All of the cool kids are stuck decades in the past, man. That and people with malfunctioning time machines.
So in case you were born in a barn and/or before the 70s, which is practically the same as far as video games were concerned, you may not be entirely familiar with the Mega Man series. More likely you know of the main series, precision platformers on the NES onward known for non-linear level selection, stealing powers from enemy bosses, being well-designed in general and having a very old-school (really freaking hard) approach to difficulty. What you may not be aware of are the games outside of the main series. Of course, that can be easily remedied, right? I mean it’s not like there have been, say, over 125 Mega Man games.
And by that, I of course mean there are. Mega Man is no stranger to long series, plentiful spin-offs and long spin-off series. One of the longest running of these was the Mega Man Battle Network series, which spawned 6 main games (titles 3-6 had multiple versions), a secondary series called Star Force with 3 games (all with multiple versions), and two spin-offs to the spin-off series, not to mention some Japanese-only games that were never released on American shores. So what kind of brilliant gameplay would support such a long running spin off game? Well, they took the hard core precision platforming Mega Man is known for and made a game with no platforming at all, grinding and fetch quests, and a 10-year old boy as the new protagonist.
Up next, I’ll talk about the Super Mario Bros. spin-off where he stars in a real time strategy/cooking simulator.
I’ve exaggerated a bit of course, the 10-year old boy was only one of the protagonists. You see the MMBN series took place in an alternate universe which is more or less like our own with one notable exception: The internet and the inside of electronics all take the form of physical spaces. People have Navi’s, digital avatars with their own appearance and personalities, to explore these digital areas. These Navi’s physically fight viruses and other Navi’s in cyberspace, and in case it wasn’t obvious, the hero, Lan Hikari, has a Navi by the name of Mega Man. Every game these two seem to start with normal net surfing and get caught up in some other manner of Saturday morning cartoon style villains bent on taking over the world through improbable and illogical electronics-based means.
The Saturday morning cartoon comparison is actually rather apt for the writing style these games follow. By which I mean, you don’t normally think too much about the writing because it’s not the point, which is good because it’s generally a bunch of mediocre contrived nonsense. I’ve played Mega Man Battle Network 2 and 3, and despite this one probably being slightly stronger writing-wise it still contained some of the following, just as an example: Unmoving mechanical bear attacks; going back and forth on a plane multiple times with no notable time lapse; terrorism via technology that somehow controls the weather; key quest NPCs hiding inside a phone in an 8-year girls room; and a main villain who is revealed to have been a genius little boy who was bullied, whom you not only defeat with the power of friendship but also befriend afterward. I’d feel worse about spoiling that plot twist if it weren’t so terrible. I mean come on, this boy is implied to have killed at least a couple people (his own minions, because stereotypes), tried to bring world nations to their knees and flooded a city with radiation.
But like I said, though the constant fuzzy logic and flimsy justifications for events can nag at times, particularly when they result in you having to jump through hoops, it doesn’t stop the game from being enjoyable because it’s not really the focus. Another thing that isn’t the focus is the out-of-combat sections, which is good because they too are kind of mediocre. Outside of combat, the game is split into two segments: the real world and cyberspace. Though the cyberworld can occasionally bother with annoying frequent random battles, it’s generally the more enjoyable one. Each chapter of the game generally has some themed version of cyberspace equipped with puzzles like magnetic conveyor belts or spelling riddle answers on the floor.
The real world is a bit less interesting. Without the benefit of battles, puzzles and merchants, it’s limited to walking, talking, and interacting with the environment. This basically translates to a whole mess of filler and fetch quests, as you traverse the overworld performing inane tasks to get to the better part of the game. It’s not very big either, so if you want to complete all the games side quests you’ll probably examine every inch of it before you’re done. Despite being a bit of a bore, it’s still at least tolerable until you get to the good parts. So about a thousand words into the review, I think it’s time we got on to the good parts.
Pictured above are the less good parts, but I thought I’d show them to you before we move on.
The main point in favor of the game, and indeed what it really revolves around, is its combat system. The Mega Man Battle Network series has a pretty great fusion of turn-based combat and real time reflexes that has in my opinion pretty much carried the games for a long time. The battles begin on 6x3 grids, with you on the left half of the grid and your enemies on the right half. Before things actually start, you’re given a selection of five (or under some circumstances more) battle chips, out of 30 you have in your folder (similar to a deck of cards). These battle chips are kind of like collectible cards of which there are hundreds of in any given MMBN game. They’re things like cannons, bombs, swords and so forth. They do different amounts of damage, have different areas of effect and are activated in differing ways. In addition, each chip has a letter code. You can select more than one chip if 1. All of the ones you select are the same type of chip or 2. All of your chips have the same letter code. So you could select several cannon chips at once, or you could select several chips that have, say, the “D” code at once.
