Tag Archives: Mega Man Zero

Zero Two

When I got my Game Boy Advance SP many years ago as a wee tween I was very excited about some of the games I could play. Obviously, there was Pokémon Ruby because, c’mon, you gotta catch ‘em all. Then there were the new slew of Mega Man games, like the Battle Network series, an RPG where you bounced between Lan in the real world and Mega Man in the digital, fighting viruses and the such in an adorably nascent look at cyberwarfare. More importantly, however, there was the Mega Man Zero series, a sequel of sorts to the Mega Man X games set a hundred years after and starring an amnesiac Zero, the deuteragonist of the original X games.

Zero was very much the Han Solo to X’s Luke Skywalker in the X games, the cooler secondary character (and sometimes villain, so maybe less Han). He became a playable character in X4 and offered a different gamestyle; eschewing X’s buster for his Z-Saber, requiring an even more agile approach. Anyway, in light of that, a series with him as the lead was naturally exciting to my younger self. 

After ranting writing about the games a couple weeks ago, I decided to replay them because, c’mon, they’re great games. So I bought myself a headphones adapter for the very same Game Boy Advance SP as a couple paragraphs ago. Sidebar: why the headphones? The Mega Man games have an excellent soundtrack and the Zero series is arguably the best of the best. They were mainstays for essay writing in college and are still great writing music, so of course I want to be able to re-experience those tunes while playing on the subway. If I’m gonna replay these games, I’m gonna do it right. 

And man, are they fun, in ways I don’t think I really appreciated sixteen-odd years ago. In stark contrast to a certain more recent iteration, the controls of the Z games are razor-sharp, the level design punishing but fair. When I die, I know it’s because I mistimed a jump or misread an enemy’s attack. The games are hard: you don’t have a lot of health and some enemies dish out a good chunk of damage. Compounding it all is the games’ grading system: after every mission, you’re assigned a rank and score, with points negated for taking too much damage, using a continue, or failing a part of the mission — amongst others. Wanna use a cyber-elf to increase your health or make your saber stronger? Cool, but good luck getting an S-Rank with that. You don’t need to clear a mission with a high rank, but it creates a fun incentive to be better at the game.

So I finished the original Mega Man Zero last week and started on the sequel recently. It’s a marked improvement over the first, far more refined and sleek looking. The first’s aesthetic was very worn, everything from the start menu to the character portraits are much more crisp in Z2. Game systems have been tweaked and refined; the stage select looks more like a ‘normal’ Mega Man game’s and unlockable forms that change Zero’s stats are added to switch up gameplay a little. Furthermore, learnable skills are now rewards for clearing a stage with a rank of A or S.

Where sometimes a big change is a great part of a new iteration of a game or what-have-you is excellent, Z2 is one of those that builds on what came before. Sure, the sprites are mostly the same and the core gameplay is essentially identical, but the effort is put instead into refining what already works.

I’m really looking forward to replaying Z3. Beyond being one of my two favorite Mega Man games (X5 is the other), it’s where things really reach their peak. The EX Skills and Forms from Z2 are carried over and a few other customization options are thrown in alongside some real fun stages and boss battles. As much as I enjoy playing new games, there’s something real fun about booting up an old one where I still have the stages half-remembered and appreciating it all over again.

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Menu-Assisted Narrative

Mega Man Zero ends with Zero facing down a hoard of Pantheons, his saber ready and his will resolved to fight every last enemy that crosses his path. The music swells and he charges off into battle.

The sequel picks up a year later and the opening stage is you, as Zero, still fighting the fight. The implication is clear: Zero’s been at it for the entire year since the first installment. It offers a neat sense of continuity between the two games, and Zero constantly using his tired/low-health animation instead of his usual idle one definitely lends itself to the sense of weariness found in the scene.

But that’s not the best part.

Hit start and you’ll bring up the pause menu. Menus are perfunctory things in most games; maybe a game will dress it up like an in-universe tablet, but for the most part, they’re utilitarian places to change loadouts or access options. Mega Man Z2 uses the menu to communicate atmosphere: it features the exact same design as the one from Z1, this time with cracks and broken parts. Zero has been fighting for so long, the pause screen is falling apart.

After the level, when Zero gets repaired and is ready to go back out on missions, not only is his idle animation back to normal, but the menu is now redone and shiny — just as Zero is back and better than ever. 

In this game, the start menu helps tell the story. In the opening it displays the passage of time, then it shows that Zero is in perfect shape. It’s perfectly possible to go through the opening without once opening the menu and miss this bit of setting entirely. 

There are things we’ve come to just expect from video games. Call it ludonarrative dissonance, call it the necessities of mechanics, but we’re used to certain gamey things. Extra lives, pause menus, health meters, the list goes on. Sometimes, games can try and explain it, like the HUD in Assassin’s Creed being representative of the interface of the Animus as Desmond accesses Altair’s memories, but typically it doesn’t really matter. It’s when these mechanicy things are integrated into the narrative that things get really interesting. 

Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII has its Digital Mind Wave system. At first, the DMW seems like a kitschy mechanic; slots roll throughout battles and if the right numbers or characters line up, player character Zack Fair gets a stat boost or, sometimes, executes a cool attack. As you progress through the game, people who Zack meets get added to the DMW, and attacks and boosts based on them with it. Alright, cool; the DMW is representative of Zack’s psyche, an interpretation backed up by the flashbacks you’ll see when the reels align on one character. 

But then comes the ending.

So, uh, spoilers for a game that came out twelve years ago as a sequel to a game that’s now 22 years old, but Zack dies. On the run from evil corporation Shinra’s army, Zack tries to fight them off but eventually succumbs, passing on his legacy to Cloud (and leading into the original Final Fantasy VII). You get to play Zack’s last stand, an unwinnable fight with a foregone conclusion. It’s tragic and sad, and probably the last place you’d want a slot machine rolling in the top left corner.

Or so you’d think.

As the fight goes on, and as Zack weakens, parts of the DMW break and one by one the characters he’s met along the way are removed from the DMW. This mechanic you’ve come to rely on slowly becomes less useful, and the characters you — and Zack — care about are being taken from you as you die. It’s a visceral experience: something you’ve come to take for granted is slipping away. You feel the loss happening.

Video games are such a wonderful, fascinating medium. There aren’t many ways to smoothly integrate this sort of storytelling into other forms. An aspect ratio change could communicate Zero’s shift in film or television, but it wouldn’t be quite as obviously subtle. Perhaps a book’s font slowly growing more indistinct and faded would be able to communicate the sort of fading that Crisis Core’s DMW does, but would that be too obvious, too gimmicky? Maybe the only way to know is to try, but in the meantime, man, I love that video games can do this. Menus and in-game mechanics aren’t the sort of things we usually think of as ways to tell a story, and yet, these two games did. It’s honestly a shame that they don’t get more credit, and that more games don’t play around with their medium as much as they could.

 

Postscript:
I didn’t mention any entry in Metal Gear Solid because, dude, Hideo Kojima’s on an entirely different level when it comes to the interplay between games’ ludic and narrative elements.

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