When Pokémon arrived, it changed everything forever. Well, at least for portable gaming.
Not only did Pokémon offer some great (not to mention addictive) game design innovations to the medium, it also made a ton of money. The rest of the industry watched Nintendo and Game Freak raking in cash hand over fist and said, "Damn, I gotta get me some of that cheddar." While nothing else managed to reach Pokémon level of quality or success, the late '90s and early years of the 21st century were an interesting time as countless studios put their collective heads together and tried to distill the essence of Pokémon down to the essential trait that made it so addictive. Was it the Link Cable multiplayer? Was it the collecting aspect? Was it the cute little critters? The anime? The toys?
In truth, it was a combination of all those things, along with some brilliant marketing. While other franchises managed to do a fair impression of Pokémon — from big multimedia blitzes like Digimon to Monster Rancher to more esoteric standalone works like Jade Cocoon — none of them reached those hallowed heights.
Arguably, the closest anyone came to punching in Pokémon's weight class didn't come from a brand new franchise created for the explicit purpose of being a Pokémon-come-lately but rather from one of gaming's veterans, retooled for a new era. Mega Man Battle Network marked a radical change from the old-school platformers in which Capcom's robot protagonist had featured for more than a decade; the running and jumping were out, replaced by turn-based combat and labyrinthine networks to be explored.
And yet, Battle Network felt... well, if not exactly faithful to the Mega Man brand, then at least authentic and inspired. Collection had always been an integral element of the series: In Mega Man and Mega Man X games, the central gameplay hook revolved around conquering enemies and acquiring their power. In effect, Mega Man put his foes' skills to work for him, in much the same way that captive pokémon would grant the player new options and tactics for combat. And then there was Mega Man Legends, which had moved the franchise away from simple linear platforming to a more complex, RPG-inspired world full of side quests and conversations.
From there, the jump-off to a Pokémon-esque game experience wasn't so unthinkable. It's not as though Capcom abandoned the essence of Mega Man in order to create a slavish clone of Nintendo's hit, after all. Battle Network's combat was turn-based, yes, but not in the classic menu-driven sense. Players didn't thumb through text prompts and commands in order to choose abilities; instead, combat played out in real time, with players controlling Mega Man directly on one half of a 3x3 combat grid, firing freely at opponents.
While focusing less on twitch reflexes than the 8-bit Mega Man games, Battle Network required some genuine finger skill. Enemies attacked in real time, too, and their actions played out in tricky patterns and forced players to react quickly and intelligently.
What really made Battle Network great — and where the Pokémon-like elements came in — came from the battle chip mechanic. The core action of Battle Network took place inside a computer network, a virtual world resembling nothing so much as an anime version of Tron, and Mega Man himself was not a robot but rather an artificial intelligence. Unlike Pokémon, you couldn't simply capture a foe; instead, depending on your performance in battle, you might receive a data chip that allowed Mega Man to access specific powers wielded by that enemy. This wasn't limited just to bosses, either, as in the old Mega Man games; any hostile program's powers were fair game for duplication.
As Mega Man battled, a gauge would fill, and once full would allow players to take a "turn" in which they'd fit out Mega Man with a battle chip to use as a special command during the next round of battle. Certain conditions would allow Mega Man to take multiple chips into action at once, allowing consecutive special actions or even hidden "program advance" skills that fused multiple chips into a high-level power.
Equipped with chips, Mega Man could do anything from fire a powerful gun to unleash elemental effects to summon a defeated Robot Master to do his bidding. Some skills, usable by both Mega Man and his foes, could affect the nature of the playing field: Smashing holes in panels, stealing columns or rows of the grid, or otherwise hindering the other side's movement and rendering them more vulnerable to attack. It was a fast-paced, highly strategic combat system, and it stood apart even as it owed a debt to Pokémon.
Mega Man Battle Network 2, then, was basically your classic Capcom sequel: Better and bigger in every way than its predecessor. Inventive as the first game had been, it also seemed small and unpolished. The story — most of which transpired in the "real world" outside the net and featured Mega Man's operator Lan — was banal at best, and the network layouts tended to be confusing and dull. The game lacked balance, and desperately needed better substance. It also lent itself to abuse through certain mechanics that could be save-scummed to the player's unfair advantage.
Battle Network 2 resolves a lot of these issues. The story remains banal as ever, a problem that would plague the series until the very end, but everything else feels far more meaningful. The virtual world is less irritating to navigate, Mega Man has a broader range of skills, enemies possess more interesting powers, there are more and more interesting side quests to undertake, and the whole thing ends with a glorious bit of fanservice. Battle Network was always about fanservice, sure, about recasting fan-favorite characters in modern forms, but seeing the pointless Treble turned into a towering threat gives the whole concept of reworking old-school Mega Man into this new form added value.
It also has the single most bizarre sequence in the entire series, which sees elementary school age Lan doing his best Parappa in order to secure a glass of whisky from a rapper on an airplane.
The one downside to the Virtual Console version of Battle Network 2 is that the series was always envisioned as a portable creation, not some watered-down handheld version of a console game. Mega Man had tried the "like the console version but worse" approach in the past with the "Mega Man World" games for Game Boy and Mega Man XTreme for Game Boy Color; rather than continue to diminish the brand's integrity, Capcom built Battle Network from the ground up to make the most of the Game Boy Advance's nature. Anchoring the game to a console doesn't really improve the experience in any appreciable way, and in fact the loss of linked head-to-head multiplayer will diminish the experience for the series' most hardcore fans.
Colorful and detailed, though like the original Battle Network navigating the too-similar corridors of the Internet can be confusing... especially with all those random battles.
Probably not one to pump through the big stereo speakers; even the best-composed tunes can be shrill thanks to the GBA's puny audio capabilities.
The Battle Network games made some very complex design concepts highly approachable. A unique take on the action RPG.
A sizable adventure married to a ton of post-game content demanding top-level play. Even without multiplayer, it's a beast of a game.
Despite some compromises, though, Mega Man Battle Network 2 is arguably the high point of this short-lived (though certainly fertile) portion of Mega Man's history. Richer in content than the first title, less drawn-out and over-designed than its sequels, it hits a sweet spot that makes it entertaining even now... provided you don't mind the dumb framing story. Of all the games to follow in the wake of Pokémon, it just might be the best.