Mega Man Zero 3 Goes Above and Beyond
If Mega Man Zero embodies one core belief, it’s that nothing lasts forever. Despite serving as the direct continuation of Mega Man X‘s story and themes, IntiCreates sought to establish a unique identity for Zero right out the gate. The intent was never to be derivative of X‘s game design, nor to simply evolve it– Zero was and is its own beast. The first game’s story even originally centered on the idea that X’s ideologies couldn’t last, and his sense of justice degraded with time. Although the script would ultimately be rewritten at the last minute so this X was now a copy, the theme is still very much present. The entire reason Zero 1 exists is rooted in the idea that nothing lasts forever– directly stemming from Keiji Inafune’s desire to end Rockman X with the fifth installment. To say nothing of Cyber Elves embodying this concept outright, disappearing forever when used in gameplay. Zero 2 even goes so far as to make a statement, allowing Elpizo to kill the ‘Mega Man’ X, an indication that there really is no turning back. Mega Man Zero was always more than just another Rockman series.
This permanence that seemingly every other sub-series in the Rockman franchise lacked is part of what gave the first two Zero games their charm. They had consequences, both in gameplay and narratively. These were hard, punishing games and their stories reflected that. More importantly, Zero 1 & 2 set a strong enough foundation that allowed for IntiCreates to polish the third game to near perfection. Originally envisioned as the final entry in the sub-series, Mega Man Zero 3 opens & closes with a bang, bringing to the table some of the best visuals, music, and game design on the Game Boy Advance. In many respects, it almost feels like the “ultimate” Mega Man game, loaded with secrets, bosses, stages, and combat depth. Which is really saying something considering how well made Z3’s predecessors are.
Where Zero 2 was a simple– albeit sensible– sequel that mainly refined pre-existing concepts while trimming the fat, Mega Man Zero 3 makes rather notable changes to what had become series staples; most notably the removal of weapon leveling and a reworking of the Cyber Elf system. Concepts that have been ingrained in Zero from the first entry are removed and retooled entirely, but it’s for the better of Z3. These changes make room for Zero 3 to make its own sizable contributions to the gameplay loop while also recognizing the best qualities uniquely present in the first two titles, bringing them front and center.
Zero 3 serves as a grand finale for both the X and Zero games, pushing the last remnants of the X series out of the franchise: X truly passes on, the Dark Elf severs her connection to the Sigma Virus by once again becoming the Mother Elf, and Zero’s original body is destroyed. With such a lore-friendly story, it makes sense to highlight the identities the first two games managed to cultivate. To IntiCreates’ credit, Zero 1’s moody atmosphere, action-centric level design, & lore heavy plot pair exceedingly well with Zero 2’s vibrant color palette, skill-based platforming, & cinematic storytelling.
Mega Man Zero 3 doesn’t dismiss what came before, looking back to both its predecessors for guidance. Of course, Zero 2 being the better game, it only makes sense that more is lifted from the sequel than the original– specifically when it comes to boss design, the combo system, and EX Skill implementation. Even then, Zero 3 does remove Forms, replacing them with a traditional equipment system that keeps the sub-series’ light RPG flavor intact. While equipment may not be as exciting as Forms initially, equitable Chips allow Zero to essentially mix and match different Form abilities without taking on potential stat penalties.
Broken down into three categories, Chips are one of the many ways that Zero 3 encourages gameplay variety. Zero can equip one of each Chip at a time, more or less allowing players to get three Forms worth of bonuses at once. Head Chips mostly serve as passive buffs, with rather self-explanatory names: Auto Charge, Auto Recover, Quick Charge. Element Chips return from the first two games, albeit as Body Chips this time around. Accompanied by the standard three (Fire, Thunder, Ice) are the Light and Absorber Chips which ignore crumbling terrain and prevent knockback respectively. As handy as Head and Body Chips are, however, they pale in comparison to what Foot Chips can do.
