solve basic puzzles and even defeat larger enemies. It’s kind of adorable and often a lot of fun.

The best part is that it takes the forest fire segments from Torch Man and does them right. Many times in Blast Man’s stage, you’ll have to navigate a series of exploding platforms. Here, however, they are shorter, and you can usually see most of what you’re up against before you trigger the explosions. There’s little on-the-fly guesswork; you have a chance to see what you’ll need to do before you need to do it. That doesn’t make anything easy, but it makes it far more sporting, which itself ties into the amusement park nature of the entire stage.

Mega Man 11 (2018)

Basically, Blast Man does the same thing, but more often, better, and in shorter bursts. It’s as close to perfect as this game ever gets, it leaves the rest of the stages in the dust, and it ends with one of the best boss fights as well, second only to Tundra Man. Whoever designed this stage deserves a round of applause; this is definitely the pick of the litter.

Speaking of litter, the Wily stages in this game are absolute garbage.

There is nothing creative or interesting about them at all, and there are only two. Okay, technically there are four, but one is just a small room before the Robot Master refights, and the other is a small room before the Dr. Wily fight. That’s it. The game can’t wait to get this over with, as though the developers couldn’t even feign enthusiasm anymore.

Mega Man 11 (2018)

Wily stages are typically weaker than the main stages in any Mega Man game. I get that. But no other game in the entire series has ever thrown up its hands so quickly and clearly. The others at least tried. They attempted to leave us with some kind of spectacle, or insane difficulty, or some weird, memorable gimmick.

Here, we get nothing.

The first Wily stage has some gears we have to jump on. Some fall apart. You fight the Yellow Devil’s third cousin at the end. That’s it.

The second Wily stage has a big robot that chases you through some rooms. You fight a face in an egg at the end. That’s it.

That’s the entire Wily fortress. It’s a complete waste. Wily stages may often fail, but this one doesn’t even try. It’s an absolute joke and it feels insulting to come this far and be rewarded with the developers saying, “We didn’t bother making the rest of this game.”

Mega Man 11 (2018)

I can’t even talk much about the Robot Master weapons, because none of them are very good. Block Dropper drops blocks. Blazing Torch launches a fireball. Scramble Thunder sends out an electric spark that crawls across the floor, because we didn’t already have enough special weapons that did exactly that already.

A couple of them are fine, but probably accidentally. Acid Barrier is extremely handy, as you get a shield and a powerful projectile at once. Pile Driver is a great idea — it’s effectively an air dash with high collision damage — but there’s rarely a reason to use it. It makes mincemeat out of the second Wily stage, though, if you ever want to leave that behind as quickly as possible. That’s it. There’s no room for discussion, because the game feels almost calculated to not give us anything to discuss.

So that’s what Mega Man 11 is. A few glimmers of greatness, a whole lot of blandness, and an entire ending sequence it can’t even pretend to care about. That, I suppose, answers that question.

Mega Man 11 (2018)

But what about the other question? What makes Mega Man Mega Man? What’s missing here that prevents it from feeling like a Mega Man game? Or maybe the better way to ask the same question is this: What’s preventing me from feeling the same way about it as I do the other Mega Man games?

Well, let’s go back to jumping through the boss gates.

See, I didn’t just bring that up, make a point, and move on, like a sane human being. I figured I’d go back to the previous games — each of them — and make sure that my memory weren’t playing tricks on me. I wanted to be sure that the boss gates worked that way in all of those games. I wanted to play one level from each and confirm that it was indeed Mega Man 11 that changed things.

Mega Man 11 (2018)

And so I did just that. I booted up each of the previous games I covered, and I fought my way through the stages of Cut Man, Metal Man, Magnet Man, Dive Man, Wave Man, Tomahawk Man, Junk Man, Tengu Man, Concrete Man, and Nitro Man. For good measure, I also booted up Mega Man & Bass and did the Cold Man stage. I managed to defeat Magnet Man and Dive Man without taking damage. (On the flip side, Tomahawk Man and Nitro Man kicked my butt.)

I confirmed that, in each case, the boss gates worked the way I remembered them working. I’d jump into them, press fire, and be rewarded with a nice little celebratory sprite hovering through the screen transition, just the way I liked it.

And playing through those stages showed me what the difference really is between Mega Man 11 and those games. The boss gates, sure…but also the process of making it to those gates. The fights that await us on the other side. The final stages we unlock after surviving all of those encounters. The new weapons that we earn and get to play with.

Replaying those stages helped me see just how little personality Mega Man 11 has.

