The JRPG Canon #4 - Mega Man Battle Network

And now, for something completely different.

Welcome to The JRPG Canon, if you're new here, check out the introductory installment, where I explain my goals of this project. Basically, they are investigations as to why an RPG rules, using the first few hours of the game as a basis.

My first 3 games have been veritable classics of the genre, and anyone who has played an RPG before will instantly understand why I chose them.


What do we say to JRPG Gatekeepers?
Today, we'll be taking a look at a favorite of mine that I honestly didn't expect to hold up this well: Mega Man Battle Network for the Game Boy Advance.


The History:

So the weirdest thing about Battle Network has to be that it was originally planned to be a horror game. I have no idea how they got from horror to pokemon-ish dungeon crawling JRPG, but hey, I'm glad they did.

The game was conceived by Masahiro Yasuma, and developed by Capcom Production Studio 2. The new design for MegaMan.EXE was done by original Mega Man creator, Keiji Inafune, though studio artists tweaked and simplified it after the fact.

The game came out in 2001, as a day and date launch title for the Game Boy Advance. Pokemon was not out on the system yet, and the developers knew that they had an opportunity to appeal to that market, so the game takes place in a recognizably modern setting, with kids who all have fanciful companions with which to punch other kids' companions.

...to a PokeMan.EXE battle. Totally different!


The Pokemon comparisons pretty much stop there, though. (They rear back up starting in Battle Network 3, but that's for later).

The Why:

As in, why am I covering this game? Mostly because I had a whim to replay the series, and found that this one holds up way better than I thought it would, being a game from my childhood. You know, back when I was an idiot. (Okay, MORE of an idiot.)

But also, take it or leave it, this game has 12 sequels, with most of those having several versions. So even if no other games have really taken its design as a basis for a sub-genre, just by numbers alone, this is an important release.

Let's walk through this opening loop, and hopefully, you'll like the game as much as I do.

The Game:

The game starts with your JRPG Protagonist waking up from sleep, and being late for an obligation. As he gets ready to go, he meets the co-protagonist, and the two travel together for the rest of the game.

Let me guess, you having the same last name as Dr. Light is gonna come up, too.

It's probably these humble, tropey bits of the game that make all of its uniqueness really stand out. It's not something that reinvents the wheel, it just adds on some chrome spinners, and stands outside of the car pointing at them.

One such uniqueness is the isometric art style. It's probably this game's fault that there are a lot of crappy, hard to read isometric games on the system, but it does make the game really pop on the GBA's color-rich screen. 

It also takes place in a laughably outdated future, which at the time captured my imagination in the same way that Digimon did.

(Oh my god this game is just Digimon, Pokemon, and Mega Man all having a baby no wonder I liked it as a kid.)

See, in this Future, the year 200X (approximately 1X years ago, now), each child has a PErsonal Terminal, or a PET. Which I'll let the ugliest NPC since Dan from Xenogears explain to you:


So yeah, this game is just about some kid screwin' around on his iPhone, and Siri has a gun. But back in 2001, when cell phones couldn't even play snake? This was mad futuristic.

Your main character, Lan, finally gets up, reads some foreshadowing in the newspaper, and makes his way to school. Most of this is a cutscene, but there are bits in each part where you can control Lan where you can find goodies if you're a diligent explorer. The game also encourages you to explore by giving basically everything flavortext. Each bookshelf has different books on it, each electronic has a different explanation, they really make the game feel alive if you go looking for it, which really rules.

At school, the teacher teaches the class how to "Bust Viruses" which means the kids are better than me at computers. But then again, I don't think I would want Norton or McAfee to have access to a gun. (or anyone at all ever. Seriously fuck guns, the US is broken.)

This acts as the tutorial for the battle system, which is my favorite part of this game, and why I would play it even if I didn't find so much else to love here.



The battlefield is divided into two halves, each containing nine squares in a 3x3 grid. You and the enemies can both freely move on your same-colored squares, and shoot at each other.

Shooting is either done with the wimpy little buster gun on your arm, or by...

A MUFFUKIN' CARD BATTLE SYSTEM YEAH BOIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII.

Ahem. Sorry.

I cherish and adore every single card battle system. They were all the rage in these days, and for good reason. I'm sad they've all gone the way of the buffalo, but hopefully games like Slay the Spire catch on and we get a comeback.

Anywho, each "turn" in battle you can load up to 5 "chips" to shoot more powerful attacks at your foes. But only if they have the same name, or if they have the same type (letter). You can also choose to draw 5 extra chips by waiting a turn without playing any, if you're looking for a cool combo.



