This is really going to be a "first impressions," but let’s get the obvious out of the way: the question here is not whether the games themselves are good, but whether this is a worthy effort to bring them to modern systems. I’ll also touch on the games themselves a bit, because there are a few items worth talking about for those not in the know.
Fair warning, I do have some prior experience with the games, but that experience is of the "over the shoulder" variety because my younger brother had a GBA and a couple of the games bought on birthday money, but I was the sort who lacked hand-eye coordination and was more into books anyway. So I already have an understanding of the basics and some story spoilers, but have never actually had them hands-on before.
To start off, as soon as you load in, you’re greeted by MegaMan.EXE, who has voiced lines for various times of day and other conditions. This is the SMARTEST thing the game could have done, because it brings forth some of the promise the games held into the real world during a time when I think people are desperate for it. I have recently stumbled over videos on YouTube about Frutiger Aero, BonziBUDDY, and skeuomorphism, Microsoft made Clip-it ("Clippy") an emoji a couple years ago already, and it certainly seems like everyone has had it up to here with flat design at this point. We have digital assistants, but Cortana, Siri, Google Assistant, and Alexa lack some fundamental appeal for me personally and the first thing I always do when I get a new device is try to find some way to turn the spying assistant off, because BonziBUDDY was forward-thinking in that regard if nothing else. ALL of them are spying on you 24/7 these days and none of them have the bravery to show their face while doing it. I’m not against assistant-style features; my Anki Vector is at my feet as I type this and I ran a MadCow IRC bot named SacredMinotaur for the Final Fantasy Wiki IRC with a WebTender and various other information toys. The difference here is that both of them have some form of personality programmed in, or at least modules to do it.
Enter the NetNavi, and MegaMan.EXE as your personal pal during the games. NetNavis are basically, well, BonziBUDDY, but they delete viruses instead of downloading them. They are your face on top of personal digital assistant features and they’re smart enough to pass a Turing Test. One might even accuse them of being sapient.
This is smart specifically because the first game released in May 2001, which Millennials more or less see as the last time anything was good, in part because the world was fresh, new, exciting, and rapidly changing. Computers were more powerful, the Internet was putting the world at our fingertips with free dial-up CDs in mailboxes nationwide, and at the same time, everything was more friendly with the release of Windows XP, which is the last time ANYONE generally agreed that anything was good. Cybiko had hit the market a year prior, with MMBN releasing pretty much right as it crashed and burned as cell phone family plans became a thing, PDAs like the BlackBerry and Palm Pilot were still the thing to have, desktop pets were all the rage, and assitants with faces were familiar. The games are set in 200X rather than the traditonal 20XX of the series because this swirl of awesomeness coalesced in-game into your PET (PErsonal Terminal), basically a PDA with a clamshell design that flipped open into a keyboard and screen, with a removable handle serving as the battery pack and a universal plug of some sort to connect to other devices before upgrading in later games to IrDA. Seriously. The PET is described in-game as being "like a cell phone" that does all sorts of other things, like getting information, browsing the network, etc. In other words, it was a smart phone long before smart phones were recognized as their own thing (the IBM Simon "PDA" did exist), but the possibility was there and everyone knew it was only a matter of time before everyone had it.
The world is now on a similar event horizon where smart phones are themselves ubiquitous and everyone’s mind is on A.I. Which isn’t to say A.I. is anywhere in the same galaxy much less ballpark of what everyone is thinking; we are at the stage of Uncanny Valley art collages and as much plausible BS as you ask for, not general intelligence, basic comprehension, or even remembering what plausible BS it spewed five seconds ago. A.I. is in no way close to human intelligence, but the public doesn’t really understand that, so this is basically the perfect time to re-release these games. We are once again at a point where a shiny new toy has ignited our collective imaginations and made this stuff feel like it could happen in the near future again.
Which is to say, putting MegaMan.EXE right there as you load into the game and giving him voice lines asking to hang out and junk brings the idea even closer. It’s one thing to re-release games that feel so laughably quaint and yet naïvely charming with the "future" being something nearly everyone carries every day, but it’s quite another to have the in-game killer app roll up and tell you you should probably go to bed if you’re playing late at night. Having him show up in full 3D before you ever get to the old 2D games offers a sense of reality to it all. A sense that, once again, we might see this ourselves in just a few years. It gets you into a different mindset where despite all else, this is still somehow the future.