Unlike Head and Body Chips, Foot Chips outright affect Zero’s mobility, primarily playing off of platforming instead of action (though certain Foot Chips pair well with the combat system.) Worth pointing out, there are almost as many Foot Chips as there are Body & Head combined, each one offering notable gameplay changes. Spike lets Zero walk on slippery terrain, Quick speeds up his base speed, Shadow Dash allows Zero to dodge through enemies, Frog slows down wall sliding, Splash Jump lets Zero jump on water, and Double Jump speaks for itself. Defeating Z3’s secret boss even rewards the Ultima Chip which hosts every single Foot Chip ability.
Although stages aren’t designed with Foot Chips in mind, they’re Foot Chip friendly. One would think that being able to double jump through familiar stages would completely trivialize their difficulty, but the Foot Chips make it easy to appreciate Zero 3’s level design. There are secrets seemingly everywhere, and the increased mobility makes finding them all the easier. More importantly, Foot Chips simply give gameplay an appreciated edge. Being able to double jump over gaps doesn’t make platforming much easier, so much as it makes it more engaging. Zero can do more than ever before, and replaying the game with the Ultima Chip equipped can be an eye-opening experience.
Although Zero 2 made sizable progress in reworking the core combat, its most meaningful contributions affected the platforming side of things. More sophisticated level design and the Chain Rod made the game quite difficult, but it’s hard to deny how well designed Z2 is on a whole. Zero 3 goes in the opposite direction. It makes some sizable progress in reworking platforming through Foot Chips, but these contributions have a greater impact on the action than anything else. Both Shadow Dash and Frog are useful combat tools for those to think to incorporate them into the gameplay loop. The former allows Zero to dash through enemies, perfect for the aggressive player, while the latter is suited for passive players who prefer to keep their distance & cling to walls during boss fights.
“The legendary Reploid Zero awoke from a long slumber…”
Foot chips aren’t the only features that deepen the combat system. Following in its older brother’s footsteps, combo potential is even better in Zero 3, with far more attacks integrating into one another seamlessly. A full combo in Zero 2 was basically just that: a full 3-hit combo, with maybe an extra attack, tacked on or an EX Skill. Zero 3 widens the field considerably, making boss invincibility frames far more lenient than they actually appear. This not only allows for longer combos, but more creative combos. Zero’s 3-hit slash can seamlessly chain into an uppercut, then a down thrust, then an aerial rolling slash without missing a beat, without failing to inflict damage on a boss. Depending on how many rolling slashes players can get in, that’s a potential 7 to 8 hit combo– a full life bar in seconds.
Worth noting, the removal of the leveling system means Zero has access to all his non-Cyber Elf abilities at once. This means no needing to unlock a 2-hit combo before a 3-hit combo, or the ability to charge. All four of Zero’s weapons are good to go from the moment they’re unlocked, any bonuses coming solely from Cyber Elves. On that note, the implementation of 3-hit combos and charges into the core game design does mean that EX Skills can be better integrated into combat.
As mentioned, EX Skills like the uppercut or down thrust can be chained together to create their own combos. Combos that arguably make the game too easy, but that’s why EX Skills are unlocked by maintaining an A-Rank. The Gale Attack, an EX Skill which takes the form of a forward stab, is a particularly useful attack to open combos as its stab can connect multiple times. Beyond Z Saber based EX Skills, Zero’s Buster EX Skills influence his charge shot while one of the returning Shield Boomerang’s EX Skills rapidly circles the weapon around Zero, potentially filling in any combo spots players might miss. That so much combat variety and depth is packed in a single GBA title is as welcome as it is shocking.
All this said, the nuances of combat are something that takes time to both get used to and even recognize. Strong level design and core mechanics make it entirely possible to have a good time with Mega Man Zero 3 without so much as realizing this combat depth is there, but the same can’t be said for the revised Cyber Elf system. Right from the gate, sub-series veterans will realize that something is amiss. Notably the fact that Cyber Elves are no longer found within stages and instead inside of chips which are redeemed at the end of missions. Not just that, the messy Cyber Elf grid has been replaced with a central hub which allows Zero to feed and use his Cyber Elves, while also allowing him to curiously equip “Satellite” Elves.
