Mega Man & Bass (Game Boy Advance) review
"The only official English release of a game that deserves more praise"
More than a year after Rockman 8 and Rockman X4 had been released on Playstation and Saturn, seeing a new Rockman game on the Super Famicom in 1998 was nothing short of shocking. It wasn’t a holdover from the 16-bit generation that had undergone development hell either–development of Rockman & Forte started after Rockman 8.
According to Inafune, the goal of releasing a Super Famicom game when the next generation of consoles was firmly established was to target the audience who had not upgraded to current generation consoles. Given the significant cost of SNES localization, a release outside Japan was a non-starter until its eventual re-release on Gameboy Advanced.
Rockman & Forte was a formative game for me personally. As a big fan of the series, learning of the existence of a Japan-exclusive title had me scouring the Internet via Compuserve trying to figure out how to buy something in Japan and have it shipped to me, trying to understand what region-locking meant, and learning what a Super Famicom even was. This led me to learning about the nascent emulation scene, and thus the first ROM I ever played was Rockman & Forte using ZSNES.
The gaming experience is so fragmentary. Me playing the game via imperfect early emulation using a Microsoft Sidewinder with a very different feel and button configuration to a Super Famicom was nothing like the experience of a Japanese kid. Were Mega Man and Bass rivals? Were they working together? What’s all this stuff in the CD database say? What is Auto saying to me? Why does the Mode button on my control cause it to stop working until I restart my computer (a 10 minute operation at the time) whenever muscle memory has me reaching for a phantom start button.
This is where I must admit: I have never played Rockman & Forte–at least not on a Super Famicom. An emulated game is a different game. When we look at ports and re-releases of a game, we have collectively decided it is fair to point out differences and flaws between emulation and the original game. Why would a player’s homemade emulation setup be any different? There are now much more accurate SNES emulators and controls closer to the shape of a Super Famicom pad. Even that is very different emulation than what I experienced. The game I played in 1999–on an early emulator, with an old serial port controller–no longer exists.
The experience too may be shaped by your exposure to Mega Man 8, which redefined many aspects of the series. Mega Man 8 has a pseudo-2.5 art style that is as beautiful as it is imprecise. Its levels feel like generic platform segments sandwiched between bosses, its bosses are slow and a bit bland, and it is–as the kids today would say–anime AF. The voice acting and cutscenes live somewhere between meme and so bad it’s good these days, but it was a marked change in style and tone from the marketing and American Mega Man cartoon that we knew.
Rockman & Forte is the meeting point of a lot of ideas the series had explored up to that point. It brings Mega Man 8’s style back to the Super Famicom (minus the meme fonder cutscenes), but it also brings in some elements of the X series, with two playable characters and X-style dashing. There’s big ass mini bosses, light puzzles, collectibles, and some notable set pieces. While it is arguably valid to say the final Mega Man titles on NES started to lack heart and new ideas, such a statement could not be seriously charged against Rockman & Forte.
Nowhere is this more apparent than the robot masters. This is probably my favorite set of bosses in the series. Here they are presented as a tree, with only three available to challenge at the outset. This keeps the higher-tiered bosses out of harm’s way at the beginning, but still gives the player latitude to take interesting routes through stages. In fact, due to this structure, the player will often have the weakness for a boss because it was acquired in a prerequisite stage (for example, it is impossible to challenge Dynamo Man and Burner Man without their weaknesses). This is a change for the better because it shifts the focus from guessing at what weapon will work against what enemy to trying to develop the skill to actually use the weapons.
Even with a weakness, most of these bosses are not pushovers. In most Mega Man games, a robot master’s weakness can be used to stun-lock them to a quick victory. That is not always the case here. For example, Burner Man is weak to Ice Wall, a frigid barrier that the player can slide across the screen. Ice wall doesn’t do much damage, but if you push it you can force Burner Man into a pit of spikes. Even knowing how to beat him, the fight is extraordinarily tricky because most of Burner Man’s attacks seem custom designed to stop you from using Ice Wall. This is true of many bosses–having the weakness is not an automatic victory, and Rockman & Forte is a better game for it.
