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‘Mega Man Zero 2’ Doubles Down on the Difficulty

From the gameplay to the story, Mega Man Zero 2 doubles down on everything that makes the original such a great game.



Mega Man Zero 2 doubles down on everything that makes the original such a great game.

In a 2015 interview with USGamer, CEO & President of IntiCreates, Takuya Aizu, confirmed that the studio had no intention in creating a sequel to Mega Man Zeroat least not initially. The original Zero was to be a one and done deal that was meant to conclude with the titular character defeating his former brother-in-arms in combat, not a copy. It wouldn’t be until deep into development– ”at the very, very, very end, like right before we sent the game to be manufactured,” where IntiCreates would need to rework the story to keep the original X’s reputation intact. In a way, it makes quite a bit of sense that the first Mega Man Zero was never meant to have a sequel. 

Narratively, while Zero and Ciel are completely apart by the end of the game, everything has been resolved in a way that makes sense for Z1’s tone: Copy X is dead and the Resistance is seemingly safe for the time being, but Zero is stuck fighting a forever war like X before him. And just like with the X series, there’s no end in sight. For a story that was never meant to have a sequel, that’s a pretty bold note to end on– but it’s one that’s harmonious with Zero 1’s themes. Time and time again, the game puts on display how fundamentally X and Zero failed. Nothing has changed. If anything, the situation has only worsened after their involvement. 

Gameplay-wise, there’s very much a “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” mentality, one befitting a gameplay loop the developers never intended to revisit. Weapon leveling, cyber elves, and the mission structure all make for a compelling experience– one that helps Zero 1 establish a strong identity out the gate– but they’re not implemented in the most elegant of ways. On the same token, the difficulty curve reflects Zero’s raised stakes, but it can prove overwhelming even for potential veterans of the series. All the same, Zero 1’s flaws do lend the title a certain flavor. It may not have been particularly polished, but 2002’s Mega Man Zero was a worthy entry in the Rockman franchise. 

So worthy, in fact, IntiCreates was commissioned by Capcom to develop a sequel. In stark contrast to how the development team approached the first game, Mega Man Zero 2 was developed with the knowledge that there would be a Zero 3 shortly after. Not just that, these three games would make up a complete trilogy. Although that wouldn’t ultimately be the case, it’s not hard to see how this approach to the sub-series influenced Zero 2’s design. In serving as a bridge into the “final” installment, Zero 2 carried the weight of not only acting like a sensible sequel to Zero 1, but softening its rougher edges. How does Zero 2 go about doing this? By doubling down on its best qualities– especially the difficulty.

Although Mega Man Zero’s flaws aren’t fatal, they’re often enough to sour the experience for potential fans. The rank system ultimately adds to the game more than it takes, but it’s incredibly strict with little to no incentive to strive for A & S ranks other than for a smidge more difficulty courtesy of bosses now using their EX Skills– desperation attacks that often hit as hard as they are hard to dodge. In conjunction with an already brutal difficulty curve, and Mega Man Zero 1 can at times be too much. 

Which makes it perplexing that Zero 1 can be broken from something as simple as using Cyber Elves– Zero’s all-purpose support & upgrade system– to pump Zero full of health or clear enemies on-screen. Of course, the game gets around this potential problem by making even the thought of using a Cyber Elf a grind-heavy inconvenience where players will need to go out of their way just to make proper use of the mechanic. That said, the grinding might be welcome considering how slow weapon leveling is otherwise. 

A great concept for character progression purposes, weapon leveling, in theory, allows for Zero to unlock new skills gradually. As Zero 1 obscures how its leveling system works (newly unlocked skills yield more XP when used,) most players will reach the end of the game at a severe disadvantage. In spite of itself, Mega Man Zero is a very compelling action-platformer, but it’s not hard to see why even fans of Mega Man X might turn their nose at Zero. Through Cyber Elves and weapon leveling, Zero 1 tries to be accessible to everyone, but it really isn’t. Not by design. 

