Welcome back to Franchise Festival, where we explore and discuss noteworthy video game series from the last four decades. Older entries can be found here.
This week we’ll be digging through the ruins and rumors of Mega Man Legends. Cover art, unless otherwise noted, is from MobyGames. Please consider supporting that website, as its volunteers tirelessly catalog key information and art assets for an often ephemeral medium.
Where two years are indicated, the first is Japan and the second is North America; where only one year is indicated, it will refer to Japan unless otherwise noted. If you’re looking for a more in-depth exploration of the series’ first game, I’d encourage you to check out Episode #120 of Duckfeed.tv’s Watch Out for Fireballs podcast.
Capcom’s Mega Man franchise had struck a chord with video game enthusiasts on the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in the late 1980s. Fans stuck with the series through six strong platforming entries, several of which were released after the hardware began to be replaced by the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) in 1990, before making their way to its 16-bit successor series. Mega Man X paved a new story-driven direction for the franchise following its release in 1993/1994, though players who missed the original franchise’s lighter aesthetic were still treated to sequels Mega Man 7 in 1995 and Mega Man 8 in 1996. A plethora of spinoffs, including sports simulation Mega Man Soccer (1994) and kart racer Mega Man Battle and Chase (1997), confirm that the mid-1990s were a golden age for Capcom’s Blue Bomber.
One type of game that the series hadn’t touched, even as it rose in international popularity on the SNES, was the role-playing game (RPG) genre. Classic turn-based RPG mechanics of the sort featured in Dragon Quest (1986/1989) may have been a poor fit for a character so associated with rapid platforming and projectile combat, but a recent trend of action-RPGs like Secret of Mana (1993) and Diablo (1996) suggested that the hybridization of real-time combat and stat management could play well with worldwide consumers. The advancement of home console graphics on the Sony PlayStation would set the stage for Mega Man to take his first leap into the action-RPG genre and the third dimension in 1998.
Mega Man Legends (1998)
Keiji Inafune, an artist who had become synonymous with the series since Mega Man creator Akira Kitamura left Capcom during development of Mega Man 3 (1990), led production on Mega Man Legends. Director Yoshinori Kawano was pulled from Capcom’s RPG series Breath of Fire (1993-2016) while artist Yuuji Ishihara had recently designed polygonal textures for the studio’s seminal Resident Evil (1996). According to a roundtable staff interview originally published in the Rockman DASH Capcom Official Guidebook* and translated into English by website shmuplations, the all-star development team couldn’t escape feeling uncertain during production that their radical reinvention of Mega Man would be fun to play.
Still, they persevered and released Mega Man Legends on the PlayStation in 1998. The game’s cover instantly conveys a major sense of change, depicting its polygonal lead character in a classic Mega Man outfit but conspicuously omitting his iconic helmet. Players who booted up the game would discover that the story was set thousands of years into its parent franchise’s future and starred characters who resembled but were distinct from Capcom’s original Mega Man cast.
Players take on the role of Mega Man Volnutt, a Digger who plumbs the depths of ancient ruins in pursuit of advanced technology. He’s supported by Roll Caskett, a scientist; Data, a small monkey robot who offers advice and serves as a save point; and professor Barrel Caskett, Roll’s grandfather. The four adventurers travel a seemingly endless sea across which are scattered small islands.
Mega Man Legends is set entirely on one such landmass, a populated settlement called Kattelox Island. Kattelox’s core city becomes the central staging ground for much of the game’s story and sidequests. From the city, Mega Man and Roll make expeditions out into the surrounding wilderness and into the ruins which dot the island’s periphery. The presence of invading pirates and antagonistic reaverbots necessitate frequent use of Mega Man’s adaptive arm cannon. Generally charming citizens of Kattelox and its cozy Apple Market also make frequent requests of Mega Man, offering weapon upgrades and money in return. Mega Man’s stats are dependent upon accessories purchased or discovered while digging through ruins.
