Games

‘Mega Man Zero’: The Brutally Hard GBA Platformer That Could

Mega Man X may be a narrative continuation of the classic Mega Man games, but it keeps its references subtle and establishes a clear identity as soon as possible.

In reference to redesigning the game’s eponymous hero, Mega Man Zero’s character designer– Toru Nakayama– said that he wanted to give Zero a more “human feel.” Specifically, a humanity that would contrast directly with Mega Man X’s “mechanical feel.” Despite Mega Man Zero serving as a direct successor to the Mega Man X sub-series, Nakayama felt it important to establish a unique artistic direction for Zero. Much in the same way X refused to make itself derivative of the classic Mega Man series, Zero couldn’t be derivative of his last appearance– not if the character were to frontline his own sub-series. Taking into consideration that the franchise’s heroes had always been Blue Bombers to this point, and Nakayama’s redesign can seem quite radical. At the same time, it was necessary. 

Series producer Kenji Inafune had been wanting Zero to serve as the main character of his own game since before Rockman X even started development. The character was initially conceived as the original Mega Man’s successor, the face of the X franchise. Zero actually would go on to be the face regardless, gradually stealing the spotlight away from X with each game after X3. In that regard, it would have been perfectly natural for Zero 1 to simply pick up where the last X game left off (to Inafune’s knowledge at the time, X5.) It would also have connected Zero to X more intimately than it needed to. 

Mega Man X may be a narrative continuation of the classic Mega Man games, but it keeps its references subtle and establishes a clear identity as soon as possible. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Mega Man Zero opts to do the same. Nakayama’s redesign was only the first domino in a chain reaction which would result in a game rich in its own identity, independent of its predecessors. What Zero strives for is more unique than either the Classic or X sub-series, incorporating the franchise’s penchant for action-platforming with RPG elements. 

Combat seems like typical Mega Man fare at first glance, but savvy players will spot some key differences right away. For starters, Zero has actual weapons this time around instead of absorbing boss powers like X or learning button combos like he once did in the X games. Players begin with a gun, gain a sword, and can then unlock two optional weapons, the Triple Rod & the Shield Boomerang. Curiously, weapons also level up this time around, with Zero earning weapon-specific experience by attacking and killing enemies. Shoot enough Pantheon Guardians, and Zero’s Buster Shot can be charged one more tier. 

Leveling isn’t based solely on XP earned, however. While attacking enemies and killing them does reward experience, Zero’s weapons are actually leveled non-linearly. Attacking in a certain way can unlock new abilities “out of order.” Zero’s first sword upgrade should normally unlock his 2 hit combo, but players who are slashing enemies while dashing will actually unlock a grounded rolling slash with their first level up. Conversely, anyone killing enemies primarily by jump slashing will unlock an aerial rolling slash. While not all of Zero’s weapons have as much progression wiggle room, all four can grow considerably over the course of a single playthrough. 

Unlike the franchise’s staple boss weapons which are unlocked over the course of the game, Zero can unlock all of his weapons by the fourth mission. As a result, players can not only familiarize themselves with their whole kit much earlier than usual, the enemy design can likewise reflect & counter Zero’s arsenal earlier than it would otherwise– most likely the very end of the game. In typical Mega Man fashion, Zero’s first weapon is a long-range gun, the Buster Shot. What fans of the series might notice, however, is how weak it is. 

Not only can the Buster Shot not be upgraded right away, it can only fire out three measly pellets at once. In many respects, it’s as if Zero is embodying the classic Blue Bomber in his purest form. Of course, Zero can also dash & wall jump, and it doesn’t take long for players to unlock their weak charge shot. From there, the Buster Shot’s firing capacity can be upgraded for a total of four pellets on-screen while the Buster’s charge can be leveled twice over: once for a full charge, and then again for a quick charge. 

Along with the aerial and grounded rolling slashes, Zero’s Z-saber can string longer combos the more its leveled. Out of the gate, Zero can only do a single slash. Kill enough enemies with the Z-Saber, and Zero can now perform a 2-hit combo. Repeat the process, and Zero maxes out at a classic & comfortable 3-hit combo. Like the Buster Shot, the Z-Saber can learn a charge slash followed by a quick charge. Typical Mega Man weaponry, the Buster and the Saber are the only two mandatory weapons in the game. 

