A huge part of making any franchise is its potential longevity. How long can one concept be stretched to continue making a profit? What necessary changes must take place to give an already longstanding franchise a fresh feel without becoming pointlessly derivative? Nowadays, most highly successful games focusing on a single character or group of characters can only be sustained for a few entries before either they completely stop or a major revamping is in order. This is why characters like Mario continue embarking on extremely elaborate adventures or franchises like Final Fantasy tell a new story with each iteration. It’s simply the only way for certain games to continue making a profit despite 20-30+ years on the market.
While Nintendo is rightfully the king of re-creation, considering how nearly every single one of their first party titles have been around for decades, Capcom is not far behind. Their flagship Mega Man franchise has existed for close to 30 years and boasts a library of over 50 individual games. Out of those 50, only 11 actually surround the original Mega Man that started in 1987. The rest and overwhelming majority focus on either a completely new version of the Blue Bomber or Zero, Mega Man X’s maverick fighting sidekick. Despite all the changes, each game still takes place within the same universe across a ridiculously long timeline. What this means is that the Mega Man franchise is unique for both telling completely new stories with each series and grounding itself in the ever continuing world where some Mega Man plays a huge role. That Mega Man can take the form of a justice fighting robot, a relic hunter, a resistance leader, or a computerized program. It’s the final option that is the focus of Mega Man Battle Network, the newest Game Boy Advance game added to the Wii U eShop.
This 2001 GBA hit kicked off an alternate universe where the world revolved around computer technology as opposed to robots. The computerized enhancements created an extremely digital society where everything from traffic lights to simple coffee makers contained some form of database. In this newly established reality, Mega Man is known as MegaMan.EXE, an evolving NetNavi (an avatar) owned by a noble fifth grader named Lan Hikari. Lan uses MegaMan.EXE to fight crime around the area, and subsequently becomes involved in the battle against a terrorist organization known as WWW (World Three) run by Dr. Wily himself. Not only is Dr. Wily re-imagined, but so were classic Mega Man characters like Guts Man, Roll, and Proto Man. Basically, whoever was a robot before, now became a program controlled by both friend and foe.
In more ways than one, Mega Man Battle Network was a complete re-imagining of the already deeply established Mega Man lore. It wasn’t a full-on reboot as the original established stories are still open for continuation but it was a completely different experience. By setting itself in the year 200X, the same year the original Mega Man series began, Battle Network gave the franchise a completely fresh start. It wasn’t just the setting change that was radical though. The entire gameplay that Mega Man was known for was completely upended. Instead of a run and gun platformer, Battle Network was a full-on role playing game (RPG) with random battles, chips to enhance your stats, and a fleshed out story. The combat especially was a unanimous point of praise by reviewers at the time. Each fight required a ton of strategy and quick thinking to win, while still keeping a foot in what made Mega Man so huge to begin with. MegaMan.EXE was the same arm cannon toting hero we all loved but with a little extra flair.
Unfortunately the story didn’t fare much better. Since the GBA was a relatively new system with a brand new audience available, Capcom created Battle Network with children in mind. This ended up being a double-edged sword. On the plus side, it allowed a younger demographic to suck themselves into a franchise that had already existed for more than a decade. The extremely simplistic story and cartoonish design went over exceptionally well for this target audience. The negative side to this, however, was that it had zero appeal to older gamers. If you were in middle school when Mega Man began in 1987, you were out of college by the time Battle Network came. People in that group likely bought into Battle Network for the Mega Man name and were subjected to a kiddie story. It really is a testament to the gameplay that these individuals continued buying the series as it continued. Clearly the story wasn’t keeping them around.
I personally was in middle school when Battle Network first came out. I had bought my GBA with money I had been saving up for a while and needed some more games to flesh out my library. Battle Network instantly appealed to me because it was a Mega Man game so I got it as soon as I could. Since I was in that delicate age where I was old enough to think the story was childish but young enough not to care, I was sucked in hardcore. I played that game front to back repeatedly and absolutely loved it. Like many critics back then, the gameplay absolutely sucked me in. It contained the exact amount of RPG elements to keep me hooked and the constant nods to the original series was enough to make me happy. I did basically grow up with Mega Man after all. My enjoyment of the first Battle Network was enough to keep me attached to the series for subsequent entries until I stopped after the fifth game.
Mega Man Battle Network, for all intents and purposes, is a really great game. It gave the franchise its biggest update since the incredible Mega Man Legends series and it brought in an entirely new fanbase. With currently unparalleled gameplay, this is a great addition for any longtime fan looking to take Mega Man on a completely different adventure. The gameplay quite honestly more than makes up for whatever negatives the story can bring to older players. You can also look at Battle Network as a prime example of what Capcom needs to do with the franchise now. Back in 2001, there were still plenty of Mega Man adventures on the shelves. Now the best we can get is the Blue Bomber appearing in Super Smash Bros. If there was a ever a time for an update like Battle Network, it is now.
Luke Kalamar is Pop-Break.com’s television editor and every Saturday afternoon you can read his retro video game column, Remembering the Classics. He covers Game of Thrones, Saturday Night Live and The Walking Dead (amongst others) every week. As for as his career and literary standing goes — take the best parts of Spider-man, Captain America and Luke Skywalker and you will fully understand his origin story.