The furore, if you call it that, about the cancellation of Mega Man Legends 3, got me to thinking about the franchise. Setting aside the original games, which are for the most part great, and the Z and X series, which are also for the most part good, you’re pretty much left with the Legends series (which I don’t much like) and the Battle Network series. Which is what I’m going to talk about.
For those who haven’t played them, the Battle Network games are JRPGs set in a setting very much unlike everything else Mega Man, save for the presence of large numbers of franchise references. This, arguably, is why they don’t work. They borrow heavily from the cliches of shounen anime, that is to say episodic plots in which one villain turns up, does something to menace the main character or his friends, and is defeated in short order. That, though, isn’t my big problem with the series. The plots are idiotic, often nonsensical and very simplistic, but that’s not the problem here.
The problem is the gameplay. Not because it’s bad, because while it’s slightly unpolished (and is never refined throughout the series owing to each game adding a game-breaking gimmick) it’s still very good in concept; but because it’s so good as a game it’s impossible to fit a narrative around. The essential gimmick to MMBN is that its combat system involves moving your character around a 3×3 grid, using randomly selected attacks to hit an opponent doing likewise. Your attacks for each round are selected from a library of “chips,” which come in “codes”. You can select any number of chips in the same code each turn, or any number of chips of the same type. If you play three in a row in certain combinations, you get a special bonus.
Observant readers will have notice you can quite easily change “chip” for “card” and “code” for “suit” and you have a collectible card game. And as a concept it’s a really good one. You have a grid, and each card affects a certain amount of the grid in different ways. For example a “grenade” chip will take a certain number of rounds to reach its location, and then detonate, affecting the square it hits and then all adjacent ones. A laser chip might hit an entire row. As a game, this is excellent and the fact the video game series doesn’t capitalise on this and instead adds endless gimmicks which don’t do anything but wreck balance and then strings out the deck building around grinding for cards and battle ranks is a shame.
The problem is, it’s so clearly a game, with your “hand”, a “draw” and “discard” mechanic and “suits.” This makes no sense in relation to the setting but yet it is mashed hard against it to make it work. The game’s universe claims this whole convoluted system of fighting things is people going into cyberspace to fight “viruses” because everything runs on computers. Now the idea of going inside the computer to fight stuff can work. Ghost in the Shell did it. The Matrix did it. But MMBN still makes no sense. If everything is reliant on these chips, why don’t they make every chip the same code? Why don’t people stack their decks? It would be like soldiers going into battle with none of their pockets labelled and at any given point having to fight the enemy with the first 5 things they grab.
I know trying to rationalise JRPGs is a terrible idea; but when MMBN forces its “gameplay-mechanic-as-plot-device” obsession into your face with almost every mission in the game, you can’t do much else. It wants you to swallow this stuff, and take it at face value, despite it making no sense and overcomplicating everything.
So, if I could go and buy a board game called “Chip Fighter” or “Wizard Battle” in which the same mechanic was used to abstract wizards fighting with runes, I’d love it. I’d spend over-the-top amounts of money on packets of cards to make the best deck possible. But to use it as the core conflict resolution mechanic in a JRPG, and force this in your face (meaning you’re expected to believe climactic epic boss fights for the sake of the world are a spoddy kid playing far future Magic The Gathering against a computer) doesn’t just test your suspension of disbelief, it throws it out the window entirely.
The problem is, to sum up, this: If your gameplay mechanics are strongly game-like, then trying to find a narrative justification for them is a poor idea. A game like Final Fantasy 7, where you aren’t told that the battle system is exactly what’s happening but an abstraction of it, works. But to be told what works best as an abstracted game mechanic is in fact what is supposed to be literally happening in the narrative – that doesn’t work.