Comfort Food Games: Mega Man Legends

Comfort Food Games: Mega Man Legends

Due next week on PSN at long last, this cult classic adventure presents a world covered by endless water and endless replayability.

To finish Mega Man Legends, you don't have to pay for medical treatments for the little girl in the hospital. Nor are you obligated to help the artist loitering by the docks find inspiration. At no point does anyone demand you help fund the reconstruction of Kattelox's administrative district in the wake of the Bonne family's assault on the island. And helping to stock the local museum with rare antiquities is in no way mandatory.

But why wouldn't you do these things? Little events and side tasks like these define Mega Man Legends every bit as much as the main quest and the lead characters, setting it apart from countless other character action games. Outside of a brief prologue, the events of Legends transpire entirely in a single location — the compact and peaceful Kattelox Island — and rather than cause the story to feel small or cramped, the finite nature of the game's world helps make it seem deeper and more meaningful.

In his time on Kattelox, Mega Man can become as involved in the lives and dreams of the island's citizens, as the player sees fit. You can certainly just breeze through the story like you would any other action game, and the resulting experience would be perfectly decent. But if you really take the time to slow your pace and experience all the little mini-tales that play out over the course of the adventure, Legends becomes more meaningful in every sense. When disaster looms over Kattelox, you can go and fight to save the island because it's a video game and that's what you do; or you can go and fight because you've seen into the lives of countless innocent people and dearly wish to protect them. When the citizens of Kattelox come and wave farewell to Mega Man and the Flutter crew at the end of the game, the investment you make into Legends' world determines whether it's a crowd of strangers saying thank you or a group of dear friends regretfully wishing you the best as you depart.

If you've ever played Legends, the Kattlelox town theme began playing in your head the moment you saw this screenshot.

Legends' focus on a single location remains something of a rarity in story-driven video games, but it was especially unconventional when the game debuted in 1998. Generally speaking, games take a one-and-done approach with locations and non-player characters; the hero explores one location with the help of the locals, then hurries along to the next. Even the Dragon Quest games, which typically involve a heavy focus on the personal stories of the various characters you meet along the course of your journey, tend to consist of self-contained vignettes.

Legends took a different approach. The entire point of the game, at least at first, was to find a means to repair your airship and escape from the island. You could explore most of Kattelox's main city right from the outset of the game, and the game's designers wisely established the city as a hub — not a hub in the typical video game sense, but rather in a more literal form. Situated at the center of the circular island, Kattelox's unnamed city serves as a thoroughfare to missions and dungeons, which unlock gradually as you complete various goals and tasks. This means that throughout the course of the adventure you have numerous opportunities to revisit locations and people, many of whom have small personal plot arcs that unfold throughout the course of the game. Some of these can be completely ignored, while other events that pop up along your way — the drama that unfolds for the anxious shopkeeper and his pregnant wife, for example — have far more meaning if you've been checking in with the island's citizens from time to time. Many personal quests yield rewards such as cash or weapon parts, but sometimes Legends allows you to help people for no benefit to yourself. Just being a good citizen in your temporary home, you know?

At the same time, Legends also allows you to be a complete monster... well, maybe that's overstating it. "Unruly malcontent" is more like it. You can litter, kick puppies, and blow off the nice people of the island if you want. You'll still save everyone's lives in the end, and they'll still be thankful, but you can sour the experience with poor behavior. Let the ruined portions of the city remain in shambles, keep ancient treasures for yourself, that sort of thing.

Legends faced an uphill battle for acceptance among Mega Man fans when it debuted. Aside from the fact that it starred a blue, robotic hero with an arm cannon, it has almost nothing to do with the classic games. There are no robot masters to defeat, no special weapons to acquire by conquering themed stages, no messages from Dr. Light. Legends has far more in common with the Zelda games — particularly the N64 Zelda, and especially Majora's Mask — playing out as story-driven 3D action-adventures set in a small but thoughtfully designed village. While Legends lacks the conceptual weirdness and stress of Majora's Mask, it really does feel like a predecessor to that cult favorite, with an emphasis on getting to know the people of a small city while crisis looms overhead.

This isn't even the biggest mechanical weapon the Bonnes throw at you.

Instead, Legends' creators (namely director Yoshinori Kawano and designer Kazunori Kadoi) wisely recognized the fact that replicating classic Mega Man or Mega Man X in 3D would be difficult, if not impossible. One need only look at other 3D PlayStation games of the era that attempted and failed to pull off a fast-paced shooting style (e.g. Contra: Legacy of War, One, and many others) to appreciate the fact that the Mega Man series didn't go the same futile route. Legends played down the franchise's pure shooting elements and focused on its anime inspirations, turning the game into a sort of episodic, interactive OAV. With a winning cast of heroes, villains, and civilians, Legends stood out from other games of the era.

Much of what Legends attempted would be accomplished more famously by games that followed shortly after. Its in-engine cut-scenes were a huge selling point for Metal Gear Solid, and both its structure and its lock-on 3D targeting system were big deals for The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. And fair enough; those games honestly did a better job with them than Legends, which felt comparatively amateurish next to Konami and Nintendo's most ambitious creations of the '90s. Plus, Legends hasn't aged quite as well as one might hope, with fairly limited controls, floaty physics, and a certain sparseness that betrays its vintage.

The game has plenty of elements that, in hindsight, feel awkward: The way Mega Man stands stock still while locked on to an enemy. The fact that his projectiles move so slowly that locking on to a moving enemy is a waste of time. The way boss battles mostly boil down to running a circle while nudging the camera to keep the camera centered on your target. The lack of analog and right stick controls. Ultimately, though, these add up to minor (and not particularly annoying) mechanical issues that pale in comparison to everything Legends does right.

It's a shame Mega Man Legends 3 was canceled; it was shaping up so well.

Take, for instance, the progressively more grandiose battles against the Bonne family, a bent (but not exactly evil) team of air pirates with an affinity for both mayhem and devious machines both large (the towering Bruno) and diminutive (the family's 40 mascot-ready Servbot assistants). Or the way Kattelox Island slowly unspools its secrets as you explore, gradually yielding not only unexpected discoveries beneath the city streets but also passages that connect every individual dungeon into a massive interconnected labyrinth worthy of any Metroid adventure. The island's exterior evolves over time as well, both as a result of Mega Man's efforts to help pick up the pieces in the wake of the Bonne's initial rampage and in more subtle ways.

It's the kind of game so packed with tiny nuances that you can still find something new after numerous playthroughs. I don't know how many replays it took for me to discover a team of Servbot sentries stationed in the industrial area as a tip-off to the battle that would take place there hours later; they're playing lookout atop the roofs of high buildings. Even if you somehow spot them from the ground, it takes a not-insignificant amount of work to climb up to their level — but you're rewarded with a tiny snippet of unique dialogue for your efforts. A needless detail, yes, but also a great example of the love and care Capcom invested into this offbeat Mega Man variant.

It took me a while to warm up to Mega Man Legends back in the day, but eventually I looked beyond the childish opening narration and the game's complete lack of connection to its namesake and found the gem within. The warmth and detail Legends' creators poured into its world have allowed it to hold up remarkably well years beyond its debut, making for a game that I can return to time and again. Capcom finally managed to push through a PSN release for Legends, and you can bet that I'll be revisiting Kattelox when the game shows up for download next week.

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