Megaman Battle Network 1-3

Megaman Battle Network is a spinoff of the Megaman series for the GBA and DS. I’ve never played any of the mainline Megaman games and am only vaguely familiar with them, but I played the third Battle Network game as a kid and greatly enjoyed it. Recently, a remastered port was released on Steam, so I decided to pick it up and give the whole series a whirl.

The premise is that this is an alternate universe where Megaman is a computer program instead of a robot, and the technology focus is similarly shifted: Everything is online, everything is a smart device, and everyone needs the help of sapient programs to navigate it all. This was wild science fiction when the first game was released in the early 2000s, yet in the present day it doesn’t sound too far off from our everyday lives. Surreal, and kind of eerie.

Gameplay-wise, MMBN made the interesting decision to switch from the platformer/shooter focus of the main games to an action RPG with deckbuilding elements. I like its gameplay a lot, and I find it demonstrates how adding even a small spatial component to RPGs greatly improves their complexity and engagement. (It does, however, retain the worst of grindy jRPG mechanics in spades.)

The game opens with this every time it starts up, which is always ominous. I assume this is because of the game’s depiction of racial minorities, which is, uh…

…bad. (Incidentally, this character design comes a whole game after the game with an extended subplot about an African-American ghetto, and no, it’s not handled sensitively.)

Don’t worry, it’s also sexist! The recurring girl characters are told they have to stay behind and let the boys handle everything because they’d “just get in the way” (yes, literally those exact words), while the boys who are the exact same age get to go on dangerous world-saving adventures without question. This only gets more grating as the series progresses and more and more boy characters are introduced to be very special and important, pushing the girls more and more into the background. The 8-year-old wunderkind is really weirdly and creepily flirty, and the entire cast ships the protagonist with his obligatory hetero love interest despite both of them being ten. I’d like to say this was a product of its time, but I think we all know modern media is still just as bad.

So what about the rest of the story? Well, it’s a mess. I don’t know how it compares to mainline Megaman, but the script is very obviously a product of the translation and hardware limitations of its time. Text is full of glaring grammatical errors, and everything has to be abbreviated to an absurd degree to fit onto the GBA’s tiny screen. Dialogue is extremely stilted and clunky, robbing many scenes of their intended emotional impact. I had hoped the rerelease would touch this up, but no such luck. They could model a fully voice-acted Megaman for the title screen, but they couldn’t do another translation pass or even implement a variable width font algorithm to make the cramped text more readable? Come on, game companies, if you want to make a point that this isn’t just an emulation but an actual port, put some effort into it. Give us some reason to play it over the originals.

Moreover, one thing I can’t help but notice about the series as a whole is that the story really shackles itself to the status quo. Villains keep seemingly dying only to inexplicably survive so they can come back in the next game. Events in previous games are referenced and time does explicitly pass, yet every single game the protagonist returns to being an ordinary elementary school student who gets no respect even though he’s saved the world multiple times. (Naturally, all of Megaman’s stats and abilities get reset every game too.) I really feel like either the plot should have been compressed into a single game, or the subsequent games should have worked on episodic rules with no references to earlier events.

Fortunately, the plots of the games are so balls-to-the-wall absurd they become so-bad-it’s-good, spotty localization or no. I’m just going to embed a video of the first game’s Big Twist (which is treated as common knowledge by all later games, so not really a spoiler) with the note that this is the best the series’ writing ever gets:

“Hello son, let me exposit about your dead baby brother for the audience’s convenience. Anyway, I put his soul into your Siri, because programming is magic, but I kept this a secret from you for 10 years for no reason so that you’d think your baby brother was just another Siri. Everyone else knows this already, but they also kept it a secret from you for no reason.”

Just. My good sir, what is wrong with you. There is no reason to keep any of this secret from the protagonist except so we can have a dramatic reveal about it. Except you could still have that through reverse dramatic irony, if Lan knows but we don’t. And I know the writers know that, because that’s exactly how they handled the dead twin twist (which is built up with some genuinely clever and subtle foreshadowing throughout the game). It’s not like Lan’s ignorance even adds anything to the plot, because he treats Megaman like a person from day 1; not that this is unusual, because everyone treats their Navis like people even though (as far as we know) they don’t have souls. (And they’re right to, because all programs in this series are depicted as obviously sapient with complex inner lives, raising the question of what the human soul even added to Megaman.)