Mega Man Zero 2’s way of refining its predecessor’s flaws is as simple as recognizing what didn’t work and reinforcing strengths whilst chipping away at flaws. Rather than only bestowing bosses EX Skills, A and S ranks now award players with EX Skills based on the bosses they defeat. Entering a stage with an A rank of above guarantees that Zero will unlock a new EX Skill, but it’s up to the player to maintain their rank throughout the stage if they want to unlock all 10 EX Skills over the course of the game. 

Often inspired by boss attacks and requiring player inputs or special equipment, EX Skills fundamentally shake up combat and have a clear appeal. Who doesn’t want to spruce up their combos with boss moves? Z-Saber EX Skills allow players to input button presses to trigger new techniques– some even based on Zero’s boss weapons from the X series. Pressing Up while slashing has Zero do an uppercut, holding down while descending triggers a down thrust, and holding down while slashing on the ground has Zero send out a shockwave. All of Zero’s weapons have at least one EX Skill, and they’re as useful as they are fun to pull off. 

EX Skills integrate nicely into the gameplay loop, especially against bosses. As they exist independent of the now more lenient leveling system, skilled players can nab their hands-on EX Skills early, integrating them into their play style before Zero can even unlock his 3-hit combo or full charges. Shooting a boss from afar and then dash jumping into a downward thrust capitalizes on how inherently cool of a character Zero is. While giving the combat important depth, of course. 

It’s worth noting that close range EX Skills still require skill to pull off. Zero has to be positioned carefully or else he will collide into enemies and bosses. This ensures that players can’t just spam their EX Skills and hope for the best. As tangible marks of one’s mastery of a stage & boss, it only makes sense EX Skills would be designed with skilled, thoughtful play styles in mind. That said, they’re not essential to completing the game, and no enemies or bosses are designed around EX Skills. They’re also very demanding to unlock and require a mechanical mastery of Zero 2 essentially immediately. Players shouldn’t be expected to pick up many, if any, EX Skills on their first playthrough.

All the same, that’s alright. EX Skills are something to be earned. More importantly, tossing them out willy nilly would make them an abusable gameplay crutch. As is, they’re unlockables that require actual skill to obtain. If you’re good enough to unlock an EX Skill, you’re probably good enough to know when to show some restraint. Of course, even thinking about EX Skills without considering the main game prior just isn’t going to fly for anyone but Mega Man Zero 2 veterans. As already mentioned, Zero 2 is hard. Far harder than Zero 1.

From the very first stage after the opening, Mega Man Zero 2 already demands sophisticated platforming. Although the Buster Shot, Z-Saber, and Shield Boomerang make reappearances, the Triple Rod is replaced with the Chain Rod, a multidirectional grappling hook that can pull enemies & items from afar, and hook into ceilings to allow Zero to continuously propel himself over bottomless pits or spikes. The Forest of Dysis features two instances where players must use the Chain Rod to traverse over bottomless pits. The act of doing so isn’t particularly difficult when it comes down to it, but properly using the Chain Rod requires keeping momentum, being able to quickly reposition Zero’s chain, and knowing when to let go. 

“With the Chain Rod, you can hook and then hang on the ceiling, or draw in an item.”

Perhaps it might seem unfair to throw bottomless pits at players so early in the game– bottomless pits that require mastering a brand new skill to traverse– but this is easy for Mega Man Zero 2. This is an important early test for what is one of the hardest games in the entire Mega Man franchise. Not only to reinforce to Zero 2’s audience that the game will be challenging but to ensure those playing understand the kind of platforming Z2 is going for. The level design as a whole prioritizes quick reflexes and foresight developed through pattern recognition. 

In the same way the Classic and X sub-series will introduce enemies in isolated environments where they can be observed before players are actually challenged by them, Zero 2 does the same with level design and enemy placement. Mega Man Zero 2’s hardest and most infamous stage, Bombardment Aircraft, opens with a series of seemingly blind jumps. Someone with an eye for game design can deduce that the intention is for Zero to dash jump off the platform, but the average player will likely want to bide their time. Doing so will slowly reveal that there are other platforms moving about the stage. From there, it’s up to players to understand they need to quickly jump from platform to platform, dodging enemy fire all the while, trusting they’ll land on the incoming platforms. 

