The Best Mega Man Game You Never Played
As surprising as it is for young people to hear today, there was a time when Mega Man games released nearly every year. This is hard to believe today given that the franchise seems to be all but dead, living on life support with the release of every new collection of retro spin-off titles that they can scrounge up. One of those Mega Man spin-offs, however, has not yet received this luxury treatment, languishing on a portable console from yesteryear. I am, of course, speaking of Mega Man Battle Network.
Releasing on the GameBoy Advance in 2001, it was quite clear to fans that this was a very different Blue Bomber. The Mega Man franchise had evolved over time, slowly but surely, going from the classic side-scrolling series on the NES to the Mega Man X spin-off series on the SNES, and then taking an even bigger leap with the Legends series on the original PlayStation. This seemed to be the best and natural evolution for the franchise, so in many ways, the Battle Network spin-off series almost seemed like an odd retrograde being released on a portable system.
And yet, the franchise exploded in popularity, spawning several sequels and even a direct spin-off from itself, basically inspiring a spin-off of a spin-off of a popular series! While many may believe that the birth of the Battle Network series started the downward trend in quality Mega Man titles, there is still a sizable fanbase for these games who would love nothing more than to see their beloved virtual mascot rise again.
Aesthetically speaking, this game looks so different from any of the Mega Man games that have come before. Eschewing the traditional side-scrolling viewpoint for an isometric camera, the game plays out similarly to a traditional role-playing game. You play as Lan Hikari, a boy who has an AI companion named “Mega Man.” In fact, everybody has these companions, which they have dubbed as “NetNavis,” and the world they are living in is an internet utopia, with people living in relative peace and harmony with both nature and technology wedded together in a synergistic fashion.
It is a fascinating premise, a utopian society that is not too unlike the futurist worldview of Gene Roddenberry of Star Trek fame. Instead of living in outer space among the stars and planets, however, humanity has corrected the mistakes they have made with the planet and have been experiencing a time of relative peace and stability. This is a hopeful future, one that stands in stark contrast to the bleak and dystopian times of the original Mega Man and Mega Man X games.
The people of this world use their “PETs” (Personal Terminal) for all of their daily needs, plugging into the internet and managing every aspect of their lives with their customizable NetNavis. Each NetNavi has their own distinct personality which the user can interact with. Most of the NetNavis you see are designed after classic Mega Man characters, whether hero or villain, and the way their character stories play out may not play out exactly as you think even if you do know the character they were inspired by. It is this type of respectable homage that helps the creators honor what has come before while simultaneously blazing their own trail.
In this universe, the internet is booming and accelerating at an incredible rate. For a game that came out in 2001, it was surprisingly forward-thinking on how technology and the internet would become so ubiquitous in our daily lives. The first big boss you fight against is FireMan.EXE, which is a NetNavi that takes over the over in Lan’s house and sets fire to the kitchen.
You might be asking: how does a virtual program get inside an oven? Because nearly everything in this world is connected to the internet. Whether it is your school desk, kitchen appliances, or even your dog house, everything is wirelessly connected to each other through the internet. This actually creates a very engrossing interconnected world because as you explore the internet, you may wind up in places that you never expected or even in places you have already been. It all depends on how much you thoroughly explore the world around you.
The combat in this game stands apart from traditional action-based Mega Man combat in a significant way. Even Mega Man Legends, for all the changes it brought to the established Mega Man formula, still relied on the fast style of combat that this franchise is known for. With Mega Man Battle Network being closer to a role-playing game, the combat is reliant on random battles and picking out “weapon chips” to install into your PET to boost MegaMan.EXE’s abilities. Battles play out on a 3×6 grid, where you and your opponent are each initially given a 3×3 section of your own. You cannot travel into your opponent’s squares, so you have to install the weapon chips each round that will deal the damage you need. It is an amazing combination of the frenetic action you would expect from a Mega Man game while also giving you the strategy and planning time you would want from a turn-based role-playing game. It is a battle system I have never seen successfully replicated in any other type of game, making it a wholly unique concept all on its own.
There is so much that could be said about this game and the kinds of ideas and concepts it put forth throughout its story. While it starts out as an innocent and lighthearted experience, the story escalates significantly once you start learning more about how this world was built and the dangers of relying a bit too much on our technology. Not only will you be dealing with the surface-level issues of technology and nature and humanity having to co-exist with each other, but you will also be dealing with more abstract and philosophical ideas like:
- What is a human soul?
- How is technology changing the very definition of humanity?
- At what point are we going too far in our scientific advancements?
And while the game itself is family-friendly, it does not shy away from presenting these ideas and allowing the player to try to make sense of the morals and ethics behind it all. I can still remember nearing the end of the game and learning of a bombshell plot revelation that changed the entire outlook I had on what I had been playing for dozens of hours. It is one of those twists that rock you so hard that you spend hours pondering and saying to yourself, “Did that really just happen?”
And to me, a game like that deserves your attention. While it is a difficult title to obtain these days, it is absolutely worth the time that you will invest in it. While the series itself did eventually succumb to the sequel-itis syndrome that Capcom has been known to inflict onto its popular franchises, the first Mega Man Battle Network has proven that it deserves a place among the pantheon of amazing Mega Man games.
Please, Capcom: give us a collection already!