Video games, unlike many art forms, tend to require that the player be actively participating in order to be able to enjoy them. It’s not like a movie, where you sit down for a couple hours and will always successfully finish watching it whenever you feel like it. As far as video games are concerned, the player often needs to work for the satisfaction of being able to see a game through to the end credits. This will usually involve needing to demonstrate one’s prowess over either the game’s AI, or other people playing the game against you.
This is all well and good, but for some gamers, this alone isn’t quite enough. Sometimes, one wants to get more out of a game than what the developers intended. Thanks to various design quirks in any given game, certain playstyles or tricks that were never intended to be available can end up encouraging players to complete a game in a completely different way from how one might normally experience it. This can include (but is not limited to) speed-running, beating a game without dying, beating a game without taking damage, beating a game with no upgrades, etc.
One’s experience with doing a special run in a game is not likely to be the same as anyone else’s. Undertaking these sorts of self-imposed challenges is essentially forging uncharted territory in any given game. The results that can come about from doing them can be quite surprising, and I think it’s worth taking the time to analyze them.
What I hope to do with this feature, is to share my own experiences as I attempt new challenges. The bulk of these articles will center around tackling a self-imposed challenge in a given game, but occasionally I will break things up with simply attempting to beat a really difficult game under normal circumstances. Whatever the game or the task, though, I hope the reader finds my thoughts and experiences interesting, and can perhaps be inspired to give one of these challenges a try for themself.
To kick off the first installment of this feature, I decided to play one of my personal favorite games ever, Mega Man X, for the Super NES. For those who aren’t familiar, Mega Man X is one of many games in the larger Mega Man series of 2D action-platformers, and kicked off one of the more-beloved spinoffs ever to be created for a video game series.
Taking place some time after the original Mega Man games, X featured a new robot by the name of Mega Man X, and had a relatively darker, more serious tone than the original series ever did. It stayed true to the gameplay of the original games, though; while it had some differences, like the implementation of a dash instead of the original series’ slide maneuver, the overall game design remained the same. You face eight main bosses, each with their own unique stages, in order to obtain their special weapons upon defeating them. After beating them all, you then assault the main villain’s fortress, now with the benefit of having a full arsenal of special weapons at your disposal, before finally fighting and defeating the final boss.
X keeps a lot of this intact, while featuring a host of optional hidden upgrades beyond the obtainable special weapons. These upgrades can increase the size of your maximum health bar (which is a remarkably small 16 units at the game’s start), give you new (mostly non-offensive) abilities via armor parts, or give you access to refillable energy tanks, to help give you the extra boost you might need when near death.
Ultimately, what made the game work so well was its tight controls, smooth level design, and consistent degree of polish. It’s simply a really well-made game, and remains one of the highlights of both its genre, and of the Super NES library, to this day. I’ve personally played through this game from start to finish countless times, and have had a blast each time. Motivating my decision to go with this game, was partly that I’m already pretty experienced with it, so I had a good idea of what to expect with any given self-imposed challenge I might think of doing for it.
(I won’t be discussing story here, but I will discuss gameplay throughout the game, including that regarding the final boss fight. So, consider this a gameplay-related spoiler warning, if that concerns you.)
Some years ago, I beat Mega Man X while fighting enemies with only the X-Buster. It was an interesting feat, but aside from the final boss, I found it fairly easy to do, in large part thanks to the armor and health enhancements the game offers, and especially the four Energy Tanks you can find and refill throughout your playthrough. This time around, however, I decided to play through the game using only the X-Buster… and with no enhancements whatsoever. This way, I would not be able to force my way through difficult sections by saving up my energy tanks ahead of time; if I wanted to beat a really hard boss, I’d just have to tough it out and get by the hard way. I went into this challenge knowing it could very well be beyond my capabilities as a gamer, but I gave it my best shot.
My first task, defeating the 8 Maverick bosses with just the X-Buster, wasn’t too incredibly difficult. Mega Man X is the only game in the X series to not have you start automatically with the dash ability, so most of the initial stages are fortunately designed to be easily beatable without it. It’s worth noting that Chill Penguin’s stage forces the player to pick up the dash upgrade, as Dr. Light’s upgrade capsule blocks your path, with no way past it but to pass through the inside, and thus receive said upgrade. I did at the very least, make sure to face Chill Penguin last, so I could spend more time with absolutely no upgrades of any sort.
Some of these bosses were fairly easy without the dash, like Storm Eagle or Flame Mammoth, but others like Launch Octopus and Spark Mandrill took several tries. I discovered interesting new ways to fight each boss, thanks to my incredibly sparse moveset. When fighting bosses like Octopus, with his constant bursts of missile fire, it was necessary for me to use the X-Buster defensively, to blow up most of the missiles that I would likely not be able to jump past. Without the dash, I had to make sure to recognize ahead of time when Octopus would use his energy-sucking whirlpool attack, but as long as I made sure to run far enough away, that wasn’t a big deal.