The same stage later features a sequence where Zero needs to quickly platform through a trap & enemy-infested corridor, with electrical surges pulsating through the floor. Generators are strewn about which disengage the surges when shot, but only momentarily. Other generators are littered along the intended path, but so are enemies. More importantly, the path keeps forking upping & down, with enemies on one side and the generator on the other. Pick the wrong side, and players might need to turn back and trigger the first generator again. At the same time, figuring out where to go is as simple as understanding basic level design. If the generator was on top, it’ll be on bottom next. Recognizing this, Zero can now avoid enemies and keep shooting the generators without losing health. 

Is it fair for a game to demand its audience have a decent familiarity not only with the genre, but level design conventions? Not really, but that’s not bad either. The difference in level design between Zero 1 and Zero 2 is like night and day. Where the former was ultimately carried by its excellent boss design, the latter manages to host a great set of grueling, memorable boss fights along with fantastic level design that makes use of player mobility in a way few other entries in the franchise do. Usually, they’ll be a few tricky jumps near the end of a Mega Man game, but Zero 2 is all about putting the player’s platforming skills to the test. 

Dashing arguably sees better in-game implementation in Z2 than any game in the X sub-series. Rather than simply being a means of giving Zero some extra momentum, dashing is built into the level design quite often. Dash hopping is an incredibly useful skill to master & comes into play fairly often– both in & out of combat– and stages that call for heavy dash jumping are almost always accompanied with enemies to interrupt said jumps. Typically, the X games would throw one obstacle at the player at a time– whether they be action based or platforming based. Things would heat up near the end of the game, but rarely to a point where players would need to constantly attack enemies mid dash jump. Not so the case in Zero 2 where this is a common occurrence.

Naturally, foresight comes back into play here. There is always an enemy lurking around the corner. While cautious players can take their time, the level design encourages cutting through enemies as they pop up, letting your reflexes do the talking. It can be a difficult philosophy to adapt to initially, but it starts to come naturally. Zero 2 reuses a lot of similar platforming set pieces– albeit never indulgently. This familiarity allows for the level design to call back & build upon previous challenges, seemingly spontaneously. But it’s that spontaneity in both Zero 2’s enemy and level design that gives the game its charm. Enemies and platforming challenges never let up, coming at an almost chaotic pace. 

The Train is a nice early example of this type of level design in play. Regardless of whether players choose to approach the Train via the roof or the interior, enemies will constantly be coming at Zero– sometimes even from behind. A savvy player will pick up on this almost immediately and start preparing in advance, whether that be by firing a few shots to try & take out upcoming enemies still out of sight or by timing when Carryarms are spawning from above up, cutting them down before they can drop their Spikings. A player who tries to keep too much distance will suffer, where the player who trusts their instincts while recognizing the finer details of the level design will thrive.

That said, it isn’t as if Z2’s spontaneous elements are thrown in haphazardly. Stages are themed around their challenges well– whether said challenge be Chain Rodding across gaps, dodging spikes by platforming on invisible blocks, or hunting down mini-bosses in a trap infested factory. Keeping an upper hand comes down to being able to adapt at all times. Sometimes that can be adapting to new challenges altogether, or the sudden return of old ones. It’s also worth noting that a few stages feature branching paths, often with their own unique challenges. They seldom shake things up too much, usually offering an alternative platforming or combat section, but Zero 2’s level design is teeming with secrets to uncover. A good chunk of them can be fairly difficult to nab, requiring some top-notch platforming skills, but optional content should strive to push the difficulty curve more than the main game. 

“Destroy Neo Arcadia, huh? It’s not that easy…”

Even in addressing its predecessor’s flaws, Mega Man Zero 2 ups the difficulty to a point where the game is guaranteed to overwhelm everyone but platforming veterans. All the same,  Zero 2 is incredibly accommodating to different play styles– more or less addressing the first game’s issues with trying cater to both a casual and hardcore audience. While the general rule of the thumb for ranking well is to go fast and kill everything in sight, IntiCreates have gone out of their way to reward creative play styles and those who can’t keep up with the title’s breakneck pace. 