The new Satellite system is a godsend and allows players to use Elves without tanking their rank. Zero can equip two Satellite Elves at any given time, with their effects ranging from offering Zero more health or rescuing him from a pit. Satellite Elves do not die, and only lose their effect once unequipped. Needless to say, this system overhaul allows for Cyber Elves to play a far more active and meaningful gameplay role. Players are free to experiment with Zero’s Elves from the get-go for a change. E-Crystals are still required to feed Elves, but never much, and Zero will have access to Satellite Elves more or less immediately.
On the flipside of Satellite Elves are Fusion Elves which more or less act like proper Cyber Elves. Use them, and they die. That said, some Fusion Elves can actually be fed E-Crystals to become Satellite Elves, allowing players to make use of Zero’s more useful Cyber Elves without permanently hurting their rank. Beyond increasing his health or offering practical platforming services, quite a few Elves influence combat. Some Elves offer straight up buffs, like +1 damage to the Z Saber, while others outright change how Zero attacks.
Equipping Lizetus allows Zero to end his 3-hit Z Saber with a rising slash by holding up on the D-Pad. Hold down with Cottus equipped, and Zero will instead end his combo with a shockwave. Malthas allows Zero to do his rolling slashes by holding up or down on the D-Pad while jumping or dashing respectively, and Ilethas lets Zero cut through the enemy fire with his Saber. Like the Chip system, certain Elves end up taking properties from Zero’s Forms from Zero 2, but splitting things up this way just allows for players to truly make the most out of Zero. Equip the right Satellite Elves, and there is so much Zero can do at any given moment. Without the need to grind like in the first two games, you can comfortably experiment with Cyber Elves from start to finish. In a twist of fate, players are even likely to end with more E-Crystals than they need.
Following in the Chain Rod’s footsteps, arguably the biggest contribution Zero 3 makes gameplay-wise is the addition of the Recoil Rod. The Recoil Rod replaces the Chain Rod, combining the best qualities of the Triple Rod from Zero 1 with Zero 2’s Chain Rod. Where the Triple Rod prioritized action and the Chain Rod maneuverability, the Recoil Rod places an equal emphasis on both combat and platforming practicality. Even though the Recoil Rod can’t cling like the Chain Rod could, its charged attack can be used to recoil Zero off of enemies, allowing him to gain an insane amount of height. The Recoil charge attack can also be used to destroy obstacles and move platforms. The weapon may not be incorporated into any mandatory platforming like the Chain Rod was, but stages make frequent use of it by tucking Cyber Elves away in areas reachable only by the Recoil Rod.
Omnidirectional stabbing returns, allowing the Recoil Rod to take out enemies from any angle. Paired with its quick speed, and the Recoil Rod can end up being one of Zero’s most useful weapons. Both of the Recoil Rod’s EX Skills are even designed with combat in mind. Soul Launcher allows Zero to fire four shots into the air with a charged attack, which rains down to do more damage. While a novel technique, the real money maker is 1000 Slash. The Recoil Rod’s 3-hit combo is replaced with a flurry of stabs that can inflict multiple hits at once, making it a great tool to exploit boss openings with.
In terms of control, the Recoil Rod isn’t as hard to use as the Chain Rod was, but its physics are a bit more interesting. By pressing down, Zero can use the force of a charged attack to launch him into the air. Pair this with a dash jump, and– as referenced– Zero can launch off the tops of enemies, gaining air while killing them in the process. This can be used to platform towards secrets, or just to strategically cut through stages. It requires real skill to pull off (especially against enemies where there are a couple of factors to consider at once,) but mastering the Recoil Rod pays off and lends to some incredibly impressive platforming.
“The Recoil Rod is strongest when charged. It incorporates features from both the Triple Rod and Chain Rod… it will require some effort to master.”
Although the platforming isn’t as in-depth or as difficult as in Zero 2, that’s not a bad thing. Zero 3’s platforming set pieces are quite memorable and make great use of the mechanics. Oceanic Highway Ruins is an excellent early example of Z3’s inspired level design. The stage pits Zero against the stage boss in an actual race to the boss door, where staying in the lead is advantageous to Zero. In an underwater stage, there are four buttons hidden throughout the stage that lower the water level in the boss room when stepped on. Press all of them, and the boss won’t be able to make the most out of either their abilities or boss arena.
