By Paul Kainoa Vigil / March 19th, 2015
(Be warned – there are spoilers ahead!)
Despite being the titular character of one of the more well-known Mega Man sub-series of games, Mega Man X as a character isn’t as popular as some of his other franchise-mates. The most easily-recognized Blue Bomber is the classic one. The Maverick Hunter with the most crossover appearances is Zero. Technically, Zero’s appeared in more Mega Man games than X has, though he hasn’t been playable in every entry. I feel it’s time to offer some reminders on why I love this character, and take a broad look at his presence in Mega Man games over time. I also have to make some comments on the red hunter who seems to have stolen X’s thunder (Zero’s already got his own Building Character entry!–which you should definitely check out.)
Mega Man X is the last robot built by Dr. Light, the creator of the original Mega Man and several other robots during the “Classic” era. Light lived his life committed to a future where robots and humans could coexist, but, after seeing the havoc Dr. Wily wreaked on the world for years, he needed a new approach beyond nuts, bolts and basic A.I. To that end, X was subject to what ended up being 30 years of “ethical testing” in a diagnostic capsule before he would be activated and released. Light would not live to see that day of his release, but what he was after with X had significant ramifications; X would have all the capabilities of what we call the human condition — the ability to to “feel, think, worry and grow.” He was to be an ambitious union of free will and conscience.
X’s personality and physical design resemble a generally older or mature version of the classic Mega Man. The name “X” is meant to recall the letter “x” as the variable it’s often used for in algebra. On more than one occasion, X has been identified as having “limitless potential.” This is reflected both in his personality (capacity of changing as a person) and his ability to acquire weapons from the enemies he defeats. It might also reflect the edginess of the 90’s where things were hardcore and awesome, but we’ll take it!
X was discovered by Dr. Cain years after Dr. Light passed away. He couldn’t truly comprehend X’s internal architecture, but he could more or less replicate it, and thereby produced many androids based off of X named “Reploids.” A Reploid is an entirely new class of robot; they are art imitating life, unlike standard robots which are obedient by default. These new Reploids eventually populated the earth, much like humans did, often working together and performing similar social functions. They were so similar to humans that they possessed the same capacity for “evil” — roughly defined within the world of Mega Man X as wishing to do harm to humans or other Reploids. This is a state known as being “Maverick,” and there is a variety of factors that can make a Reploid a Maverick: flawed programming, a choice borne of free will or viruses that induce Maverick behavior. I like to think of this as an interesting comment on evil in humankind, especially since Reploids were, for all intents and purposes, designed to be human.
To counteract the presence of Mavericks, the Maverick Hunters were formed. The Maverick Hunters are an elite police force of Reploids who fight against Mavericks wherever on the earth they pose a threat. Of course, the conscientious and battle-capable X eventually found himself in the group. At the start of the first Mega Man X game, X is a character who struggles to reconcile his desire for peace among all with his decision to fight against Mavericks. This particular angst is an internal conflict that exists in varying degrees for most of the series. If one spends so much time fighting, how sure can you be that you’re helping to protect society or making people and Reploids happy? In any case, this ambivalence is further heightened in the non-canon remake/alternate retelling game Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X — where X’s reluctance to fight is more pronounced.
One of the most well-known scenes in the X series is the aftermath of X’s loss to Vile at the beginning of the first game. After Zero frees X from the grip of Vile’s Ride Armor and forces Vile to escape so as to avoid a two-versus-one, X and Zero have a conversation that establishes the essence of both their individual personalities and their team dynamic. X laments his failure to stop Vile, and Zero reminds him that Vile is a highly-specialized combat robot. While Vile (and Zero) are indeed more powerful than X at the time, X possesses untapped potential that may allow him to surpass the two. X and Zero are characters that mutually support each other. Zero often clears the doubts in X’s mind.
It’s hard to perceive someone who tends to be more resolved as a more supportive figure, but, at times, that’s how it comes across when it comes to these two. Especially since X is still more of a protagonist than Zero during the X series. Incidentally, there’s an obvious reference point that reinforces this idea, and it lies with the Mega Man Zero series, where Zero is the protagonist and X is a supporting figure. As Zero awakens in a world foreign to him, X provides Zero with an emotional anchor and some answers to the ways of the new world — effectively a role reversal. Sometimes, it’s all about how the story is told.