By fulfilling specific criteria during missions, Zero can unlock Forms. Each Form has its own stats covering Power, Defense, & Speed, along with a bonus attribute specific to that Form. The Active Form has 2 Power, 2 Defense, and 4 Speed. While its main stats are par for the course, the Active Form speeds Zero up considerably, making platforming easier. Not just that, its extra effect turns Zero’s dash attacks into rolling slashes. On the non-combative spectrum, the Energy Form has 3 Power, 2 Defense, and 1 Speed. The 3 in Power might seem like a nice boost, but the 1 in Speed makes Energy not ideal for either combat or platforming. But, having it equipped does spawn more energy capsules, making it easy to keep Zero at full health. 

As far as earning Forms go, they’re almost antithetical to EX Skills, something pro players won’t inherently earn but most amateurs will. The criteria for unlocking Forms tends to be fairly specific: collect 25 energy capsules to unlock Energy, kill 20 enemies with a dash attack for Active, kill 50 enemies with the Buster shot to obtain the X Form, and so it goes. More importantly, these requirements need to be met during missions. Anyone going for rank is going to have difficulty finding the time to pull 30 things with their Chain Rod while trying to beat the clock. Forms aren’t necessarily for skilled players, however. 

Forms are an alternative of sorts to the Cyber Elf system, a means of helping players. Unlike Cyber Elves, Forms don’t penalize rank. That they’re tied to such specific criteria means the Forms players do unlock will be suited towards their play style. Someone who stops to grind for health a lot benefits tremendously from the Energy Form even if it isn’t the best for actual platforming. Using the Shield Boomerang long enough will result in Zero unlocking the Defense & Erase Forms sooner rather than later, two Forms which accentuate the passive play style that the Shield Boomerang is suited for. 

More important than anything, Forms are just fun to use. The X Form pretty much lets Zero use his Buster Shot the way X used his X Buster 100 years prior. He’s faster and can shoot out four shots at once, which doesn’t seem like a lot but actually does make a considerable difference. The wide arcs that come from the Active Form’s rolling slashes make landing hits on enemies incredibly satisfying, taking them out before they can become a problem. The Rise Form adds an upwards slash to Zero’s 3-hit combo, not only giving the attack greater versatility, but actually speeding up Zero’s combo chain. In general, the combat has seen a big upgrade from Zero 1, ditching the stunlock abuse for action more akin to one on one deathmatches where every hit counts. 

With Zero now able to fully connect his combos against bosses, it’s only fair the boss design retaliate in turn. While bosses are nowhere near as hard as the stages themselves, they can still be quite difficult. One only has to compare Harpuia’s fight in Zero 2 to his fight in Zero 1 to recognize how the boss design has changed. In the first game, Harpuia could be perpetually stunlocked with or without the Ice Chip. One simple attack and Harpuia would fall into the exact combo every time, making it easy to bait the Guardian and finish him off before the fight ever truly began. 

Cheeky players familiar with the first game might try to see if their strategy still works only to be greeted with pure misery. While Harpuia can fall into his familiar technique, he almost always follows it with a dash attack more or less designed around punishing anyone trying to stunlock the boss. Harpuia doesn’t have a set reaction to Zero’s attacks anymore. Along with all the other bosses, Harpuia is far more relentless. Considering Harpuia will fire homing missiles and take to the skies if you let him, it’s important to take advantage of every opportunity to strike. In Zero 1, this meant having a charge attack ready. In Zero 2, the Forms, EX Skills, and the revamped combo system essentially make the lack of meaningful stunlocks a non-issue. If nothing else, it’s a plus that the boss design now actively tries to counter the player, ensuring you’re seeing more than a single attack loop.

