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Pumpkin Pie and Sigma: Remembering Mega Man X
by Greg Mengel

Everyone has their religion. For some, it's found in a church. For others, it's located on a board, down the pipe of a twenty-foot wave. Performing Shakespeare might provide serenity for John, while Sarah finds her peace reading Tolkien. Everyone has at least one thing - one activity, setting, or scenario - that allows them to step off of the rails of life for a moment and take stock of the world. Human beings need these moments, these vacations of calm understanding in an otherwise confusing existence, to survive.

Closing my eyes and remembering playing Mega Man X at my cousin's house, excitedly using the secret I looked up in a friend's crumpled strategy guide three months earlier to take down Sigma with a single life left, as my older relatives laugh raucously down the hall thanks to eggnog and peppermint Schnapps, isn't my religion. But it's damn close.

I first discovered Mega Man X when I was seven years old. My family was taking a road trip from our home in San Jose, California, to my Aunt Judy's house, two hours to the north in Davis, near the state capital of Sacramento nestled just west of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. My brother and I looked forward to these visits for months, for two reasons: (a) Aunt Judy's pumpkin pie was delectable enough to be an Iron Chef's last meal, and (b) our cousins owned a Super Nintendo, the holiest device in the pantheon of toys available during the early Clinton era. Being older, and cooler by nature, our cousins spent dozens of hours not playing their games in favour of chasing girls, watching sports on television, or getting high and debating whether or not Kurt Cobain was a sellout during time designated towards writing new songs with their bands. While we disagreed with their life choices, we appreciated the fact that they often left their SNES lonely, unplayed, and in dire need of our attention.

These were moments we cherished. For reasons we never quite understood or accepted, my brother and I grew up with a strict no-video-games-in-the-house policy. We could play at friends' houses, or at demo stations in Walmarts or Fry's Electronics, but when our parents' shopping was over there was no chance of us bringing Mario or Sonic home. This made it easy for us to not be choosy when the opportunity to game arose. It could be Donkey Kong Country or Hello Kitty Superhearts and Ponytime Adventure - it didn't matter; we were all in. We played whatever was available. When in Davis, we could choose between Super Mario World, NBA Jam...

...and Mega Man X, the holy trinity of my SNES experience. Amen.

Though NBA Jam was hilarious, and Super Mario World will always be heralded as one of the legends of early gaming, Mega Man X was always my hands-down favourite of the three.


Because it's one of the greatest platformers in game history? Because it took the innocent boy Mega Man and made a man out of him? Because the first boss you meet is basically Boba Fett? Because it cures the lame and feeds the sick?

Yep. That's why.

For those of you who have never tried it, the gameplay in Mega Man X is similar to that of any other title in the Mega Man series leading up to it: there are platforms. You jump on these platforms in a mostly linear direction until you reach a boss room. Taking down a boss will allow you to select a new stage, where you will once again jump on platforms until you slay an evil robot. Lather, rinse, repeat.

In order to reach a boss, X must navigate through a sea of enemies bent on reducing his Cadillac-shiny exoskeleton to singed scrap metal. Sliding and jumping allows X to avoid some of these robot combatants, but the majority of them need to be dispatched with X's handy ole 'X Buster', the giant lump attached to his right arm which, I can only assume, uses nuclear fusion to shoot blasts of energy. Defeated bosses will drop microchips that, when attached to this tumorous appendage, give X a valuable and unique special attack to use on command. Vanquishing Storm Eagle, for example, will enhance X's gun with 'Storm Tornado', an air cannon that launches a funnelled gust of wind which continuously damages enemies for a period of three or four seconds. On top of these upgrades, X can discover secret upgrades throughout the various stages which improve his health, energy tanks, special gun ammo capability, and armour. These upgrades are a real necessity for anyone who wants to actually beat the game. With the exception of being able to jump-kick off walls, the gameplay in Mega Man X is standard fare for anyone who has played a Mega Man title before.

Bosses and their minions look unbelievably ridiculous. I'm not sure which future engineer would ever think that a giant robot penguin, whose deadly power is making penguin-shaped snowmen and sliding stomach-first into them with childlike glee, is a logical design model, but I assume he will hail from Japan. There are times, however, when you will still fear them, despite their sheer silliness. This is brilliant in itself. I shouldn't be frightened of a the cartoony lovechild of a red giant octopus and the unthreatening Cylons from the Battlestar Galactica of the 1970s, but if I don't have the 'Rolling Shield' gun, I am shivering with horror.

Perhaps the greatest gift from Mega Man X to the world is its soundtrack. Heavy metal bands the globe over rock out to it every day. I could spend the remainder of this article listing my favourite Mega Man X covers, but instead I'll bring you back to the source: the original tracks in all their 16-bit glory. These themes are essential to the pace, ambiance, and gameplay of Mega Man X. Without them, the game would likely have been good, but never great.

Be sure to spend a minute listening to every hyperlink in that paragraph.

Mega Man X is not an easy game. Like almost every platformer of the early 90s era, it takes an intense focus and a keen memory to know just when to jump, slide, and shoot your way out of a gauntlet of patterned danger. Put a controller in the hands of anyone you know who has successfully beaten Sigma, the final boss in X, and after a few lives to shake off the rust their muscle memory will kick in, guiding their fingers in an impressive show of retro gaming skill that will very likely wow you. Reaching and defeating Sigma for the first time is one of those feats that people should be able to put on their résumés. It's tough, and takes the kind of serious repetitive practice (different than grinding) that today's games simply don't require. You don't forget how to play Mega Man X. You just put those skills in hibernation when you're not playing it, until you need them again.

I know my love for this game is tied completely to my own nostalgia. I'm biased because my childhood experiences sway my judgment. But you know what? That's a good thing. When I contemplate Mega Man X, I don't just think of rapid-fire gameplay, challenging levels, and hilariously zany enemies. I think of Christmas when it was most magical. I think of family, all gathered together to celebrate the best parts of the season. I think of relatives no longer with us, and how I wished I could put off January somehow to be with them as long as I could. I think of those tacky winter sweaters my mom had us all make, and how proud she was when we handed them to cousins, who thanked us politely before burying them deep in an attic or closet.

When I smell pumpkin pie at Christmastime, I think of Mega Man X.

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- Greg Mengel

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