Mega Man 11 (2018)

The previous games, primitive as most of them are, are positively bursting with personality. Everything has love behind it. I may not always reciprocate that love, but I feel it. I see it. I know it’s there. There’s evidence of it on every screen. People made those games because they cared about what they were doing, and they wanted to give us the best Mega Man experience possible.

The results were often messy, but they were more often thrilling, satisfying, exciting, and unforgettable. Even the failures were interesting.

In Mega Man 11, though, I don’t feel that. Any given stage from the previous games has more personality than the entirety of Mega Man 11. Everything here feels — and looks, and sounds — so flat. Everything fulfills the barest, most superficial minimum we’d expect from a Mega Man game, and then goes no further. It’s always true to the letter of the law and never true to the spirit.

So we get a new set of Robot Masters. We get themed stages and weapons. We get electronic music. We get enemies with big, goofy eyeballs. We get to beat up Dr. Wily again. And when we’ve done all of that, the game ends and we get to go home.

Mega Man 11 (2018)

The difference is that we never wanted to go home before. We wanted to enjoy our time in these games. We wanted to savor it. We wanted to replay them over and over again, finding new ways to navigate tricky rooms and new paths through the games with different sets of weapons and utilities. We wanted to immerse ourselves in these little worlds, dangerous though they were, because there was so much love inside of them that we were willing to overlook everything they did wrong.

Mega Man 11 closes the door after us and turns off the lights, because once we’ve finished playing it, there’s no real reason to stick around. It doesn’t seem to want us sticking around anyway. It fulfills its duty of being a Mega Man game and no more. Ironically, that makes it feel like it’s not a Mega Man game, because we’re not used to Mega Man games feeling so…artificial.

When the personality does come through, it is very welcome. The Tundra Man fight has personality. The Torch Man stage concept has personality. Blast Man’s level design and miniboss have personality. And the Wily Numbers soundtrack, of course, has personality. The real reason those songs work so well is that you can hear the human beings behind the compositions. You know people are there making the music, having fun, caring about what they do. That makes a difference.

In the rest of Mega Man 11, there’s no sense of the people behind any of it. There’s no feeling of love, of personality, of warmth, of care. It’s not a world. It’s just a picture painted on a wall.

Mega Man 11 (2018)

That’s what makes Mega Man Mega Man: personality. It bled through in small ways in the past, such as by letting you posture confidently while moving through the boss gates, and those small ways added up. They defined the Mega Man experience beyond the Robot Masters and special weapons and weaknesses and stage themes and everything else that seems like it should matter but really doesn’t.

Mega Man 11 has everything that doesn’t matter, and nothing that does.

That’s the difference.

This is a Mega Man game, certainly. We can’t rightly argue that it’s not. But it’s the absolute least anyone could have expected from one, feeling more than ever like it came from a sense of obligation rather than invention.

There will be a Mega Man 12 at some point. I just hope Capcom actually wants to make it.

Best Robot Master: Tundra Man
Best Stage: Blast Man
Best Weapon: Acid Barrier
Best Theme: Bounce Man (unless you allow the Wily Numbers tracks, in which case it’s Tundra Man)
Overall Ranking: 2 > 9 > 7 > 5 > 4 > 10 > 3 > 1 > 6 > 11 > 8

Better Call Saul Reviews: “Plan and Execution” (season 6, episode 7)

Howard did everything right. That, I think, is worth keeping in mind.

Whatever else the man might have struggled with, whatever his personal flaws as a human being, whatever his worries and suspicions, he did everything right. He let things slide when he thought Jimmy was just working through grief. He gave Jimmy his way many times over. He extended olive branches. When he understood that he was being targeted in a more serious way, he stooped down to Jimmy’s level, hoping to resolve things physically while still treating him fairly. He hired a private eye to make sure he knew what was coming. And when everything fell down around him, he still drove to his tormentor’s house with a bottle of wine just to ask one question: Why?

Howard was there to start a fight, sure, but not a brawl. Howard just wanted to know. To understand. He wasn’t worried about what would happen next. He’d land on his feet. (He was certain of that.) But he wanted to know why. He’d done his best many times over to resolve this situation, and he’d failed each time, so now he wanted to get to the root of it. He’d been addressing symptoms all along; he wanted, at last, to diagnose the actual sickness.

He didn’t even hold Jimmy — or much more clearly now Saul — responsible; this is just who Chuck’s brother is. Chuck had warned him many, many times about this. None of this is a surprise. All of this was predictable. Howard just wanted to know why.

