After the original Mega Man, X and Zero, the Battle Network series now gets its well-deserved collection of remasters. The Mega Man Battle Network Legacy Collection brings the unique Gameboy Advance games to the current generation of consoles for the first time and, like the previous collections, adds a number of extras. Think a gallery of concept art, options to make the games easier to play, and a filter to smooth out the pixel art a bit.
Releasing another collection like this is routine work, you’d say by now. Yet the Battle Network collection is the odd one out. For these are not side scrolling action-platformers as you would expect from the Blue Bomber, but a unique set of JRPGs that were positioned as Capcom’s answer to the success of Pokémon. You can see that not only in the dual versions per title with only marginal differences, but also in local network functionality such as PVP battles and card swapping. That functionality is now officially supported over the Internet for the first time, complete with rankings and matchmaking.
So the Battle Network games are not typical Mega Man titles. In fact, even outside of the Mega Man IP, no similar game has ever appeared (except for a handful of recent indie games). Battle Network is a unique blend of a deck-building JRPG and fighting game. Mega Man here fights on a grid with a pre-selected deck of attack cards – called chips here. Battles are virtually real-time, where at any time you can move up a square, shoot with your arm cannon, or deploy a chip. Those chips can heal, deal damage or affect the arena to increase your movement, or limit the enemy’s. Each round, you choose a number of chips with which to attack the enemy. That’s also where the fighting game influence comes in: Battle Network is as much about strategy and dexterity as it is about anticipation and – in the case of PVP – mind games.
The Battle Network games were thus ahead of its time twenty years ago. The graphic style has also aged quite nicely, being as eclectic and unique as the gameplay. Don’t get me wrong: even with the new upscaling filter, it is clear to see that the games are from a different era. The relatively slow pace and lack of direction in the storylines also do little to disguise that fact. Still, the games can keep up with the times a lot better than you’d expect from a bunch of GBA RPGs.
What absolutely helps with this is the almost prophetic setting. As a teenage boy Lan, you walk the physical realm in all six games, but with the computer program MegaMan.exe on his personal terminal, you can take to the digital highway. Here you battle viruses that try to infiltrate and manipulate your private life through a variety of smart devices. The smart oven that sets your house on fire in the first Battle Network through a virus still seemed like science fiction in 2001. By now, an oven with wifi is no longer strange, and we are confronted daily with news of runaway Tesla’s, tapped baby monitors, and “smart” locks that open for every criminal. If Zuck has his way with his metaverse, even the concept of a “NetNavi” like MegaMan.exe could become a reality.
Also typical today, is the way the Legacy Collection is sold. Namely, you are rather squeezed as a consumer. The Legacy Collection bundles the (re-translated) Japanese versions of all ten games in the main series. Or yes: actually, it’s six games. In fact, starting with volume three, all the new parts were released in two separate versions. These are just the GBA games. The DS remaster of the first Battle Network and spin-offs like the (rather mediocre) Battle Network Transmission are not included. So it is not really a complete collection.
Capcom has again chopped up this incomplete collection into two volumes. Volume 1 contains the first three games, and Volume 2 the other three. A similar split was already an odd choice with the X-collection, but at least it allowed you to save money by skipping the somewhat inferior Volume 2. In the case of Battle Network, all six games are worthwhile. This is not surprising: the six games appeared within a time span of five years and thus logically differ little from each other. A layman wouldn’t be able to tell the first and sixth parts apart from screenshots. That makes it extra wry that you have to pay full price for both volumes: 60 euros instead of the 40 that the X collections cost together. Surely that’s pricey for a pair of GBA titles.
Fortunately, you do get something in return. As always, the presentation of the collection is excellent, and since these are the Japanese versions, there is additional content present that we didn’t get to experience in the West before. For example, there are bosses we couldn’t fight before, and the Japanese “Patch Cards” – physical cards you could scan at special events for bizarrely strong in-game attacks – are now simply loadable via an in-game menu. Added to that is a setting to strengthen your arm cannon to do 100 times as much damage, allowing you to get through the story faster, or trivialize a particularly difficult challenge.
Then there are the online modes. For the first time, you can now (officially) play and trade cards online against anyone in the world. Per game, you can find battles via public matchmaking or a private lobby. There is even a ranked mode. The options in terms of match types are somewhat limited, though. For example, additional modes like tournaments or random battles with a random set of chips are not present. Nor can you influence which chips can be played with: you can only block the use of the aforementioned Patch Cards. So everyone can simply use whatever chips they collect in the story, regardless of how (un)balanced it is.
While it took Capcom some 20 years to bring these features online, fans have not been idle during that time. In recent years, communities such as N1GP have sprung up, more or less developing the original games. Rules have been devised to prevent the abuse of unbalanced builds, the roms have been given balance patches, and rollback netcode has even been implemented for the emulation software. In addition, a perfect save is used in this setting, so everyone has all the chips at their disposal and you don’t have to finish every game 100% before you can get anywhere online.
In that sense, thanks to the fans, the original games are actually ahead of the games in this Legacy Collection. The Legacy Collection did build the infrastructure, but online PVP is the Wild West thanks to the lack of rules and balance. In doing so, it does not support cross-play, so the player count is split not only by game, but also by platform. During the review period, this made it impossible to find public matches at all.
As in Pokémon, PVP in Battle Network is only for the hardcore fans. The Legacy Collection makes that a bit more accessible because you don’t have to deal with all kinds of software, but I don’t expect it to draw players away from the established scene that seems to have their affairs in better order than Capcom itself. It would be nice if the game proves otherwise, but I expect that this leaves the Legacy Collection’s biggest addition largely underutilized.
Well, even if the online well does indeed dry up, the Mega Man Battle Network Legacy Collection is still a fine collection of particularly innovative RPGs that have moved surprisingly well with the times. There is a reason there is still such an active community of Battle Network fans, and this collection manages to convey that reason just fine. The price is a bit high for about six games that are two decades old, and it remains somewhat wry that Capcom is once again breaking this collection up into two parts. Still, this is the best way to play through the games single player, and it at least makes the multiplayer a bit more accessible. That leaves only the Mega Man Legends Legacy Collection now. Come on, Capcom. Do it!