The weapons acquired are just as good as the bosses. Most of them have secondary uses, such as mines that can be controlled in mid-air to move around obstacles or an air slash that can be thrown, bounced off walls, or used as an offensive slide. Ice wall is probably the most versatile weapon in the series, being an on-demand platform that can be used stationary or pushed to great speeds to give much needed mobility to Mega Man. This is one of the few games in the series where I actually use special weapons because they often perform better than the character’s basic buster. They are also fun to use and reward curious players who will find new and novel ways to use them on repeated playthroughs.
On the topic of repeated plays, Rockman & Forte (as the title suggests) really needs two playthroughs to get the full experience, one as Rockman and again as Forte. Rockman plays pretty much like he does in Mega Man 8, including his sluggish slide and more balanced charged shot. Forte is much more mobile, with the ability to dash (like Mega Man X), double jump, and even use his Treble adapter to fly. With this mobility comes limited attack power as Forte cannot run and shoot at the same time. He can fire in eight directions and his shots are rapid, but they are also extraordinarily weak, doing single-digit damage to most bosses, and they cannot go through walls. He also cannot slide, which makes some boss attacks more difficult to avoid and locks him out of accessing several areas of the game.
The result is two very different experiences, with Mega Man having explosive offensive capabilities while Forte being more nimble. The style of each is so different that the player cannot rely on the same strategies to get through levels. For example, Burner Man’s stage has a section where fire will rise up from the ground and instantly kill the player. Forte can dash and jump out of the way for many of these, but Rockman will need to be more careful and memorize the pattern. Most levels have these types of nuance.
As such a late release on the system, Rockman & Forte is a technical masterpiece. The sprites are beautiful and detailed in ways only thought possible on next generation hardware, and the music slaps really hard. From the fantastic opening stage to storming the castle at the end, pretty much every track is a banger. The sampling used is some of the best on the Super Famicom, with thunderous bass and convincing synth.
This brings us to the only official way to experience Rockman & Forte outside Japan: Mega Man & Bass on GBA. While the Game Boy Advance has similar capabilities to the Super Famicom, it is not the same system and Rockman & Forte’s technical achievements only serve to highlight the compromises needed for this port.
Of particular note is the GBA’s smaller resolution: 240x160 compared to the Super Famicom’s 256x224. SFC/SNES ports to GBA handled this problem in different ways, such as shrinking sprites or redesigning the composition of screens to be better suited for handheld. For the most part, Mega Man & Bass simply crops the screen, leaving the player with less visible area to anticipate hazards. It isn’t unbearable, but some segments are more difficult as a result. The spikes on the notorious first screen in Tengu Man’s stage are barely visible on the GBA, so unsuspecting players may be perplexed when they die touching the top of the screen.
While the GBA has 15-bit RGB color capabilities on par with the SNES, the SNES was capable of blending layers of color together to achieve even richer colors. As a result, (and exasperated by the GBA’s primitive LCD), the GBA version has a washed out look that is a disservice to the beautiful original.
Another area where the GBA port suffers is controls. In the Super Famicom version, Forte’s dash is mapped to a button and feels much like Mega Man X. Here, the dash can only be executed by double tapping left or right, and there is no option to map it to a shoulder button. Since dashing around like a maniac is part of the fun of Forte, playing as him never ends up feeling natural or fluid in this port.
Music takes a hit as well. While the original OST uses some of the best sampling on the Super Famicom, the GBA’s less expandable sound with tinny speakers dulls the treble and bass too much. The compositions themselves are still fantastic, but the lack of depth and vibrancy is profoundly felt to those familiar with the original, even when using headphones.
Even with these issues, Mega Man & Bass deserves better than its reputation. Being an inferior port of a great game does not make a bad game, and this is the only official way to play it without importing or emulation (which is in itself a “port” since it is a different platform).
Capcom has not re-released Mega Man & Bass again outside Japan, nor has it been included in any compilations. It’s really a shame that we are left with a modestly inferior port of such a fantastic piece of software. In 2015, Capcom released the GBA version of Rockman & Forte on the Japanese Wii U eShop, and that is unfortunately the last we’ve seen it. In this prolific series, Rockman & Forte is the game that really deserves more attention.
Today you are better off forgoing the GBA version in favor of Aeon Genesis’s fantastic unofficial translation. The GBA version offers no new features or content that would help it compete against the original, save its official status and portability, and thus serves as a historic curiosity.
Community review by dagoss (March 08, 2023)
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