When you play your turn, you have as much time as you want to move around and shoot your shots. It doesn't play out in a turn-based system, rather you can just press L or R to bring up your chip menu if enough time has passed since your last time choosing chips.

This makes it more like reloading a gun (which Mega Man has!), than a normal JRPG turn. It's cool.

When I was little, I prided myself on taking out bosses using only my buster, but that buster only shoots for 1hp at a time, and it's just like a kid who had a note to get out of PE to be proud of how many times he could press the darn B button.

This battle system is surprisingly deep, right from the get go. The deck they start you with has a bit of variety in it, but almost every card has a different letter. But one of the first chests you find has a chip in it that bucks that paradigm, and you start piecing together strategies in your head. "Oh, now I have a Sword L instead of a Sword S, so I can put it with my Cannon L, to take out the close guy and the far guy in one turn."

My Sack has a nice, big cannon in it!
What's that? I can't come back anymore? I understand.
After learning some ins and outs, you head home, and into the tutorial dungeon. It's fairly safe, with only the same monsters you took out in the tutorial, and you need to help your friend's Navi, Glyde, find a program that got lost on the net.

This teaches you how to navigate in isometric hell, and to see how cool the Net dungeons look. There are a few items to snag if you thoroughly investigate, and you learn that to progress farther into the net, you need Addresses and Links.

After saving the program, you jack off  out and whoops, your house is on fire. The foreshadowing I mentioned earlier, was rumors of peoples Smart-Ovens shooting flames all over the place. And an oven repairman with shifty eyes and a scar working on yours. It's not the subtlest of hints that this would be the first real dungeon.

Your mom lets you walk real close to the blaze and plug your iPhone into its USB port, and away you go.

The internet of things is a bad idea.
This dungeon's gimmick is fire that blocks your path, and an item that only has 7 uses to get you through it. So you need to navigate the dungeon efficiently, and remember its layout to know where to go and where not to.

At the end, you face FireMan, who is actually kind of hard. He moves pretty fast, and I missed most of my special moves because of it. He also has HECKA area denial, so as a first boss, he's pretty great.

While fairly short, and basic, this dungeon does set up a few things that I love about the series. The dungeons are all gimmicky, in a good way. This is the fire dungeon, the next one is the numbers dungeon, and so on. They theme the levels around the boss in a way that is so distinctly Mega Man.

After this dungeon, you hit the hay and get another heavy handed foreshadowing, and another dude with shifty eyes is scoping out your school. No biggie.

The next morning, you're late for class, but instead of being a cutscene, you get to explore the school. This cleverly teaches you the layout of the school, because surprise, it's gonna be the next dungeon.

Now that would be a coincidence!

In class, the cyber blackboards are taken over by the evil WWW that was foreshadowed in your newspaper at the beginning of the game, and it's up to Mega Man to stop them, and unlock the doors to the school.

Wait an evil corporation using an Endgame to make children brand loyal
to bring about their evil bidding. Sounds familiar. Hm....
Anyways, excited for Black Widow(2020)

This next dungeon is the reason I started writing today. It has phenomenal music, cute design, interesting mechanics, and makes use of Mega Man and Lan both, so you're solving two dungeons at once. It rules.

See, the WWW Virus has started trashing the system to do its bidding, so the calm beautiful 1-1 recreation of your school from the tutorial is borked and unusable, and there are passcode locks everwhere. Some of these locks are just number puzzles, saying if your'e too high or too low. These were fun, and made me feel clever for figuring out to just binary search for it. Others, required you to control Lan, and explore the real world school, be it restarting a glitchy computer in the AV room, or saving your teacher from the supply closet, or just counting things mentioned by a password hint.

Technically, in this half of the school, because the other half is locked.

The dungeon was a good maze, but every wrong turn had an item, and you always could feel you were making progress. It was a crap load of fun.

The dungeon ends with NumberMan, who summons balls that you have to shoot out of the way to hurt him, and it was in this battle that I realized another Mega Man throwback hidden in the code.

Mega Man cannot shoot again until his bullet hits something. So the fastest way to spam your buster gun is to get right up on the baddies, just like in MM. If you don't do this, NumberMan's bombs will explode and hit you before you can take them out. They took a sprite limitation from the NES and made it a feature for this game (because your bullets don't even have sprites, so it's just there for throwback and strategy).



After Defeating NumberMan, the evil Mr. Higsby realizes that fascism is bad, and decides to open an item shop instead. 

Then, if you're like me, you save your game, and run to your nearest computer and mad dash write a blog about how much fun it is.