I do think there’s an interesting read on this if you interpret the father as an unreliable narrator: This didn’t actually bring his son back because everything he’s describing here is insane, but he convinced himself it did because he’s just gone mad from grief and is coping the only way he knows how. At the same time, that does raise interesting questions about the nature of personhood: If he has indeed successfully emulated his dead son’s personality within this AI, is that meaningfully different from the real thing? How can you even measure that question when his son died in infancy, so there’s no real article to compare the emulation against? What does that say about our belief in the inherent sacredness of humanity, in our belief that we have some sort of immutable soul-like quality that makes us special?

The story doesn’t ask these questions, because it’s not interested in being actual science fiction, but it would be interesting if it did. It’s much more interested in asking if an 11-year-old can survive a NUCLEAR MELTDOWN spitting out FIFTY THOUSAND RADS!!! and even with his magic anti-radiation suit he PASSES OUT and NEARLY DIES but he’s still able to operate Megaman with his HEART because of their MAGIC TWIN POWERS!!! (He just needs a day to sleep it off, don’t worry, he’s indestructible.)

It genuinely reads like a little kid smashing action figures together. It’s incredibly stupid, but there’s something charming about its earnestness.

But enough about that, gameplay is what I really want to talk about.

Like in most RPGs, gameplay is split between an overworld and battles that exist in a pocket dimension. Unlike most RPGs, the battles look like this:

Battles take place in real-time, and you and enemies can move within your own colored sides of the field. You can freely attack with Megaman’s traditional buster gun, but it’s extremely weak. The main strategy comes from “battle chips”, of which you get a random selection of 5 at the start of battle and each “round” (which occurs once every few seconds). That’s right, it’s a deckbuilder from before deckbuilders were cool! I find it works a lot better than most deckbuilders I’ve tried, for three reasons:

  1. Your “deck” is always the same size, so you can’t accidentally screw yourself by bloating it. The chance of drawing a particular chip is always 1/30, no exceptions.
  2. The action elements mean you are not completely dependent on your draws. You can, in theory, beat every fight without using chips at all. This means you are never rendered totally helpless by a bad draw.
  3. Battles are both very quick and very numerous, so good and bad draws tend to average out.

In particular, I think this model actually works well with the typical jRPG element of a zillion random encounters. The variability of the deck means no two encounters will be exactly the same, even if they consist of the same enemies. I saw the random encounters as chances to try out new chips and strategies as they turned up, rather than mechanically repeating the exact same inputs every time. (That said, I did still get tired of them by the end of each game; they probably could have toned the encounter rate down a bit.)

What’s interesting to me is that even though the spatial mechanics are fairly simple, I felt they added a lot of tactical depth. You can build strategies around playing it safe with long-range attacks or using powerful short-range attacks that run the risk of missing. Bosses are incredibly varied in this aspect, ranging from completely stationary, to staying in a particular area, to refusing to stand still. There are also chips and gimmicks that can expand the size of your field (consequentially narrowing your opponents’ movement) or add objects that must be worked around. I think it’s precisely because the playing field is so small that even single-panel changes feel significant.

There are also elemental mechanics, which is an aspect of RPGs I’ve been pondering lately. In so many RPGs they feel like false depth; elemental attack spells all functionally do the same thing, you just use different ones depending on circumstance. In this case, I think it works well with the deckbuilder aspect: you can stack your deck with lots of elemental attacks, but you can’t guarantee access to that element in a given battle (unless you’re crazy enough to stuff your entire folder with them). Moreover, the spatial mechanics make this a tactical consideration as well. This isn’t like Pokemon where every possible type of attack comes in every flavor; elemental chips are fairly limited, with many having completely unique effects. Water and fire have standard shot-type attacks, but wood and electric have much more unusual attack patterns. This gives different elemental decks meaningfully different tactics, not just a different coat of paint. Tailoring your deck to exploit a particular elemental weakness often means playing very differently than you’re used to.

Unfortunately, having said all that, I don’t think the elements themselves are well-balanced. Each element (except electric) has a particular type of terrain they favor (either ignoring a hazard or gaining some benefit)… but wood and water’s favored terrain has the downside of making them take quadruple damage from their weakness, which far outstrips any possible benefit. Heat, for some reason, has no such downside: they ignore damage from lava panels, and… that’s it. This gets worse when it comes to Megaman’s own elemental styles: In addition to suffering from these terrain problems, each element gives him a different charged shot, and… they are not remotely balanced. Heat’s charged shot is absurdly powerful (capable of stripping even an optional suberboss’ aura, trivializing his gimmick) to the point there is almost never any reason to use anything else. It’s 100 damage AoE, pierces obstacles, and persists long enough to hit agile enemies multiple times. Its only downside is that its range is limited to 3, but that’s only an issue if enemies screw with the field size. None of the other elemental shots come close. They should have made wood’s charged shot much stronger if it was supposed to be the pure damage one, and given water’s shot… I don’t know, something. A turning Ratty-type shot would have been really useful, and meaningfully different from heat’s charged shot in a way the Bubbler isn’t.

