The early-mid 00’s were an interesting time for the Blue Bomber. The OG series was in stasis, and the X franchise was floundering with disappointing entries. While the home console market may have been struggling, handhelds were keeping Mega Man afloat. The Battle Network games brought the character to a completely different genre, while splashy remakes for the PlayStation Portable proved the classic formula still worked. Straddling the line between the old and the new, though, was the Zero spin-off series. Released between 2002 to 2007, these side entries took the platforming the entire franchise was known for and switched things up. Previously relegated only to Nintendo handhelds, now all can get acquainted with the titles with the Mega Man Zero/ZX Legacy Collection.
Cobbling together six different titles, the Legacy Collection is the definitive way to experience both the Mega Man Zero and ZX franchises. Developed by Inti Creates, these games take place years after the events of the X series. Picking up on a plot thread from X6, the titular Maverick Hunter is woken up from cryo-sleep by scientist Ciel. Although the Maverick War ended in triumph for the good guys, the intervening 100 years have not been as kind. War has again broken out, this time over precious energy sources, and countless civilians are being massacred. Over the course of the four-game arc, Zero will need to beat back countless threats, lest the world once again be doomed.
Taking place even further into the future, the ZX series focuses on a new batch of protagonists. In Mega Man ZX, it’s either Vent or Aile, depending on which one the player chooses. Orphaned at a young age, Vent/Aile is raised by the owner of a delivery service, Girouette Giro. A mysterious package delivery changes their life forever, though. ZX Advent picks up a few years later but introduces another two new heroes. Either human hunter Ashe or amnesiac Grey will become one with the Biometal. Despite duo protagonists in both, there are only really minor story changes depending on which character you pick.
Since they build off of a different series, it can be hard getting invested in the Zero storyline. Right from the start, the first game is packed with words and events that you may have no familiarity with. I played through the X games when the last collection dropped, and I still had to refamiliarize myself with things. Still, it does get easier, and better, once it begins to build its own arc. Zero’s shift from unwilling ally to a pillar of the resistance is one of the better character arcs in series history. That being said, I’m not as enthused with the plot introduced in the ZX series. I didn’t care for either pair of protagonists, and even with additional development, the side-cast struggles to captivate. They lack a defining point of interest like its predecessor has with the titular cyborg.
Both the Zero and ZX series owe a lot to the traditional Mega Man titles, but they each put their own spin on the basic formula. The core run and gun mechanics that defined the franchise are still in play here. Zero may not have the Z-buster capabilities of X, but he’s no slouch either. What puts him a cut above his former ally is his Z-saber. It’s a powerful weapon that significantly alters how you approach each level. Each entry in the Zero series also introduces different sub-weapons for the Reploid to wield.
Reploid scientist Cerveau is always cooking up new tools, and each title brings with it a new one. In order of appearance, there is the Triple Rod, Chain Rod, Recoil Rod, and Zero Knuckle. For better or worse, each one places an important role in progressing through their respective campaigns. I do think they offer up more variety than the tools X had in his arsenal. Stealing enemy weapons with the Zero Knuckle is a neat gimmick, and both the Triple and Recoil Rods let you reach foes you normally couldn’t. However, I despise the Chain Rod. You need to use it to get around in Zero 2, and it is just terrible to use. It really did a number when it came to me enjoying that particular game.
The ZX titles do things a little differently. Instead of switching weapons, the protagonist fuses with different biometals. In Mega Man ZX, either Vent or Aile can transform into different modeled robots. Each one is a variation of the regular Model X, but with their own unique characteristics. In ZX Advent, you instead receive different models by straight-up stealing them from bosses you beat. It’s the natural evolution of the power-stealing the entire Mega Man series has been built on. Some of these forms hold greater importance than others, but that’s pretty much always been the case to be fair.
Despite their humble handheld origins, it’s kind of amazing how well these titles hold up in 2020. I’m a bit of a Mega Man apologist, so call me biased, but they feel remarkably at home in this day and age. The Zero series takes the classic gameplay of the series in some interesting directions — the first title in particular almost feels like it comes from an entirely different franchise. The other three offer a slight course correction, but they still feel different enough from the traditional.
The ZX series pushes these changes even further, and for the better. Interconnected levels and open-ended mission selection are sizable departures from the classic Mega Man structure, and it turns out that this set-up actually works really well for the franchise. You get ample opportunity to experiment with the different models, and while it can be a little easy to get lost, the environment is interesting to explore. The move from DS to console is handled well here, as the second screen can be positioned pretty much wherever you want it to be.
The great thing about 2D animation is that it, of course, generally stands the test of time. Even when moving from a small handheld screen to an HD display, the graphics still hold up. The sprites are large, colorful, and filled with personality. Not only just for Zero, but the bosses, in particular, look great as well. As was the case in previous compilations, you can play around with the filters and screen layout in each title as well. I typically stuck with the default settings, but it’s always nice to have options. They may not be up to series standards, but the soundtracks generally pull their own weight. The voice acting featured in Advent, though, is memorable for the wrong reasons.
While the side-series may not have the fanbase the regular franchise boasts, the Mega Man Zero and ZX titles hold up remarkably well. Gameplay is tight and precise (outside of the really annoying Chain Rod), and the challenge provided by each one will instantly appeal to hardcore gamers. It’s the changes that Inti Creates implemented that make these six games fascinating after all these years, though. They laid a blueprint for where the series could have gone (but never did). The Mega Man Zero/ZX Legacy Collection is the best way to experience these titles, and with a new light on them, maybe this anthology will serve as an inspiration for the future of the series.
This review was based on the PlayStation 4 version of the title. A copy was provided to us by Capcom.
Compiling six solid titles together, the Mega Man Zero/ZX Legacy Collection shines a light on a series that many never got the chance to experience. These games offer a fresh take on a familiar formula and a welcome diversion from the main series.