Jack in!! New spinoff series, transmit!
Back in a time far away known as the 1980s, there was only the Blue Bomber, known around the world as Mega Man (or Rockman, depending on which corner of that world you are visiting). Things were going well for him, as indicated by the many quality sequels on the NES and the monochrome Game Boy. Then came the envisioning of a futuristic Mega Man series -- as if Mega Man himself wasn't already a brainchild of the futurist mind. Thus, the wondrous Mega Man X was born, and a more serious spin-off series began. Its success on the SNES and beyond may have even surpassed that of its aging counterpart. (And, of course, the forum banter began, wondering who would win in a fight. The answer is clear, of course.) And then, creator Keiji Inafune had yet another vision of where to take the series: into the third dimension, with the advent of the unfortunately short-lived Mega Man Legends series, where Mega Man and friends gained a bit more personality and plot could actually be successfully integrated into the adventure. Plus, you could boot a dog in the rectum. The triangle of Mega Men was complete, and everyone could get what they wanted out of the character.
However, by the time of the new millennium, the creation of Inafune was starting to lose its momentum. The Legends series was put on indefinite hiatus, leaving folks like me to wonder if our good hero will ever escape his current bonds. The X series, though still chugging along, was starting to majorly dwindle in quality. More shockingly still, the original series had no more life in it for the time being (until 2008, of course, with the re-invention of the wheel, also known as Mega Man 9). In order to breathe more life into one of their top trademarks, a new design was imminent. With the introduction of the heavily popular Game Boy Advance system, an opportunity was made available to develop another side-series, one different from the rest. The same year as the release of the handheld console came a newly borne Mega Man, reflective of the new cyber age that the real world was entering. This was "Megaman Battle Network", and it essentially revitalized a franchise that was potentially on the brink.
So what exactly differs Megaman Battle Network from the rest of the Mega Man titles prior? For starters, this is pretty much a modified version of a standard RPG. You play through the oft-naïve eyes of Lan Hikari, a young boy in the 5th grade. As an aspiring fighter of cyber justice, he often takes matters of cybercrime (mainly caused by the dastardly WWW) into his own hands using his PET (PErsonal Terminal) to guide his Navi and electronic buddy, MegaMan.EXE, towards the sources of the problems. Together, they seem like an unstoppable force! You'll travel around Lan's hometown, ACDC Town, as well as the big city DenTown, and the Water Works and SciLab. Plus, there are objects all over the place where you can "jack in" and connect with the cyberworld. Some of these "online" areas are neat, but others can just be downright irritating or dull -- the Power Plant network with the invisible floors was by far the most unpleasant area in the game, leading me to turn off my system and leave it for a bit. Luckily, everything else is pretty entertaining (or at least tolerable -- random battles get old after a while, especially when you're actually trying to get somewhere). But where do the RPG aspects come in? As you progress, you can purchase HPMemory (for increasing your HP, naturally), PowerUPs for improving the power of your buster weapon, or even special element-based armors, essentially allowing you to "level up" MegaMan.EXE. And of course, there are random battles with viruses as you traverse the internet. Admittedly, Megaman Battle Network is not of the same RPG caliber as Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy, or even Secret of Mana, to which it more closely relates in terms of gameplay, but I'm just a simpleton and this is what I like.
But it's not just an RPG -- it's an Action-RPG! I say that because the battles you face are not turn-based, but in fact very much a real-time endeavour. All battles take place in cyberspace upon a 6-square by 3-square grid, half for you and half for the enemy (unless they have the capability to steal some of your space and take advantage of that skill, or vice-versa). You're free to move about in your space to try and attack the enemy party in real-time. You're equipped with your Arm Buster, but Lan can also send you battle chips at the beginning of each battle, and again every time a special gauge fills up during the heat of the fight. These chips vary from more powerful cannons to slicing swords, from nifty shields to elemental attacks... even the ghostly powers of previous major Navis you have defeated! Even the Escape chip is pretty valuable here, if you need to run away in a hurry. You'll have to have fast thumbs to dodge some of the wild offensive powers of the virus foes. On the plus side, your HP is restored in full after each vbattle, a feat not performed by any of the sequels, so take advantage of that while you can.
Although this game is set in an entirely separate universe to that of any other Mega Man series, the allusions cannot be ignored. Aside from the obvious "MegaMan" reference, there are various others scattered about. The leader of the opposing cybercrime organization, WWW, is none other than Dr. Wily, though probably not the one of olde, unless he invested well into the cryogenics industry back in 200X. A doll of Data, the constantly shuffling monkey friend from Mega Man Legends, is featured in your friend Yai's home, and a couple of Servbots are around in other friends' homes as well. An obvious picture of Vile from the Mega Man X series is prominently posted in Mr. Higsby's Chip Shop. However, even more obvious are the Navis of fellow citizens. Mayl has Roll from the original series, who is looking even more pink and feminine than ever before, Dex has GutsMan (of Mega Man), your little nemesis Chaud has ProtoMan, and there are various other characters that have Navis oddly similar to Robot Masters of olde, such as IceMan, WoodMan, and FireMan. If these aren't an homage to the past, I don't know what is. And as a little tidbit, the main character's last name, "Hikari", translates to "Light". As in, Dr. Light? Hmmm...
For a first generation Game Boy Advance title, the graphics are fair and comical. Some aspects, such as the individual sprites and enemies are detailed well enough, while the general surroundings, such as the houses in Lan's hometown, are ever so bland. I don't think it would be too much to ask to beef up the town a little. Why does everyone live in such awfully generic homes? I'd move out of that banal neighbourhood. On the internet, there isn't too much exciting going on in the foreground, but you may get distracted by all the trippy cyber-backgrounds, meant to reflect (somewhat) the type of object you have jacked into. That's a nice touch, but it won't counterbalance mediocre surroundings! The music, though, is a bit more alluring, even if the soundtrack gets repetitive after a while. Everything has a cheerful musical atmosphere -- even the situations that are supposed to be more serious!
I welcome this addition to the Mega Man franchise, as it ended up being a fun, refreshing adventure. As a growing teenaged boy, I was immediately hooked to this, and it still holds up fairly well, even with a few dry quests and a bit of needless running around. However, it's unfortunate that Capcom butchered this series and developed it into a cash cow by splitting later games into two versions, starting with Megaman Battle Network 3 (in Blue and White editions) à la Pokémon. It got even worse when the spinoff of this spinoff, Mega Man Star Force, broke into 3 versions with seemingly inconsequential differences. But as the initial breakthrough title, I'd say that Capcom hit gold with this one. I'll even overlook the horrible pun when Lan is hungry and wants a snack; when denied, he says "C'mon, just one byte..." Awful. Cute, but awful.