"By the time you reach the end of the game, you'll be quite familiar with most of those skills. There are 137 in all. You gain these by defeating enemies, who sometimes leave behind bits of data. It pays to continue defeating the same enemy, too, because the more of one type of data you have, the more times you can use it within a level."
It's been a long time since Mega Man X3. Nintendo's systems have evolved. The games are now on discs, graphics can be much more powerful, and a game can even feature surround sound. With this information in mind, I was anxious to see how Capcom would manage Mega Man Network Transmission. It's a title that marks the return of the blue bomber at last to a Nintendo system without the unnecessary third dimension. Sure, we got Mega Man 64, a port of Mega Man Legends, but that didn't really count. No, this game is not the return many of Mega Man's fans have been waiting for. But is it a release that was worth the wait and is now worth a purchase? Has Mega Man grown beefier without losing the magic that attracted us to him in the first place, or has he turned into a miserable pile of kindling destined for the proverbial fire?
The answers to these questions are complicated.
First, know that Mega Man Network Transmission definitely has its fair share of changes. I'll get to them in a moment, but you should understand that even if you've played one of the past titles in the franchise during the last 15 years, you're not going to be able to jump right into this one and blaze your way to glory. That's because Mega Man Network Transmission is something like three different games all in one. It's got the Internet feel of .hack, the characters and plot twists of Mega Man Battle Network, and yes, the old Mega Man magic you might remember from the 8-bit glory days.
The way things work is both completely simple and, if you're not paying attention, agonizingly complex. You play the dual role of a boy named Lan and his PET, an Internet adventurer known as Mega Man. Through your computer, you control him as he explores Internet cyberspace. Between levels, you can shop for upgrades and read fake e-mails, or browse through your records of what you have and have not done in the game.
All of this has a certain appeal, if you're willing to get past the Saturday morning cartoon atmosphere. What lies under that cartoony exterior is the most in-depth story a Mega Man title has ever seen. In a nutshell, what you know from the beginning (or close to it) is that there's a mysterious ailment causing other PETs to go on a bizarre rampage. The town where you live is being shaken by its very foundation. What you'll discover as you advance through the plot is that this threat is much larger than you might expect, that more are involved than you might have thought, and that friends who stick together can overcome nearly any obstacle. A lot of the characters are from the Mega Man Battle Network series that has enjoyed so much recent success on the Game Boy Advance. Even without having played those, you'll definitely find something to appreciate in the plot for the GameCube rendition. I say that with confidence, as I've not played so much as a second of the portable titles.
This wonderful plot, as charming and exciting as it may be, sadly interferes with what was once a staple of the franchise, the ability to play the first 8 stages in the order you desire. The number of new stages you'll be able to select now is never greater than 4, and more frequently it's one or two. This means if you're stuck in a given level, you might have no option but to keep trying it until you succeed, while older games allowed you to simply switch to a different stage. That, or you can just go back to a previous area and beef Mega Man up a bit.
That's right; you can still re-visit old levels. The game's design encourages this, in fact. Many of the early levels are inter-connected. Once you've finished them, you will still be coming back when you unlock new passcodes and abilities. The first time you pass through a corridor, an upgrade might lie tantalizingly close, yet on the other side of a wall you can't find your way around. Get the double jump ability and you can come back to claim your prize, however. In this case, the game sometimes feels like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and its successors, if only to a small degree.
This is largely because of the abilities I mentioned. Except the game doesn't consider them abilities so much. They're bits of data. When Mega Man enters a level, you assign him up to 5 skills from your growing portfolio. Skills can range from the ability to fire explosive balls in an arc to the double jump I mentioned or a few seconds of invulnerability. By the time you reach the end of the game, you'll be quite familiar with most of those skills. There are 137 in all. You gain these by defeating enemies, who sometimes leave behind bits of data. It pays to continue defeating the same enemy, too, because the more of one type of data you have, the more times you can use it within a level. Fortunately, these skills aren't the type that you can waste. Once you use one in a level, it's gone. But in the next level, it will be available again.