Why was he the target? And why to this extent? Because Howard had been a dick at times? Because Howard was fun to mess with? Because Howard wouldn’t fight back in any way that might actually hurt anyone? Just…why?

It’s Kim who disappoints Howard far more. And, again, Howard’s right. Kim is smart. Kim has potential. Kim could do anything…so why is she doing this?

Howard did everything right, aside from assuming that he was still dealing with two human beings.

In conversation with a friend, I discussed rewatching this show eventually with a focus on Kim. For most of Better Call Saul, I saw Kim as a stabilizing influence on Jimmy. I saw her as one of the few truly good people in his life. I saw her as being representative of what he could have if he kept himself morally straight and put his talents to productive use, as he often did early in this show.

The fact, of course, was that by the time of Breaking Bad he was no longer this promising young man; he was a full-time piece of shit. Therefore, the easy reading — the trap I fell into as a viewer — was that the birth of Saul was a result of losing Kim, of losing that stabilizing influence, of losing that promise that he could have something better. With Kim gone, and with those things gone, of course he let himself turn into an awful man.

What else was left? Why stop fighting his worst impulses? With Kim gone, he’d let gravity take him, and that would be that.

Easy reading.

The wrong reading, but an easy one.

Now, I’d be interested in rewatching the show knowing that Jimmy doesn’t surrender to gravity and become Saul; Kim pulls him in that direction.

We saw a bit of that last season, and we’re seeing a lot of that this season. I’d be willing to bet that it was seeded much earlier, but I overlooked it. I overlooked it probably for the same reasons Jimmy — and Howard and Chuck and Cliff and others — overlooked it: We like Kim. Kim is smart. Kim is professional. Kim sure is pretty. Kim is an absolute mountain of positive character traits…she just happens to be a fucking appalling human being at the center. Saul, by contrast, was a mountain of negative character traits, and we spent a large part of this show learning that there’s a decent human being at his center. By the time of Breaking Bad that may no longer matter, but watching that decent human being get buried is the most engrossing thing about Better Call Saul…especially now when we realize just how much of the shoveling Kim has been doing.

In “Carrot and Stick,” during Saul’s attempt to convince the Kettlemans that Howard is a drug addict, Betsy Kettleman quickly concludes that he must mean “that awful woman with the ponytail.” It’s a great line. It’s funny. Saul immediately corrects her. But that moment stuck with me. As an outsider, without the time to become enamored with Kim, with Kim’s intelligence, with Kim’s professionalism, with anything else that has made us all fall for Kim, Betsy Kettleman saw her clearly and honestly. Saul tells her she’s wrong — of course he does, and he even believes it — but she’s more correct than anybody else has been. She got a bad feeling about Kim. She’s remembered it all this time. Something about Kim just didn’t feel…right.

She didn’t give Kim the chance to change her mind. As such, she’s got the best possible view of who Kim actually is.

None of this is meant to exonerate Saul, or even Jimmy. We are all culpable for our own actions. But Kim is the explanation for why a man who still has a sense of morality keeps choosing to do the wrong thing. It’s not solely for love of money or other rewards. It’s not solely because the guy loves theatrics. It’s not even because that’s who he’s destined to be. It’s because he has exactly one person in his life who he cares about, and that person keeps tugging him in the wrong direction. That’s who Kim is. Kim is gravity.

And so Howard is gone. Saul’s decisions have resulted in the deaths of an H and an M in HHM. Rather than pull himself up higher, he’s pulled others down. The law firm that gave him his start — albeit a very humble one — is now the irreversible victim of his antics. He’s devoured and then shat out the hand that fed him.

I worried at the start of this season that Better Call Saul had too many pieces on the board, and while it wasn’t impossible for the show to bring all of them together for a satisfying conclusion, I did wonder how likely that would be. “Rock and Hard Place” and now “Plan and Execution” have proven that the show knew full well how difficult it would be to bring all plot threads together and resolve things in a way that felt natural. It’s chosen to go another route. It’s chosen to remove pieces from play in ways that were right, well before the climax.

Sure, both Nacho and Howard feel, in the moment, like abrupt removals, but I think it would be difficult to argue that they also didn’t feel right. The particular circumstances of Nacho’s death were due entirely to the choices he himself had made. He dug his own grave, basically, and eventually the only decision he had left to make was how, exactly, to climb down into it.