Outside of Mega Man’s teammates and a handful of colorful Kattelox locals, the most noteworthy characters are the Bonne Family. This tight-knit group of air pirates includes Teisel, the mastermind; Bon, an oversized baby; Tron, a brainy mechanic; and the servbots, Tron’s amusingly put-upon henchmen. The Bonnes are introduced as the game’s primary threat shortly after Mega Man’s arrival on Kattelox but serve equally well as comic relief for much of the game’s playtime.
A heavy emphasis on anime-influenced storytelling and presentation define Mega Man Legends‘ identity for many fans. All main characters receive cutscene voiceovers in a heightened style reminiscent of television cartoons, while a pioneering use of cel-shading on the PlayStation ensures that the game deviates successfully from its less recognizable contemporaries. Though environments and characters are fully textured polygons, faces are extensively animated using sprite-based eyes and mouths. A unique art style and attention to detail have managed to preserve the game’s idiosyncratic beauty for more than two decades since its initial release.
Mega Man Legends‘ gameplay, on the other hand, is a notorious time capsule of early 3D design. The original PlayStation controller lacks any analog sticks, so smooth 3D movement and camera controls are impossible. Instead, the player must rotate Mega Man in place to view or navigate towards areas outside of his immediate field of view. A behind-the-back camera fixes the player’s perspective on what lies directly ahead of Mega Man, though a hard lock-on can instead focus the camera on nearby enemies. Unfortunately, this lock-on targeting comes at the expense of Mega Man’s movement, so the player is constantly forced to engage with a tension between firing accurately and opening Mega Man to attack. Highly mobile foes are difficult to strike without being targeted and can quickly inflict damage on the player’s stationary avatar.
Much of the game’s strategy comes down to identifying enemy attack patterns and strafing left or right to avoid harm. Mega Man can’t target while strafing, though an auto-aim feature serves to mitigate some of the inaccuracy inherent to firing while moving. This introduces a second targeting issue, though, as the auto-aim does not adapt to fire ahead of the path of moving enemies; auto-aimed shots often pass impotently behind more mobile antagonists. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time‘s publication in late 1998 would establish a standard for 3D action-adventure combat moving forward, instantly relegating Mega Man Legends to the also-ran category of 3D game design.
Clumsy targeting and movement mechanics aside, Mega Man Legends was a revolutionary game when it was released. It offered a largely open 3D world to explore a year before Ocarina of Time (1998) and emphasized a rich community-building theme two years ahead of Shenmue (1999). Game development has never evolved more in a shorter period of time than it did between 1995 and 2000, and that disparity is reflected in the poor critical reception to Mega Man Legends‘ 2000 Nintendo 64 port. The game’s narrow window of innovation had passed and it looked hopelessly archaic only three years after its release. Happily for fans, this would not keep Capcom from capitalizing on Inafune’s new vision for the iconic series by releasing a prequel in 1999/2000.
* Mega Man Legends is called Rockman DASH in Japan
The Misadventures of Tron Bonne (1999/2000)
While it is more spinoff than core series entry, The Misadventures of Tron Bonne is one of only three Mega Man Legends titles released and I’ve consequently situated it here in the main body of the article. The development team likewise remained almost identical between Mega Man Legends and The Misadventures of Tron Bonne. Previewed as early as December 1998, this prequel would be published on the PlayStation in Japan only eight months later. A North American release followed in April 2000.
Set shortly before the events of Mega Man Legends, The Misadventures of Tron Bonne features its eponymous antihero as the player’s avatar rather than Mega Man Volnutt. Teisel and Bon Bonne have been imprisoned and Tron is tasked with raising enough funds to bail them out by paying off an exorbitant loan. Of course, she turns to what she knows best in order to accumulate the necessary finances: piracy.
Play is broken up into six missions which articulate in three different gameplay styles. The first type of gameplay is roughly equivalent to Mega Man Legends, as Tron explores 3D environments within her Gustaff mech suit, though these sequences are differentiated from Mega Man Legends‘ gameplay by the ability to order around up to six servbot henchmen. The second type of gameplay, set in a densely cluttered port, consists of block-moving puzzles played from an overhead perspective. The final gameplay variant is a first-person dungeon crawler in the spirit of Descent (1995).
