The Mega Man ZX series seems to be a largely forgotten set of Mega Man games, rarely mentioned among the remaining fandom these days, and almost completely overlooked by casual fans of the series.
I recently replayed both games, so I was able to look at them from a modern perspective. Do they hold up to how enjoyable they were back at the tail end of the 2000's? For the most part, they absolutely do! Don't believe me? Here's why.
One Mega Man...And One Mega Woman
While previous #MegaMan games have let you choose a character in the beginning, ZX does it a bit differently by allowing you to choose the character's gender. It's left ambiguous as to whether or not both characters exist from an in-universe perspective, but they play mostly identically to one another and share striking visual similarities, to the point where it seems like they were designed to exist separately from one another.
This time I decided to play as Aile, the female lead, on normal. I beat it on easy as Vent the first time I played through, so now I have the added perspective of having played through both stories.
The first thing I noticed is that Aile's story seems to have more substance to it - you get extra tidbits about the murder of Aile's mother, the main villain Serpent's relation with The Guardians (the unit you end up working for) and the antagonistic Model W, and the reason her mentor Giro has his biometal changes. In Aile's game, he's always had it, whereas in Vent's game, he picks his up at the same time Vent does. This changes his character pretty significantly.
In Vent's game, Giro seemed to have a buddy cop relationship with Vent, while in Aile's game, he seems to play a more prominent guardian figure role. It's interesting how that works out, because Zero, the mentor figure from the Mega Man X series and very much Giro's equivalent in said series, filled both of these roles towards Mega Man X at different points in the series.
Vent, however, had at least one thing going for him over Aile - I much prefer Vent's voice for gameplay reasons. Aile's high pitched voice gets a little annoying after hearing it again and again throughout the game. The game only offers Japanese voice acting, and if you have any familiarity with the Japanese voice industry, you'll know that the pitch of some voices can get unbearably high at times. That is very much the case here.
Aile's personality is also portrayed differently from Vent's - Vent is very much a "nice guy" protagonist. He's your typical Saturday morning cartoon hero with a shred of self-doubt. Aile is much more forward, even snarky at times, and has more confidence in how she presents herself. While the changes in dialogue are minor, each character certainly adds their own unique flavor to the narrative experience.
An "Open" World
As for the game itself, the open world map shows its flaws much more clearly now that many other games have done it better since. I don't dislike it, but its novelty has worn off, and I realize that it feels kind of forced. The formula is still very much like the Zero series: you pick your mission, go to an area, and beat the boss. Having to find the area yourself ends up being more tedious than anything.
It does, however, serve as a neat way to hide collectables, and upgrades like life-ups and subtanks. The interconnected world makes you feel like you're actively searching for these things moreso than if there were a stage select.
This is the world map as it is presented in-game. Here, it presents itself as a grid. This is more like a vague rendition of the game's actual map, serving as a general overview and indication to what area is where.
The actual map, however, ends up looking more like this.
It is very Metroid in its design, and it isn't afraid to hide that fact. Every area is connected to another, and the transporters placed throughout each set of maps will take you to any area that you have already visited right away.
A Touch Of RPG
There are two "safe zones." One is in Area C, which you return to often. Area C is a zone that functions as a place of relative ceasefire, complete with NPCs to talk to and less baddies to fight. There's another in Area X, which is an airship completely removed from the rest of the map with members of The Guardians that you speak to. Both safe zones have numerous side quests for you to undertake from various NPCs.
These quests often involve finding X item from Y area. While they add more depth to the game, as each quest gives you more reason to fully explore each area or revisit areas that you would otherwise leave behind, they can become quite tedious, especially towards the end of the game.
By that point, you've been doing these sorts of quests over and over again, and the formula of "go here and get this" begins to grate on you. They are all optional, but some of the upgrades for your character can only be gained through side quests, so you'll likely wind up doing quite a few of them.
A Brighter World And Softer Music
The music is still amazing. It has a trance-like vibe to it that I feel sets it apart from the more rock-centric X and Zero games. It's for the game's benefit, too, I think - it fits the less oppressive atmosphere, which is also portrayed through the game's brighter colors and cheerier looking areas. X and Zero were all about the robot apocalypse. ZX is a lot more lighthearted than that, and the shift in musical style certainly helps to drive that fact home.
Biometals: A Unique Mechanic
Then there's the biometals. I love the biometals.