This advantage only exists if Zero hits all four buttons, though. Let the boss take the lead, and he’ll destroy the buttons outright. Not only do players need to keep a consistent pace ahead of the boss, they need to actually find the buttons– all the while cutting down enemies, jumping over obstacles, and avoiding spikes. Since Zero is underwater, his jump’s center of gravity changes, making it easy for careless players to ram into enemies or kill themselves outright. There are plenty of factors to consider when platforming, but they don’t gel in as overwhelming a fashion as Zero 2’s platforming challenges. This may all seem daunting to handle at once, but the stage is as well-paced as it is well designed, introducing new hazards gradually.
On that note, the difficulty curve on a whole is the lowest of the sub-series, but it’s well balanced and by no means easy. Boss design can be aggressive and missions– while easier on a whole– are denser with varied combat & platforming sections peppered throughout. Area X-2 is a shining example of Zero 3’s balancing act in play. The first section of the stage is littered with enemies, both already present and that Zero can trigger. As the stage progresses, however, the enemies slowly start to phase out while spikes become more abundant. Suddenly, Zero is scaling a tower surrounded by spikes, clinging only to narrow moving platforms. Slowly, enemies are reintroduced, the spikes ease up, and the stage empties up a bit before the boss door.
Mega Man Zero 3 is filled with these seamless gameplay transitions all throughout. It’s certainly not unusual for a Mega Man game to pack its level design with variety, but Z3 does so with so much focus– rarely relying on gimmicks and instead, working with actual genre conventions or playing off the core mechanics. That said, there is one constant gimmick in place to help out those who need it: Cyberspace. By entering green doors within stages, Zero can enter an alternate version of whatever stage he’s in called Cyberspace. Entering into Cyberspace tints the stage green while activating Zero’s Cyber Elves without needing to equip or kill them.
Naturally, Cyberspace comes with a rank penalty, but they’re optional, increase replay value considerably, and can help players learn level layouts while also letting them play around with all their Cyber Elves at once. What really prevents Cyberspace from being a problem, though, is the fact that it’s locked out for mini-bosses and boss fights. Rely on Cyberspace too much and players likely won’t be able to contend with losing all their buffs for important battles. It’s an important distinction that helps Cyberspace from becoming a crutch.
Locking Cyberspace for mini-bosses and bosses also just forces players to engage with the boss design as intended. As this is Mega Man Zero, though, that’s far from a hard sell. The first two games share some of the best bosses on the Game Boy Advance, so it’s only fair that Zero 3 not just follow suit, but outright one-up its older brothers. Even though most bosses can be comfortably punished with EX Skills, they’re all exceedingly well-designed fights, even when tearing health bars to shreds. Enemy AI is more aggressive, with bosses rarely creating their own openings. It’s important to chain hits together, making use of combos and interrupting boss attacks whenever possible.
Enough patience and knowhow do trivialize the fights in typical Mega Man fashion, but attack patterns are on the sophisticated side, which makes heading into a boss room unprepared a recipe for disaster. Rushing into a fight head-on will almost always lead to certain death, whereas a bit of patience makes rushing into a fight head-on certain death for Zero’s foes. In typical action game fashion, Zero 3’s best boss fights tend to be the one on one, humanoid battles. Notably, the fights against Copy X MK-II, Phantom, and Omega make incredible use of Z3’s refined combat.
As the name suggests, Copy X MK-II plays out like a revamped version of the final fight from the first game. Copy X is fast, relentless, can block attacks while changing forms, and can heal nearly all of his health during the battle. As he moves around constantly, it’s difficult to land a combo chain into him, let alone a lengthy one, but it isn’t impossible. Anticipating where Copy X will land can offer Zero an opportunity to land some hits in. Once you find the rhythm, the fight against Copy X becomes a frantic back and forth where Zero is chasing him around the screen, landing lethal hits while dodging frequent counter-attacks.
