Mega Man Zero Makes Disturbing Moral Choices for Power
Mega Man Zero represented a daunting new direction to the Mega Man series. Put quite simply, this game is hard. Much harder than any of the entries in the baseline Mega Man series or the X series. However, you can get a little bit stronger by grabbing permanent power-ups hidden in each stage, just like in the Mega Man X series. What adds an unexpected hint of horror to this game is that these aren’t just machine parts to improve your robot body. This time, they’re child-like, sentient machines who die to make you stronger.
Are you willing to crush their lives to get tougher? Or are you strong enough to weather the game’s vicious difficulty without their power so that they can live?
Set one hundred years after the events of Mega Man X, the game follows Zero as he fights as part of a resistance force trying to save Reploids (sentient robots) who’ve been branded as Mavericks (threats to humans and others). The trouble is, a lot of Reploids seem to be being accused of being Mavericks these days. And Mega Man X, your old friend, is VERY GOOD at seeing that these robots are ‘Retired’.
You’ll become abundantly familiar with your brutal enemies throughout Mega Man Zero. Basic foes tear through big chunks of your health if you smash into them. Enemies come from all angles with melee and ranged weapons. Stage hazards will smash you to pieces. That’s assuming you don’t fall down a cliff or onto spikes. You die quickly and easily in this game if you’re clumsy. Or if you just mistime a single jump.
Most previous Mega Man games hit pretty hard as well, and were just as full of spikes and pits. In this one, you start off with a small life bar. It’s about half the size of the life bar from the original Mega Man games, and half as big as a full-power life bar in Mega Man X. You could make far more mistakes in Mega Man, and in Mega Man X, you could gather power-ups to make yourself tougher with a bit of exploration. Grab a handful of stat-boosting parts and you were good to go.
You can do the same in Mega Man Zero, but as I said, there’s a moral issue surrounding power-ups this time. Instead of grabbing new parts, you find Cyber-Elves. These are small, shimmering machines that hide in containers throughout each level. When you free one, it flits around until you pick it up and take it with you. You can see the ones you’ve found by poking around the menus.
Here’s where my conscience started to prod at me. These small creatures all look like tiny, cute little robot beings. They’re extremely small, cheerful little beings that look like smiling human children, baby animals, and adorable humanoid robots. If you highlight their picture, they’ll excitedly tell you a little blurb about how they’ll help you store energy, grow tougher, or save you from enemy fire. They are all massively helpful in keeping you alive. You can also bring three into a level at a time! That’s a ton of help in a level where you might be struggling.
Using them feels pretty good in Mega Man Zero. Watching their glowing light flying around you as your power bar increases or as they take out foes is invigorating. Knowing you can take a few more hits, or that an area will be easier, really takes some pressure off. However, when you head back into the menu to check on your little buddy – the one who likely made a difference between life and death – you’ll see their image is grayed out. The in-game text says “It rests in peace.” Your helpful pal? They’re dead. You killed them for that boost you got, or that bit of help.
Picking up power-ups and getting stronger was a fantastic part of the Mega Man X games. It encouraged you to explore and try some odd new things, and rewarded you for being curious. Here, the game instills a disturbing moral choice into the process. Once you’ve found your cute little power source in a level, will you kill it so that your life can get easier? Do you tell yourself that their lives are sacrificed for a good cause, since you’re trying to save Reploids in danger?
Cyber Elves make a massive difference in Mega Man Zero. By the end, you’ll have four times your initial health. Have charge tanks that store extra health if you run low. Take half damage. Be able to shrug off hits without knockback. These little creatures turn a ruthless game into one that feels almost trivial. You can gain absurd power levels from Cyber Elves, but all the while, your conscience will be screaming at you.
This game was the first time I felt myself pause at the idea of using a permanent power-up. Something about the Cyber Elves and their cheerful, child-like faces and their desire to help makes sacrificing them feel monstrous. Like you’re a failure if you need to kill these tiny beings because you can’t hack it at the game. It gives you the opportunity to get stronger if you need it, but not without a sense of guilt twisting in your guts. And if you’re trying to be strong to avoid using them, the game beats you down, over and over again. It feels like it’s pushing you to make that choice through its difficulty.
Mega Man Zero doesn’t do much with this moral choice in the story, but it feels like a central element as you struggle through it. The Cyber Elves make things so much easier that it’s hard not to turn to them when things look bleak. What’s one or two lives in the long run? Except, aren’t you fighting against X to stop him from killing Reploids? Do you think it’s right that X can kill because he feels he is justified in what he does? If so, what do you think you’re doing killing Cyber Elves?
The game asks an uncomfortable moral questions of players who want to get stronger. It asks us what we’re willing to do to win, and if that choice is right. In my own weakness, I’ve made those sacrifices, telling myself it was just a game and to ignore my conscience. Even so, I can’t deny feeling a horror and disgust at seeing all of those small, smiling faces marked as resting in peace. Can’t ignore this sense that I failed the little creatures who mattered most. As such, even as I beat the game, I can’t help but feel that I failed the beings I should have protected.