Defending Mega Man X3

Mega Man X3 seems to get a lot of hate heaped on it. Of the SNES trilogy, it’s tended to get the lowest review scores. It hasn’t benefited from hindsight, either: a Nintendolife article from last year disliked it enough to give it a shocking 5 out of 10. The most oft-leveled criticisms are that X3 is too difficult or unfair, that its stages are overly large or complex, that there are too many power-ups to collect, and that the music sucks. After playing the game extensively at different points in my life, these complaints really baffle me. For me, the challenge is fun, the stage design is engrossing, the amount of power-ups adds variety, and the music is…

Well, okay, the music’s not great. Capcom brought in a new composer, and the soundtrack skews a bit too much towards guitar-shredding metal. Believe it or not, they made it even worse in the PS1 and Saturn versions. The music doesn’t live up to its predecessors, but it does have a few gems like this:

I’ll be honest, though: Mega Man X3 is definitely hard. In fact, I’d say that it’s the hardest game in the series — but only when you’re playing as basic Mega Man X. After collecting some upgrades, the difficulty melts away. X3 isn’t hard because of its final bosses, which are arguably easier than the first two games. It’s hard because the stages are large and complex, replete with spikes and pitfalls. It’s hard because the basic enemies are unforgiving. It’s hard because the Mavericks shift their patterns halfway through fights. And mainly it’s hard because of these fuckers:

These guys can get cancer.

On the left are Bit and Byte. They can get cancer.

Bit and Byte are tougher than most Mavericks, roughly comparable to the X Hunters from X2. The difference is that while the X Hunter fights were entirely optional, Bit and Byte are required. Bit begins to randomly show up as mid-bosses in stages after two Mavericks are killed, and Byte after five have bitten the dust. They also each have a weakness which destroys them completely, skipping a tough rematch later on. The math on that is simple: if you don’t get their weakness weapon, the Leg Upgrade, at least one Sub-tank, and a Heart Tank or two before killing two Mavericks, you’re gonna have a bad time against Bit.

There’s also Vile, a returning antagonist from X1, who starts showing up after two Mavericks are dead. Certain levels have transporters that lead to a special factory stage where X confronts Vile. Like Bit and Byte, Vile has a weakness that destroys him completely, skipping a tough rematch. He’s a complete dick who cheats by fighting in a ride armor and forcing you to do a timed escape sequence after his defeat.

Pictured: An extremely dickish robot.

Pictured: An extremely dickish robot.

To balance things out, the upgrades are more meaningful than in the first two games. The Leg Upgrade lets X dash straight up, effectively giving you a double jump. One Sub-tank makes a huge difference on Mavericks, as do Heart Tanks. Zero can be called in once per level to help out, which should be put to liberal use early on. He starts with a full health gauge and the amazing Z-Saber (which one shots most enemies), and is also just rad in general. There are also four Ride Armors that can be acquired and summoned from pads found in stages, which is really neat but ultimately doesn’t impact the game much.

What I really like about the game is how much it forces you to plan ahead. Route matters here, more than in the other games because of the increased difficulty. I can understand why people would be put off by X3, because it offers no guidance on the correct order to fight the Mavericks. It assumes you’re already a veteran of the first two games and are looking for a true challenge. I love games that never tell you directly where to go or what to do, but that have an intended order of operations, like Super Metroid or Myst. Many criticize X3 for being a sloppy cash-in, but after a bit of experimenting it becomes clear that the designers have a plan for the game, and it’s really pretty elegant.

Take Blizzard Buffalo’s stage: It contains the Leg Upgrade, easily the most useful upgrade in the game. The boss is easy and gives you the Frost Shield, a weapon that virtually guarantees enemies to drop health pickups. It also happens to be Bit’s weakness. It makes perfect sense to take on Blizzard Buffalo first when you consider all that information.

BlizzardBuffalo

Then there’s Tunnel Rhino. His stage has a Subtank available from the start and is pretty easy to get through, especially with Zero’s help. The boss is easy with the Leg Upgrade and gives you the Tornado Fang, a weapon that acts like Mega Man 2’s Crash Bomb to open various cracked walls throughout the game. It’s mission-critical, and also happens to be Byte’s weakness, so it really behooves you to take him down second.

The whole game unfolds this way. It looks like chaos at first and the choice of eight stages can be overwhelming, but when you consider the path of least resistance, there’s very little choice. To further illustrate: The Armor Upgrade, which reduces the damage by half, is in Volt Catfish’s stage, but you need Gravity Beetle’s weapon and the Buster Upgrade from Neon Tiger’s stage to get it, and it just so happens that Neon Tiger’s weapon is Gravity Beetle’s weakness. Thus, the only order that makes sense is Neon Tiger, Gravity Beetle, Volt Catfish. Of course, you wouldn’t know this until you’ve gotten your ass kicked countless times and learned the game through trial and error, but for me that only makes solving the puzzle more satisfying.

ArmorUpgrade

Another thing I really love about this game are the choices it gives you. Depending on what happens with Zero, Bit, Byte, and Vile, the bosses in the final stages change, as does the ending. And as in previous games, defeating Mavericks changes other stages. For example, defeating Blast Hornet disables his munitions distribution operation, weakening the enemies in other levels. Unfortunately, Blast Hornet is kind of tricky to face without many upgrades, so deciding when to challenge him is an interesting problem. All these options add a lot of replay value to the game, and offer a lot of opportunities to experiment with different strategies.

This is what it really boils down to for me: X3 is a very deep and rewarding game. Yes, it’s hard, and yes, the music is at times unfortunate, but it has troves of fun gameplay elements if you’re willing to really dig in. It isn’t for everyone, but it doesn’t deserve its loathed reputation. I definitely like it better than X2, and it’s without a doubt a fitting conclusion to the SNES trilogy.

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2 thoughts on “Defending Mega Man X3

  1. Never been a big fan of the Mega Man formula. Go here, die. Go here, die. Go here, die. Finally get one upgrade. Go here, die. Go here, die. Go here, die. Finally find the boss that the one upgrade works on and win easily. Rinse, repeat. I’m not that masochistic.

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    • The X series works a lot differently than the classic series. The balancing is a lot better, and the permanent upgrades you get make it so that you usually walk away from a stage with something, even if you can’t beat the boss.

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