Howard’s death is just as right, but from another angle. His decisions did not damn him; Saul and Kim made the decisions that damned him. In most cases, they knew what they were doing. In other cases, they didn’t, but they knew exactly the kinds of dangerous people with whom they were aligning themselves. They knew that somebody would eventually get hurt. On some level, they knew that even the people they cared about were in danger. It would just be a matter of time before one set of their associates crossed over with the other. It’s only natural. It’s inevitable. In “Plan and Execution,” it happened. They set out to ruin Howard’s life in one respect, and then ruined it in another.

It was Saul’s choice to let Eduardo go free. It was Kim’s choice to remain a friend to the cartel rather than explain what happened. These two adults who knew better decided to play with fire. The resulting blaze took an innocent man. Like the best aspects of Breaking Bad, we can trace the chaos, step by step, all the way back through the decisions we’ve been watching our characters make from the start. Better Call Saul didn’t cheat. It didn’t thrust us into a disorienting scene for the sake of shock. It walked us through this journey, choice after choice after choice after choice, and then the door opened and we saw who had come to visit.

There are a few things that I really enjoyed about “Plan and Execution,” beyond the quality of its narrative. I liked how elegantly we learned how Howard and Saul were both working with the same private investigator. We learned exactly the way Howard learned; he reflected on what mistake he could have made to get to that point. That’s it. We never needed to see that phone conversation in a previous episode, because it wasn’t significant to Howard at the time anyway. We just need to hear about it now, as he realizes that it was significant, whether or not he knew it.

And I liked the fact that we essentially sidelined Saul and Kim in favor of just watching the mediation unfold. They called in to the meeting, we’d cut back to them now and then, but, ultimately, the show didn’t contrive a situation in which they were present or involved, keeping the plates spinning. The pair did a good enough job planning everything that Better Call Saul was able to just let the execution play out, minute by minute, without them in the room. I enjoyed that a lot.

“Plan and Execution” could have had Saul and Kim running around madly, scrambling to keep things on track, like we saw at the start of this episode when they needed to reshoot some photographs. The episode could have had more things go wrong that required quick thinking and fast action. Technically, that would have been more exciting. That also would have been more artificial. Simply watching the events play out was, in my opinion, far more engaging.

I do wonder if Eduardo’s reappearance — just then, just there, in just those circumstances — wouldn’t have hit harder and better if we hadn’t already followed the guy overseas and then into the sewers. I’m not convinced that losing Tony Dalton completely between the first and final episode of this half-season would have been the right impulse, but I do at least wonder. Granted, we had to set up whatever he’s going to do next with Gus and the superlab, but without knowing where that goes — or how much information we need in advance — I’m at least curious. That second flicker of the candle as the door opens one more time could potentially have been even more chilling, especially if we’d had enough time to forget that Eduardo were an active threat.

That’s just theoretical nitpicking, however. And I’m not even dissatisfied with how things turned out here, at all. “Axe and Grind” was the setup to a punchline, and “Plan and Execution” was about as strong a punchline as anyone could have asked for. It’s a reminder, and an important one, of the serious damage that Saul Goodman does to those around him. When people deal with Jimmy, they get hurt. When people deal with Saul, they get killed.

We’ve got just half a season to go, and we’re getting much closer to being left with only the characters who make it to Breaking Bad. Of the few questions remaining, not all of them will even need to be resolved. Kim will and Eduardo will. Otherwise, though? We don’t necessarily need to learn what happens to Cliff, or to Saul’s production crew, which is a polite way of saying “they might all survive.”

Better Call Saul has already significantly narrowed its focus for its final stretch of episodes. That’s exciting and worrying. Until recently, it was pretty easy to conclude that the stakes in this show were lower than they were in Breaking Bad, with people’s spirits on the line rather than their lives. After all, this very episode was the terminal point for Saul and Kim’s plan, which essentially boiled down to making Howard look like an idiot and dilating his eyes. Harmless stuff, relatively speaking, and everybody knew the guy would land on his feet.

Instead, we see him land on his face.

But, hey, maybe the stakes are lower, technically. Even so, they feel sky high, and that’s a perfect and impressive way to end this half of the season.

Now we all get to twiddle our thumbs for a month and a half, as the characters figure out what to do with that body and decide what they will let happen next.

Thanks for joining me. Hopefully I’ll see you then.

Better Call Saul Reviews: “Axe and Grind” (season 6, episode 6)

“Axe and Grind” — which definitely is not stretching the title gimmick of this batch of episodes no why would you even ask that question — is less of a standalone story than it is the first half of a two-part mid-season finale. That’s okay; that’s not a failing. The breaking point at the end of this episode isn’t the night before the big day; it’s partway into the big day, just as Saul and Kim’s plan shows the first sign of unraveling. We’re brought just far enough around the bend that we can understand that the “unfinished story” aspect of the episode is deliberate. All of that is fine. In fact, I liked a lot about “Axe and Grind.” However, it’s extremely difficult to appraise on its own merits.