But overall, I think the game has solid mechanics despite the rough edges. A casual playthrough of the games is enjoyable, and I’d love to see modern games put their own spin on some of these ideas.

…But I can’t give an honest review without also discussing the series’ ugly tumor: The grind.

We have the exact same problem I identified in Monster Sanctuary: You’re scored at the end of each battle based on your performance with commensurate rewards… and you can only get new chips if you score well, which is extremely dependent on lucky draws. This might have worked okay, but the bar for high scores is extremely strict. (I’m pretty sure it’s outright impossible to S-rank most encounters without AoE kills, which can only be done with specific chips.) This creates an unstable equilibrium where you can only get better chips if you get lucky, and if you don’t, you fall behind the power curve, making it even harder to get chips from later enemies. I consistently finished the games without having any top-tier chips because I just couldn’t beat the endgame enemies fast enough.

This naturally makes the game extremely grindy. If you want to get a specific chip, then even if you know what enemy to get it from, you need to track it down to the right area, hope you get it as a random encounter, and then hope you get a good enough draw to beat it with a high score. The game chooses to compound this issue by making its optional bosses random encounters, all of which have to be beaten with top marks to get their unique chips. If you can’t beat them flawlessly (and most of them are on par with the final story boss in difficulty), you get pocket change for your efforts, which just feels like an insult. This is a really bizarre difficulty spike, as the V1 and V2 fights have guaranteed drops; to get the V3 chips, you need to not only defeat a significantly harder version of the boss, you have to do it near-perfectly. (Not that the quality of the V3 chips reflect this absurd difficulty, of course! They’re only a linear improvement on the V2s, making them so very not worth it.) They really should have guaranteed a chip the first time you beat a V3, and only implemented the ranked drops for getting additional copies.

There is, unfortunately, a lot of this if you’re aiming for 100% completion. Nearly every enemy has a unique chip (sometimes multiple!), which on a casual playthrough is a cool echo of Megaman gaining the abilities of his defeated enemies in the main series; but for a completionist, it is exhausting. If you want to get every chip, you have to fight particular encounters (random) well enough to get an S rank (random) and then hope the (random) drop rates fall in your favor. There are tons of “secret” enemies in addition to the aforementioned secret bosses that only appear under particular conditions. And some chips are exclusive to a gacha machine; the less said about those the better. This isn’t a huge issue for most of the game, but the postgame challenges are gated behind library completion, making this grind necessary if you want to see all the content. If you do play yourself, I highly recommend using a Cheat Engine table to just give yourself whatever chips you want.

3 Comments

  1. Roarke says:

    I played Megaman Battle Network 2 as a kid and just loved it. Totally didn’t bother to do any post-game content or farming out the chip library, though. Even as a kid I knew better than to waste hours on games that had no intention of making completion fun.

    The side cast was mostly uninteresting and there to chip in one-note dialogue, but Lan and Megaman themselves had a wonderful dynamic that I enjoyed.

    There’s an indie roguelike called One Step From Eden that does a great job recreating the MMBN system, but unfortunately I didn’t mesh with it well enough otherwise, so only beat it once or twice and didn’t go for any true end/challenge modes.

    1. St. Elmo's Fire says:

      I’ve heard of One Step From Eden! It’s on my wishlist.

  2. Nerem says:

    If you want a somewhat different sort of RPG, you could go with the Endless Frontier series. It has its issues in being horny in the character designs, but it is surprisingly not so present in the dialogue. The characters are pretty fun, with the party being a group of jerks who initially don’t really care about each other but have reason to band together to slowly becoming actual friends. And they are actually unique characters, concept-wise. The protagonist is a bounty hunter cowboy, okay more normal… who wields an assault rifle with a pile-driver stake as a bayonet and a flip-out sword in the stock, and a revolver with a super-long revolver whose barrel can break open and transformed into a beam cannon. His partner is a combat android with arms that can be fired off and are attached by a wire and boots with shotguns mounted in them. Then there’s the shy princess who specializes in healing and also a greatsword with crescent-moon blades mounted on it that she can control physically for flying slashing attacks. And then the pair of exorcists with handguns, shotguns, staves and elemental swords as their loadout. And that’s only some of the PCs. There’s also just a straight-up scifi android (KOS-MOS from Xenosaga). It’s a silly game, but very creative.

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