Alpha males are born, not manufactured in robotic laboratories


Mega Man X4 (1997)

It’s a competitive time to be a man, and you might be well aware that there’s nothing more fragile than the male ego. As a man, you may have had occasions in your life where you found yourself at risk of looking small or weak, and you had to fight back – like those impassioned little terrier dogs you see causing a ruckus, or when Napoleon started running amuck in Europe. And as a woman, you may have borne witness to your boyfriend making a right show of himself, after some well-hung hunk tried to chat you up. A man lives in fear that the bigger fish, the more dominant alpha male, will be along very shortly to prey on him. And when it happens, you just have to take your licks.

But it’s quite another thing to be made look insignificant by your best friend. I’m thinking of poor old Ron Weasley here. I’ll hand it to him, it takes a lot for a mouthy young man with violently ginger hair to look invisible, but he managed it next to Harry Potter. When Ron foolishly tried to take up a bit of Quidditch, he ended up being mostly rubbish (fluke performance in the Cup final aside) while Harry was the star player. Harry was the Triwizard Champion for Hogwarts, which really showed poor Ronald up. and had him seething at the bespectacled Boy Who Lived. Harry even married Ron’s sister, taking the powerplay to its natural conclusion. How do you compete with that? How do you break out of the shadows?

That’s a tough question which Mega Man X must answer in his fourth game, because his effortlessly cool, blonde-ponytailed comrade Zero is now finally fully playable. You could use Zero for about five minutes total in X3, only to see him fall helplessly into a bottomless pit you could and put himself out of contention for the rest of the game. Here, you can select Zero right from the off, and he’s got his own range of sword moves, a range of moves wider than his vocal outbursts – he’ll hoo-ha-ho-yeah-yeah his way through the levels, and though his Z-Saber isn’t as devastating as before, he’s fairly strong and acrobatic.

Whether you pick X or Zero, the game is certainly a sight easier than its SNES brethren for the most part. This is particularly true if you play as X and you find the chip which allows you to fire a huge plasma shot. If you can contend with its annoying noise on hitting enemies, you’ll find it’s overwhelmingly powerful and fairly rips through enemies and even the Maverick bosses – so much so, you might want to consider not picking it up to preserve some challenge.

The Mavericks are the usual efforts as well. This is probably the last X game where the names made any kind of sense. Honestly, you tell me what an Infinity Mijinion is. I suppose a Kuwanger from the first game ain’t much better, but Cyber Peacock I can sort of understand. Web Spider, I can definitely understand. Living in the woods, he (probably) gets burned to bits by the fire weapon, which is the best Maverick weapon to get because it’s actually a Ken-style flaming Shoryuken. It makes Mega Man X2’s Shoryuken look pedestrian. No, honestly, it’s true.

As for other chip upgrades, unfortunately there’s no upwards airdash like X3, no suicide vest like in X2, and indeed there’s no Hadouken or E. Honda Hundred-Hand Slap for you to get your hands on – all you get as a special emergency move is a longer and faster air dash. In general, the upgrades are fairly easy to find, in keeping with the general theme of the game being a trifle easier. Mind you, I say that, but the final boss (who is shrouded in mystery but actually turns out to be that big baldy bouncer Sigma, would you believe) is about a hundred shades harder than the rest of the game, so best of luck there.

I should also point out for the record, and this is something that may come to the fore in that very same Sigma fight – that X is voiced by the same VA as in Mega Man 8 i.e. a girl. I’m not going for a misogynist angle here, not at all. But when you get knocked down to low health and a high-pitched raspy voice gives it “It’s time to get serious!”, you’re not exactly filled with confidence. As it turned out, Capcom never did get the English voice of X right throughout the series.

And it’s important that there’s a bit of voicework to talk about, because this is PlayStation and Metal Gear Solid was on its way, an unstoppable juggernaut of vocal thespianism. Capcom had already thrown their hat into the VA ring with Resident Evil, in an attempt that you’d be generous to call laughable. But X4 brings a few anime cutscenes, this time with voice-acting. Of course, there’s a few more laughs to be had here – although I love the aesthetic of proper 90s anime, when you have Zero loudly groaning “What am I fighting fooooor” in a now infamously wretched delivery, you can’t help but titter.

Still, even better than the anime cutscenes are the regular ingame graphics. Thankfully, Capcom didn’t fall into the trap of trying to coax Mega Man X into the 3D sphere in the same way that you’d try to force a protesting pet dog outside for the first time (they would later try and fail to do exactly that with X7). This means that its 2D spritework on offer this time, with colourful backgrounds and foregrounds that all look fantastic to this day.

The music quality has graduated too, since we’re now on CD. The SNES chip may have imposed many limitations on game music composers, but that still didn’t prevent some of the greatest songs in all of gaming from originating with the first three Mega Man X games. With less limited instrumentation, X4’s soundtrack is plenty more varied. There’s some pretty nice songs here, as you’d expect from Capcom – I particularly like the Streets of Rage-esque Storm Owl and the panpipes of Web Spider’s stage. You will prefer X1’s soundtrack of course, but there’s good stuff in X4.

And really that’s the theme of this game – X4 closely mirrors X1 in that it’s a great start for X’s life on the next-gen console, it’s got new ideas, and it’s fresh enough to definitely warrant a playthrough or three. It’ll then go on to have two sequels on that console that’ll lack polish in comparison, give you eight more ridiculous bosses with even more ridiculous names – and be rare as hen’s teeth in Europe for anything less than three figures.

20 August 2019

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