The first of the unlockable weapons (obtained after defeating Maha Ganeshariff) is the Triple Rod. A melee weapon like the Z-Saber, the Triple Rod bestows upon Zero the gift of multidirectional prodding. Zero can sab enemies in eight directions with the Triple Rod. Each level increases how many stabs Zero can do at once– each stab actually lengthening the Triple Rod’s range– capping off at three, followed by a charge attack where Zero spins the Rod at his enemies, and finally a quick charge.  Along with its unlockable abilities, the Triple Rod can allow Zero to bounce off enemies by down-thrusting into them.

A weapon best used to keep distance between Zero and his enemies, the Triple Rod pairs well with the newly introduced Shield Boomerang. As its name entails, the Shield Boomerang can shield Zero from projectiles. Simply hold the attack button and Zero will lift up his shield. It’s worth noting that the Shield Boomerang can’t block every projectile, and simply having it out locks Zero’s dash, but it gets rid of pesky enemy fire and becomes a chaotic razor blade when thrown, capable of being flung directly into enemies while curving upwards or downwards depending on where Zero is throwing his Boomerang from. Unlike other weapons, the Shield Boomerang already has its full charge, with levels simply increasing the throwing attack’s range. 

It’s worth noting pointing out a misconception with Mega Man Zero’s leveling system. While it is indeed quite grindy, how much experience Zero earns is actually dependent on which attack he’s using at which level. If Zero is, say, trying to level up his Z-Saber so he can unlock the 3 hit combo, players earn the most experience at this level from the second hit. Once the 3 hit combo is unlocked, the third hit will start to net Zero the most experience. Understanding this doesn’t make grinding any less tedious, but it does save a decent bit of time. 

Although these four weapons ostensibly replace boss weapons, Mega Man Zero does try to maintain some of that old school Mega Man flavor. No bosses bestow upon Zero their attacks, but three of them do drop Element Chips, equippable chips which augment Zero’s charge attacks. The Thunder Chip deals extra damage to Fire based enemies while shocking them; The Fire Chip is super effective against Ice based enemies, while also burning them; and the Ice Chip is best used when fighting Thunder based enemies, freezing them in the process. 

Element chips are especially useful because combat doesn’t really prioritize combo potential. Zero may be able to pull off a three-hit combo with his Z-Saber followed by a three-pronged stab, but the fact of the matter is that the game will never allow for a scenario like this to happen naturally. That’s simply not how enemies or bosses are designed. Invincibility frames are simply too long for players to realistically get the most out of a three-hit combo. On the flip side, figuring out how to regularly stunlock bosses will turn the tide into your favor 99% of the time. 

That’s easier said than done, however, as the first Mega Man Zero is home to some of the hardest bosses on the Game Boy Advance. They also happen to be some of the best-designed bosses on the GBA, making excellent use of boss arenas, sound design, visual cues & telegraphs, while generally playing off Zero’s core mechanics well. Take the boss against Aztec Falcon, for instance. He’s the first real boss in the game– or at least the first where Zero will have access to both his Buster & Saber from the get-go. In turn, Aztec Falcon is designed specifically to challenge how well players both use and understand their weapons. Not only that, the boss arena takes place in an incredibly tight space where Zero will need to dash jump off walls to reliably avoid Aztec Falcon’s attacks. All the while, a timer is ticking down that slowly descends a spiked ceiling onto allied Reploids down below. 

The battle against Aztec Falcon is tense by design, but he can come off extremely aggressive to the unprepared player. Aztec Falcon will dash back & forth across the screen, stop to fire arrows, cling to the walls to change his arrow trajectory, and even magnetize his arms to pull Zero into a slam attack. While contact damage is actually quite forgiving in Zero, getting hit by a single attack dead on can change the course of an entire boss fight. Zero only has so much health, and defeating bosses requires being able to read visual telegraphs while picking up on audio cues. The majority of bosses have unique voice clips for each attack, making it possible to counter everything– so long as you actually know-how. 

