Mega Man Legends is 20 years old today. It's tempting to suggest its reckless, aimless teenage years are now officially behind it, but Mega Man's cult 3D series settled into a deserved reputation of being quiet and sober a long time ago.
There's no mystery why: Its lead Mega Man, who carries the surname Volnutt, hasn't had a game since 2000. Worse, after a 10-year wait, Mega Man Legends 3 was announced, then unceremoniously cancelled in 2011 after Mega Man series developer and producer Keiji Inafune left Capcom. That's enough trauma to make anyone grow up fast. It's also enough trauma to suggest Mega Man Legends deserves a decent birthday present. In this age of remasters and remakes, it's not outlandish to suggest Mega Man Legends, Mega Man Legends 2, and the spin-off game bridging the two, The Misadventures of Tron Bonne, are overdue for plastic surgery and a chance to party like it's 1998.
For most 8- and- 16-bit mascots, adding a Z-axis to their typically-flat realms was a death sentence. Bubsy 3D proved to be the bobcat's final needle. Earthworm Jim dried up and blew away. Even Sonic the Hedgehog didn't make a clean jump; Sega had trouble bringing the speedy needlemouse into the third dimension until the launch of the Dreamcast in 1999. Mega Man, by contrast, fared well in 3D.
There are a few reasons why Mega Man Legends found a small but admiring audience on the PlayStation. Unlike the aforementioned 2D mascots who wasted away far from the land they knew, Mega Man Legends works with its new environment rather than against it. Neither Legends nor Legends 2 expects players to perform the heavy-duty shooting and platforming that define the classic Mega Man games. There is platforming, yes, and there is shooting, but taking down foes doesn't require much finesse. Hazards like instant-kill pits are largely absent, too: Mega Man Legends is, above all else, an adventure series.
Its story reflects that sense of adventure, too, which is the series' second strength. Mega Man Volnutt is an explorer who's mainly interested in finding treasure in mysterious ruins dotting the world. The Blue Bomber's career shift works out well thanks to animated facial expressions, extremely charming villains (Servbots forever, Minions never), and some surprisingly good voice acting from same era when Capcom was feeding us Jill Sandwiches. Mega Man Legends even looks better than most 3D PlayStation games thanks to its bright color palette and creative "Reaverbot" designs assembled from low polygon counts. If Capcom had tried to build actual Robot Masters out of polygons, they'd look hideous today.
Finally, it bears mentioning Mega Man Legends probably did well because it was one of several Mega Man games released around the same time. The series was in good health in the late '90s with Mega Man 8, Mega Man X4, and Mega Man Legends all released within the span of a couple of years. While some purists scorned the very idea of 3D Mega Man, most fans were willing to give it a chance: There was little resentment or worry about Legends "replacing" traditional Mega Man titles (certainly at first). Mega Man Legends therefore had a chance to garner a fanbase instead of being shut out by fans who wanted the "real deal" (the way Federation Force got shut out by fans who wanted a true Metroid game, for example).
Mega Man Legends, and especially Mega Man Legends 2 and the Misadventures of Tron Bonne, are built on rock-solid foundations, so to speak—but not every aspect of the games has aged well. Most notably, the games' tank controls are a product of their time, and it's doubtful anyone is nostalgic for them. A remaster or remake would offer the perfect opportunity to bring full analogue controls and an adjustable camera to Mega Man's excellent adventures.
Mega Man Legends also suffers from a notable uniformity in its environments, especially the interlocking dungeons that sprawl underneath the surface of Kattelox Island. Mega Man Legends 2's environments are much more interesting—not that its sharp corners and hard edges can't benefit from a good sanding-down and HD overhaul. In fact, Legends 2 is the Legends game most deserving of a tune-up: Its story about the human-like "Carbons" and their role in Mega Man's world (and the role of Mega Man himself) is still a lot of fun to follow.
Legends 2 also boasts an excellent soundtrack and a deep morality system for its time. If you act like a jerk, you're treated like one. If you hurl abuse at townspeople, vandalize property, or kick animals (resist kicking pigs, no matter how hilarious they are as they bounce around), shopkeepers greet you with sour attitudes and higher prices. Even your dear sister Roll becomes demoralized and charges you extra for weapon upgrades. You can scrub your reputation clean at a Church—but it costs a lot of money. If you want to dance like a moron, you have to pay the piper. Not bad for a PlayStation title that's technically not even an RPG.
The Mega Man Legends games boast good characters, good story, and a fascinating world. With some common-sense gameplay revisions to scrub its 20-year hibernation out of its system, we could wind up with an adventure game series that's worthy of bearing Mega Man's name.