“The heart is what counts. Not the body.”
The fight against Phantom is the only one that takes place within Cyberspace, which is a fitting setting for the secret boss’ arena. Found within the penultimate stage, Sub-Arcadia, Phantom is an extremely fun opponent. As the battle happens inside of Cyberspace, Phantom is an afforded aggression reserved typically for the final boss. He’ll throw out kunai non-stop, create shadow clones, dash into Zero, and ride his Shuriken around the arena in a frenzy. Phantom is Zero 3 at its most chaotic, but he can be approached any number of ways: with EX Skills, by baiting him out, taking him on from long range. Between Zero’s Chips, Cyber Elves, and weapons, there’s never just one way to take on a boss. A philosophy best exemplified by the final fight against Omega.
Quite literally Zero against Zero, players have to fight more than just a carbon copy of themselves. Omega has more health than you can have, more abilities than you can use at once, and can pull off an effortless 7-hit combo that rips through Zero in a way he could never rip through Omega. At the same time, this is what makes the fight so compelling. Omega may have these artificial advantages, but you’ve spent all game honing your abilities– unlocking EX Skills, coming up with Combos, finding the right Satellite Elves. Omega is the ultimate test of one’s Mega Man Zero 3 abilities: a final duel against a mirror image after two back-to-back boss fights. The penultimate boss even features a bottomless pit to really punish any players who still can’t platform well.
What really makes these boss fights great is more than just their design. All these bosses share emotion, weight, and important context (both narratively & thematically.) Zero’s fight against Copy X MK-II is a fakeout final boss unlike any other. The whole game had been building up to yet another confrontation between Zero and Copy X, but the fight ends with the latter accidentally killing himself, unaware that he was revived with a killswitch that would trigger if he attempted to activate his final form. Considering how difficult Copy X can be, the fact he doesn’t have a second form can be taken as something of relief despite the narrative consequences.
Unlike the other Guardians, Phantom never came to truly respect Zero, admonishing his legend consistently throughout the first game. Phantom even attempts to take Zero out in a suicide attack when he’s defeated. Their rematch in Cyberspace is an opportunity for Zero (and the player) to assert that the legend is real. Defeating Phantom makes him change his mind about Zero completely, meeting the player with genuine respect. That Phantom is an optional boss, and a challenging one at that, only gives more impact to his earned admiration.
As the final boss, the fight against Omega is the culmination of everything Mega Man Zero as a story had been building up to. This was meant to be the grand finale for Zero’s arc and a plotline that could be stemmed all the way back to 1993, when Rockman X first graced the Super Famicom. Naturally, such a momentous occasion requires only the best in terms of presentation, and IntiCreates yet again delivers with one of the best looking and sounding games on the Game Boy Advance. Of the first three games, Mega Man Zero 3 has the best story, the best presentation, and the best storytelling, making impressive use of both in-game sprite animations and cutscenes. Characters still can’t convey emotion outside of dialogue, but the action has never looked better.
Picking up two months after where the last game left off, Zero 3 wraps up all the narrative loose ends between the first two games: the fallout of a leaderless Neo Arcadia, the Guardians’ gradually increased respect for Zero, Ciel’s development of a solution for the energy crisis, and the aftermath of Elpizo releasing the Dark Elf. With so much ground to cover, the game on a whole is far more plot-driven, making even greater use of its cutscenes than Zero 2. Dialogue is more frequent, with Zero himself speaking fairly often, but the story is never intrusive. Though that’s in large part due to its structure.
“All legends are forgotten in the end. Goodbye, Zero!”
Unlike other entries in the series, Mega Man Zero 3 is divided into three very distinct acts. Act 1 positions itself as the first half, and not the first third, building up to a second conflict with Copy X. It’s also perhaps worth pointing out why Copy X is back in the first place. Despite having been killed at the end of the first game, Copy X was revived by Dr. Weil– a scientist who was mentioned offhand in Zero 2. Exiled for 100 years, Weil returns to Neo Arcadia after having led to the deaths of 90% of reploids and 60% of humans during the Elf War. Why Weil revives Copy X isn’t immediately made clear, but the first act operates on the assumption that Copy X’s revival is a Sigma situation, with Weil a side antagonist alongside Omega.
