One of the most frustrating elements of the Mega Man games is the frequent dying; losing all your lives and being forced to start again. But this difficulty and limitation of lives is a big part of the classic experience, taking it beyond just a necessity of design from the 8bit and 16bit era of games and turning it into a part of Mega Man’s identity as a series.
Modern interpretations of this system of limited lives and harsh difficult rarely sit well with players, partly due to how game design has evolved to incorporate checkpoints and longer experiences, and partly because balancing a harsh difficulty curve with tight level design is a monumental task for developers that isn’t always realised. 20XX have implemented an intriguing solution to this problem, introducing Rogue-like elements in its design to keep the difficulty harsh and the life losing experience of the classics intact, while balancing risk verses reward for gathering currency to purchase permanent upgrades that persist even after death, gradually improving your chance to beat the odds and complete it. It’s a brilliant concept that allows us to experience a classic side-scrolling platformer shoot ‘em up but in a modern package.
20XX is very much infused with classic design, from the title screen, character design, movement mechanics, boss encounters and level design, 20XX is a homage to classic Mega Man titles, specifically the Mega Man X titles. As such, it’s hard to find anything original about the core experience. Challenging platforming and enemy encounters is the order of the day, asking a high mastery of the movement and combat mechanics to get through the eight levels relatively unscathed. It’s a fun and engaging experience but nothing new.
At the end of each level is a boss encounter, which, once defeated, drops its unique weapons so you can pick it up and use it going forwards, again very much like Mega Man. However, this is where developers Fire Hose Games and Batterystaple Games introduce some interesting player choice that then feeds back into the Rogue-like system. You can choose to pick up the boss’ weapon, collect a boost to your stats, or collect currency to be spent later on. This allows you to shape the experience to your liking, grabbing and using the weapons you find effective and leaving others in lieu of different rewards. Moreover, with death taking you back to a hub area where you must start your run through of the eight levels from the beginning, making the right choice for dispatching the upcoming bosses and conquering the levels leading up to them, is critically important.
Indeed, this is where 20XX begins to carve out its own identity, and it’s a compelling one at that. The currency you collect comes in two forms, a more readily available type for spending on vending stations within levels to boost your stats or replenish energy and health, and currency for spending in the hub area to purchase permanent upgrades to aid you with new attempts, as well as a selection of upgrades for activating from an inventory or using on your very next attempt. It’s a typical Rouge-like experience made novel by how well it replaces the lives and continues system of a Mega Man-esque platformer.
Moreover, the eight levels are procedurally generating, with random chunks of levels being sewn together each time you a play a level. It helps keep things fresh and challenging despite your gradual increase in skill and ability through experience and permanent upgrades, maintaining a stiff challenge with a pleasing level of unpredictability throughout.
20XX is a clever melding of classic concepts and modern technology and expectations, shaping an experience that’s challenging and nostalgic while still being accessible and unpredictable. With the inclusion of local and online cooperative multiplayer as well, there’s no denying the enjoyment you can have with this title. The clear homage to Mega Man hurts its originality somewhat, but that same homage is also mighty impressive in how well it captures the Mega Man’s experience. Indeed, if a modern Mega Man with the frustration of lives and continues replaced with a Rogue-like system intrigues you, 20XX could well be for you.
Thanks to Xbox and Fire Hose Games and Batterystaple Games for supporting Thumbstix