This article is part of a new series I’m starting called Design Illuminated, where I plan to explore and challenge what really makes certain games great (or not!) The point of this series is to provide deeper insight into games but to do it in a concise, understandable manner that isn’t bogged down with technical jargon. I hope you enjoy this entry!
“If you enjoyed Mario, then you’ll love this!”
Sound familiar? Nostalgia gets evoked left and right these days, and its sometimes hard to tell which games really get it and which ones don’t. Its easy to look the part in trailers, but talking the talk and walking the walk are two different things.
Just this past week, a game called 20XX came out of Early Access on Steam. If the title didn’t already give it away, this is a MegaMan-inspired platformer that attempts to inject its own twist into the run-n-gun formula: roguelike mechanics. Its an ambitious undertaking… does 20XX pull it off and still honor the name of the Blue Bomber its trying to follow? In this edition of Design Illuminated, I want to explore the similarities and differences between these two games and–by extension–hopefully show you whether or not this game can give you a proper MegaMan fix.
20XX shares the most similarities with the MegaMan X series, so those games will be the primary reference points for this article.
Rise to Power
First and foremost, 20XX and MegaMan X both share the same, fundamental gameplay loop:
The main iterations of this gameplay loop (levels) go like so: the player must battle through several obstacles and enemies, with it all culminating in a boss confrontation. Upon overcoming the final and greatest obstacle of the level, the player is rewarded with a new power/upgrade (endgame levels notwithstanding, but I’ll get to that later.)
Understanding this basic cycle is important because it reveals one of the driving motivators behind MegaMan: the acquisition of power over time. As the player completes more and more levels, they add more and more tools to their arsenal. This is an exciting process: you go from using only a generic
pea-lemon-shooter to using flamethrowers or homing missiles or whatever else is thrown in the mix. And in MegaMan, the right weapon at the right time can turn a boss fight from a two minute slog into a ten second roll. The long and short of it: we like getting new toys to play with!
MegaMan is driven significantly by the quest for power, and 20XX follows this same core tenet. Its about getting stronger with each conquered boss, becoming a robotic Swiss Army knife that can bulldoze all in its path. This, to me, is the most important tie between the two games outside of their shooter and platforming roots. Both games work towards empowering the player, but how they go about it is where they differ.
Let’s look at how a MegaMan game is structured. Historically, MegaMan games are split into two groups of levels:
First, we have what is considered one of the trademark features of MegaMan: what I’ve dubbed the Gatekeeper Phase. When the original MegaMan came out, it was essentially unheard of to be able to do levels in the order you wanted to. The game was structured to give you advantages for clearing certain stages before others, the most well-known of which is access to boss weaknesses.
Although there was often an optimal order by which to complete stages, this highlights another one of MegaMan’s selling points: player choice. It was exciting to look at the stage select screen and pick out the levels and bosses that interested you most. If you ended up frustrated with a level, you could often come back to it later; since each beaten level rewarded you with new weapons, there was actually a good chance that a formerly frustrating level could become much easier. The player wasn’t required to “get good” immediately, at least not in a linear fashion. They were free to hop around and experience different types of challenges, notching them out at their own pace and slowly getting stronger over time.
But the “gatekeepers” would eventually (hopefully) be defeated and the player would be led on to the Gauntlet Phase. This was meant as the ultimate test of the player’s skill, often seeing a significant uptick in difficulty. However, at this point in the game the player would be significantly upgraded and far more prepared to handle the challenges ahead. It would be time to put into practice all the new abilities and tricks that had been learned.
However, there’s something very noteworthy about the jump to the Gauntlet Phase: the diminishing of player choice. In fact, the farther you get through the Gatekeeper Phase, the less choices you hypothetically have. I know that, personally, it was disappointing at times to go back to a linear level structure after enjoying such open freedom. However, we should look at the full story:
As player choice drops, player power tends to rise. With each successive challenge notched out, the player becomes objectively stronger. By the time the player reaches the Gauntlet Phase, its time for them to enjoy the full extent of their newfound strength. There’s a gradual baton passing of sorts going on, and the quantitative value the player gets out of the game should remain consistent. Player choice and power work in tandem to keep the player engaged.