At the end of the first act, Copy X launches a full-on assault against the Resistance in response to Ciel refusing to hand over her Ciel System– an energy source that could end the energy crisis, but would almost certainly be used to wipe out the remaining reploids if handed over to Copy X. Act 2 sees Zero taking on Neo Arcadia’s three-way offensive head-on. Interestingly, the three enemies featured here were all bosses present in Zero 1– Anubis Necromancess, Hanumachine, & Blizzack Staggroff– and their stages are all based off settings from Zero 2– the opening desert, the forest, & the tundra respectively– really reinforcing a sense of finality within Zero 3. Considering the context, the second act does a great job setting itself up for a finale, especially when the final stage in the set is revealed to belong to Copy X.
Of course, anyone who’s paid attention to how Zero 2 structured itself will assume this can’t possibly be the final stage. Copy X is the eighth mission, which means there still needs to be a final fortress stage. What someone likely won’t expect on their first playthrough is Copy X being followed by another set of four bosses. In reality, the final fight Zero 3 had seemingly been building up to actually takes place around two/thirds of the way in. It’s better to err on the side of short when it comes to Mega Man, but Zero 3 upping the usual Robot Master count from 8 to 12 fleshes the game out just a bit more without compromising the overall pacing.
Following Copy X’s death, Dr. Weil ends up taking on the game’s role as the chief antagonist. Unlike Copy X or Elpizo, Dr. Weil is a full-on human. And as a human, he has a capacity for cruelty no other antagonist in the franchise has. He orchestrates a political coup that involves him reviving Copy X, goading a fight between him & Zero, and allowing Copy X to accidentally kill himself while transforming into the first game’s final boss. With no one left to lead Neo Arcadia, Dr. Weil ends up its highest-ranking member, replacing one dictator with another. Of the franchise’s three major antagonists, Dr. Weil is by far the vilest. He takes outright glee in hurting others, laughing constantly in his dialogue. It’s more than just mania, Weil relishes in the pain he inflicts.
Weil is so despicable that Harpuia– the Guardian most loyal to X– end sup betraying Neo Arcadia to protect humanity from Weil by any means necessary. Despite how needlessly cruel Weil is, however, Zero 3 uses boss dialogue to put into perspective how someone like Weil can be in power. Weil’s Eight Gentle Judges have the cult-like admiration Elipzo’s subordinates had mixed with the genuine loyalty present in Copy X’s Guardians. Through doing everything through “official” channels, through controlling Neo Arcadia’s media, Weil is able to craft a narrative that puts him in complete control with what appears to be near-universal approval ratings. It’s not often a Mega Man villain that uses political propaganda to get ahead, but Weil plays Neo Arcadia, the Resistance, and Zero with an uncomfortable amount of finesse.
Come to the end of the game, it’s ultimately revealed that the Zero players had been controlling throughout all three games was no more than a copy himself. The “real” Zero was revived by Weil and is actually none other than Omega. The Sigma Virus which once “corrupted” Zero is stripped away from the character, showing the monster Dr. Wily intended to create. Naturally, Zero 3’s story extends the theme of identity present in Copy X’s character to Zero, all while deconstructing the legend Elpizo resented so deeply. Zero’s his usual stoic self, but the act of him cutting down his former body and refusing to accept he’s anything but Zero makes for a powerful arc for a character who suspiciously had taken a back seat in his series up to this point.
Weil’s motivation is primarily to inflict suffering on everyone and everything around him. He has no morals, ethics, or actual ideals, but he’s more than just “pure evil.” Weil is pure human. He doesn’t even have a warped sense of justice like Copy X did. Weil believes in nothing, with no programming to drive him. Naturally, Dr. Weil contrasts with the only other human in the sub-series, Dr. Ciel– a character bursting with ideology who wants nothing but to end suffering for everyone, human or reploid. Both characters actually share a rather interesting parallel that connects them to Dr. Light and Dr. Wily from the Classic series (fitting considering this was meant to close the door on a saga that has its roots in the Classic series’ lore.)
