Or: How I played a bunch of levels repeatedly in Mega Man Zero and learned to love it.
Honestly, I could never get into the Mega Man Zero series (Rockman, for you Japanophiles). Something was always a little “off” about the series in relation to Mega Man X. Sure, it’s a development of the plot, but the difficulty curve and ability set was very different from before. Mistakes are punished, continues are a no-no (though you can use them), and any items you use to make the game easier bring your level rankings down. It’s more similar to Devil May Cry with a thin overlay of Mega Man elements – well, that might be exaggerating a bit. I also hate the leveling mechanics for the weapons – grinding weapon levels never suited my tastes. Furthermore, the “open-world” nature of the first Mega Man Zero game just rubs me the wrong way – it’s Mega Man, a linear and challenging experience, not a scavenger hunt!
That isn’t to say I don’t like Devil May Cry, but I don’t neccessarily think it’s a great fit with 2D platforming. So, my copy of Mega Man Zero continued to be unplayed until recently.
I am happy to say that I, and the vast majority of the gaming public in 2002, were completely wrong about this series.
The controls, as usual, remain absolutely perfect; it’s only user error that causes death, or placing yourself in dangerous situation by being careless. The speed with which Zero can blast through levels borders on Bayonetta levels of speed; you can run through whole levels in a matter of a minute without getting hit, saber and shot hurtling through the air. Zero’s repetoirce, though simple, effectively presents the player with many options to make Zero a robotic ninja war machine. The emphasis on close-range combat with the Z-Saber’s prominence adds unbelievable tension to each fight (the Triple Rod and Shield Boomerang also require close range to be effectively used). Though it’s your most powerful weapon when used correctly, it requires reflexes and skill to use without getting hit. And getting hit is NOT a good thing.
You see, unlike most Mega Man games, that a simple continue or Retry won’t fix things. Rather, these decrease your overall rank in the game. If you want to experience the full challenge the game has to offer, you must maintain either an S or A rank; new enemies will arise, and bosses will use additional abilities on that level. However, you can’t use Cyber-Elves – this game’s equivalent of upgrades – if you want to ensure that you remain at this rank.
You can search for Cyber Elves like you would any item in a Metroid game; they give a variety of bonuses, from Sub-tanks to additional life. They have to be fed Energy Crystals, which you receive from killing enemies. This takes a LONG time, as upgrading Cyber Elves take a great deal of grinding and aimless wandering (good for weapon upgrades, in fact!) If you want to make the game easier, then, you have to invest time grinding out items. This is an innovative approach to difficulty; rather than give various difficulty levels, your performance determines the game’s challenge. It’s not perfect (grinding is boring here), but it’s a start.
Unlike most games, where I take every advantage I get, I intentionally gimped myself to play. I want to get the fullness of the challenge without respite, and I haven’t used a single Cyber Elf so far. Do I hate myself? Well, sometimes it feels like it. Trying to get high rank is a PAIN, given that you have to start missions over when you die. And dying is something you’ll do a lot.
Still, these elements haven’t dissuaded me from playing. I feel compelled to play, compelled to disobey critical opinions and simply defeat these challenges as they are. When you finally beat a boss after trying a level fifteen times, pushing through to victory by the skin of your teeth, it’s quite a feeling. That’s something you rarely get from games today (even if I have to manufacture the difficulty somewhat, it is obviously intended by the designers).
Games like this show a weird dichotomy between pleasure and pain – the pleasure of completion starts with the merciless pain of learning, retrying, and understanding what you did wrong without getting frustrated. Overconfidence and saying ‘I know the level” never helps me – instead, I rush through the level and die because of it. I need to focus, to know it was my fault, and pick myself back up. Blaming the game (especially one as precise and excellent as this) never helps; it only hinders. The game doesn’t help me; I have to help myself through the challenge. MMZ isn’t going to give me a break, so I need to attack and defeat it with all my might.
It’s not like your rank carries over to achievements or trophies, or that someone’s going to notice my perfect score run somewhere, but I want to do it. The developers don’t have to motivate me. The difficult obstacles they provide are reason enough to see how dastardly they get (the traditional Mega Man boss runs at the end must be rather hellish with my current stats).
There’s a good stubborness and a bad stubborness, far as I can tell. One persists without understanding; the other understands and persists with renewed fervor (so yes, it is “perseverance). The former, actually, may partially attribute to our imperfections and sinful nature. In Deuteronomy 29, Moses speaks to the people:
2 And Moses summoned all Israel and said to them, “You have seen all that the Lord did before your eyes in the land of Egypt to Pharaoh and all his servants and all his land; 3 the great trials which your eyes have seen, those great signs and wonders. 4 Yet to this day the Lord has not given you a heart to know, nor eyes to see, nor ears to hear. 5 I have led you forty years in the wilderness; your clothes have not worn out on you, and your sandal has not worn out on your foot. 6 You have not eaten bread, nor have you drunk wine or strong drink, in order that you might know that I am the Lord your God. 7 When you reached this place, Sihon the king of Heshbon and Og the king of Bashan came out to meet us for battle, but we defeated them; 8 and we took their land and gave it as an inheritance to the Reubenites, the Gadites, and the half-tribe of the Manassites. 9 So keep the words of this covenant to do them, that you may prosper in all that you do.
Throughout forty years of wandering, still Israel did not learn its lessons with the conviction you expect. Seeing theophanies and having God directly interact with creation wasn’t enough; it was punishment in the form of wandering that, for a time, made the Israelites a bit more thankful for God’s favor. How weird! But we do this all the time. We need to keep recognizing the reality of these events and experiences, not just as “belief X” but as something I believe with all my body, soul, and strength.
When people say “Christian’s aren’t perfect; they’re just forgiven“, it doesn’t nearly reflect the reality. We make light of it in a way, as we don’t reflect the cost of that forgiveness: Jesus dying horrifically on a Roman implement of brutal torture and execution.
This is why I don’t like it when people complain about something being “challenging” – it means that you deny the very component that makes a game a “game”, whether it be the developer’s preconceived levels or a human opponent’s mettle. When a game isn’t challenging, I wonder where it is, whether the game was dumbed down to appeal to a mass audience. I can understand, surely, the need for appealing to market forces, but it’s part and parcel of what made “retro” games memorable – the scaling of the highest mountain and the movement of said mountain by the childlike faith of a mustard seed (mixing my Bible verses together!).
Mega Man Zero fills that gap – pain leads to pleasure, and then back again. My perseverance is rewarded. And that’s a good thing, not a bad one.