In the case of Aztec Falcon, it’s possible to comfortably counter everything he throws at Zero (especially since he only has one courtesy health bar, instead of the usual two for bosses.) Zero actually pulls his sword back on the Z-Saber’s first swing. Perceptive players can use this to their advantage, letting the magnet pull them close to Aztec Falcon before slashing him with a backwards swing and dashing away. As far as his arrows go, it’s just a matter of being patient, recognizing where his attacks are landing and reacting accordingly.

This react and attack design philosophy (combined with the appropriate stunlocks) makes up the bulk of Mega Man Zero’s boss design. These are one on one fights to the death, but Master X’s Guardians take things to another level. For the majority of players, these will be the hardest bosses in the game. Coming in unprepared, without the correct element chip, truly demands if not mechanical mastery, a deft understanding of how to control Zero. The most challenging of the bunch is, not coincidentally, the only one who can’t be reliably stunlocked: Phantom. 

Weak to nothing, players have no choice but to endure Phantom’s relatively long fight. He creates shadow clones of himself, throws out Shurikens & Kunais, has his own set of sword combos, and will actually try to kamikaze attack you at the end of their second fight, potentially taking Zero with him. This is a tough boss fight with no easy workaround, but it’s one of the most fun in the game, offering players plenty of variety in how they approach Phantom. When Phantom starts making his shadow clones, Zero can either: attack the real Phantom by spotting his unique glow amongst the clones, or fire his Buster into the first clone he sees, triggering Phantom to spawn directly above him. 

The first time players trigger this will likely be a mistake, but once you know he reacts this way, it’s possible to bait Phantom out of his cloning technique, turning his opportunity for espionage into an opportunity for you to attack. On the flip side, allowing him to go through the full technique can potentially net Zero several free hits if you have a keen eye for visual details. Instead of jumping over Phantom’s Shuriken, players can dash under it, prod him from below with their Tri Rod, and then dash out of the way when he leaps down, potentially scoring another hit depending if they can react fast enough. With the right timing, players can even land a quick two-hit combo by following a slash with a Tri Rod prod. All this might be easier said than done, but building up the skills to get to this point is half the fun of Mega Man Zero

Of course, for those struggling, there is a way to alleviate Zero 1’s at times obscene difficulty. Boss weapons have ensured that player progression has been a part of the Mega Man series since day 1, becoming an even more intimate aspect of the series beginning with X, but Zero’s more personal, RPG inspired approach to game design allows less skilled players to comfortably build the skills they need to do well without feeling perpetually blocked. A nice dose of science fantasy, Cyber Elves replace Heart Tanks, Sub Tanks, and armor pieces as upgrade systems. All the bonuses associated with these collectibles can still be obtained, but the process now involves currency: E-Crystals. 

It isn’t enough to find a Cyber Elf in the wild. Instead, they need to be leveled individually. Zero can go to any Trans Server (essentially the game’s warp point) and feed Cyber Elves with E-Crystals he obtains from stages. Once fully fed, Cyber Elves can then be equipped and consumed by Zero. Large squared Cyber Elves bestow permanent upgrades (a health boost, a permanent Sub Tank, double defense) while smaller squared Cyber Elves offer temporary bonuses (quick heal, stun enemies, rescue Zero from a bottomless pit once.) This can be quite the grindy process on what players choose to prioritize, as well. 

Those wanting to use large elves without grinding too much will likely only have enough E-Crystals for one natural permanent upgrade by the end of the game (if that.) On the flip side, players will naturally find enough E-Crystals to afford to use a bunch of smaller Cyber Elves, making individual stages easier at the expense of permanent upgrades. There’s a give and take that needs to be considered, but that the variety is there at all is not only nice, but makes an overwhelming game far less daunting. Players just need to bite the bullet on the Cyber Elves themselves. 

Once used, a Cyber Elf is permanently gone. Using a Cyber Elf also lowers Zero’s end of stage rank, but there’s more to the ranking system beyond whether or not to use elves. Rank is based on: the time it takes to finish the stage, how much damage Zero has taken, how many enemies Zero has killed, whether or not Zero completed his stage-specific mission (protect Ciel, keep a Resistance member alive,) and– as mentioned– Cyber Elves used. A rank system is a great idea in theory that encourages players to better themselves at the game, but its execution is flawed. 

