There’s a lot to be said about a well made “flow state” game. The Mega Mans and 2D Sonics of the world have always been my go-to for this kind of thing. Learning a level as it doles out mechanics in gradually more dangerous scenarios, or just memorizing the many pathways through a taut, intricately designed map, are easy ways to occupy the mind. Throw in some telegraphed boss patterns to push through, and you’ve got a solid way to pass an evening.
I loved Mega Man 11 a lot, but Capcom just doesn’t make these games at the clip that they used to. The folks at Inti Creates still do, though. They started developing sequels for Capcom 20 years ago with Mega Man Zero. It was a sequel to the X series in the same way that X followed the classic games. We got to see Zero left behind by the previous story’s cast and conflicts, and dealing with that fact. By the time our hero wakes up in the first Zero game, different wars have already come and gone, and his old partner is the current leader of the enemy faction.
Just as the original Mega Man wears its love for Astro Boy on its sleeve, Mega Man X is a broad retelling of classic ‘70s Tatsunoko anime Neo-Human Casshan. The Zero series moved away from these two influences, but still managed to feel like a good seasonal action anime in its own right.
Inti Creates developed four Mega Man Zero games for the Game Boy Advance between 2002 and 2005, and worked on four more Mega Man games through 2010. They haven’t worked with Capcom since, but in a sense they’ve never stopped making Mega Man games; their Azure Striker Gunvolt series, which has seen five games since 2014, is heavily indebted to Inti’s own Mega Man Zero games.
One of the coolest choices Inti Creates made with the Zero series was wiping the slate clean, and their work across Gunvolt’s five titles proves they’ve never forgotten this. In fact, the titular character hasn’t even been the main protagonist of the last three Gunvolt games. Still, Mega Man Zero’s inspiration is unmistakable. With smart character designs by Munehiro Araki and well-tuned gameplay that expanded on Mega Man’s core tenants by grading and rewarding the player for a clean run, the original Azure Striker Gunvolt was a worthy successor to the mantle, and Inti has kept that feeling alive with its subsequent sequels and spinoffs.
Gunvolt aesthetically quotes Mega Man at every turn while bolting on a layer of RPG elements that end up going deeper than the X series did with its hidden armor pieces and optional permanent upgrades. The first two games reward good play by flooding your inventory with ingredients to meld together in an awkward crafting system. Thankfully the most recent games fix this by dropping in more simple scaled rewards to tune your character’s attributes in the same way. And despite the more recent titles feeling bigger and more substantial than the first two portable Gunvolt games, the series has been a reliable source of gorgeous pixel art throughout.
Newer installments also have a wider difficulty range than their predecessors. Where a skilled player might enjoy repeating a level for score until they grok each gimmick and enemy pattern, someone just running through the story can progress like a normal Mega Man stage with little issue. There’s even a free continue mechanic going back to the first game, where a lucky player is revived while a blasting J-pop song replaces that stage’s music.
The brand new Azure Striker Gunvolt 3 leans harder into all of the series’ strengths. The character designs look cleaner, the music is even catchier, and that weighty bandwidth is still present. New protagonist Battle Priestess Kirin has a mix of ranged and melee attacks that feel balanced for the skilled player who’s worked their way through the series. If any stage poses too great a challenge though, Kirin can spend meter to transform into the titular hero and melt through the game like a hot knife through butter. Properly fighting through a stage as Kirin will net the player the most rewards, but the game is generous enough that just relying on Gunvolt doesn’t feel like a lesser experience.
The writing in Gunvolt 3 ranges from well conceived shonen stuff and warm slice of life moments to boring misogynist jabs at the female characters. The thing is, 2D platformers were created for years without any dialogue at all, save for an opening cutscene. So if that mix of good and bad isn’t worth your time, these games totally still work if you’re buttoning through the dialogue and playing them like an ‘80s Mega Man.
Mega Man might have disappeared back in 2010, but over 30 years after the Blue Bomber’s debut, that “flow state” of blazing through a stage and dispatching enemies and traps as fast as you can lives on in Azure Striker Gunvolt. It’s been the core conceit and driving idea behind almost every one of Inti Creates’ games, and with Gunvolt 3 they continue to find new ways to explore and expand on the concept. The last few years have been rough for everyone, and sometimes an exciting game that can be cleared in a breezy few hours feels like a real victory. When it revives a series that has meant a lot to you over the years—whether it’s officially a part of it or not—it can be even more powerful. All you need is something to keep your hands busy while you wait for the slate to wipe clean, and let the next good day shift into focus in the distance. For this Mega Man fan, Azure Striker Gunvolt 3 more than suffices.
Yousif Kassab writes about games, music and manga on the internet. You can find him on Twitter at @Youuuusif (four U’s).