Eventually we will all have our Blu-rays or streaming options and we’ll barrel right into “Plan and Execution” after the credits roll here. “Axe and Grind” will only really feel unfinished once, and that’s right now. Such is the nature of serialized television. I can live with that, but damned if I don’t struggle to review it.

Essentially, reviewing “Axe and Grind” is like evaluating the setup to a joke without yet knowing the punchline. There’s room to criticize, certainly, but how much value would there be in doing so? I think that’s why most “reviews” of shows like this — my own included, without question — end up devolving into guesswork about what comes next, or reflections on things we’ve seen weeks ago that we’ve finally had time to digest. Can one review a single chapter in a book? You bet. Will that review feel limited and incomplete? Almost always.

So, what can we do? Poke around the margins, find some stuff we like, find some stuff that confuses us, point it all out, and wait for a week, I suppose. That’s not the fault of “Axe and Grind.” Instead, it’s just what we end up being left with as we wait for the joke to land.

Fortunately, the setup seems quite good. This entire season has been great about keeping Saul and Kim’s plan a secret from the viewer. We’ve seen their little sticky-note schedule, but like the vet this week, they’re smart enough not to record their crimes in plain English. We get symbols and metaphors, which helps us to understand how meticulously these two have planned everything without the show having to tip its hand in advance.

What’s more, the secrecy is clearly deliberate. Better Call Saul is stringing us along, and I mean that in a positive way. We never know quite what these two are planning until we see it happen, and even then we’ve only gotten one small glimpse of the larger scheme. Even now, as that scheme comes to a head at the Sandpiper mediation, as Saul flails because he hired a double for someone he didn’t realize had broken his arm, as Kim swings her car around on the highway to rescue the scheme at the expense of a massive career opportunity, we don’t exactly know what they’ve been building toward.

Again, I could guess. Honestly, I’d rather not. I’d like to let the comedian finish telling the joke.

There are still things we can praise about the episode, though. Specifically, the character work, right down to the actor who played young Kim (who we also saw last season in “Wexler v. Goodman”). She and her mother are both perfect, and I can’t even quite explain it. The first we see of young Kim in this episode is just her foot tapping, and I couldn’t even tell you if we’ve seen present-day Kim tapping her foot like that, but just seeing that sneaker tapping in that rhythm was enough for me to understand immediately that this was Kim.

Both she and her mother nail Rhea Seehorn’s…cadence? I do mean cadence, but I don’t think I just mean that. Kim has a very specific way of speaking. She doesn’t just talk; she clips her words. She measures her pauses. She speaks quickly, but not too quickly, then comes to a full stop before starting at full pace again. There’s some degree of posturing behind everything she says. She’s practiced…like a scam artist. Everything she says feels rehearsed or at least refined, even when it can’t have been. It’s difficult to explain, but not difficult to pick up on. Rhea Seehorn knows precisely who the character is, which, yes, is impressive. For her younger stand-in and her mother, it’s even more impressive. They get something that it isn’t even easy to articulate, and watching it is a delight.

The scene with the vet was great as well. I actually did wonder recently if he would appear again. Not because he’s a favorite character or anything — I like him well enough — but because I wondered where he would have gone before Breaking Bad. It was a question that didn’t need answering, but I wondered about it and, sure enough, we got our answer. The guy is corrupt, yes, absolutely, but he does love his job, and he’s going to leave and get back to what he loves in a new place as a new man, leaving his little black book in the grubby hands of Saul Goodman. Hey, look, another question that didn’t need answering, but which is answered simply and elegantly. It was a good scene.

Also, maybe this was a question that did need to be addressed in some capacity, but I fucking loved seeing Francesca get worn down so quickly by working with Saul Goodman as opposed to Jimmy McGill. It’s a very early sign of how toxic his new persona is, as she’s forced to watch clients stub their cigarettes out on her furniture, relieve themselves in her water features, and even participate in Saul’s dirty dealings, her objections going unheard. Her transformation is played for comedy — rightly so, I think — but my lord did I enjoy it.

It doesn’t stop there. Howard and his wife are on profoundly rocky ground — we got just a hint of this in “Hit and Run” — and those two actors played it almost depressingly well. I could open up here. I will choose not to do that. Suffice it to say, I can’t have been the only one who recognized some real truth in the precise nature of their distance.