The most glaring issue comes from enemies killed criteria. More often than not, stages will not place enough enemies in the natural path towards the boss door. If players want to earn as high a rank as possible, they’ll need to backtrack and respawn enemies to kill– but this eats up time and players risk damaging Zero. You need to go back and do this for a perfect rank, but doing so is a risk that could result in players ending the stage with an even worse rank than they would have otherwise. This is especially jarring because level design isn’t even primarily focused on platforming, instead prioritizing action and enemy placement.

Zero 1 does feature a fair bit of platforming, the best of which tend to lead to tucked-away Cyber Elves, but the worst of it is crippled by camera issues. The very same mission where Zero engages in an incredible boss fight against Phantom is immediately followed by platforming hell, as players are tasked to platform through an area with a continuous bottomless pit, all while avoiding enemies & hazards, on the lookout for bombs the entire time. Oh, and there’s a time limit. The GBA’s screen size makes it very difficult to see where everything important is. It’s entirely possible to miss a bomb because of the zoomed-in camera, forcing players to backtrack through the hardest level in the game. This is a stage that all but guarantees player deaths. 

It may seem at odds with the core design, but Zero 1 doesn’t expect you to rank well right away. In fact, most players are better off ignoring rank altogether for their first playthrough. Go with the flow and learn the game before committing to the extreme that is Mega Man Zero without Cyber Elves. That said, it should be pointed out that Zero 1 is arguably at its best on hard mode. Cyber Elves can still be used, but the majority of Zero’s skills are now locked. His sword is stuck with a 1 hit combo, the Triple Rod only has its base prod, and the best the Buster Shot & Shield Boomerang can do are hit their first tier charges. But it’s in stripping Zero of his best abilities where the boss design shines even more. 

Players can actually still make use of stunlocks courtesy of element chips & the Shield Boomerang, but Zero now takes 50% more damage from enemies, meaning there’s even less room for error than before. With a limited move set, it becomes clear that Zero 1 was blatantly designed with hard mode in mind. Why don’t Zero’s combo chains work against bosses? Because they’re not a part of hard mode. Instead hard encourages players to use everything Zero has access to. Complacent players will go through normal with just their Buster and Z-Saber, but getting through hard without using the Triple Rod to kill enemies at an angle or the Shield Boomerang to stun bosses is a recipe for disaster. 

A and S Ranks even unlock new attacks for bosses, which should be especially fun for skilled players. This may seem like a punishment, but all these moves do is add a desperation move of sorts for bosses. These arguably should have been a part of their default kit, but it’s certainly kind of IntiCreates to reserve the hardest-hitting attacks for only those players who have proven themselves capable of handling it. This is not an ideal ranking system by any means, but it gives Zero flavor. It also gives Zero codenames. 

Perhaps the core idea that the original Mega Man Zero pushes is that Zero himself is a hero. Time and time again, characters reference his lost legend. This is a world that has seemingly forgotten Zero– or at least one whose leaders want him forgotten. Every time players defeat a boss and complete a mission, it’s not just a victory for Zero, it’s a victory for his status as a hero. The ranking system plays with this, giving Zero a codename that conveys what he is to the people of this world: a Warrior, a Sniper, a Hero. But the codenames do swing both ways, with lesser players being bestowed the Slowpoke, Fearful, and Lazy codenames to list a few. This flies in the face of the themes Zero 1 is pushing on a surface level, but the theme arguably resonates more when players are actually forced to prove themselves. 

Narratively, Zero shows the consequences of the world seen in the X sub-series. Reploids who the Maverick Hunters used to protect a century ago are now being hunted by them, and players find themselves playing as an amnesiac Zero assisting a terrorist organization that’s actively conspiring against X and his utopia, Neo Arcadia. It’s ultimately revealed that X is a copy, but this in itself is important. Neither Zero or Copy X have a genuine connection to the past. The former remembers nothing while the latter “remembers” everything. That said, while Zero can’t remember anything, he’s nurtured & guided by Ciel. The leader of the Resistance, Ciel recognizes the legend Zero left behind during the course of the X series, awakening him to help the persecuted once more.