Behold, ImageMan! With the power to break up boring expositional walls of text!
After you select your chips, the battle starts and you can move around the grid in real time, as can your enemies. The A button uses your chips (in the order you selected them) and the B button uses your standard mega buster attack. The buster (which also has a charge attack) is pretty wimpy until later in the game, and even then it’s usually better to use chips. The battles are fairly fast paced, you can move across the grid in a fraction of a second and before too long will need to if you want to dodge enemies attacks. After about 8 seconds of fighting, the custom gauge at the top of the screen will fill up. When it does, you can press either of the shoulder buttons to pause the fight again and select more chips, with new ones filling the spots of previously used ones. This process repeats until the fight is over.
That covers all the basics of fighting, but as with any good combat system there’s a ridiculous amount of nuance and customization underneath the surface. There are 250 battle chips in MMBN2, and each can be found with a variety of letter codes. Some even combine to form unique special moves, called program advances, when selected in the proper order. There are chips that do just about everything you can think of, and all sorts of different strategies you can think up using them. Even passing by the huge amount of depth offered in this system, there are plenty of other factors to take into account. Some stages have terrain or obstacles that do different things, like ice that you slide on or panels that break when you stand on them. There are a wide variety of enemies that attack in different ways, and that’s not even getting into the bosses (yet). After a certain amount of time there’s even a system called style changes where you can evolve into a different type of Mega Man with a different element, charge attack, and other benefits depending on how you evolved.
Here we see some type of Electric Mega Man with a new charge attack that stuns enemies. You can also see that the chips he selected are displayed in order above his head.
At the end of every fight you’re rated based on how fast you beat the enemies, whether you got hit, and whether you beat multiple enemies at once. The better you do, the better your ranking is, from 1 to 10 and then S rank for a near perfect victory. Better rankings get you more money and chips based off of the enemies you defeated. This makes fighting regular enemies over and over a much more engaging experience, because using better combos and performing better will give you better rewards. Getting S rank on even simple enemies is really difficult without certain chips, as you’ll need to dispatch them in a matter of seconds or even under a second in some cases. This segues into another point about the MMBN series: it can be pretty damn hard at times.
The boss battles against other Navi’s carry a lot of the same elements you’d expect from the main Mega Man series. They all have different attack patterns and often unique gimmicks that you need to take into account to beat them, and due to their high health and damage, you’ll probably die if you don’t. As I said before, combat moves very quickly as you get further in, and near the end of the game even if you’ve bought all the health upgrades regular enemies can still take you from full health to zero in a few seconds if you’re not careful. You can rematch every boss in the game as many times as you want through some means or another, and they all have harder v2 and v3 versions on repeat encounters. Getting every bosses v3 chip requires beating their hardest version without getting hit in under 30 seconds in order to get S rank in the fight. This is one of the games optional side quests you can complete after beating the game, and in case the above description didn’t make it obvious, such feats take titanic amounts of effort even for seasoned veterans of the game.
There are also some secret bosses which range from challenging to ohdeargodwhy
For a second there, I almost finished the review without mentioning the music. I’m not one to ever overlook such a thing, and this game certainly isn’t an exception. The Mega Man series is known for its excellent chiptune-style music (he ‘aint called Rock Man in Japan for nothing). The music from the MMBN series is a bit different but I’m happy to report still quite good; with electronic synths melding with retro beeps and making good use of stereo. It may be one of my favorite soundtracks on the GBA, so let’s cut to the chase and show some examples.
The title screen music is as good a place to start as any. Short, but seriously sweet.
AirMan is the first boss of the game, but his music most certainly does not blow.
ACDC is the home town of our hero, and shows that the real world, though perhaps more boring in terms of gameplay, can be just as awesome musically.
The boss theme in this game is assuredly awesome, which is good, because you’ll probably hear it a lot later on as you get thoroughly trounced.
There’s more I could say about this game, but beyond getting into fine details, that pretty much sums it up. MMBN2 has a poorly written story (partially redeemed by an interesting setting) and a huge amount of filler and grind. The visuals are nice and stylized and the music is fantastic, but what really keeps you playing is the excellent battle system around which the whole game revolves. Though 2 and 3 are the games I can specifically vouch for, from what I can tell many of them are quite similar (though some are worse than others, when in doubt, look up a second opinion on the other ones). GBA games may not be seen much on store shelves these days but Amazon has them pretty cheap, about $5-25 for 2 or 3. If a game providing good measures of tactics, reflexes, depth and challenge can let you forgive frequent filler and other minor flaws, I highly recommend picking a copy up.