By Joseph Walter
For years, the franchise flourished, and when it made its way to the SNES (and eventually the PlaysStation and PS2) it was given an upgrade in the form of Mega Man X, a darker take with a sharper spike in difficulty, following the exploits of an upgraded blue bomber in his futuristic battle against renegade machines known as "Mavericks."
X had three games on the PlayStation 1, which were the fourth, fifth and sixth entries in his franchise. While X4 was met with extreme praise and hailed as the highpoint of the series, X5 and X6 didn't fare as well.
Personally, I have incredible nostalgia for X5 which often causes me to overlook its most horrific design choices. I remember eating up the strategy guide and review for the game in my "Xpert Gamer" magazine, hungrily chomping down on Scooter Pies with my best friend while we both craved owning the disc. Eventually he got it and we were not disappointed. It satisfied our budding love of nostalgia with its crisp 2D gameplay and, most importantly, its incredible soundtrack left an outstanding impression on us.
With the announcement of Mega Man 11, the first Mega Man game in nearly 7 years, and the release of the redundant X Legacy Collections, I wanted to discuss some of this fantastic music from this often overlooked sequel, and hopefully try to nail what made it so special to me, both musically and beyond (although it's so hard to do so, that I'm likely going to babble and fail, but what else is new?)
Opening Theme (Listen Here)
There was so much mystery in the opening seconds of this sequence, with clues scattered about regarding the mysterious anti-hero Zero, the adversaries of the game, and even X himself. For two kids who knew a bit about the original Mega Man, but nothing regarding X, our theorizing and speculating went through the roof.
All of this was enhanced by the brilliant piece of music that accompanied the sequence. Replacing the God-awful vocal theme that was in the Japanese version of the game, we had this incredibly nostalgic and blood-pumping anthem that musically relayed each and every sensation we'd feel during the game.
In an act of genius, the chill-inducing opening notes are a take on Zero's theme from Mega Man X on the Super Nintendo. Fitting, because Zero, and the questions surrounding him, would play a major role in this game's plot.
Following this sequence, we have some typical Mega Man X styled techno-rock hybrid fare, which isn't a bad thing in the slightest. The end of the piece transitions to a triumphant synth as the title is revealed, and two excited kids, stars in their eyes, mashed the start button.
Opening Stage Zero (Listen Here)
Not only was Zero's play style different than X's, but the music for the opening stage was different as well. While X's Opening Stage theme is nothing to overlook, Zero's just expertly set the scene in terms of gameplay and emotion.
Following the precedent set by the opening theme, Zero's Opening Stage has an air of nostalgia and finality to it, with sprinklings of darkness amongst the more heroic elements.
The opening moments have a metal backing but a depressingly downtrodden synthetic core, which is quickly followed by a more upbeat (if not edgy) power-metal thrash. At :57 there's an awesome guitar shred, which builds to an incredible synth climax. At 1:01, the height of the crescendo, there's a hit of two gentle notes, which conjure the deep nostalgic heart-strings that the opening theme managed to do with its initial moments. The shred continues for yet another take on the climax, including another hit of the two nostalgic notes. And it's godly.
Overral, this piece is a great, action-packed anthem for Zero, but it sets the tone magnificently for the atmosphere that will continue throughout the journey, all the way through to the conclusion, for both Zero as a character and for the series (if they had actually let it end here and not limp on for years, begging for sweet death.)
Dr. Light (Listen Here)
When we discovered one of these capsules, and this theme started, it hit us like a ton of bricks. Here was Dr. Light going beyond death to help X in incredibly dire times. Seeing him was like a beacon of hope. Stranger yet, although he offered encouragement, there was an air of sadness around him, and the music playing nailed all of these emotions perfectly.
There's a mysterious quality, a technological one, and even a spiritual element. It's a perfectly nostalgic piece that truly captures the feeling of what it would be like to be visited by a deceased love one, offering the best help they can despite the circumstances. And the sadness! This piece, despite its kinder qualities has this underlying sadness that just drives the feelings home.
For classic Mega Man X fans, who have been loyal since the beginning, this song has even more meaning, along with an extra dollop of nostalgia: it's a remake of Dr. Light's theme from the first game in the series.
Duff McWhalen (Listen Here)
A remake of Mega Man X2's Bubble Crab stage theme, the power of the PS1 does well to amplify everything that made the original version so incredible, and it does so brilliantly.
The bubbly, aquatic connotations of the steel drums, the low-key synthetic choir and the prominent electronic hits mixed with the slightly-distorted, wailing guitar create such a memorable atmosphere that perfectly nails the "feel" of the late 90s/early 20s PS1 soundscape.
The piece manages to conjure up an exciting but relaxing atmosphere and, for whatever reason, knows how to tug at my nostalgia strings.
Sigma Stage 1 (Listen Here)
First heard on the stage select screen once all of the bosses are defeated, you immediately know the end game has been reached. Following whatever turn the practically-randomized storyline takes, Zero's true purpose is more-or-less revealed, and this song screams that the final confrontation is fast approaching.
Ominous chimes and a sullen main motif do their job exceptionally, as do the segments of gentle piano playing and angelic choirs.
This song nails an air of finality like almost nothing I've heard before or since.
X vs. Zero (Listen Here)
When X and Zero finally face off after years of build-up, players are treated to this exceptional piece that is supremely fitted to the drama that unfolds.
The opening guitar and "orchestra hits" call to mind a showdown of two, powerful opposing forces, creating an exciting build-up. Dire strings soon come in to bring this build up to a head and, in a moment of artistic glory, instead of the song exploding into a wild crescendo, it opts to subvert expectation and explore the underlying tragedy of these two best friends turned enemies.
An organ adds a sense of fate to the encounter, and then these dreamy synths enter the picture, almost as if to show that their could be a beacon of hope that might end this duel, but they are overcome by an absolutely gorgeous burst of beautiful and descending notes that, out of almost everything on this list, feels like pure, unfiltered nostalgia for me, calling to mind the same sensation that "Dr. Light" or "Zero's Opening Stage" summon, but to the ultimate degree.
You can almost feel the past of our heroes, where they will be supreme partners, being sucked into oblivion and shattered into trillions of pieces, never to be repaired.
Sigma 2 (Listen Here)
This is another song that kind of scared me as a kid and, like so many others on this list and in the soundtrack as a whole, there is an overwhelmingly foreboding sense of finality and melancholy closure.
The only track in the game to shed all electronic sounds and go straight for an orchestral flavor, "Sigma 2" is a phenomenal final boss track.
From the eerie strings and ominous chorus that open the piece, to the quickly approaching orchestral bombast, it's easy to find yourself immediately sucked into the drama of the moment. Then the bridge of the song slams the listener with this incredible sequence of pure hope before crescendoing into an explosively defiant and ominous example of pure evil with a hint of funereal spirit.
This is a brilliant and underrated track in not just Mega Man X5, but the entire X series and perhaps even the video game industry as a whole.
Its bold shedding of the game's musical identity, the perfect encapsulation of the story's concluding drama, and the purity of its epic interpretations of finality, malice and heroism create a an absolute musical masterpiece.