Mega Man ZX has nothing to do with time travel, but it gives off every impression that it might. The developer has effectively travelled through history, cherry-picking its favourite bits of gaming: vintage graphics, modern sandbox play, nostalgic arcade-era synthesiser music, and movie-quality plotting and dialogue.
The result is an old-fashioned action platformer that resolutely refuses to acknowledge either the stylus control or the 3D capabilities of the DS. Instead, it settles for embellishing the tested and somewhat tried format of one of gaming's most established series.
As for the context, after a long introductory sequence, Mega Man ZX puts you in charge of either Vent or Aile, humble couriers (and in the way of so many Japanese games, orphans) who stumble into a wider fray between insurgents and state troops. Other than their different plot arcs, there's little practical difference between the duo. Whoever you choose to be, after joining the insurgents, you learn that you're 'the one' and taking down the game's main corporation, Slither Inc, becomes both a responsibility and a personal vendetta.
To do this, you need to jump and fight your way through a series of themed zones, killing baddies, leaping on platforms, and seeing off the bosses who hold the stolen fragments of biometal. If that weren't enough, hazards like grinding machinery, flames, electricity, and jets of water are everywhere. And the bosses sneer meanly at you before they try to kill you.
For anyone who's played a Mega Man game before, there are no surprises whatsoever, although there are some neat touches. In the amusement park zone, which is the most inventive level, you can hop on a big wheel, travel by miniature train, and even climb into a giant claw-grabber game to wade through the toys.
Although this is largely platform boilerplate design, getting around and fighting are enriched by the game's system of acquiring the biometal fragments. As well as transforming your outward appearance into various robotic suit forms, each endows you with a different set of abilities. So every time you lever one from the cold fingers of a defeated foe, you gain a new power – firing upwards, for instance, rocketing through the air or gaining double sabres.
Once gained, you can cycle through and equip these by pressing the X and Y buttons. It's necessary to equip particular fragments to get through particular levels, just as you have to remove them entirely and revert to your human form whenever you need to interact with one of the civilians who casually populate the levels.
Of course, you can speak to a civilian for fun rather than because the game requires you to, and these incidental encounters enrich Mega Man ZX's otherwise bleak, anime-flavoured universe. For example, children in the street will introduce you to their toy cars, adults will congratulate you on your previous successes, and, later, technicians will invite you to lend your powers to help them complete errands.
The central characters each have a history, too, and an emotional thread runs through the game, resonating in moments of introspective dialogue and high drama.
Despite Mega Man ZX's high ambition, however, there are flaws that keep it from soaring. Like all Mega Man games, it's rock-hard; something not helped by the harsh saving system. Most significantly, it's far too easy to get lost in the sprawling map that underpins its sort-of-non-linear mission structure.
Lettered segments are signposted within the levels, true, but these signs are few and far between, and the arrangement of the letters seems arbitrary. Section E appears beside section I, for instance, and this cartographical nonsense means you can spend frustrated hours traipsing through familiar scenery looking for scattered doorways that may or may not open, and may or may not lead where you want them to lead.
Technophiles may also gripe about the simplicity of the graphics. Aside from a few subtle flourishes, there's nothing in Mega Man ZX to distinguish it from a GBA or SNES title. The lack of stylus input is a similar weakness, and it's also resolutely single-player only. Some would argue that a game should do justice to its platform, using everything the console has to offer. This one doesn't.
Neither of these two factors should really matter, though. The graphics may not be technically spectacular, but they fit. Blocky cartoon avatars and synth music are emblems of the arcade era and, if nothing else, Mega Man ZX is a great example of that period. Taking what it needs from the DS's technical armoury and discarding everything else, it's a bullish mix of vintage and modern elements, and well worth a few hours of any (past or future) gamer's time.