Cliff tells Kim that the Jackson-Mercer Foundation is looking to expand, and may be able to make great use of her talents as an advocate for the underrepresented and overprosecuted, giving us what (as of this episode’s conclusion) might have been our final glimpse of a happy ending to Kim’s journey. Even as she plays the old man, he is willing to vouch for her in what could be a life-changing step in her career. It’s one she’d enjoy, it’s one that would help a lot of people, and it’s one that she doesn’t end up pursuing. That’s the real axe in the gut.

And Mike has an astronomy night with his granddaughter, from across the street but a million miles away, in what was probably the sweetest and saddest scene this show has had all season. It was great. It beats Gus cleaning between the shower tiles with a toothbrush, but I guess that doesn’t say much.

Honestly, I think my least favorite part of the entire episode was the Eduardo bit, which is surprising to me because Tony Dalton is such a consistent highlight. Even so, it wasn’t bad…it just felt a bit too much like I could see the wheels turning.

Season five ended with Eduardo surviving an attempt on his life and plowing ahead toward revenge. My guess is that the writing staff then sat down to work on season six and realized that…well…he can’t get that revenge just yet, because there’s still a whole season left. Eduardo’s Excellent Adventure in Germany — especially since it comes after a long stretch of episodes in which he doesn’t appear at all — seems like it’s necessary only to kill time. He can’t confront Gus or Mike or whomever else, because we’re too far from the climax. But he needs to do something, so we’ll ship him overseas to bother some people we’ve never met before.

It’s okay, to be clear. His scenes with Werner’s widow last week were great. His brutality this week — after feigning helplessness — was pretty good, too. It’s not bad television, but it’s inelegant television. Maybe I’ll change my mind after whatever happens next. For now, though, it seems like Eduardo is going through a lot of narrative trouble to justify walking up to Gus and beating the shit out of him. We’ll see.

Overall, “Axe and Grind” was good, but it was still just an hour of getting all the pieces into the necessary places so that the mid-season finale will be able to do everything it needs to do.

That doesn’t make this episode disappointing and it far from makes it a failure. It just makes everything a little tougher to judge for another week.

So let’s regroup then and see which pieces are still on the board.

Better Call Saul Reviews: “Black and Blue” (season 6, episode 5)

There’s been a bit of talk in the comments about how much better this show could be if it focused less on the characters we already knew in Breaking Bad. Let me be clear up front that I agree, but I think it might be worth discussing. (It’s also, coincidentally, a discussion that ties right into “Black and Blue.”)

For starters, I have had that exact same thought, going back as far as Tuco’s surprise appearance in the very first episode of this show. I don’t mean to dismiss it as a criticism. It’s a fair one.

However, there’s one thing worth pointing out before we dig in: This is what Better Call Saul is. The folks involved with determining the creative direction of Better Call Saul have decided that we will dig up some Breaking Bad characters and follow them — to varying degrees — through this show as well. We can disagree with that impulse, certainly, but it is the impulse, and if we are going to engage with Better Call Saul, we need to be able to accept that.

If we can’t accept it…well, that’s okay. But at that point, we’re focusing less on what Better Call Saul is doing and more on what we wish it were doing. Again, that’s okay — we can focus on anything we like! — but if the show is one thing, wishing it were a different thing can only get us so far, and doing so is not entirely fair to Better Call Saul.

I’ve said that I wish we’d spend more time with the unique characters and less time with the established ones, but I don’t get to make that decision. I get to decide whether or not I keep watching, but I don’t get to decide what Better Call Saul actually is.

So let’s take a look at the inherited characters from Breaking Bad. Cramming them into this show for no reason would be a poor decision, I think, and it’s sometimes easy to assume that they are crammed in here for no reason. (Other than, of course, recognizability and marketing.) I’ve wrestled with exactly the same suspicion. But how valid is it?

The two biggest ones are Saul Goodman and Mike Ehrmantraut. I still maintain my longtime confusion over this show covering two different protagonists in two different stories who only rarely interact with each other. Lest anyone think I’m too forgiving of Better Call Saul, I think that that is a fundamental problem that the show even now, as it nears its final chapters, has never managed to justify or correct. But, again, we don’t get to choose what Better Call Saul is. The show is good enough and engaging enough that I keep watching. That’s my choice, and that’s about as far as my choice goes.

But what about importing them from Breaking Bad? Was that necessary? Sure, it seems obvious that it was, but we need to start somewhere.