The MegaMan X games really worked this transition well. On top of providing the well-known boss weakness mechanic, secondary upgrades were hidden within the gatekeeper levels. These not only spurred exploration and freedom, but further encouraged the player to experiment with their new powers before the difficulty spike of the Gauntlet Phase. This even made repeat playthroughs more interesting, as players would try to figure out the optimal path to getting all upgrades quickly and efficiently. I don’t pay much attention to speedruns, but I can almost guarantee you that everyone goes to Chill Penguin’s stage first so they can get the dash boots!
The ultimate empowerment of the player was MegaMan’s endgoal, but the freedom of the Gatekeeper Phase added a “trailblazer” dimension to the game that really elevated it. It wasn’t just about getting powerful, but about the path you took to get there.
At a basic level, 20XX follows the same format that MegaMan does with Gatekeeper and Gauntlet Phases. However, 20XX diverges significantly in how it handles the Gatekeeper Phase, which is in part due to its roguelike conventions:
Levels are handled in a much more linear fashion, with a lot of control given over to the “RNG;” the player has some limited control, but for the most part we could consider level order to be “random.” Difficulty is also scaled over time, with more challenging level pieces being used the farther you get into a run. In some ways, 20XX isn’t as “anti-frustation” as its inspirational couterpart.
However, as was already stated, the same power-over-time concept still applies. You still have ample opportunity to acquire new abilities and get stronger over time. Does this mean that 20XX is an instance of addition by subtraction, where choice and flexibility has disappeared to give you an even more hard-knocks experience than MegaMan itself?
Actually, 20XX still gives the player choice, but not in the way you might expect. Just as the levels in 20XX are randomized, so is the pool of secondary upgrades in the game. And that pool is massive. Massive. If MegaMan is the pathfinder of run-and-gun games, then 20XX is the “build-your-own-hero” of the lot.
With roguelike mechanics being prominent in 20XX, it veers away from the “explore and discover” elements of MegaMan and moves more towards “adapt and survive.” There are so many ways to juice yourself up in this game: stat boosts, pet drones and even multiple sets of armor (which you can mix and match, by the way.) In MegaMan, there is usually a limited number of “final forms” your powered-up self can take. 20XX says “Have at it!” and throws the kitchen sink at you.
Do you take the speed or power upgrades? Do you want hover boots or a double jump? Should you stick with your default gun or take the more niche weapon you just found? These are the kind of situations that pop up in 20XX all the time. Sure, randomization may mean you don’t always get what you really wanted, but that’s the point. Can you pick yourself up by your bootstraps and become a juggernaut against the odds? Though you sacrifice some navigational choices, you gain the opportunity to concoct some truly monstrous combinations.
As such, our value graph for 20XX might look like this:
The player doesn’t have the same level of freedom afforded by a level select, but the game is constantly throwing a slew of upgrades at you all the way up to the Gauntlet Phase. Between challenge rooms, off-path branches and shops, opportunities to keep tweaking your hero build are numerous. And, mind you, all of this is on top of access to boss weapons. This does mean that 20XX can feel a bit slower when starting a new run, but scaling difficulty and the potential for power surges mean that things can take off very quickly. That’s how roguelikes are: you just never know! Its that suspense and “handyman” aspect of 20XX that naturally make it special and unique.
To go back to the article’s original question, I definitely think the similarities between the two games are there. I wouldn’t say either approach taken is better; both games have their strengths and weaknesses. If anything, both are good at making someone feel like a boss.
To conclude, I think a good way to look at things is to see what you gain and lose moving from MegaMan X to 20XX:
- LOSE: Fully handcrafted levels. 20XX actually handles level building rather expertly using snap-together level pieces, but it still can’t compare to a carefully constructed MegaMan level that was handmade from start to finish.
- LOSE: Ability to choose your own path, at least partially. Normal modes give you some choice of your next level, but there’s no guarantee that you’ll get the boss whose weakness you have.
- GAIN: Stronger difficulty curve. MegaMan’s gatekeeper levels can get stale from having to be too close in difficulty with each other; though roguelikes are notorious for generating “near impossible” scenarios, the difficulty curve in 20XX is pretty effective at constantly testing the player.
- GAIN: Excellent customization. If 20XX wants to hang its hat on an innovation, this should be it. Let the creativity flow, because you’ve definitely got solid options in this game.
Maybe 20XX is for you, or maybe its not. But I too was once hesitant about trying roguelike MegaMan and ended up pleasantly surprised. I hope this article helps you make an informed decision, or at least gave you some new insights into the inner-workings of MegaMan!