Compare Zero’s role, and his relation to Ciel, to that of Copy X. Copy X was a clone of the original X created by Ciel. For all intents and purposes, he is a perfect physical recreation of X. The difference here being that because Copy X had all of X’s memories, Ciel left him to his own devices. On his own, however, with no personal attachment to Reploids grounding him or a sense of nurtured empathy, X’s philosophies become warped, turning him into a fascist dictator in the name of Justice. Where Zero’s legend was lost, X’s was twisted into something that ideologically opposed everything he once stood for. 

Interestingly, Copy X being a copy doesn’t get the real X off the hook. Turned into a Cyber-Elf, X reveals at the very end of the game that fighting without Zero jaded him, turned him cynical, and eventually led him to a point where he was totally apathetic towards all the violence. For a character who agonized over the nature of forever wars at the end of each entry in the X series, this puts into perspective just how dramatic the Zero series is going to be in comparison to its predecessors. Mega Man X had always promised a darker, more mature storyline for the series, but it arguably didn’t reach that point until the very end of X4. Even then, X’s ideals always ensured there was a hope at the center of the sub-series. 

Zero 1 puts in no uncertain terms that X and Zero fundamentally failed. What peace X could temporarily achieve in Zero’s absence morphed into something totally uncontrollable, with Reploids actively hunted for no reason other than Copy X’s extreme prejudices. Interestingly, there’s actually not too much in the way of story. Every mission has dialogue at the start and at the end, but the plot generally happens in the background, with players needing to infer the consequences of Zero’s actions and speak to NPCs in the hub world. 

Which in itself is worth mentioning. Rather than selecting stages from a menu, Zero has access to the entire Resistance base, one filled with NPCs to talk to. The base is even littered with free E-Crystals between missions to encourage Cyber Elf use as early as possible. The idea of a “town” with NPCs who say new things as the plot progresses isn’t alien to Mega Man (see Legends,) but it hadn’t been done in the 2D games yet. Not just that, Zero can actively repopulate the base by completing missions, lending the impression that the hub world is livelier and dynamic than it ultimately is. It’s an illusion, but a necessary one for Mega Man Zero’s identity. It doesn’t want to be the next chapter in the Mega Man X sub-series. This is the start of something new entirely. 

Even the mission failure/success system is an attempt at circumventing the typical 8 Robot Masters formula. Upon getting a game over, certain missions can be outright locked out, with Ciel informing Zero that they canonically failed. This can naturally result in players missing quite a bit of content, but the fact Zero is willing to punish players so harshly is commendable to an extent. Real consequences in games are rare, and a novel take on a familiar structure that can make you feel just as much as a hero as a zero is a very clever way of addressing that. Even if it isn’t all that fun when it happens to you. 

Mega Man Zero’s RPG elements are frankly as odd as they are at odds with the game’s design, but they allow for less skilled players to take a crack at Zero 1– whether to learn the game as best they can before their next playthrough, or just for the fun of it. Not just that, weapon leveling and Cyber Elves simply add a nice dose of variety into the game. Mega Man Zero 2 would immediately course correct the first game’s failings– notably the rank system, level design, and grindiness– but it only makes sense in hindsight why Nakayama redesigned Zero so radically. Zero was always its own beast. IntiCreates would better refine the series as they went along, but the original Mega Man Zero was a charming fresh start for one of gaming’s premiere franchises. 


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3 comments

L March 17, 2020 at 12:17 pm

You didn’t play the original mega man or mega man x series, it was just as hard, this doesn’t look nearly as difficult. You had to have a strategy for the original games, the bosses were not too bad, but sigma was a pain.

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h March 24, 2020 at 1:10 pm

The Zero series is about as hard as the classic series, but it’s definitely way harder than the X series. The X series is pretty easy

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N March 17, 2020 at 9:50 pm

I’ve played every megaman game out there, Megaman Zero is definitely one of the harder ones. It also has a broken continue system that adds to the challenge (frustration). You’re 100% right that sigma (and most of his stage bosses) were very difficult though. I personally think they were the only challenging part of X though.

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