Light and Ciel both create a Mega Man X, but where Light puts his X through three decades of ethics testing, Ciel lets her X operate with full agency immediately. Wily and Weil both create a Zero, but where Wily creates an evil Zero whose programming is corrupted into the Zero we know, Weil repairs the actual body and restores his original programming. In turn: The actual X is helping Ciel and a copy Zero, while a Copy X is helping Weil and the “real” Zero. Of course, this copy Zero business is more complex than that and arguably the story’s real draw.
Although Weil is ultimately the main antagonist, Omega is the more present villain– serving as the first boss, the final boss, and sharing a far deeper, more intimate connection with Zero. Mainly because he is Zero. Zero and Omega, like X and Copy X, share a dichotomy built on nature versus nurture. While X was nurtured to who he was meant to be, Copy X proved it was in X’s nature to create his own justice– no matter the cost. Omega is who Zero was always meant to be, but Zero in his sub-series is more than the result of being reprogrammed by a virus: this Zero has ideals. Both fighting alongside and away from Ciel show him the importance of fighting for a cause.
“As long as your heart is your own, you are Zero. The one and only Zero.”
Keep in mind that Zero 2 and Zero 3 were developed as a pair. Zero 2’s opening, showing Zero’s struggle to return to Ciel and fight for something, sees direct affirmation in his arc in Zero 3. Zero is more than a body or basic programming. When left to his own devices, X tried to commit mass genocide. When left to his own devices, Zero fought for a people no one else would. Both copies begin life alongside Ciel, but take radically different paths, Zero actually recognizing Ciel and her ideals, unlike Copy X. Mega Man Zero 3 is a celebration not just of Zero’s character & legacy, but what it became with time. Zero’s legend is something brought up frequently throughout the series, so for it to be revealed that this isn’t the legendary Zero all along can feel like a slap in the face. But it isn’t a slap, far from it.
How can it be when Zero 3 ends with you proving yourself as the only Zero that matters by destroying the original’s body? Omega is stronger and by all accounts ‘better,’ but he’s not a true hero– not like Zero. The fact Omega is a humanoid final boss and not a grotesque transformation like Copy X or Elpizo only drives home how personal this final fight is. Never has a final boss in a Mega Man game felt more earned. More than a ritualistic killing of the murderous Zero rooted in the character’s backstory, this is IntiCreates highlighting the inherent good in Zero. Even if Ciel revived a copy, it’s the ideals he embodies that make him Zero. The legend is redefined by the end of Zero 3. Of course, X assures Zero that it’s only his body that isn’t the same, but the point still stands: ideals make the Mega Man.
As intimate to Zero’s character as Z3’s story is, the game’s way of saying goodbye to this chapter of Rockman history is not to say goodbye to Zero, but to X. After losing his body at the end of the second game, Zero 3 makes the bold decision to genuinely kill X off, no strings attached. It isn’t a sad death, though. If anything, X’s farewell feels like a tender goodbye between friends– him and Zero; him and the audience. Rarely is a Mega Man story as well written as Z3, but considering the sub-series’ track record for strong thematic writing, it’s only fitting what was meant to be the final entry in the series end on a high note.
Of course, Mega Man Zero 3 did not end up being the sub-series’ finale. Zero 4 would actually end the series a year later in 2005, but it is a game that exists in Z3’s shadow. And it’s not hard to see why. Beyond closing a portion of Rockman history in an emotionally satisfying manner, Zero 3 is simply loaded with high-quality gameplay– arguably IntiCreates’ best work. Well-paced platforming, memorable setpieces, an incredible combat system, and some of the best bosses in the franchise make it easy to understand why IntiCreates wanted to cut the sub-series off here. Zero 3 is the fully realized vision of what Zero 1 and 2 strived to be. All three games are fantastic in their own right, but Mega Man Zero 3 goes above and beyond, ending up one of the best games on the Game Boy Advance.