In typical Mega Man Zero fashion, all of these concepts do sort of live in contrast to one another. EX Skills and Forms undeniably make Zero 2 more accessible, but what’s the point of accessibility when the game is so hard? To accustom audiences to harder titles! Mega Man Zero 2 is a very hard game, but it’s hard within reason. Between weapon leveling, Cyber Elves, and Forms, less skilled players have more than enough useful resources to tap into. They’ll still need to prove they have the platforming chops to see the credits, but that’s hardly unreasonable. 

For a sequel that was never supposed to exist, Mega Man Zero 2 is basically the ideal follow-up to Zero 1 design-wise. The difficulty has been capitalized on considerably, the level design is much tighter, combat has greater depth, and the rank system’s overhaul does more for progression than weapon leveling. The gameplay is on a whole just better than it was in Mega Man Zero 1, but what’s especially interesting is the huge upgrade in presentation. Zero 2 doesn’t just refine the gameplay, it does wonders for the sub-series’ story and aesthetic. 

“These battles have lost all meaning to him. Zero knows that to find his purpose, he should find Ciel…”

Picking up one year after where the first game left off is probably the smartest thing the story does. This distance allows the plot to develop with Zero out of sight, not only making Zero 2 narratively friendly to newcomers, but cleverly sidestepping the fact Zero 1 didn’t actually bring much usable lore to the table– which is only fair considering it was intended to be a standalone title. With Zero out of the action for an entire year, the Resistance’s entire situation can change. While they’re still at the expense of Neo Arcadia, they’ve grown considerably stronger, have new leadership, and seem to be on a healthy offensive for a change. 

What’s particularly nice is how cinematic the game is in comparison to the first Zero. There’s more dialogue, Zero has deeper characterization (read: actual characterization,) and there are four fully drawn stills before the opening is over, lending more weight to character reveals and reunions. The art direction on a whole sees a huge upgrade. Stages are notably more vibrant, making use of a wider color palette. The first Zero opted for an industrial look that was contrasted by the greenery found solely in Neo Arcadia. This put into perspective just how far gone the world was by the time Zero woke up. At the same time, it also meant Z1’s level design featured a lot of grey, black, and white. Zero 2 features lush forests, mystical ruins, the arctic, and a crystal cavern as set pieces, making stages infinitely more memorable. 

Even the backgrounds are nicer: a forest obscuring a sunset, the sun’s pink glow lightening glistening the arctic snow, and a thunderstorm scoring the fight between Zero & Harpuia make for beautiful, 16-bit set pieces. The art direction really makes the difficulty worth it. Some of the stages look downright incredible. Interestingly, it’s Neo Arcadia that ends up going for the more industrial look this time around, showing the city from afar. Paired with an outstanding soundtrack, and Mega Man Zero 2 is one of the finest presented games on the Game Boy Advance. 

Although the same praise can’t be extended to the game’s English localization, Zero 2 does kick things up a notch when it comes to story. Where Zero 1 really only let its narrative breathe at the very beginning and the very end, Z2 features short cutscenes at the start and end of every mission. These little moments help flesh out Zero’s world, cast, and themes, naturally extending how well Zero 1 used X’s concepts & themes to tell a compelling story. These cutscenes never outstay their welcome, are never intrusive, and the actual plot builds off the world of Mega Man X and Zero in a fairly interesting manner– introducing an “Elf War” which took place in between the two sub-series. 

With the Elf War comes the Dark Elf and her Baby Elves. They have an intense air of mystery around them, one that gradually becomes chilling over the course of the game. By the time the Dark Elf appears and her theme kicks in, she’s been built up as a truly ominous figure. At the same time, she doesn’t directly hurt Zero, instead acknowledging him before fleeing. It’s a strangely poignant moment and the one the game chooses to close the story on, but everything surrounding the Dark Elf mainly exists to set up Mega Man Zero 3

Knowing that they’d be developing another sequel, IntiCreates allows the Dark Elf to exist as a genuinely intriguing mystery and little else. Which, frankly, is all the Dark Elf needed to be in Zero 2, especially since she isn’t at the heart of the conflict, not really. Zero 2’s story primarily focuses on Elpizo, the new Resistance commander who assumed Ciel’s position during the one year time-skip. While his motivations ultimately intersect with the Dark Elf, Elpizo’s arc is the true driving force behind the plot. 

