Platform: Game Boy Advance (GBA)
The Mega Man series is one that has remained largely consistent. Even after splitting into the classic games and the X set of games, the basic mechanics had remained the same. You play as Mega Man/X, take on eight evil robots and steal their powers, and then take on the big bad. The differences were largely down to systems and themes. Until, of course, Mega Man Zero. Focusing on the Mega Man X supporting character Zero, it took place even further into the future of the Mega Man universe with an amnesiac Zero leading a resistance against the tyrannical Neo Arcadia. Unlike its predecessors, the Zero sub-series had a continuing arc that ran through the games, and one that was front and center. Starting with Zero on a quest for answers to his lost memories, and running through the third game which ended with Zero taking X’s place as the world’s protector and resolving the series arcs. However, money can be a powerful motivating factor. Capcom requested a fourth iteration of the series, leading to a strange situation where the story was essentially over, but the show must continue anyway.
Mega Man Zero 4 is, in most respects, similar to its predecessors. It’s still an intense side-scrolling game. Where both Mega Man Classic and Mega Man X are run-and-gun platformers, Zero is more oriented towards close quarters hack and slash combat with ranged combat running secondary. However, where the previous three Zero games had Zero carrying an arsenal of weapons, Zero 4 opts for something different entirely. While you start out with the Z-Saber and Buster Shot as in previous games, you’re also given the Z-Knuckle. The Z-Knuckle allows Zero to grip onto certain types of surfaces, but more importantly it allows Zero to duplicate weapons based on the type of (common) enemies destroyed with the Z-Knuckle. While the idea is interesting in theory, in execution it deadens the variety of the game. The main reason for this, is that the the Z-Knuckle’s stolen weapons tend to be limited use, and (quite frankly) they’re just not that interesting. With this series, it’s much more helpful to have one weapon you can rely on, as opposed to one that becomes a random set. It’s something with so much potential, but the execution leaves a lot to be desired — especially given the fast pace of the game.
Still, the other choices made by Inti Creates for the game are largely consistent with the rest of the series. The game retains most of the franchise’s previous hallmarks, like the EX Skills that Zero can acquire. However, the developers also changed other mechanics such as how armor parts are acquired. This time, our hero found recipes for the armor parts, as opposed to acquiring them by fighting enemies. This also applies to the Cyber-Elf system. Where in previous games the player would be able to acquire multiple Cyber-Elves, now you have one that fulfills the functions of those multiple Cyber-Elves (i.e. healing, attack power, avoiding traps, etc). For the most part it does streamline the mechanics of the game. And while the armor recipe is a neat way of asking you to do more beyond simply beating up bosses, the Cyber-Elf collectibles helped to make the Zero games interesting. It’s also just somewhat strange to make so late in the life of the series.
It’s also worth noting that while the Zero series did largely reuse assets between installments like any other Mega Man game, this was the game that had the best soundtrack. While most of the series did have a considerably strong soundtrack (especially for the standards of the GBA), this title in particular hits the ground running with strong themes. In a game like this, music really helps to sell Mega Man Zero 4‘s world. With a platformer like this, that’s especially important with boss music, and this game comes packing with some of my favorite boss themes in any game. It helps the series to go out on a high note (no pun intended).
Mega Man Zero 4 is by no means a bad game. The Zero games are remarkable, even by the standards of the Mega Man series proper. However, it’s hard not to get the feeling that the game was bolted on. While it’s good, it still feels somewhat tacked on to the series proper, and the experimentation (while appreciated) feels like a divergence from a series that up until then had a clear idea of what it was. While it’s good setup for the following series of games (I’m looking at you, Mega Man ZX), it doesn’t quite do justice to the Mega Man Zero series at its peak. That being said, a not-quite-there Mega Man Zero is still better than a good chunk of the GBA library.