However, there's a problem, and it's the one that does the most to hamper a person's enjoyment of the game. Your portfolio eventually gets huge. And so you select 20 different skills for use in the main portfolio. Except for the one you can mark specifically for use upon entering a level, the rest are chosen randomly. This means you have to carefully select what goes in that smaller file. It also means you're going to be frustrated to no end when you need an item from a ledge and the game has provided you neither with a block to climb high or the double jump. Frequently, you'll find yourself dying on purpose just so you can define what the next chip drawn will be and claim that item without re-visiting the level.
Another frustration is the save system. You cannot save while inside a level. So if you're far into a level and about to face the boss but you have gleaned a lot of useful items, you'll likely have to 'jack out' of the level, save, then re-visit and work your way back through the stage. Fortunately, most of the stages are fairly simple once you get used to them, with only 2 or 3 areas that are more tedious than they should be.
Another reason that you might find yourself jacking out of a level is that you've used up that one ability you need. The stages are built in such a way that you have to keep coming back again and again to explore every secret, even your first time through. Waste your double jump ability early on and you're bound to find a special powerup grinning at you from its perch just out of reach of a single jump. This quickly grows frustrating, and does a lot to harm what otherwise may have been a truly enjoyable experience. If skills regenerated whenever you died, the game would have been much more enjoyable.
It also would have been much easier. Having to conserve your most powerful abilities means you'll be taking a lot of risks going through the many passageways that fill the game. By the time you reach the end, you'll probably be familiar with every pit and spike strip, every hopping rabbit and every charging penguin.
Speaking of enemies, it gives more more pleasure than perhaps it should to report that a lot of them are updates of the enemies Mega Man has always battled. They come from nearly every past entry in the series, from the first one to the most recent. Remember the penguins that rushed you from the first? They're back, as are the flying red guys with a shield for a face that you have to shoot in the back. This extends to bosses. Ice Man is back, and Shadow Man, and Quick Man. There are others, too. It's exciting to see your old foes wreaking havoc again.
The stages also employ familiar tactics to make Mega Man's life miserable. Disappearing blocks are back for another round, as are one-hit-kills-you energy beams and lethal pits of spikes. One of the coolest effects from the NES, the gravity reversal stage, has also returned. In short, this is a true hodgepodge of old tricks, wrapped up in a unique new package.
Unfortunately, that package isn't always the best it could be. When you play through, there will be large spans of time where you can almost imagine you're playing a Super Nintendo game. The graphical presentation often leaves just a little bit to be desired. The first few minutes I played, I wanted to find the artists and send them diving into a pool with lead swimsuits. Move left to right and you'll see the perspective on blocks shift ever so slightly. It can be disorienting at first. Over time, you'll grow used to it. But if you see screenshots of the game and it doesn't look as pretty as you'd hoped it would, don't suppose for a minute it looks a lot better in motion; it doesn't.
It doesn't sound a heck of a lot better, either. In all honesty, the best music is the stuff you've heard before. Pharaoh Man's stage sounds nice, but then you realize that's because it sounded nice the first time around, too. The same goes for the rest of the stuff. If you have missed hearing the familiar tunes, you'll find a few of them here and all will be well. If you've moved on with the times, nothing Mega Man Network Transmission offers will truly impress you. Nothing's bad, but nothing's really all that good, either. The same is true of the cookie cutter sound effects.
However, one can make a strong case that the gameplay here is more important than the graphics. And that's certainly true. What this all means for the Mega Man fan is that Mega Man Network Transmission is definitely a must-buy. If you've loved the blue bomber since his NES debut, you'll find enough that's familiar here to bring a smile to your face at several points in the 12-hour adventure. The $40.00 price tag is nice, too. If you're a newer gamer, maybe the connection with Mega Man Battle Network will appease you. And if you fall into neither of those camps, you should rent before you buy. For a weekend rental, you definitely won't do better. You'll probably find yourself where I am right now: hoping and praying they make a sequel.
Staff review by Jason Venter (June 21, 2003)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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