Saturday, June 1, 2013

Game Review: Mega Man Legends

Mega Man Legends / Mega Man 64
  • Publisher: Capcom
  • Developer: Capcom
  • Release:
    • PlayStation, 19 September 1998
    • Nintendo 64, 16 January 2001
    • PlayStation Portable, 4 August 2005 (Japan only)
  • Genre: 3D Action
  • Players: 1
  • Save:
    • PSX: Memory Card, 1 block
    • N64: Built-in
    • PSP: Memory Stick, 360KB
This review was updated on 12 July 2016.

As simulated three-dimensional graphics (not to be confused with the stereoscopic 3D effects of today) became cost-effective in the mid-1990s, the video game characters we knew and love evolved to adapt it, with varying results.  Mario did it with Super Mario 64 (Nintendo 64, 1996), and it was good.  Sonic did it with Sonic R (Saturn, 1997), and it was bad.  Bubsy the cat did it with Bubsy 3D (PlayStation, 1996) and OH DEAR NEPTUNE DON'T EVEN GO THERE!  And then there's Mega Man, who had made a name for himself with (as of 1997) eight games in the original series and four in the Megaman X series, all following the same concept.  Run and gun through eight or so levels in any order, taking weapons from the bosses and using them to exploit others' weaknessess.  So along comes Mega Man Legends, and in the transition to three dimensions, it takes great liberties with this formula.  Do these changes work in its favour, and more importantly, does the gameplay survive the jump to 3D?

The first thing you should know about Mega Man Legends in comparison to the other spin-offs is that it places a heavier emphasis on story.  The universe it takes place in is a world reduced to assorted islands, with sky pirates travelling amongst them in airships and collecting oversized gems called Refractors from underground ruins.  Our hero and player-character is one such Digger, Megaman Volnutt.  Basically, he's like Indiana Jones as filtered through a shonen robo-punk anime.  He flies about with his sister and spotter Roll Caskett, and her grandfather Barrel, on a ship called the Flutter.  After a tutorial level, the Flutter crash-lands on Kattelox Island, where Megaman and Roll set out to find Refractors and other parts to fix their ship.  The plot alternates between this scavenger hunt and exploits against a family of ne'er-do-well pirates known as the Bonnes, consisting of miss Tron Bonne, mister Teisel Bonne, Bomb Bonne, their giant robot baby (!), and a legion of forty Servbots.  Picture the Servbots as the minions from Despicable Me crossed with Lego minifigures.  In other words, [verb]ing adorable!!
Much of the action takes place in underground ruins.
Given the story I just described and the gameplay's adherence to it, Legends dispenses with the traditional Mega Man structure.  Indeed, the only thing linking it to the other series is that its main character is, in the words of Brentalfloss, "blue and cyan with a gun for a hand".  Certain conventions of the original series do reappear in spirit, however.  In addition to the traditional Buster Gun, you can use special weapons, but instead of picking them up from bosses, you find junk items in the over- and underworlds, and get Roll to craft weapons from them.  However, you must also return to Roll if you ever want to switch your special weapon, so this link to the original series (where you could swap weapons at any time) shows its cracks upon inspection.  On top of that, the Buster can be upgraded by finding parts to enhance its attributes, in a bout of RPG elements.  It's a little-known fact that you can entice me to play any old thing by working in RPG elements.  Military shooter?  Hmm, I don't know, there are a few too many around these days...  Military shooter with RPG elements?  [adverb]ing sold!

But despite the presence of RPG elements and a Saturday-morning anime aesthetic (remember when I coined that phrase?), could I still possibly harbour reservations about Legends?  Yes, from a certain point of view, but once again these complaints fall apart upon inspection.  The first thing that caught my concern were the controls.  Mega Man Legends was first released in 1997, so it pre-dates the analogue Dualshock controller.  As such, you'll have to use the D-Pad to move forward, backward, and to the sides.  To change directions, hold the L1 or R1 buttons to turn.  There is an option to have the D-Pad turn and the shoulder buttons strafe instead, but that's it for control customisation.  Yeah, it's a weird control scheme, and the handling of these controls can be a bit stiff, but honestly?  I got used to it rather quickly.  I like how the camera only moves when you turn, as opposed to automatic camera movement which, as a rule, lacks precision, never looks in the direction you want it to, and is just one more thing to wrestle with.