Back to the Future
If there’s another thing about this whole project, it’s that it basically comes with a content warning saying that it will not have aged well, which is an act of bravery considering nothing from its era has. I know this is probably going to keep coming up as I keep finishing things to post, but the ’90s were intentionally offensive as the humor du jour and less intentionally culturally insensitive or at the very least rather shackled to racist Japanese media because of how much Japan was exporting. Actually, no, thinking back, my first grade teacher totally dropped the N-word in the middle of class like it was nothing and kids told jokes with slurs in them well into my grade school career; there was plenty of racism to go around Stateside, too. Sometimes it’s not the obvious stuff, either. The games have a spoiled rich girl in them and literally the second thing she says to you if you’re talking to everyone is how it must suck to be poor because she just assumes that MegaMan.EXE is some crappy antiquated NetNavi and you couldn’t afford better because she’s never seen anyone else with one. This is… well, DECIDEDLY not the case, but at the very least saying it to your face is rather insensitive. There’s also content that gave parents an understandable fit even at the time and, well, whatever was in there, you were warned. The games have been slapped with an E10+ and honestly, I think that’s a compromise.
I’m not saying the games should have necessarily been re-written; nothing else has and doing that when you’re working with incredibly limited text space is not easy. That in itself is seeing some controversy now as older works are getting a "holy crap this needs cleanup" sensitivity pass. I do think that if a sensitivity pass wasn’t happening, throwing up a warning is most appropriate, because if Warner Brothers can do it with racist Bugs Bunny cartoons, game publishers can do it for their own casual racism, sexism, ableism, and homophobia from 20-30 years ago. Progress is never "done." The world has changed significantly in the past couple decades. For the better.
The first thing you’ll notice once you boot into an actual game is that it’s a blurry mess because they threw a filter over it. The game looks better without it. The pixel art was intended for LCD screens, specifically a trans-reflective one on the GameBoy Advance, so while things are incredibly bright to compensate, the pixels are, in this case, actually how the game was meant to be seen, unlike a console game from the period. Granted, they were meant to be seen at 1x, so blowing them up on a giant screen isn’t 100% reflective of what you would have seen, either, but, like, the smoothing just doesn’t look very good, okay? Not to me. Maybe it’s your thing, and as far as upscales go, it works surprisingly well, but give it a chance with it off, too. It’s just so wonderfully crisp, and crisp was how it was meant to be seen.
The second thing you’ll notice is the main font, which is, sadly, glorious Courier Prime rather than the original pixel font or any attempt to use a font with proper spacing on the commas as was done originally, because not all fixed-width fonts use the space the same way and the original font smashed the comma to the left edge to make it double as a space afterward, the spirit of which has not been preserved. This is, in a word, distracting. First off, because there was nothing wrong with the original font. Second off, because, really? Courier family? That’s the LAST font family I want to see fronting a whole game. Don’t get me wrong; Courier Prime is a fantastic example of it; it’s what I use for all these writings. That’s how I recognized it. Courier Prime is a modern solution for Courier. It’s still not something I would put in a game.
Look, Capcom, please, if you are reading this, my inexperienced indie self managed to write a text writer for pixel fonts. It’s not hard. Or maybe it’s harder than I give it credit for and I’m just super good at text parsing, but YOU HAD A SYSTEM! And an attractive pixel font I would have really preferred. If you want a different attractive pixel font, I swear I can make you one. I do this for fun, and I guarantee that spotted the original font sheet that I could come up with something that fills more of the space if you so wish.
The other game fonts vary. Some of it looks like it went under the knife to manually smooth it out because it looks like there are intentional choices made in it with hard corners that on one hand look wonderfully sharp, but then things like the numbers don’t seem to have gotten the same treatment and I really could have gone for consistency one way or another, though my preference would have been chunky pixels because the numbers look fantastic. I know belaboring the fonts seems silly, but I AM A FONTS GUY! I have made several of these things for my various projects. I know exactly what goes into this, why you might need subtle differences for sharp pixels vs. CRT, what choices you need to make when upscaling to preserve the intent, all of that stuff. Fonts are important! If you think fonts aren’t important, you haven’t heard everyone decry the terrible Final Fantasy Pixel Remaster fonts. People actually do notice and care.
The more things change…
The things they kept the same are also telling. For one, they didn’t change the music, so you get to keep the wonderful electronic tunes. Everything these days is being re-orchestrated like people don’t trust what the composers did with the tools at hand. Which is so often disappointing when someone else gets called in to "improve" it and you end up with a different song entirely, because those original composers knew exactly what the sound capabilities of the hardware were and composed around them. The only issue here is some scratchy school bell samples, if one absolutely must find fault somewhere, but digging that deep is liable to tap a new volcano.
