Essays, Not Rants! 382: 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.