The Good:

And your Navi will "crawl" this dungeon, and play its role in this game.

I love this theme of "Be like Pokemon". Which isn't to say it's a knock-off by any means. It just aims to capture the essence of WHY Pokemon is fun, and tap into it. You have your quirky tutorial characters, the bright colors, the Gacha-without-gacha sort of "what am I gonna get from this battle" feeling. The "kids can save the world" plot. The completeness of the world's realization, where everything is a computer, and everyone has their Navi. 

The next dungeon is you stopping a virus, which clears up a landslide because of course it does.


It just taps into this childlike joy of running around and doing things in a videogame. Which we sometimes forget is the biggest draw for kids games. Just getting to do stuff. Kids don't just beat a game, they live in it. And this game feels lived in. that rules.

GutsMan has area denial and shockwaves and would be hard to beat but he isn't.
Second, I gotta talk about the battle system. It, like Pokemon, is easy to pick up and tough to master. You can win every fight with a buster gun (please don't do this. It won't make girls like you) but you can win faster, and therefore get better rewards, if you play your cards right. In addition to the combos of taking out the enemy formations efficiently, there are also literal combos, where several items of the same family, or copies of the same item with different codes will combine into special moves, that are ridiculously overpowered, but make you feel clever for putting them together in your decks. 

As an aside, I must have been really really bad at this game growing up because I had no idea bout this at all, and found out about it when perusing the Let's Play by Epee Em to get screenshots for this article.

That just goes to show how deep things can go, to allow players more and more opportunities to get gud, while letting the average player still experience a bulk of the game.

Also it's a fuckin' card battle system, man. Love that shit.

The Interesting:

Pop quiz: Wtf is going on here?

The isometric art style is really striking, but for most of the internet sections, is kinda hard to read. This may be on purpose, but in the DS remake, they add a mini-map, and in Battle Network-6 they change the design of the web enough to make it mostly readable. So it was probably agreed that it was a bad move.

That said, actually using the web isn't that bad, and there's only really one path forward, so you'll find it eventually.

The Things to Learn From:

Normally this section is me euphemistically saying what was not good, but this time around, It's a positive set of things I learned from this game.

StoneMan doesn't move. In a game about controlling the battlefield, this is easy.
I have a weird relationship with random battles. I both like the Dragon Quest 'how low can you go' style gauntlets that are about managing your resources before heading back, but also despise Zubats and their ilk that just make me dread the combat, and button mash my way through it. 

So, I love me a complicated as hell battle system (Radiant Historia) that breaks up the endless train of Zubats by making each battle a puzzle, but also hate how long it can take, and how many resources it can waste (Radiant Historia).

This game may be the perfect marriage of "The battle is a puzzle" that I love from Radiant Historia and Persona, while avoiding the Zubatification of said combat.

Each battle, you start at full health. You have access to all of your cards (well, a hand of 5 out of the 30, but they aren't ever used up), and you have full knowledge of "board state" when you plan your turn.

This makes it a puzzle. And puzzles are fun. But executing this puzzle takes sometimes less than one second. And when you do it that fast, you get better rewards. So it makes you feel smart, doesn't waste your time, and keeps you engaged. 

If you're making an RPG and you're designing a battle system, you could do worse than to copy off of Battle Network's homework.

Conclusion:


Well, I started Battle Network this week because I want to go back and play the whole series, so of course I'll play it again. But now I'm definitely gonna also tell people to play it, not just because I remembered loving it, but because it has a great sense of its own world, and because the dungeons are good, and because the music tries its damnedest to not sound like hot GBArbage.

Do you like Pokemon? You'll probably like this. It hits several of the same chords. Do you like Mega Man? You'll probably like this. It's chockablock full of references to the series, bot Classic and X. Do you like card battle systems? Marry me.

I hear that MMBN4 is a downturn for the series, but that MMBN5 and MMBN6 are both amazing again, and then I really loved the MM StarForce series that is a spiritual successor to this series.

Each game is extremely short for RPG standards, with the stories clocking in at the 15-20 hour range. So you could easily binge one of these in a weekend, and frankly that sounds like a badass weekend.

They are all available on the WiiU eShop, so do yourself a favor and check them out.


What do you think about Battle Network? Am I blinded by nostalgia? What's your favorite part? Which game in the series is your favorite? Should I play Network Transmission? Let me know in the comments.

If you want to hear me talk about other RPGs, including Cosmic Star Heroine, which has good puzzle battles too, tune into the podcast next week.

Thanks for reading, I'll see you soon.
-Sam

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