Reviewed on Sony PlayStation 4Also available on Nintendo Switch, PC and Microsoft Xbox One
Taking inspiration from the ‘90s Mega Man canon, 20XX sees us blast, slash and slide through an army of machines hell bent on the extinction of man, as we’re enlisted by the scientists responsible to fight back against their failed experiments.
Staying close to the blueprint when it comes to control and character, 20XX all but clones the run-and-gun platforming from the Mega Man X games and the melee-oriented combat of his cousin Zero. But with procedurally generated stages entering the equation and a mould-breaking roguelike structure, the landscape in which we find the blue bomber is unique amongst those in the legion of games that have since been made in his legacy.
In 20XX you have a choice: to play as Nina, cast in the familiar cobalt blue with a winged helmet and blaster, or Ace, who prefers combat at close range and a suit of red armour. Both playstyles mirror the actions of X and Zero respectfully, with perfect response times and all the special moves you’d expect.
As Nina, charge shots soar through waves of airborne robots, while blasts of energy fill the screen in intense shootouts. As Ace, you’ll slide and launch yourself into the jaws of the enemy and time your slices carefully to cut them down. Whoever you choose to play as, the actions are as precise and satisfying as you could wish for and won’t disappoint if you’re a fan of the source material. Combining the two styles in co-op mode, either online or on the couch, is the perfect fusion.
Though the action is a striking replica, 20XX is a very different beast from its ancestors when it comes to design. Gone are the intricate, handcrafted circuits of the original games that we’d replay, memorise and perfect during twitchy, sleepless nights. Memorialised for their ingenuity, great level design was at the heart of the best Mega Man games. Not only did they provide the context for its energetic platforming, they also fused together everything from the theme and music to the bosses that we’d come to associate with the placement of those tricky platforms.
To replace this fundamental structure with an algorithm that welds together short sections of platforming is a brave move from the developers, and one that jettisons the little guy into new territory for better or worse. Levels are still defined by a theme (space jungle, flame lab, sky temple) and an increasing difficulty. Swarms of enemies become more dense and platforms are less forgiving the further you get into a run. Although the stages are put together in different ways each time you play, as the network reconfigures itself, you'll start to notice patterns of these sections emerging quickly.
Transitions aren't seamless and can be jarring when the action shifts. One moment you’ll be desperately hanging on to a familiar snaking line of blocks, and next you’ll phase into a familiar zone of warfare. You never played them in this order before but you can feel that they're familiar and somewhat defined, and for that to stand out seems to me to be a casualty of the format.
A run through the game must be completed with a single life, with death returning you to the game’s hub. Passive and permanent upgrades to your energy, weapons and attributes, as well as improved item drops, can all be purchased with soul chips that you find throughout the levels, making it feel as though you’re always getting better and opening up new ways to play. It’s not as punishing as other roguelikes and it is possible to finish with all of the extra augs switched off, a typical run taking half an hour or so. I found that the balance of playing to collect items was fair and rewarding, without cheap feedback loops or an unnecessary compulsion to collect things just for the sake of it.
For a game that looks so devotedly to the past for its inspiration, 20XX never relies wholly on nostalgia and it never asks you to romanticise the flaws of a bygone age of gaming. Instead it borrows the best elements from one of the greatest platformers of all time and places it in a new arena. Whether you prefer the roguelike and random structure is a matter of taste. Sure, you'll come across platforms that lead to nowhere and a sudden influx of sprites on screen in the later levels, but for every dead end or harsh passage of gameplay there's a glory zone waiting for you, or a treasure chest, a cartoon explosion, or just the simple fun of platforming. 20XX plays like a classic and regardless of what you think of the levels, play it with a friend and you'll have a blast.