- Original Platform: Game Boy Advance
- Current Platform: Game Boy Advance, Nintendo DS, Wii U Virtual Console
- Developer: Inti Creates
- Publisher: Capcom
- Release Date: September 10, 2002 (NA)
The world has gone to hell. It has been a 100 years since Mega Man X and Zero last battled Sigma for the fate of the world, and the humanoid robots known as ‘reploids’ run in fear of extermination under a new tyrannical government called ‘Neo Arcadia.’ Zero is awaken from stasis by a reploid scientist named Ciel, in her desperate attempt to find salvation against the extermination squads that relentlessly hunt her people. With little recollection of his past or identity, Zero finds purpose in helping Ciel resist against ‘Neo Arcadia’ and confront its ruthless dictator who calls himself ‘X.’
Mega Man Zero is a spin-off series that also happens to be a direct continuation from the Mega Man X series storyline, which alternatively stars X’s former partner Zero as the main protagonist. Anyone who has played any of the previous titles will find the basis of Zero‘s gameplay very familiar; Zero can run, shoot, slash his iconic saber, dash, dash jump, and scale walls to traverse environments. You are given the freedom to select the order of stages you wish to complete – although at a much more limited extent this time – and there are weapon power-ups and items to collect.
The similarities end there however. Overall the design and direction of Mega Man Zero has strayed quite drastically from its traditional style, instead opting for a more ‘open world’ type of game. You are given a home base, or safe hub which is used from the beginning to the end of the game, which you can freely explore and encounter numerous NPCs you can interact with. After completing stages or ‘missions’ their respective areas can be revisited by wandering through the open world seamlessly interconnected around your home base, or eventually by quick travel once you discover its ‘trans server station.’
This drastic change would feel quite refreshing and welcome, if it didn’t feel so underdeveloped. The open world is pretty small and contrived, and seems to serve little purpose, other than to provide a means to grind for resources and power-up weapons by killing respawning enemies.
With this more open world approach to its design Zero abandons the tradition of selecting between 8 stages and defeating a robot master, instead you are given a limited selection of missions which can potentially branch out into new ones if successfully completed. Most of the stages do at least usually end with an appropriate boss fight, but some of them aren’t like your typical encounter from the X series, such as a giant core mounted within a train, or a robotic serpent which fires different elements from its multiple heads. Only a few bosses will drop a power-up as well, unlike Mega Man, Zero doesn’t copy the enemy’s weapon when defeated.
One of the main ways Zero alternatively expands his repertoire of moves and abilities is by increasing his skill with various weapons, which requires killing enemies over and over again in RPG-style fashion. Over the course of the game Zero will unlock new weapons, which all vary in utility, such as the Triple Rod which can hit enemies in quick succession at close range, or the shield boomerang, which can block oncoming projectiles while you charge a throwing attack that hits enemies at medium distance. All weapons have their own individual tiers that Zero can progress through until they become mastered, which vary in size, based on the amount of stars displayed in the status screen. It is also important to note that Zero can have up to 2 weapons equipped at a time.
Zero can also collect power-ups called ‘Cyber-Elves,’ which are a one-time use item that can provide various buffs during missions. The majority of effects are only temporary but can be handy when in a pinch, such effects include: increasing the drop rate of items, rescuing you from pits or cutting the boss’s health in half for the current mission. There are also a few permanent buffs that can be obtained, such as increasing your run speed, your maximum health or provide a sub-tank, which can store health in reserve.
Usually the most beneficial Cyber-Elves require to be raised first before they can be used, which requires you to feed them crystals, a resource which you obtain by killing enemies. Unfortunately the amount of crystals needed can be demanding, especially when certain Cyber-Elves have multiple stages before they mature, with each stage requiring an exponentially larger amount than the last. It is possible to naturally progress through the game without barely reaching a fraction of the amount required to utilize them all. Tedious grinding therefore becomes mandatory if you wish to power up Zero and potentially increase your chances against the game’s challenge.
It may not be a bad idea either, as this game can be quite difficult. With limited lives, limited continues, and numerous ways to potentially die – many of them instantly – this game can be as punishing and unforgiving as old school games released a decade ago. Thankfully there is a save system that allows you to save your progress between missions, so if you find yourself doing very poorly, you can always revert to reloading your game. Yet, it may still do little to levitate the frustration you will likely experience while playing.
If certain missions become too overwhelming for you, you do have the option to abandon them, as long as they are not story driven missions. However it comes at a heavy penalty, as you will forever lose your opportunity to complete it in your current play-through, which also consequently means you loose out on reaping its rewards and playing any of its follow-up missions.
Death usually does occur fairly however, as it boasts fluent and responsive controls. Zero is easy as ever to maneuver around, able to effectively leap about, dodge attacks and then appropriately counter-attack enemies when used in skilled hands, although it can be a bit jarring at times that he can’t double jump like he could back in the X series. The only true criticism against the controls is the way you use your secondary weapon on the default setup, requiring you to hold the shoulder button and press the attack button for use. It may not seem like a big deal but it can get potentially awkward in the thick of action. Fortunately there is an option to change control schemes, which changes the shoulder button into a toggle switch so you can instead alternate between weapons instantly with a single button press. It arguably feels much more convenient, and seems a bit baffling they didn’t decide to make it the default choice.
The soundtrack is probably one of the most disappointing aspects of the game, with music that pales in comparison to previous titles, especially with the rock, alternative, and techno infused tracks from the Mega Man X series. It really fails to make any lasting impression to compliment its energetic gameplay.
On the flip side, Zero features an intriguing and bold narrative direction. If the original Mega Man would be considered kid-friendly, and X for teens, than Zero is the young adult Mega Man. The world in Zero is grim and dark, were even morality is not so black and white. It makes the circumstances that bind both X and Zero all the more tragic, especially if one recounts the events depicted in Mega Man X 5. Despite the story’s simplicity and lack of resolution, it’s still genuinely gripping, with underlying dramatic themes that have carried through-out the series.
The graphics are also quite appealing, with detailed backdrops, vivid effects and large well animated sprites presented in a distinct anime style. The re-design of Zero however invokes mixed feelings, arguably his original design depicted in the X series is superior by comparison.
Aside from a few miss-steps, Mega Man Zero is a fun and addictive Mega Man game that should be admired for its brave and bold approach, making a long-running series feel fresh once again.