“Accepting your failures in life is a very difficult thing.”

The first half of the story focuses on Zero performing guerilla operations on Elpizo’s behalf. It’s established early on that there’s tension between Zero and Elpizo. Not just that, Elpizo’s approach to commanding the Resistance is in direct contrast to Ciel’s. Where she wants solely to bide time and develop an alternative energy, Elpizo actively assaults Neo Arcadia in an attempt to take advantage of Copy X’s absence. Similar to how Copy X served as a direct foil to Zero, Elpizo serves as a direct foil to Ciel– at least in the first half. 

Both Ciel and Elpizo are described as wanting to “change the world.” They’ve both experienced Neo Arcadia’s prejudices & fascism first hand, and share a charisma that inspires others. Elpizo and Ciel are natural leaders in spite of their humility, but they diverge when it comes to power. Being in a position of power for Ciel isn’t just a massive burden, it’s something she actively does not want as evidenced by her passing the torch onto Elpizo. Although Elpizo takes the position graciously, it doesn’t take long for him to orchestrate full scale operations designed to bolster the Resistance’s (his) power. While this is seen as mostly positive early on, Elpizo’s thread unravels when he bites off more than he can chew. 

Halfway through the story, Elpizo launches a full scale assault on Neo Arcadia which he personally leads. Up to this point, Zero had been working through guerilla operations under the assumption Elpizo would hold off long enough for Ciel to develop her alternative energy. This attack results in the Resistance losing an enormous chunk of their forces and Elpizo going rogue, hunting down the Dark Elf in an attempt to gain more power and personally atone for this mistake. From there, the second half centers on Ciel reclaiming her role as commander and Zero trying to hunt down and stop a now fully unhinged Elpizo. 

Elpizo is rather unique for a Mega Man villain. He wants power specifically to kill the humans of Neo Arcadia, but he’s also witnessed what’s essentially a methodical Reploid genocide unfold for years. His breakdown in the second half-strips him away of his Ciel-esque qualities and instead positions him against Copy X. Where Copy X inspired a fascist-like devotion from the Guardians, Elpizo’s mania has brainwashed all of his subordinates by the last level. Bosses who once had personality, agency, go on about Elpizo’s new world, shouting “Elpizo forever!” before battle. This creepy, cult-like devotion to Elpizo is in direct opposition to the genuine love and loyalty the Guardians felt for X, copy or otherwise. 

More than anything, the fact Elpizo outright destroys X’s original body– preventing any chance of the character coming back to life– really cements him as one of the franchise’s all-time great villains. Elpizo brings very real consequences to the Zero series. This is more than just killing a copy, and to an extent, he’s right to do so. Through Copy X, Mega Man Zero 1 proved that X’s presence only made things worse. But this is again Elpizo acting in extremes, calling upon a primal power he can’t comprehend or control. Cut down by Zero, Elpizo shows sincere remorse for everything he’s done. Unlike Copy X who screamed about his justice as he died, unable to comprehend his failure, Elpizo fully accepts the mistakes he’s made. Ironically, the character who wanted to wipe out humanity shows more humanity than the one who actively fought on their behalf. 

In truth, Mega Man Zero 2 does so much more than double down on the difficulty. It doubles down on everything that made the original Mega Man Zero such a compelling experience. With more gameplay depth, a deeper plot, and strong level design, Zero 2 is a shockingly strong sequel. Z2’s incredibly high difficulty curve is off-putting, but this is a game worth taking the time to learn. Between EX Skills, Forms, and even better boss fights than the first game, Z2 is a must-play for fans of action-platforms, but what really makes the game admirable is how well it approaches the concept of being a sequel: so simply yet elegantly accentuating what worked and smoothing out the rough edges that didn’t. From the gameplay to the story, Mega Man Zero 2 doubles down on everything that makes the original such a great game.

A man with simultaneously too much spare time on his hands and no time at all, Renan loves nothing more than writing about video games. He's always thinking about what re(n)trospective he's going to write next, looking for new series to celebrate.