20XX: Mega Man Battle Network Revisited by Zee Huff

Mega Man: The Blue Bomber — he’s been in our collective imagination since he fought his way through the first wave of Dr. Wily’s robots in 1987’s Mega Man on the Nintendo Entertainment System. The Mega Man franchise has only ballooned since, the “Classic” timeline leaping forward when technology has, while (mostly) keeping the core, platforming and side-scrolling gameplay central. But, at the dawn of the new millennium, Capcom decided to take a risk, to try and reach an untapped market who might like their Mega Man a bit more… isometric. But what could collectible card games, Y2K, and a cagematch between Alexa and Siri have to do with Mega Man?

Capcom’s Mega Man Battle Network was released in Japan on March 21st, 2001, as Rockman.EXE. A launch title for Nintendo’s then-new handheld, the Game Boy Advance, Battle Network was intended to compete with, and appeal to the fans of, Game Freak’s massively popular Pokémon series. With collectible battle chips, a variety of Pocket Monster-esque “viruses,” and a battle-system almost tailor-made for competitive play, it’s easy to see why Capcom thought this could be the smash hit the Mega Man franchise needed to draw in a new generation of gamers.

This first game, though rough around the edges, launched with Capcom’s full confidence. And through their efforts, Battle Network was positioned to become a valuable sub-franchise in its own right. To tie-in with the release of the original game, CoroCoro Comic, a monthly magazine targeting elementary school-aged boys, began publishing Ryo Takamisaki’s manga adaptation in February of 2001. Before the year was out, Capcom released a sequel, Rockman.EXE 2, perfecting a formula that future games would improve upon. By March of 2002, when an anime series loosely based on Takamisaki’s manga began airing on TV Tokyo, Capcom had inked a deal with Bandai to release merchandise based on the PET (PErsonal Terminal) used by the main character. The era of Battle Network had begun.

Yet, despite multiple lines of content, a dedicated fanbase, and success both in Japan and internationally, Battle Network is perhaps best described — at least in the West — as the forgotten child of the Mega Man series. After a notably panned fourth entry into the main game series, reviewers changed their tune, marking the games not by their innovation, but for their stagnation. And though the anime continued for five seasons in Japan, American and Canadian audiences only saw the first two seasons dubbed into English. Mix this with the second series of toys selling only modest numbers in the States, as well as revived interest in the classic series from fans worldwide… and, well, you can see where this is going.

So, why dig it up now?

Well, a spin-off is bound to its source material; you don’t get to make Pokémon Snap, for instance, without it carrying all of the baggage of the core games. But what spin-offs lose in originality, they gain in potential. Spin-offs are opportunities to reinterpret a concept, recontextualize it for a new generation, and reveal sides of the source material previously unconsidered. Battle Network is at its most interesting when it does this — when the writers, cut off from the timeline of the classic series, are free to explore this brave new world to its fullest. Battle Network is a time capsule. It reflects the concerns of a generation for whom internet technology was a new and quickly growing enigma of a thing, while being made for, and targeted to, a generation where the internet is permanently, irrevocably integrated into our daily lives.

Upon first contact with the series, even I — seven at the time — scoffed at the idea of an oven being connected to the internet. But look where we are! Whether it’s being able to post to Twitter from your LG Smart Fridge or the simple, taken-for-granted fact of holding a cell phone with more processing power than most, if not all, computers of the early 2000s, Battle Network’s future is closer to home than I think even the developers imagined.

The kids of that generation —  the one the games were originally targeted to, the elementary schoolers of the 2000s — are adults now, living in a world that existed only in their wildest dreams. Sure, a NetNavi makes Siri look like a calculator, but hackers can, and do, have the ability to put entire countries on alert.

But… I suppose that doesn’t really answer the question, right? Well, blame the manga. Couple of us got going one day, talking about how the manga had been one of those well-loved, dog-eared volumes, and the conversation, like the franchise itself, snowballed from there. Some people only knew the manga. Some, like me, went hard in the paint, getting their hands on any scrap of content they could find. It was — it is — important to us.

In the coming months, CFC and GC will be celebrating, and analyzing, Mega Man Battle Network in all its forms. We want to dive deep and explore why some of us keep coming back to Battle Network. However, we’ll also be looking forward: What did the series teach us? Did we carry that with us?

It’s been twenty years, but the future is now. The year is 20XX. Get ready to jack in, y’all.

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