The biometals supposedly contain the "souls" of the characters from the Zero series, which is a really neat nod to fans of those games. From a gameplay perspective, Model H, the Wind Mega Man, is significantly more useful than the other three, and Model L, the Water Mega Man, is barely useful at all, but they're still great fun to use, and it's super cool to be able to basically play as the Four Guardians from Mega Man Zero.
Model X having his double charge shot from Mega Man X2 is a nice touch for fans of the X series, and the fact that Vent/Aile use Model X as a base to merge with the other biometals is a nice allusion to the original Mega Man X's role as the prototype model on which all other models are based.
I do wish that Model ZX, which is a fusion of X and Zero, had a bit more visible influence from X. What's the point of having a "ZX" character when the traces of X are barely visible?
It's Not Over Yet
Luckily, ZX got a sequel with ZX Advent. Interestingly enough, it turns out that protagonists in this game, Grey and Ashe, play slightly differently, so my experience in this most recent playthrough had an added level of freshness to it (I went with Ashe last time, Grey this time). Vent/Aile return in this entry, as older and more capable characters. They fill in the "older brother/mentor" role that the Mega Man series is known to focus on.
This is, in my opinion, very, very cool. Whereas in the X series, especially in the first Mega Man X, you worked hard to reach your mentor's level, you were always playing as X, even after you caught up to your mentor Zero. Seeing your character from the last game from a third person perspective helps to cement them as the "powerful other," with the new sense of distance painting them as having lived up to their mentor's legacy in a more complete and effective way.
On that note, both Vent and Aile have cooled off a lot since their last appearance, although Vent still retains his nice guy persona and Aile is still a slightly cynical wise cracker. Once again, they cannot exist simultaneously, with Vent appearing in Ashe's game, while Aile appears in Grey's.
Rogue Gallery of Mega Men
This time around, each biometal is in the hands of another, antagonistic user, giving more personality to that particular biometal and allowing each of them to have more of a presence in the story. There is very much a Ronin Warriors/Power Rangers style presentation going on, with each user transforming into an elemental, color coded Mega Man using their respective biometal. It may be a bit cheesy, but it's infinitely more engaging than the way the biometals were treated in the first ZX, where they functioned as mere upgrades to collect.
An Upgrade in Plot
While I didn't touch on the plot of the first game, I think it's worth mentioning how well the story flows from the first game to its sequel. Mega Man games aren't exactly known for stellar storytelling, so any attempt at continuity is appreciated.
The story takes a very interesting approach that no other Mega Man series has done by replacing the protagonist entirely. I love when games do this and still tell a related narrative (Resident Evil, Metal Gear Solid), so I'm a pretty big fan of this decision. Grey/Ashe's relation to Model W, the evil biometal at the center of both games, allows the story from the first game to advance in ways that it couldn't have if Vent/Aile had remained the focus.
I've said many times that I fell in love with Mega Man for the wrong reason, as I'm smitten with its story, world and characters, which are admittedly fairly barebones and cliche in their execution. Starting with the Zero series, however, it appears as if Capcom started putting a little extra effort into the plot and its writing, creating a much more cohesive narrative with clear cut story arcs and characters that have a bit more depth to them. It was a nice treat to see that trend continue with ZX and its sequel. Unfortunately, the story ends on a massive cliffhanger, one that will likely never be resolved.
Better Power-ups, Easier Traversal
Gameplay wise, they got rid of the Metroidvania map from #MegaManZX, at least to an extent. You still have to move from Point A -> B/C/D, but the map is so much more streamlined that there are no more "where do I go?" moments that will have you running to a map on GameFAQs.
Once again, Model H steals the show as the only real useful-at-all-times Biometal aside from Model A and ZX, but all (14!) transformations have their place. You get to play as the bosses this time around, as Model A copies the form of its enemies directly, which is both great as a novelty and fun in practice.
My only complaint with the models this time around is how Grey/Ashe are constantly shifting back to Model A every time they enter into a cutscene or conversation. This becomes a problem especially after you copy Model ZX, which is almost objectively a superior model, and it becomes troublesome to have to keep switching back to it. Overall, however, this is a relatively minor gripe.
My opinion on the games remains largely the same as it was the first time I played them, which is that they are great games, some of the best Mega Man titles, and fantastic additions to the DS library. I prefer the first ZX, but only by a small margin. I would highly recommend both games, especially as they seem to get overshadowed by their more successful and well known brethren in the Mega Man series.