Megaman Battle Network
RPG - GBA
Battery Backup - 1 slot
Megaman has been in a lot of different games over the years. Of course, he's most recognizable in the action-platform series that spanned most consoles since the late 80s. But he's also been in fighting games, an adventure game, a driving game, and here comes another: role playing. RPGs have been predominantly stale and I was worried that this game would take the same route. But despite retaining some of the usual problems of jRPGs, Megaman Battle Network is a bold move to push RPGs in the right direction.
The story revolves around a boy, Lan, and his portable exploration device (PET) Megaman. While most of the world looks like your everyday settings, once you "jack in" to the network, you're transported to a cyberrealm of internet viruses, hacking programs and net addresses. And it works quite well. The game is full of net jargon and in-jokes. While the actual plot won't win any awards, the environments are fascinating enough to keep you playing. Some of the areas are pretty gimmicky with invisible paths, slippery icy roads, and doors that open up only if you meet certain criteria. It's actually refreshing, because it's something that's more akin to adventure games than RPGs.
The core of the game however, is the battles. They are a flash of Capcom brilliance. I don't know if any written description can do it justice. It's a mix of Megaman, fighting game, and Magic the Gathering, if that makes any sense. The battles occur in real-time on grids. On one side is a 3x3 grid where Megaman can roam. The other side is a 3x3 grid where the enemy can move. It's an all-out action game with limited movement. You can move anywhere within your bounds, all the while firing at the enemy at will. You'll even gain the ability to charge up your shots to do more damage. It's somewhat similar to traditional Megaman games because you still have to learn enemy patterns, and with multiple enemies on screen, it gets pretty intense to dodge all their attacks.
But as adequate as the battles are in its real-time action, Capcom added an additional layer of strategy to it which turns it into something phenomenal. There is a meter that runs in real-time at the top, and when it's filled up, you have the option of pulling up a menu to equip chips. These chips give you special kinds of attacks. Some are good for doing damage to an entire row of enemies. Others are healing items that will boost up your HP in the midst of a fierce battle. And others will affect the board, such as stealing a column from an enemy. It essentially increases your grid to 4x3, and decreases theirs to 2x3. Once you have a chip, you can choose to activate it at any time during the battle so you have to time it for when it'll be beneficial for you. These chips come up 5 at a time and are randomized out of a "deck" you put together. Think of it like a 5 card hand. You can generally only choose one chip per round.
The awesome thing is you can choose to "pass", and when the meter fills up again, you get the original 5 chips and another set of 5. You can do this one more time for a total of a 15-chip hand. This not only increases the opportunity of getting a chip you want, but allows for combos. Most of the time you can only choose one chip per round, but if you have multiple copies of a chip, you can select as many of them as you want. So if you have two cannons that do 120 damage each, you can select both of them and you'll have 2 cannon bursts to be used whenever you feel like unleashing them. But more than that, each chip has a letter. So you can also equip chips that have the same letter. So it doesn't necessarily have to be the same type of chip. One common combo is that the steal chip and the sword chip generally have the same letter. So you'll steal a column from the enemy to increase the area you can move. That brings you closer to the enemy, so you can more easily slice them with a sword. Finally, there's a third dimension with the chips in the form of secret combos. If you get a certain combination of chips, then your secondary weapon may change into something special. The easiest one is probably getting the same chip with letters in succession. If you equip a 120 damage cannon A, a 120 cannon B, and 120 cannon C, then it changes into a special type of 120 cannon. Instead of having 3 maximum bursts of 120 damage, when you activate it, you get 10 seconds to shoot your secondary weapon. Within that 10 seconds, you have the ability to do unlimited bursts of 120 damage. So this chip aspect adds a whole new dimension of discovery and strategy. You can also customize your "deck" to your liking. You don't have to use these chips at all, but it certainly helps make battles more varied and more fun.
As it is a Japanese RPG, it generally sticks to the tried and true formula. There's still random battles... too frequent for my own taste. That's really my one knock against it. The system is fun, but you get dragged into too many of them. Admittedly, it was plentiful enough to make me lose interest in the game. I had to put it down for months, because the frequency really was that irritating. But there's also ways that it breaks free from convention. I really like how leveling up is done through purchases. When you defeat enemies, depending on how well you fought and an element of randomness, you either get chips or money. You don't gain experience points. This keeps the game balanced, and you're never too overpowered for any area. Instead, you can find and/or buy items that will allow you to boost your stats. So it's a welcome change, and a way around the power-leveling that you normally see.
Overall, Megaman Battle Network is a fresh take on the formulamatic jRPG genre. The fantastic battle system shows that an RPG can be fun if gameplay is emphasized. It's really one of the best implemented systems in all of RPGing. It's frantic. It's strategic. It's both! And at 20 hours of gametime, it's at just about the right length too. Unfortunately, it doesn't completely break away from old RPG conventions. The frequent random battles get old fast, and ultimately keep the game from reaching its full potential. But it's not enough to squash out the ingenuity of the battle engine. Congrats, Capcom. You've surprised us all.