Between missions, players explore a home base and interact with 40 of Tron’s hapless servbots. These diminutive helpers each has a distinctive personality and abilities that can be enhanced by carrying out related tasks, allowing them to either passively aid Tron or be brought along on missions. A set of challenges late in the game actually involves the player stepping directly into the shoes of a servbot on a rescue mission to save the Bonnes.
The Misadventures of Tron Bonne was a surprising critical success and laid the foundation for a more narrative-rich Mega Man Legends 2. At the same time, it established Tron as the franchise’s breakout character and justified her status as the series’ sole representative in popular arcade fighter Marvel vs. Capcom 2 (2000). Sales, unfortunately, were limited and the game would become a relative rarity prior to its PlayStation Network re-release in 2015.
Mega Man Legends 2 (2000)
A disc previewing Mega Man Legends 2 was included with copies of The Misadventures of Tron Bonne. The Japanese version of this demo features four missions, offering players a glimpse of how the development team was improving on the series debut while also depicting unique locations and plot elements which would not appear in the final game. The first three missions are largely mechanical, introducing gameplay systems and a new rideable mech, while the final mission is a comparatively plot-heavy sequence in which Mega Man Volnutt attempts to save Roll from a kidnapping scheme orchestrated by Tron Bonne. Sadly, the North American version of the demo only includes a handful of sequences pulled directly from the final game and omits all original content.
The final PlayStation game was published by Capcom in Japan on April 20, 2000, and in North America six months later. Despite being released for the same platform as its direct predecessor and The Misadventures of Tron Bonne, Mega Man Legends 2 is a vastly improved game. From its presentation to its mechanics and narrative scope, Keiji Inafune and the development team had iterated significantly on the series’ foundation.
The PlayStation’s 32-bit hardware proved no impediment to an evolving art style. Mega Man Volnutt, Roll, Data and the rest are all rendered here in greater detail than they had been in earlier entries, though the series’ characteristic anime-influenced, cel-shaded aesthetic is still present. Mega Man’s voice actor has also been swapped, as the original was unable to continue producing the childish tone he had previously achieved.
Where Mega Man Legends had been set on a single island and consequently featured a uniformity of visual design, Mega Man Legends 2 dramatically expands the environmental palette. Dungeons are scattered across six islands and each corresponds to an element. A desert dungeon is sandy, an underwater dungeon sees Mega Man navigating water-logged passageways, a forest dungeon features wood textures and frog-like reaverbots, and so on.
This thematic expansion corresponds to an expansion of the game’s mechanical complexity. Capcom worked up a two-stick control scheme for the first time, making movement and aiming appreciably more user-friendly than they had been in Mega Man Legends. A new lock-on system, introduced in Mega Man Legends 2‘s opening moments, has more in common with the new industry standard established by the aforementioned Ocarina of Time. Mega Man’s armor is now more customizable, allowing players to develop or buy new parts that help their avatar explore hazardous locations.
As suggested by Mega Man Legends‘ climactic battle, the sequel’s scope has expanded to cover a host of islands scattered across Earth’s otherwise submerged surface. Mega Man and his friends are again in search of the Mother Lode treasure, though this is complicated by Roll’s own search for her missing parents and an overarching goal of averting planet-wide catastrophe. The humorous Bonnes are now joined by additional baddies, including the Birdbot-wielding Glyde, floating samurai Bola, and the massive Klaymoor.
Though a positive critical reception vindicated the hard work of Inafune and his team, Mega Man Legends 2‘s ambition brought with it a handful of unfortunate drawbacks. Its detailed visuals carry with them a higher incidence of slowdown as players explore impressively open environments. At the same time, the lack of time spent at any given town prevents NPCs from having as strong a sense of character and development over time as the residents of Kattelox Island. Finally, in a decision that would only become disappointing in retrospect, Capcom opted to end Mega Man Legends 2 on a cliffhanger.
