Mega Man for masochists.
I consider myself something of a Mega Man expert. I have played and beaten most of the Mega Man and Mega Man X games, and even most of the uber-difficult Game Boy Mega Man games. These are not minor accomplishments in the pantheon of gaming, friends! One series I’d never touched, though, is Mega Man Zero, a series of four games on the GBA, meant to be a continuation of the Mega Man X games. I just never got around to playing these, but have always wanted to. Friends had warned me that the MMZ games were brutally difficult, even for Mega-fans, but I brushed off those warnings. This was a foolish thing to do, because MMZ is stupid hard, and only for the most masochistic of Mega Man junkies.
The MMZ series takes place a century after some mysterious war involving X and Zero. At the end of the war, Mega Man sacrificed himself to stop a world-destroying monster, and Zero’s body went into "sleep" mode or something. At the beginning of the first MMZ game, Zero is discovered by humans and reactivated. He learns that humans and Reploids (robots) are being attacked by, apparently, Mega Man X, who is accusing them of being Maverick (evil). Zero sets out to help the resistance and find out what happened to his old friend. Over the course of four games, Zero learns not only who X is, but who he himself is, and what happened a century ago. Except for MMZ4 (briefly), none of the games directly refer to events in the MMX series.
While the gameplay is generally reminiscent of the later PSOne MMX games (wall-sliding and saber-swiping), it’s much harder. Zero starts each game severely underpowered, but it’s a real bear in the original: Extra lives are extremely rare, and it’s often better to restart from the last save point than use up a life. The situation is a little better in the later games, but not much. Your weapons (saber and a gun) level-up with experience, and after that, new techniques can be acquired from bosses… usually by getting a good grade on that particular mission. Like every other Capcom game these days, your performances are graded, and rewards are handed out for good grades. If you die, take too long, or even take too much damage, you might lose out on a critical skill. Zero doesn’t absorb his opponent’s powers like X did. Instead, he learns new techniques, or can apply elemental charges to his charged-up attacks.
Later games introduce new sub-weapons, like a grappling hook, a shoving tool, and the ability to steal enemy weaponry. It’s all a bit extraneous, but it does show some attempt to evolve the basic MMX gameplay that MMZ builds off of. The biggest change is the "Cyber-Elf" system, which is retooled in almost every game. In the first two games, you can equip three Cyber-Elves, which are one-time-use-only bonuses that can give you a health boost, save you from a pit, or briefly attack enemies. The best Cyber-Elves must be leveled up by feeding them crystals that Zero finds scattered around every stage. If you use an Elf, you can generally find another copy via random drop. In MMZ3, you can carry two "Satellite Elves," which are always on, and a few "Fusion Elves," which work as they did in the first two games. Finally, in MMZ4, your Elf never dies, but its abilities can be mixed and matched up to a certain total.
The games are extremely hard, mainly as a result of the level design. Killer spikes, bottomless pits, cheap enemy placement, and boss attack patterns that demand memorization all conspire to get you to the "Game Over" screen as quickly as possible. You really have to want it to get through even the first game. The games are usually very loose with the whole "beat eight Robot Masters before the final multi-tiered level" progression, too. All of them start with an intro stage, complete with a boss fight, and after beating four Robot Masters, there’s a middle stage with its own boss., The final level is composed of many parts and always includes a boss rush. Happily, the final boss is usually pretty underwhelming in terms of difficulty. It’s almost as if the games give you a break at the last possible minute. Like most other Mega Man and X games, you can revisit cleared stages to find upgrades and grind for Crystals if need be.
Thankfully, this collection adds an Easy Scenario. In this much-appreciated mode, you play through all for games in order (you would otherwise choose them individually) with all of Zero’s upgrades from the get-go. This makes each game not only much easier, but enjoyable, to boot! But the funny thing is that you’ll still find yourself dying a lot, not necessarily from enemy encounters (even boss battles aren’t that bad with two life bars), but from the level design—spiked floors, bottomless pits, knockback, that kind of thing. But the point is that Easy Scenario is actually playable.
To be fair, the series’ accessibility improves by an order of magnitude between the first and last games. While the original MMZ had rare item drops, rare 1-ups, virtually no checkpoints, upgrades through experience, and bonuses based on good grades, subsequent games knock those barrier down until you get to MMZ4, where enemies may actually drop 1-ups, checkpoints are generous, weapons no longer upgrade, and many bonuses are simply handed out after beating a boss rather than having to earn a good grade (though some still require good grades). Additionally, the Cyber-Elf system is much more practical in MMZ3 and 4, and MMZ4 actually has a “choose your own difficulty” for every stage. So if you play MMZ1 and find yourself too frustrated to continue, try one of the other games — you’ll find at least one, and probably two, that you can play in its original form.
A few sticking points: I’ve never liked the art design in the MMZ games. Zero doesn’t look like a Reploid, as he does in the MMX games. Instead, he looks like a dude in a superhero costume, and his long hair comes off as a cape. Every human character looks silly, but the Robot Masters generally look awesome. Most will remind you of old MMX bosses, but with more complex designs. They all have terrible, stupid names, though. Here are some examples: Hyleg Ourobockle, Devilbat Schilt, and my personal favorite, Glacier Le Cactank. My other beef is that, because these are not GBA ports but rather emulations, the top screen (where the action is) actually has black bars around it to shrink the screen to the size of a GBA screen. And because the GBA only recognizes two face buttons, you’ll be constantly going to the pause menu to switch up your weapons instead of using the X button or the Y button for different weapons. This honestly sucks, but the best workaround is to switch to the control option that lets you switch weapons by tapping R. Well, the best workaround is to play the Easy Scenario, and weapon-switching will suddenly be far less important.
The MMZ Collection is a great value, as there are four games here that will last you a really long time. There’s also Easy Scenario, which lets you enjoy the four games rather than beat your head against a wall repeatedly. Thanks to the easy mode, I can safely recommend the game to all Mega Man fans, regardless of skill level. However, only the most hardcore, masochistic fans should try all the MMZ games in their original forms, though they do become more accessible over time.