The biggest issue I experienced, was trying to avoid the homing piranha shots that Octopus can shoot. This is hard enough with the dash, but I sadly could not figure out how to consistently dodge them. Fortunately, I had enough health by default to be able to whittle away Octopus’ health bar to zero before he could fire enough ridiculous homing shots.
As for Spark Mandrill, I had a very difficult time facing him at first. The most dangerous thing about him is his dashing punch attack, which is hard to predict and prepare for ahead of time, and takes away roughly half of your health meter with each hit. I tried initially to run and jump onto the wall fast enough so I could jump over his punch, but I couldn’t consistently do that enough to be able to defeat him without taking too much damage myself.
However, I found that like with Octopus, I could use the X-Buster defensively to combat Mandrill. Instead of shooting his shots in defense, however… I just shot him in defense! I found that when he pulls off his dash-punch maneuver, if I have a charge shot waiting to be used, and fire it straight at him without trying to run away, I can actually knock him backward, canceling his attack as well as causing damage. This was a lifesaver, and I was able to beat him with ease thanks to that.
After beating the main 8 Maverick bosses, the game takes a sharp turn upward in difficulty. The mid-boss of the first Sigma stage, Vile, is easily the hardest fight in the entire game. I don’t know how many times I died and had to restart the stage all over again just to be able to fight him again. Beyond his initial leap toward the player at the start of the fight, he has no pattern, so it’s incredibly difficult to avoid his attacks, which have no real telltale cues to warn you of them ahead of time. You also die in just two or three hits without any enhancements (2 hits if you make physical contact with Vile, or 3 if his flame mines hit you, since they don’t cause as much damage).
It took a bunch of trips to Armored Armadillo’s stage to farm 1-ups from the Bubble Bat at the beginning of that stage, then going back to Sigma’s first stage, so I could face Vile again without having to restart the level so many times. Eventually… in part thanks to my changing the controls (I moved the Dash button from A to R in the Options menu, which feels more natural to control), I was finally able to take down Vile, while staying true to my challenge. Woo.
The other thing that makes beating Mega Man X like this so difficult, is Sigma’s second form. It’s already a challenge during a regular playthrough (unless you make sure to save all your energy tanks for it), so going into this playthrough, part of me was honestly sure I’d fail. I was worried I’d have to write about not succeeding during my first of these articles. Needless to say, it was a relief to actually beat him. Hooray.
I spent more time being stuck on Sigma’s second form… but all things considered, once I finally got his attack patterns down, he actually strangely became more manageable to fight than Vile was. Don’t get me wrong though, because Sigma’s second form is still one of the toughest fights I’ve ever had, under these conditions. He just requires a truckload more of patience than Vile does, seeing as you can only damage him with the most fully-charged X-buster shot, and that only does one point of damage each time it makes contact.
It didn’t help that every time I lost to his second form, I had to fight his dog, Velguarder, and his first form, all over again from scratch. His first form is painfully easy when you get it down (wall climbing is your friend), but Velguarder can take some practice to get the hang of defeating without getting hit.
If you read this, and decide you’d like to take on this challenge for yourself, be aware that you are asking for trouble. The only other time I can recall stressing out quite this much about a playthrough, was when I attempted to beat Contra: Shattered Soldier with an S rank.
Perhaps it’s because I’ve played Mega Man X countless times since I was a kid, but I don’t generally think of it as being a really hard game, especially when you have all of the possible upgrades available to you (including some as ridiculously overpowered as Street Fighter‘s Hadouken fireball), and four refillable energy tanks to help you coast through fights, even if you’re really bad at the game. Forsaking all of those conveniences, truly changes the experience entirely. I realized that, for as much as I considered myself a pro at playing this game, I really hadn’t mastered this game as thoroughly as I had previously believed.
As a kid, I would generally beat Penguin, Eagle, and Mammoth with the X-Buster, then switch to fighting every other boss using their weakness. At the time, the thought of beating bosses like Octopus with just the X-Buster seemed an impossible feat. As I replayed the game for this challenge, I learned firsthand how much effort really was put in by the developers in making sure all of the 8 main Maverick bosses were feasible to beat without special weapons. I’d say Octopus is the hardest of the main bosses to face with no special weapons, but even that is definitely doable with the X-Buster alone.
Starting with the four Sigma stages, the difficulty sharply rose, and any further effort to cater to players who might have tried to play them without special weapons felt more like an afterthought than anything. This was not completely ignored, as the game forces the X-Buster upgrade on you whether you go out of your way to obtain it or not. This is because there’s no way to beat Sigma’s second form without either the upgraded X-Buster, or the Rolling Shield. It sure is a relentless fight when you attempt it without the Rolling Shield, though.
Overall, I’m happy I succeeded in this task, now that I’m done with it. While I was attempting it though, the final four Sigma stages admittedly had me regretting my choice to attempt this several times. Make no mistake, you need to have your wits about you if you hope to beat the game under these circumstances. Hopefully you have found this an interesting read!