Plus, this setup makes circle-strafing a breeze, and believe you me, you're gonna be doing a lot of it. Manual aiming is handled by holding R2, although there is a degree of auto-aim to help you out if you turn it on.  All things considered, the control scheme is kind of an elegant solution given the limitations at hand, but since both the Nintendo 64 (funny I should mention that... read on) and Sega Saturn had analog-equipped controllers at the time, it's hard to take this on its own merits.  But that's what I must do as a critic, so let's move on to the game's scale: colour me unimpressed.

You've got the one overworld, Kattelox Island, from which you can find entrances to three main ruins, plus another ruins which, despite lacking bosses or plot artifacts, holds useful treasures and can be entered from all over the island.  The running time is padded out with special missions where you take the fight to the Bonne pirates, plus other mini-games and side-quests, but -- and I don't know about you -- I felt the game is at its best when you're exploring the dungeons, hunting through each room in anticipation of the traps and treasures lying within.  Let me put it to you this way: if the game had taken place 100% within these ruins, then I think the game would be stronger for it.  In the end, I spent around 6 hours in my first play-through. Taking on all the side-quests and building all the special weapons should add a couple of hours on top of that, and if you're willing to save enough money to fully upgrade all those weapons, then you can pad out your playtime considerably.
There are also a great deal of separate story missions.
But despite the scale of the game world being a bit lacklustre in my opinion, the world itself is vibrant in its look and feel.  Kattelox Island is dominated by its eponymous town.  One of the first places you visit on the island is Apple Market, a shopping arcade lined with businesses which you can’t buy from, save the Junk Shop, but you can still poke around them and read Megaman’s commentary on what’s in front of him.

The joke’s on him.  Those are just regular old Newsweeks someone dragged around in the mud.  But seriously though, all this flavour text brings the world of Kattelox Island to life.  So do the character designs, especially those of Megaman, Roll, and the Bonnes, which are well-suited to both the styles and the technical capabilities of the time.  And then there’s the voice-acting; it’s not spectacular or anything, but it’s not boring either.  Many of the actors on hand do try to wring out as much emotion as possible, which is more than I can say for other games of its time.
For example.

Mega Man Legends was also ported to the Nintendo 64, re-titled Mega Man 64.  In comparison with the original release on PlayStation, the N64 version has both pros and cons.  On the one hand, MM64 works with the analog Control Stick, which I personally find to be more comfortable to handle than the PSone's D-Pad.  The Z and R triggers handle turning, and you aim by holding both, which I personally found a more ergonomic, if not elegant, replacement for using a separate button.  Still, the translation of the face buttons is a bit confusing.  On the other hand, by virtue of being sold on a solid-state cartridge with, even in the most high-end cases, one-tenth the data space of a CD, MM64's audio-visual aspects pale in comparison to the PSone original.  Textures are less sharp and the voice-acting is of a more muddled quality (I'm just surprised they kept it in the first place), and on top of that the frame rate is choppy in all but the tightest confines.  So, should you choose the inconvenience of sub-par ergonomics or sub-par graphics?  Pick your own poison, I guess.  I should also point out that a port was also made for the PlayStation Portable, although sadly it hasn't left Japan.

Edit 29 Sep. 2015: The previous couple of sentences have more or less been rendered moot, now that the PlayStation version is available to download from the PlayStation Store.

It's funny, I went into this review with the mindset that Mega Man Legends was good but not great, but the more I scrutinised my sticking points, the less valid they became.  Maybe the control scheme is the best you can manage when you're stuck with one of the worst D-Pads in recent memory (but that's just me).  Maybe there is a meaty, engaging experience to be found in unlocking and upgrading all the special weapons.  I guess to be fair, I'm basing most of my criticism of this game against its sequel, but that's a review for another day.

+ Changes the Mega Man formula in all the right places.
+ The underworld areas are fun to explore.
+ Even without analog support, the controls work well.
+ Good voice-acting, especially for its time.
- Changes to the Mega Man formula might put off some players.
- Could stand to have a few more areas to explore.
- Poorer texture and sound quality on the N64 version.

Control: 4 Refractors out of 5
Design: 4 Refractors out of 5
Graphics: 4 Refractors out of 5 (PSX) / 2 Refractors out of 5 (N64)
Audio: 4 Refractors out of 5 (PSX) / 3 Refractors out of 5 (N64)
The Call: 75% (B-)

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