Replayability and parallel player context in Mega Man X

This is the first in a series of short essays I'm writing to highlight relevant design lessons we can derive from Super Nintendo games—specifically the ones I'm playing on my SNES Classic Edition. Check out the introductory post here for some additional context.

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Mega Man X

Capcom | 1993

It'd be irresponsible to talk about Mega Man X like it's the progenitor of a genre or a bold new franchise. Even in the context of its release in 1993, Mega Man X was seen as the logical extension of the NES Mega Man series—a bigger and flashier game that's ultimately quite faithful to the series's roots. But in hindsight, it's often regarded as the pinnacle of the entire franchise.

I'd have to agree with that. Mega Man X is, in many ways, the moment where it all came together: the inspired and challenging boss battles, interesting and dynamic power-ups, and a vibrant audiovisual suite that lends everything a memorable and very consistent tone. 

I've played through X dozens of times, and I still own a SNES cart that I trot out every few years. But when I fired it up on my SNES Classic for another playthrough, I tried to distill what it was about this game's design—a design I'm intimately familiar with on an intuitive level, if not an academic one—that makes it so accessible, influential, and replayable. And I think I've figured it out.

Remix Replayability

8 Mavericks; 40,320 possible routes

8 Mavericks; 40,320 possible routes

Back in the NES era, two concepts were pretty well-established early on: power-ups and open stage selection. Many games had power-ups players could collect that buffed their character. Likewise, many games also offered a stage-select feature that allowed the player to choose their own path through the game. 

Mega Man's initial genius was in combining the two in a synergistic way where the power-up you received from finishing a stage could give you a distinct advantage—assuming you chose your next stage carefully.

What Mega Man X does with this principle—which I like to call "remix replayability"—is connect these two concepts in even more intricate ways. The weapons you get from bosses behave very distinctly from one another: a sustained, short-range flamethrower behaves very differently from a horizontal tornado burst, for instance. And naturally, in keeping with the series's principles, these weapons are each effective against specific bosses, which encourages you to keep trying until you find the right combination. But there are a few significant wrinkles introduced into this game that alter the equation substantially:

  1. Weapons and equipment affect how you explore stages. Certain areas and items are only accessible with a specific combination of gear and weapons. Previous Mega Man games had instances of this, but nearly every stage in X has something you'll have to come back for—unless, of course, you've planned ahead.
  2. Certain stages are affected by your actions in others. For instance, if you take out Chill Penguin before you journey to Flame Mammoth's stage, you'll find the raging inferno replaced with a far more-traversable frozen environment.
  3. There are some deviously hidden upgrades, including—if you're really good at dash-jumping—early access to the upgraded X-buster weapon. This upgrade enhances not just your regular gun but also unlocks a new attack for each boss's weapon. This can have dramatic results; for instance, the bubble mid-boss in Spark Mandrill's stage is very difficult to kill with Storm Eagle's default gun, but the charge-up blast creates a very powerful sustained vertical storm that deals an embarrassing amount of damage. The joy of discovering these alternate attacks is often profound.

The result of this intricate design is an incredibly replayable game for all kinds of players. It's a joy to test your own skills and to master the game's interlocking mechanics in repeat sessions. No doubt this is also a large part of why Mega Man X is one of the most popular games in the speed-running community: despite decades of exploration, there's still room to shave precious seconds off the world record through more-precise routing.

Parallel player context

There are two games I'm playing when I play Mega Man X: the micro game and the macro game.

the micro game

This is what we usually think of when we think of Mega Man: running, jumping, shooting, climbing ladders, and dodging. My chief concerns are overcoming obstacles, taking out enemies, avoiding pitfalls, and watching my health and ammunition levels.

My mind spends about 80% of the time in this context.

The macro game

This is where the player forms and continuously iterates upon a strategy of their own devising. It comes up when you're deciding which boss to tackle first, which stage to go to next, and which power-ups matter the most. The macro game emerges as a result of investment in the micro game: once you've faced a few bosses without the right equipment, and once you've tracked down a few upgrades, you'll naturally begin to discern opportunities to optimize a future playthrough.

For instance, you may find yourself thinking: Wouldn't it be so much easier to take out Armored Armadillo if you could knock off his armor? Once you figure out how to do that, it doesn't just change how you approach that fight—it also dictates everything you do that leads up to that fight. You want the weapon that exposes its weakness, right? So you work backwards:

  • I want to expose Armored Armadillo's weakness, so...
  • ...I need to get Spark Mandrill's weapon first, but he's weakest to...
  • ...Chill Penguin's ice attack, but that boss is weakest to...
  • ...Flame Mammoth's attack, but! I also remember that Flame Mammoth's stage is far easier if two things are true:
    • 1. I've beaten Storm Eagle first, and
    • 2. I've also beaten Chill Penguin, since that freezes the stage and makes it easier to clear

As you can see, there's no one clear, ideal answer here. And this is just one of dozens of examples of meaningful player choices that the player discovers of their own accord while playing the game. At regular intervals, the player is encouraged to rethink their overarching strategy, maybe even restarting the game to exploit their newfound knowledge. Crucially, this happens naturally—the game doesn't drop text hints in your face or offer suggestions on which stage to tackle next.

This results in a very sophisticated and elegant loop between two concentric, asymmetric systems:

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There are many more tight micro loops than macro ones, but they converge regularly at meaningful decision points: boss fights, discovery of power-ups that are seemingly unattainable, and so on. And it's precisely the fine-tuned relationship between these parallel systems that gives Mega Man X its time-tested and largely unmatched replayability.

Speaking of which, I think it's about time I fired up a second playthrough. I've got a new path that I'm itching to try out...