Today marks the 25th birthday of Mega Man X3, which first launched on the Super Famicom as Rockman X3. It's not the most remarkable game in Mega Man's vast (vast!) library, but the news of its anniversary prompted me to pause and recall the thing I love best about the title.
It's not Mega Man X3's gameplay that I remember most fondly. It's fine, if a little frustrating thanks to a crazy-high enemy respawn rate and a final boss encounter that's utter nonsense. The new ability to play as Mega Man X's beam sabre-wielding partner, Zero, is cool, but limitations on his usage make him a novelty more than anything. Mega Man X3's graphics, Maverick boss enemies, and stage design also fit under "fine." Its soundtrack is one feature I'll gladly elevate up to "more than fine," though doing so might be controversial. Not every Mega Man fan is big on X3's heavy synth guitar, but any soundtrack that grabs a riff directly from Guns N' Roses' "My Michelle" is OK by me.
No, what truly makes Mega Man X3 a memorable title for me is its instruction booklet. That's right—much of the charm surrounding this late SNES release can be found in the small booklet that was bundled with games once upon a time.
Instruction booklets were once an art, an art that's been lost to digital sales, online FAQs, and in-game tutorials. Mega Man X3's instruction booklet isn't as drop-dead amazing as Earthbound's booklet, but it does something that was so, so 1996: It's designed to resemble a website from the 1.0 era of the internet.
Retrogames.cz has preserved a scan of the Mega Man X3 booklet in its entirety. Please enjoy it. Notice how this rambling "webpage"—which boasts a background that's clearly official art of Mega Man X covered with Paint Shop Pro's "emboss" filter—has no frames, no embedded media, not even a central hub that lets pretend surfers access all of the site's options at once. This analogue website is supposed to be the main page for Cain Laboratories—an in-universe organization that's responsible for the mass production and control of the robotic Reploid race. In Mega Man X3's world, Cain Laboratories is arguably the most important organization in the world, and its website looks like it was cobbled together on Geocities.
But that's exactly what websites looked like in 1995. That's the beauty of Mega Man X3's instruction booklet: It was flash-frozen in time as soon as the game shipped. All websites, even major websites for banks, corporations, and governments were just a loose jumble of links adorned with low-res GIF art. Heck, when I saw Mega Man X3's instruction booklet for the very first time, I thought it was so cool and modern. It's fun to laugh at now (I can't stop thinking about a distant future where robots can think and feel on a human level, but websites still look like a '90s kid's high school project), but there was nothing like it at the time.
Incidentally, I had discovered the internet around the same time Mega Man X3 launched, give or take a handful of months. It's no surprise I felt like the creative instruction booklet spoke to me in a way: I understood what it was "saying" with its design, and I appreciated that. My interest in the internet grew from there, and I was soon inspired to clamber deep into the primordial pool of blurry artwork scans that formed the beginnings of Mega Man's online fanbase. I made friends I still talk to, and wrote shameless Mega Man fanfiction that gradually led to my career as a writer (none of it was as good as my Super Mario Bros. 3 fanfiction, how could it be?). I even met my husband in these bare-bones online spaces, and he's been with me for [checks clock] 19 years? Oh, dang. How about that.
The Mega Man X3 instruction booklet is a true relic, an ancient fragment of bone that whisks us back to the culture that existed in that exact moment in time. Lots of modern developers design sprite-based games that resemble Mega Man titles, but nobody is booting up QuarkXpress 3 and making instruction books that look like they're hosted on Tripod. Some things can only exist in the instant they're born.
All that said, cribbed "My Michelle" riffs are relevant in every time period they exist in. [Air guitar.]
Header art via the Mega Man subreddit.