I think both of them belong here. Saul, for obvious reasons, has to be here. He’s the focal character, and we are exploring significant aspects of the character’s life that Breaking Bad never covered. We aren’t retreading old ground; we met the essentially brand-new character of Jimmy McGill and we are watching how that character’s story pans out. Easy.

Mike is a little more complicated. In one sense, of course, we are experiencing a part of Mike’s story that we’d never seen before, but is Mike all that much different here than he was in that show? I’d say no, but I’d also say that we are exploring a few of the formative experiences of that man’s life. Did we need to see them? No. Were we able to infer enough about who Mike was from Breaking Bad alone? Yes. But, as I’ve mentioned before, Saul and Mike were the two major characters on Breaking Bad who we never saw in flashback. We never got a peek into who they were before the events of that show kicked off. Exploring both of them here is a fair impulse. It probably should have been handled more smoothly from the start — they’ve crossed paths, what, five or six times in this entire show? — but the fact that they both appear in Better Call Saul is not the problem.

Now we run into some others whose presence here is less clearly justified but still, I’d argue, fair enough.

There’s Hector, about whom we learn little more than we already knew, and the story of how he became disabled isn’t one that needed to be told. However, the time we spent with pre-wheelchair Hector was worth exploring, I think. In many ways, that did feel like a different character. Strictly speaking, he wasn’t, but Hector was able to do and say so much more than he was able to do or say in Breaking Bad. Necessary? No, but certainly welcome, and his fate directly introduced Eduardo, a major and excellent character unique to this show. Hector, then, is justified.

There’s Tuco, who was pretty clearly just a character we already knew. However, he was the mechanism by which the show introduced us to Nacho. Tuco was some brief connective tissue, and while Nacho could have been introduced via any other means, yes, introducing him into a dynamic that we already thought we knew helped to define our new character right off the bat. We know how Tuco interacted with his cronies. To see Nacho occupying a very different space within that dynamic did a lot to characterize him for the purposes of this show. I know Tuco popped up again later, but his purpose in this show was to get us familiar with Nacho, and he accomplished that. Tuco is a large, distinct, memorable character; Nacho was defined by sheer contrast. I’m on board with that. In this case, Better Call Saul relied on our knowledge of Breaking Bad not just to tickle our fond familiarity, but to define a new character. That is the correct reason to bring back a familiar face.

If we keep going, we get to Gus, who doesn’t need to be here at all.

I’m okay with Gus being here — and let’s be totally clear that we may well still be building toward something important for the character — but, really, his presence is justified simply because of one of the stories it led to: Werner and the Germans digging the superlab. That in itself is the correct reason to bring back a familiar face. Gus showed up in order to kick off this tiny little unique Better Call Saul story, and it is still my favorite story that the show has told. Does Gus need to be in this show as frequently and as heavily as he is? Absolutely not but, again, we could well end up somewhere interesting. For now, however, the Werner stuff justifies Gus’ return…even though I concede that that return is pretty darned outsized.

Then we should probably look at Saul Goodman’s hangers-on from Breaking Bad: Francesca, Huell, and (I hope) Kuby. We don’t need to see any of these people (and we still may not see Kuby!), but the mere fact that they were big parts of Saul’s business coupled with the fact that we knew next to nothing about them outside of his business makes them fair game here. Huell is a fun presence, but Francesca has been absolutely wonderful to see again. These aren’t stories that need to be told, but we are already telling Saul’s story, and they are natural parts of it. Completely fair, and they haven’t been overused, so I think we’re still good.

Of course, that’s nowhere near all of the Breaking Bad characters. Even if it were, it might be tough to justify so many, and we have only scratched the surface.

We get Gus’ men, Tyrus and Victor. We might as well since we already have Gus but, again, if Gus often feels unnecessary, are these two necessary? Lydia popped up as well. It was brief and I like Lydia, but did we need to see her?

We’ve got the Salamanca cousins showing up, similarly “just because” we already have the Salamancas here. Not necessary to the story. We have Juan Bolsa as well, who had only a very tiny role in Breaking Bad before he was killed, but is there much reason to explore the character in greater depth? Perhaps, but I haven’t seen the reason yet, and we don’t seem to have made much of an attempt to explore him.

We’ve got Hank and Gomez. Again, briefly, but did they need to exist outside of the fact that we’d recognize them? Spooge showed up last week, seeking legal counsel. We also saw Wendy the prostitute. Gale popped up for a bit. Krazy-8 was here at some point. Walt and Jesse are rumored to show up. I’m sure I’m forgetting a bunch of other familiar faces and cute winks that…well…we don’t need.

