Things change over time. And I'm not talking about going from 2D to 3D.
Culture changes. And whatever the intents or purposes of the culture makers (or artists, choose your term), they have to change with the times. On one level, it's a rather cynical process: aging artists and gray-haired entertainment execs trying to stay hip and fresh by copying what the kids on the streets are doing. Appropriation and exploitation is sometimes the name of the game. Yet, in other ways it's also something meaningful. It can be about becoming relevant to modern society and exploring things pertinent to the current generation. It can be about reaching out and learning to speak the same kind of language, and speak through the same kind of outlets, as the people who actually play the games, watch the movies, and listen to the music.
To a certain degree, all the gaming icons of yesteryear have made big changes. Mostly though, the changes have been the result of transitioning from a flat two-dimensional world to a fully three-dimensional one, and not always from the need to keep up with the spirit of the times. The Legend Of Zelda is interesting in this respect. Miyamoto himself had once said that his masterwork had no real chronology and that each title in the series didn't necessarily have anything to do with the others. The games were more an act of retelling the same story, and Link and Ganon were his take on the eternal struggle between good and evil. Each successive release took advantage of whatever technological advances were available at the time, but conceptually, The Legend Of Zelda hasn't changed much. Whatever the advancement, be it a 3D world or cel-shading, Hyrule will always need a hero. And there will always be a princess to save.
It seems odd to be comparing Mega Man to gaming's premiere series, but there is an interesting point of comparison here. The Blue Bomber is almost the same age as Link, but instead of paying homage to the past as The Legend Of Zelda does, retelling the same story, the newest Mega Man series throws almost everything out the window. The Battle Network series plants itself firmly in the midst of contemporary Internet culture and, up until now, hasn't really looked back. The Game Boy Advance (GBA) games adapted Mega Man for more modern times, reinventing him as a bit of intelligent software that lived inside of computer networks and cyberspace. The Blue Bomber had morphed into something that reflected our current, wired, online era. Because of that transformation, Battle Network is perhaps one of the strongest and most successful Mega Man series I've played in a long time.
Unfortunately, the console spin-off, Mega Man: Network Transmission, doesn't jump into new territory as whole-heartedly as Battle Network. Despite the use of cel-shading, the game takes the Battle Network premise back to the old 2D platforming days of the NES, with mostly mixed and disappointing results. Network Transmission does import some features from the GBA titles, like the battle chip system, but they really don't work within the framework of a traditional side scroller. Not that it was easy either to get around what was trimmed from the game.
One of the biggest losses in Transmission is the ability to slide between the real world and the cyberworld. In Battle Network players switched between two main characters: Mega Man in the cyberworld, and his human operator, Lan, in the real world. While the action in the GBA titles took place exclusively with Mega Man, there were many things that Lan needed to do in the real world to move the game along. Players spent a good part of the game exploring and moving about in the real world, tracking down people or going on side quests. Players could also find hidden dungeons by "jacking" into ordinary everyday things like refrigerators and vending machines. This "real world" was a surprisingly compelling experience; it held hidden portals into other parts of cyberspace, along with its own secrets.
The GameCube spin-off shrinks the "real world" experience down to practically nothing. Lan doesn't have much of role now as he spends the entire game sitting or pacing about his bedroom. I'm tempted to say he's only there for decoration. "Real world" interaction is reduced to a map of the small suburban neighborhood that Lan lives in, and it works as a sort of level select screen. With the exception of the local "Battle Chip" store, all the points on the map are "jack-in" ports that send Mega Man into various areas inside cyberspace.
The loss of the "real world" might have been all right if Transmission turned out to be a good platformer, but even in that department it is seriously lacking. Sadly, as I mentioned earlier, the battle chip system brought over from Battle Network doesn't work at all in this game.
Typical for any Mega Man game, the standard buster shot the player starts with isn't very useful. Getting through the game depends on the use of special sub weapons Mega Man gathers as he progresses. For the sub weapons, Transmission tries to combine the Battle Chip system from Battle Network with a 2D side scroller, but it never seems to gel at any point. The Battle Chip system was really designed for a turn-based role-playing game (RPG). Plugging it into an action-based game just slows everything down. Players basically select a folder of up to twenty different weapons, and during play five weapons are randomly fed to Mega Man whenever the timer gauge at the top of the screen is filled. Unfortunately, the gauge takes far too long to recharge, and with so many different weapons, acquiring the right weapons really is like playing lucky lotto. Personally, I didn't have the patience to wait for the right set of weapons to show up so I just blazed through levels with whatever was given to me, even if it was to my detriment sometimes. I would have liked more control over the procedure, as well instant access to my store of weapons.
I think most disappointing for me was how Transmission lost a great opportunity to expand on the concepts Battle Network was built on. How interesting it would have been if Transmission actually had an online component—Battle Network was a series that revolved around a heavy Internet theme. Why not give players customizable Net Navis to "Net Battle" with, like the kids in Battle Network do? (Of course, the lack of an online component might also have something to do with Nintendo's stance over online gaming in general.) Why not, at the very least, have some sort of connectivity option for gamers who have a copy Mega Man: Battle Network? The GBA title had an option to trade battle chips in the Pokémon tradition, and it's sort of baffling to find a feature like that completely missing.
Maybe it was because of Mega Man's fifteenth anniversary that Network Transmission was developed as an old school action platformer. But Mega Man isn't like Link. The Blue Bomber didn't survive fifteen years by trying to constantly remind players of the history behind the games. It didn't last this long by using new technologies to tell the same story over and over. Unlike Zelda, the Mega Man games went down a different road, and survived by making big changes along the way. From Mega Man X to Legends, and now with Battle Network, things have always been changing. For Mega Man: Network Transmission, taking a look back into the past was also taking a step back.