PSP re-releases of Mega Man Legends and Mega Man Legends 2 were released in Japan in 2005, but fans would need to wait until 2010 for news of a sequel. The ten years since Mega Man Legends 2 had not diminished anticipation for a follow-up among fans or the staff at Capcom. Mega Man Legends 3, in production for the portable Nintendo 3DS, was revealed in a video featuring the highly enthusiastic Keiji Inafune at the Nintendo Conference 2010. From a report that followed the announcement, it was clear that this was a passion project of Inafune and director Masakazu Eguchi.
Nintendo Power sent journalist Chris Hoffman to cover a prototype version of the game as part of a promotion for their magazine. In a later question-and-answer session provided to GamesRadar, Hoffman confirmed that the game offered three control schemes, a new playable protagonist named Barrett, a plot centered on Barrett’s connection to Roll’s grandfather Barrell, and a rideable hoverbike in place of Mega Man’s jet skates. Mega Man remained stuck in the same remote location where he was stranded during Mega Man Legends 2‘s climax.
Sadly, Mega Man Legends 3 was canceled in 2011. Capcom insisted that this decision was unrelated to Keiji Inafune’s departure from the studio late in the preceding year. A planned release of the prototype to the 3DS’ eShop was likewise canceled, though Capcom later indicated that this planned release was a matter of miscommunication. Further details on the cause of the cancellation – aside from the typical vicissitudes of developing a new entry in a risky property a decade after its last installment – have never been entirely forthcoming.
Thanks to the rise of crowdfunding platform Kickstarter in the early 2010s, this is not the end of the Mega Man Legends story. Keiji Inafune used the online service to announce and fund a spiritual successor to the original Mega Man franchise in the form of Mighty No. 9 during 2013. While fans were still awaiting the 2016 delivery of that game, Inafune and development studio Comcept launched a secondary campaign to crowd-source funding for a Mega Man Legends spiritual successor called Red Ash.
Due in part to an unclear project scope and goals, along with a series of delays plaguing Mighty No. 9, backer confidence in Inafune and Comcept was low. The project fell $300,000 short of its $800,000 budget in 2015. Chinese development studio Fuze stepped in, though, and pledged to fund the remainder of the development costs. Two years later, following a corporate acquisition of Comcept by Level-5, news on the current status of Red Ash remains scant. At the time of writing in July 2019, the latest update on the official Japanese-language Twitter page for the game is dated June 24, 2016.
The overall arc of Mega Man Legends is not a happy one. A promising, ambitious project by Capcom and producer Keiji Inafune led to poor sales while the game mechanics themselves were rapidly eclipsed by more successful 3D action-RPG titles. A spinoff and a direct sequel improved the series significantly, leading to a critical reappraisal of Mega Man Legends as a highly innovative work that was produced before the market or hardware were ready. The series inspired a dedicated fan community who touted the success of its characters and art style, eagerly anticipating a conclusion to Mega Man Legends 2‘s infamous cliffhanger. Sadly, a series of corporate decisions led to the uncharacteristically transparent cancellation of Mega Man Legends 3. Poor management of a crowdfunding campaign may have been the final nail in the series’ coffin, especially when coupled with a lack of faith in Inafune following the highly public critical failure of Mighty No. 9 upon its release. Whatever the future brings, fans should take heart that the series produced three uniquely charming entries during its brief life on the PlayStation.
What do you think about Mega Man Legends? Have you played all three entries? How would you like to see Mega Man Legends 2‘s cliffhanger resolved? Do you think Red Ash, if and when it’s released, will be a successful successor franchise?
Next week we’ll be taking cover as facts fly about Call of Duty. Join us on Franchise Festival at 9:00 AM EST on July 19 to be part of the conversation.
Upcoming Schedule (subject to change):
- July 19 – Call of Duty
- July 26 – Wario
- August 2 – Legacy of Kain / Soul Reaver
- August 9 – Civilization
- August 16 – Danganronpa