It’s fine to see these actors again. They’re all good. They remind us of another show that we like. All of that is fine. But there is a difference between a scattered few well-selected cameos and…what we’ve got here.

I understand the concern with Better Call Saul relying too heavily on Breaking Bad. I’m not dismissing that at all. When you add up all of the recurring characters, it seems ridiculous. When you’re spending time with Hank and Gomez that you could instead be spending with, say, Kim and Howard, that even gets frustrating. And that’s all without my bringing up yet again the fact that Better Call Saul has trouble keeping its own plot threads together most of the time. Maybe if the show used more of its own runtime to focus on its own characters, that wouldn’t be a problem.

But if that’s what Better Call Saul is, so be it. I love the show and I would change a lot about it. (Whether or not that would result in a better show, we can’t know…but it’s a pretty safe bet that whatever “good” I could bring to the creative process wouldn’t even come close to matching the amount of “good” that the current team brings to the creative process.) A lot of other viewers would change things, too, and I can’t disagree.

Also, however, I have to be able to let it go. I have to be able to just accept the fact that Better Call Saul keeps calling back to Breaking Bad and spending lots of time with characters we’ve already explored, because every second that I spend focusing on what I wish the show didn’t do is a second that I’m not focusing on what the show does really well.

Ultimately, I think that’s where a lot of the criticism is coming from, so it’s worth emphasizing: Better Call Saul is very good. If it sucked, it wouldn’t be as frustrating that it keeps relying on Breaking Bad. Instead, we like it. We like what it’s doing. We like its characters. We like watching a flawed man become a terrible person. We like all of that, and we just want to see more of it and spend more time with it. I love Breaking Bad, but I can also watch it any time I feel the need to check in with those characters. I don’t need Better Call Saul to pretend to be a loose collection of deleted scenes.

In the comments of a previous post, Casey Roberson said, “I also hope maybe one episode this season gives the majority of its running time to Saul.” The fact that that could even need to be hoped for speaks to a problem with the show. Saul is our main character. Can you imagine anyone ever having to have asked that an episode of Breaking Bad would focus on Walt?

With Better Call Saul, though, we have to hope for that, because the show isn’t just Saul’s story. It’s also the story of all the new characters in his orbit. It’s also the story of Mike. It’s also the story of Kim. It’s also the story of Gus. It’s also (or was, until recently) the story of Nacho. It’s also Breaking Bad Babies. It’s so many things that we don’t know if we’ll spend a full 10 minutes with Saul in a 50-minute episode of Better Call Saul.

The more time we spend catching up with old friends, the less time we can spend with the new friends we are destined to never see again.

I love Walt and Jesse. I don’t want to see them more than I want to spend a few final moments with Kim or Eduardo. This week, I loved Mike checking in with his men to make sure they’d had time to eat during their ’round-the-clock surveillance, and I wish I could have gotten to know these people and how they interact. When we can spend time exploring Mike’s relationships — as we did with Werner — we can find some truly excellent material. Did we need, instead, to spend time being reminded that Gus is worried that Eduardo will find him? Especially when we were told about it last week, and learned everything we need to know there?

I’m not picking on “Black and Blue.” In fact, I thought that this was an excellent episode but, again, its excellence sheds light on what often makes the rest of the show frustrating.

Eduardo picking old wounds with Werner’s widow was brilliant and tense and wonderful. Howard stepping down to Jimmy’s level to resolve their conflict, or at least try to resolve it, was great and very warranted. Kim continuing to dig herself deeper into unethical behavior is both sad and inevitable. Erin letting slip that the Sandpiper plaintiffs could indeed seek representation of their own led to a great Howard moment, and brought Cliff’s brewing suspicions to a head. And Saul having to win Francesca back over — and convince her to run his law firm from the middle of a room, too close to an abandoned toilet — was one of my favorite scenes this season.

Does that latter bit tie into Breaking Bad? Of course it does, but it isn’t treading familiar ground. That part of Saul’s story is unique to Better Call Saul. That stage of their relationship is unique to Better Call Saul. Hell, that entire part of Saul’s career is unique to Better Call Saul.

And the rest of the great stuff in “Black and Blue” has nothing to do with Breaking Bad. We are spending time with characters who exist in this universe alone, and who should therefore matter to this universe more.

This universe, however, can’t make up its mind. It keeps changing the channel to watch a little more of Breaking Bad. It remembers liking that show. So do I. But not enough that I don’t want to enjoy the time I have left with this one instead.