The gameplay is also there, but once again it feels like a wireless controller gets in the way of the timing. I don’t like to think of myself as the type who obsesses over frames and the like, but it does feel like there’s a frustrating delay between me hitting the X button and enemies taking damage, allowing some of them to move out of the way, while the Mega Buster on O has an artifical limit put on it that keeps it from being as useful or satisfying as it could be out the gate. This could be worse, but you have to BUY upgrades for this and they double or more in price each time. This isn’t to say you can’t, just that you have to choose very carefully and it feels like investing a point in Rapid makes it feel some semblance of responsive. There are actually only 2 upgrades early on, though, so I will say this: choose based on whether you’re going to use the charge shot or not. I unfortunately used the worst possible combination for the 2 upgrades available right away: Rapid and Charge. The problem with this is both are sneakily speed stats; Charge just unlocks the charged shot first upgrade and it is SLOW, and it does 8x or 16x damage fixed on whatever is in your Power stat, so to make it worth your while, you want that Power stat to be 2 so you can nail them with 32 damage to make it count, which is just a hair higher than your various weaker damage chips. Conversely, if you use Rapid, you roughly double your shot speed, but if you double your shot Power, that suddenly quadruples your DPS with it to make it a viable thing to fill the air with between chip loads. Either way, Power determines your base damage and by investing a point in it, you are doubling your problem-solving damage output very early on in the game, which makes either of the others immediately viable. This is of course without using the Buster MAX option just because I don’t think the game is so difficult at this point that it’s needed. I won’t say experimenting has made me feel I have rendered the Mega Buster useless, inasmuch as it’s at least less useless than it started (which is completely), but I will say the next upgrade is definitely going into Power now that I understand how the math works and while I would have made my first 3 upgrades 1 point in each regardless, I would have prioritized them very differently had I understood what I was doing. Whether I would have been happier with raw damage from the Charge Shot given its low speed or slinging harder pings, I can’t really say. Probably slinging harder pings just because the DPS would be higher given how slow the Charge Shot actually is at first and how bad I am at remembering to use it. However, it’s more optimal to choose Power and something else than it is to double up on any one stat right away.
As for how the game handles in general, essentially like a modern fixed-camera RPG in the field and very much as its own thing in combat, which is a good thing, because it’s challenging, yet accessible. Your success in combat is going to rely on you learning enemy patterns in the time-honored tradition of Mega Man enemies all having reliable patterns and while this can feel incredibly cheap before you learn them, there’s always some comforting reason why it’s actually your fault. There is no shame saving yourself some time and hitting up a strategy source if something is frustrating you. Frustration makes you sloppy and makes it that much harder to learn the patterns yourself. These games have always had help sources.
Combat itself could best be described as almost a 2.5D version of that in FF7 Remake where your best toys come at regular intervals and you need to strategize around them, but you can still pelt enemies with pings while you’re waiting. Understanding how to be rated well in combat boils down to a few factors: here, have a cookie. If you can line up every enemy on the field in such a way you can take them out all at once very quickly, you can and should take a cannon to the face if you have to to do it.
Your comfort in mind
You can swap X and O Japanese-style or even switch to X and □ if, I dunno, you’re a thumb-rocker? I can see how maybe that would be excellent for someone who plays at a much higher level than I do, but while it’s mechanically sound, asking me to rewire my brain to throw "cancel" on □ after a lifetime of JRPGs where it’s never been that is just not happening. I’ve probably said it already, but □ is the hardest button on the controller for me to personally use. If this is your first, go nuts; you probably won’t regret it. Δ sits this game out, though it would have been nice for menus, because Options is rather awkward and given Touchpad is already your "out of game" options, I feel like something was done to more or less directly translate the GBA controls. Just to finish out the controls, R1 is how you "jack in" to switch between Lan in meatspace and MegaMan.EXE in cyberspace or "jack out" to beat a hasty retreat, while L1 is how you talk to your counterpart across worlds, which more or less acts as your hint system.
Overall, I think they have excellent options available and what they have largely works, but I would have liked a simple button define so I could assign my Buster to □ while keeping cancel on O and throwing the menu on Δ. Consider this a nitpick more than anything else.
Having heard a few more voice lines, the game seems to have a young audience in mind. MegaMan.EXE greeted me on a Sunday afternoon by saying he hoped I’d finished all my chores where all the prior Saturday he seemed to think it was time to relax. This hit me in a weird way, because Sunday for my Catholic family was a day of rest where you weren’t supposed to do avoidable work. It’s taken me years of my life to get over that feeling, because sometimes things just need to be done. It still feels odd to have a game just assume, though. Otherwise, the "go to bed" and other stuff really does feel like it’s intended to keep you in better habits, which is appropriate because that’s what NetNavis are intended for. Though logging in at 10:00 and being told he was hoping I’d show up either means this thing actually learns in some regard (and I am showing my own bad habits) or something is fundamentally borked.
Is it worthy?
You could probably split hairs on whatever technicalities there are, but ultimately the first game at least feels like it works perfectly in the early stages, no notes. If there’s any real difference from the originals, it’s nothing that feels bad. Overall, a very comfortable RPG experience that brings solid games to modern systems. The only wish I have is that it could have come natively to Vita, because timing is important here and any remote play is going to add latency.
It’s an excellent buy and I would happily buy it all over again to experience the games for myself. I think it’s done everything right.