Zero's Solo Debut is Stunner
It was said that the Megaman X series originally wanted Zero to be the protagonist. But fearing the fan's potentially negative response to the new character, this idea was scrapped... or at least postponed, and Zero was instead put as a partner-in-crime to Megaman X. But in 2002, Zero was given the individual spotlight in a remote outpost of a game in the Gameboy Advance.
So how did Zero handle the job of being numero uno in his solo debut, Megaman Zero? Well it pleases me to say that Zero didn't just succeed; He excelled the expectations. Indeed, Megaman Zero is a fluid action game that follows the concept of the original Megaman/ Megaman X games. But thanks to sharp controls, strong level design and presentation, Megaman Zero is an absolute gem that should be worth looking into.
The game starts off in the future after the X series. X is gone and off to do no good. And Zero is considered a legend and he was never found again...
A group of resistance fighters, led by human scientist Ciel, has found Zero's body while escaping from the oppressive, reploid-killing regime known as Neo Arcadia. Ciel wakes up Zero's body and the game starts there, with you controlling Zero and protecting Ciel from Neo Arcadian swabbies.
Of course, the Megaman franchise has never been known for storytelling, and the game boils down to you going through waves of enemies and bosses to finally reach the leader of Neo Arcadia.But there's something to be said about Ciel.
She does most the talking throughout the game by giving some post-mission pep talk, concerns about Zero, and of course some depressing moaning and groaning in general. She's probably the most emotional and realistic character in the game, and although it's really strange to admit it, I wound up liking Ciel almost as much as the badass Zero. If there was one thing I could change in the game I would've LOVED to see the relationship between Zero and Ciel be developed more (sorry, Iris fans). Or, at the very least, I would've KILLED to have Zero give a big romantic kiss to Ciel before the last mission of the game (since they are not going to meet until a year later, and that I think that they are as close as close could be and they both deserve more anyway.)
Other characters show emotions but they are very static charcters; Ganegriff the Elephant talks a lot about memory, Fenrir is a warmonger, the other guardians act like aristocratic snobs, and the new Megaman X (oops, spoilers) is the naïve wrong end of a joke of a "hero". But the characters fulfill their roles adequately on a personality basis. So while you have a lame plot, you have a cast of good, interesting characters, led by Zero and Ciel (or Ciel and Zero, oh whatever).
After saving Ciel in the first mission, you would be roaming around the base of the Resistance. There are some things to do. Mainly, you can feed your cyber-elves (we'll discuss this later), enter some certain past stages, talk to some interesting Resistance Reploid soldiers roaming around and you get to talk to them, or explore the area for more cyber-elves. The atmosphere in this hub is, at the very least, standard and adequate, especially since the atmosphere is expressed through text boxes.
Speaking of roaming around, the level progression of this game is also a little funky and different from Megaman games of old. Typically, in Megaman games, you fight bosses A,B,C,D and then the final boss. In Megaman Zero, however, there is some flexibility. For example, if you capture the factory, there would be another mission that asks you to protect it. If you rescue some reploids from a hidden base you earn the fire chip. If you fail to protect the base you get to fight against Hanumachine (boss) right after. So there is a lof of ways to go through the game. And although it's advisable to beat every single mission it's possible to beat the entire game when missing or failing 1 or 2 missions. It's an interesting design choice but it won't be too prevalent for the player.
So after hanging around base you would then talk to Ciel about a certain mission. The missions themselves are very unique and well-designed. Some would be short and some will be long (maybe even timed). You would need to escort an injured reploid back to base or stop a giant siege machine. You would need to break down computers and fight wave after wave of enemies in two other stages. Every stage brings something unique to the table, and unless you played the stage over and over again you would need to really be on your toes to avoid traps and excessive damage to Zero. So overall the stages are very very creative and they are fun to play in.
But other things that makes the stages fun is the difficulty level is the difficulty level and the grading system. The difficulty level is not "just right"; Rather, it's leaning towards difficult. In the beginning you would probably feel a tad bit overwhelmed because you would die a whole lot due to the bosses, minions and spike traps. But the difficulty doesn't discourage you; Rather it challenges you and draws you back again to the game, because 90% of all deaths would be based on human error and not the game taking cheap shots at players. And completing missions after so many tries does feel rewarding.
After you finish a mission you would be graded by the game. The game will give you a score out of a 100 based on
- how fast you finish the mission
- how many enemies you kill
- how many retries you took
- how many cyber-elves you used
- whether you succeeded or failed the mission
This system is beneficial to the game because it challenges players to do their best and it also gives players a great sense of achievement. Likewise, higher-graded players actually have a harder time because the bosses become slightly stronger. But this isn't such a bad thing, especially for those who do want a challenge.
In the game, you would collect these little shiny things called Cyber-elves. These elves are electronic code that can do stuff to help you. For example, one could heal you, others can save you from spikes or pits. One increases attack, one increases defense, the whole lot. While some of them are the pick-and-use variety, others need to be fed energy crystals (that you find throughout the game) before it could be used. Collecting and feeding them adds a bit of depth to the game experience (kind of like, Pokémon catch-em-all) but using such elves subtracts your score in missions from then on. So one needs to be careful in handling these cyber-elves.
Besides being an impressive 2D platformer, Megaman Zero could also be considered as one of the best looking games in the Gameboy Advance. The backgrounds are nice; Places that should look dilapidated look dilapidated. The spanking rich Neo Arcadia shrine does look spanking rich. Zero looks and animates so fluidly and so well, and this could also be said to many of the enemies and bosses in the game. The music is techno but it covers epic, menacing and exciting moods. They aren't going to go gold but they fulfill their roles well.
Story: 3.5/5. Not a great story, but Ciel is a great character. Hoped to see some romantic developments between Ciel and Zero, though
Gameplay: 5/5. Sharp controls, great missions, a challenging yet rewarding level of difficulty. What more could you ask for?
Presentation: 5/5. A stunning piece of art end to end. The music is as good as it could be and the graphics are top-notch
Bonuses, alternatives and replay value: 3.5/5. A medium-sized campaign, a couple of difficulty levels, along with the Cyber-elf search quest. They are fine but they clearly take a back seat to the main story and game.
OVERALL: 17/20 (4.25 stars, but I'll give it 4.5 stars)
Megaman Zero is certainly not a well-known game in the gaming world, but it could be as well-done as any of the Megaman classics that gamers know and love. I STRONGLY consider a buy, although I also do preach patience in this game. If you charge into the game head-on, thinking you would breeze right through this game, you are sadly mistaken. But with anticipation, experience and memory in hand, you would send Zero to do one spectacular S-ranked (highest ranked) performances on the small Gameboy Advance screen, and you will have an absolute blast. Therefore, this game should mostly be reserved with Megaman fans and experienced 2D platform gamers (or experienced gamers in general).
And hey, maybe Megaman Zero is just that one Zero/Ciel kiss away from being a classic itself.