I’d go so far as to argue that, in the iconic pre-battle dialogue against Dr. Weil during the end of Mega Man Zero 4, it’s suggested that X has helped Zero navigate the world after being freed from the Maverick Virus (“I never cared about justice, and I don’t recall ever calling myself a hero… I have always only fought for the people I believe in.”). Whereas Zero’s perception of morality is more straightforward — perhaps even black and white — there are still some dots that need to be connected before one identifies enemies and allies. X, with all of his worrying and reevaluating, has helped craft that.
X becomes more resolved (resigned?) to fighting for peace over time. Over the course of the series, it seems to have an ebb and flow. He goes as far as being willing to fight Zero if he thinks it’ll protect him in Mega Man X5, but also takes a time out during the events of Mega Man X7. The latter represents a significant low point for X’s character in the grand scheme of Mega Man mythology because, for the past three X games, Zero was, more or less, given the spotlight. X7 could’ve been different for X’s character, but a perfect storm of a new protagonist, grating voice acting and a generally unenjoyable gameplay experience made any attempts at reestablishing what makes X interesting dead on arrival.
A refusal to really explore and communicate X’s rationale makes him come across as incredibly dull, when exploring his reasoning for deciding not to fight (and his decision to return) would’ve made the game slightly more bearable. This being said, ultimately, X has been shown to take an interest in more political solutions to the conflicts that seem to recur, if one of the false endings of X5 (“Elysium”) and the establishment of Neo Arcadia are any indication. It became his outlet for his distaste of fighting. This also makes his opposition to Sigma (a Reploid who thinks that Reploids are held back from an unspecified greatness by coexisting with humans) and Dr. Weil (a human who desires to control Reploids and everything else because he loves power for its own sake) natural and consistent. In any case, what really held back X throughout the X series was that it appeared he was asking the same questions over and over again. Seeing as 2D action platformers don’t lend themselves to ruminating on Life, X’s internal struggles weren’t fleshed out all that well and required players filling in the blanks. As the series progresses, it’s often not X’s lack of resolve or power that holds him back, but, rather, an inability to grasp the ramifications of certain actions: a misjudgment of the bigger picture. How do we know this? You don’t – which is arguably a problem in the franchise’s storytelling.
My favorite quality about X is that he put more heart into the messages and ideas of the Mega Man series. I think he’s the truest representation of what Dr. Light’s goals were, and these ideals remain relevant far into the future. The Mega Man X series could have just been another dopey action series with simplistic themes that aren’t explored with much seriousness (which… still is the case, on some level.) However, as annoying as the execution of this personality trait may be, X’s constant worrying puts the Pause button on the action. It’s a reminder that all of the fighting should have a purpose. It’s why it was essential that X be the protagonist of the X series, even if Zero was given “the cool moments.”
Zero would not have made sense as the protagonist of the X series, partially because he was created by Dr. Wily (gasp!) and attempts to make that character embody the integration of robots into society seem too contrived without radically altering his personality. If Zero is the protagonist, and most everything else in the games remains the same, you’re left with one dramatic twist (“You were made by the bad guy from before! How shocking!”) with little lasting payoff that generally contributes to a sense that the franchise could have been well enough as a schlocky action movie. In addition, although Zero has moments where he does The Cool Thing, he loses charisma and depth over the course of the series. Ironically, these qualities hit a low right as he becomes the protagonist of the Zero series.
In short, please hug this blue Maverick Hunter. Who knows, maybe it’ll snap him out of a fit of doubt! But, really, after eight mainline games, one spinoff and a remake, there is still potential untapped within him as a character. Most recently, he probably hit a high point with Mega Man X8, featuring Mark Gatha’s voice talents (totally nailed the character, in my opinion) and a serviceable characterization. That being said, all of that was about ten years ago. His latest appearance was in the crossover title Project X Zone, featuring SEGA, Capcom, and Bandai Namco Games characters. The X series (and Mega Man in general) is quite unloved, and I hope to see this character return. As it is, I think this writeup doesn’t suffice!
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