Abstraction in Game Design, or Why Mega Man Battle Network is a Great Game but a Poor Video Game
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.
This is a very confusing read. It almost appears like the author played battle chip challenge spinoff instead of a proper battle network game.
“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.”
What is this? This is not how battle network works. Battle network is a real time twitch based battle system. You are on a grid but you move around it at will, and indeed you should be moving almost constantly depending on the enemy. I tended to play against other people using a link cable most of the time and megaman would rarely spend more than 1-2 seconds in the same spot.
There is a chip called timebomb that took a while to explode but there are no chips that take “rounds” to hit anything. The grenade chip takes approximately two seconds to hit its target. The only rounds are when you choose new chips once you’ve used yours, and you choose to go back to the chip select screen.
A board game version of battle network? It could work but it would be dramatically different from the original game. What do you do for movement? For when you are shooting and don’t have any chips? It’s unexplained above but you have a gun you can always fire at will. Either rapid button clicks to keep shooting or you can hold to charge it up, classic megaman style. Many matches are determined not by chips but by the buster. You can play this entire game without using a single card past the tutorial where you are forced to use them to learn the system.
And finally I feel this piece fails not for misrepresenting the gameplay, which it most certainly does, but by trying to apply certain standards to one game while ignoring them for another.
“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”
It’s not literal. Cutscenes show characters defeating enemies not the way they are defeated during gameplay. Navis will slash at each other with swords and shoot and jump around. A grid does not appear beneath them and they fight each other by moving around it. A recover 30 chip, which simply heals you 30 points in battle, is the subject of a side quest. Somebody wants one to heal their sick navi (navis are the avatars like megaman that exist in cyberspace.) The effect of the chip is different outside the battle then it it is in the battle. As are all the other chips. Enemies and other navis use chips that megaman cannot, not for any story reason, but because mechanically that doesn’t work. Megaman also can summon other navis via chips to do am attack and leave, just like ff7 which you give a pass to for some reason.
Why don’t they use a phoenix down on aeris? For the same reason megaman can’t teleport like every other navi that exists. The story and mechanics are not the same. It’s called ludonarrative dissonance. It’s in almost every video game ever made. In bio shock infinite I killed a cop and he had four pineapples in his pocket. The trash can next to him had so much money in it. These things are there for gameplay reasons and do not make sense in the world the story has told me we are in.
Long story short. You cannot give one game a pass and not another. Both show differences in cutscenes versus what occurred in battle. You also misrepresent the gameplay and expect it answer questions no video game can. Why can’t megaman have every chip in the game for free and be the same suit so he’s super stocked up for the final fight? Why does cloud get charged for weapons and items? Why don’t people give Link free potions in zelda? Why can master chief do moves in cut scenes he can’t in gameplay? How come toad makes Mario choose one out of three mystery boxes and only give him one item when he should be giving them all to him to help him get to bowser in Mario 3?
Because they’re all video games. And you can’t expect one to answer problems they all have. As for the whole internet in trouble thing, it’s becoming more and more believable. People can now hack your car and disable the brakes and cause you to crash. And as we move on things will only get more and more connected to the internet.
This was not a great article in my opinion. You probably don’t even remember it though, it’s been years :p
Also nobody will ever read this because it’s 2016 and these games are old and somewhat forgotten.
I read this. Lol.
I’m dabbling around with JRPG style game with which I want to bring the battle network magic back.
I was just looking around if the reason the battle system hasn’t been replicated or spun-off has something to do with legal implications. Or maybe people just got sick of it. Idk.
What do you think?
I’d be inclined to say it’s a design you need to specifically build around and so it’s easier for most game designers to go with a simpler combat system.
Thank you for your reaction.
So what you are saying is that developers have left this combat system alone because it is a challenge to create a corresponding universe and story around it?
Sounds good to me.
Partially that and partially that it requires a lot of assets and animations, and a lot of time spent testing the way different weapons interact.