“Kindness and good nature unite men more effectually and with greater strength than any agreements whatsoever, since thereby the engagements of men’s hearts become stronger than the bond and obligation of words.”
Previously on TWRM…
…we considered a few things about the nature of early 3D games. We posited that it was tough for many franchises to make the jump into 3D and find translated success there. Many of them didn’t make that leap at all, choosing perhaps to play it safe or merely falling into the obscurity of history. Those that did metamorphose found themselves in the company of drab textures, terrible camera controls, and an overall sense of the primitive. Growing pains. There were of course those shining super stars that went on to influence generations and others which bided their time and skipped out on 3D’s formative years (see Metroid Prime), but as is the case with many subjects in gaming, these were the exception.
Yet out of that primordial ooze of the mid-90s, a “legend” appeared. To commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Blue Bomber since the original Mega Man in 1987, Capcom decided to was time to beckon the hero from two dimensions to three. Rock must brave the tumultuous waters of clunky, unsure game design other franchises were facing and exemplify the steadfastness of his namesake.
Mega Man Legends aimed to not only break the irresistible mold (alternatively the irresistible “rut”) that Mega Man games had fallen into, but this new adventure was a chance to redesign everything about Mega Man’s world. Legends meant to whisk him away from Wily and the Robot Masters in 20XX and 2D platforming to a different realm altogether.
Demonstrative of its distinct dedication to storytelling compared to its predecessors, Legends begins with a text crawl and narration welcoming the player to this bright dystopia. The planet has been flooded by some unexplained cataclysm and the inhabitants of this world are forced to survive on the tiny islands that remain above the sea. Diggers are the explorer class who delve into the ancient ruins beneath the ocean in search of crystalline quantum refractors, the energy source of all modern technology. Emerging civilization depends on their efforts.
The treasure hunting Diggers whisper myths of a tremendous Mother Lode, a hoard that could forever solve their world’s energy crisis, but the narrator questions the integrity of these explorers. This sets the stage perfectly for the game’s cast. Are they digging out of hope? Despair? Charity? Greed? Duty? Power?
Over this oceanic horizon, a Digger named Mega Man Volnutt and his Spotter Roll Caskett, along with Roll’s grandfather and their recording unit, Data, soar in their airship the Flutter in search of refractors. Their explorations lead them through many a dangerous ruin from the ancient world in search of refractors, until they crash-land on the isle of Kattelox. There, they become embroiled in a race for the treasure of the island against the piratical Bonne family. Mega Man battles back Teisel Bonne, Tron Bonne, Bon Bonne and their Servbots and comes face to face with his own true purpose.
It all smacks of swashbuckling adventure on the high seas, a departure for the series and a compelling science-fantasy premise, as well. This is classic Mega Man (which is really just Blade Runner!) meets Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island… or conversely Kevin Costner’s Waterworld except with better acting.
Either way, this dramatic and fundamental paradigm shift, not just for Mega Man but for any character of that era, represented a monumental undertaking that cannot be overstated. No wonder it seems like 2D to 3D was such an easy transition to screw up! It involved a certain amount of redefining characters without losing what they were about.
A sense of timing proved essential to this project and how it turned out. Producer Keiji Inafune, the artist behind Mega Man, expressed of Legends that he believed the game came out too early. Perhaps it would have been better had it been given the opportunity to simmer a little longer, not suffer as much of its content and vision being cut. It might have benefited from advancements in gaming technology to better support its cinematic sensibilities.
Mega Man Legends had a broader grasp of narrative on Sony’s PlayStation One than its 2D ancestors had on Nintendo’s handheld, 8-bit and 16-bit systems (Legends would later be ported to the N64 as Mega Man 64, though). It did the best with what tech was available at the time, but it came only one year after the rise of 3D platformers, a vantage that undoubtedly accounted for some of its lack of reach.
1996, the year before Legends’ release, was not the first year to feature a 3D platformer. However, ’96 was the year of the limelight for games like Super Mario 64, Bubsy 3D, Crash Bandicoot, and Jumping Flash! 2. These pioneers experienced a range of success but Legends didn’t have to be the vanguard of that progress. Legends could indeed benefit from the mistakes made before it and attempt to smooth over any wrinkles in that new frontier through observation of the genre’s inherent pitfalls one year later.
So did it?
Well… it’s no secret that Mega Man Legends ended up being considered a commercial failure. One figure I saw showed it failed to push a million units. Compare that to contemporaries like Final Fantasy VII that sold more than 13 million copies, GoldenEye 007 at over 8 million, Star Fox 64 at 4 million, or Mortal Kombat 4 at nearly 1.5 million.
A variety of explanations for this have been put forth over the years, the developers themselves chiming in as well. However, though Legends failed to catch on in terms of sales, it eventually became a fan favorite. Consumers (I was one of them) pined for its appearance on PSN as a digital download. Its absence there represented a gaping hole, at least to me. Time had erased any memory of what happened to my original copy. Legends finally came in 2015 after Capcom sorted out the unique licensing issues accompanying the game thanks to real life brands and logos it featured. That wasn’t too bright.
Fortunately, more people can now have access to this gem. I think the game is deserving of that retrospective appreciation.
The 8-bit Review
Let’s be honest. One of the hardest tasks set before the gaming critic involves evaluating graphics in retro games. Obviously, the most immediate and apparent feature of a game is its graphics; for many people, graphical fidelity is the first grounds for judging the quality of a game. So when it comes to traveling backward chronologically, there’s almost a sociocultural tendency toward entropy in scoring graphics. We know that graphics have gotten better. The opportunity here is in taking that into consideration alongside the quality, intent, accessibility, and execution of a retro game’s graphics when in its original, natural habitat: its historical context among its contemporary peers.
So while I will be the first to say that early 3D games are ugly, I’ll also be quick to argue that Mega Man Legends did a great job of standing out from the dross of its time. Citing a few comparative examples ought to suffice:
Mega Man Legends was a clear improvement in graphics over the 3D platformers for the year prior. This is for a few reasons but foremost in my mind is the fact that early 3D games seemed to insist on presenting their characters as full 3D polygonal structures. When a character was animated to speak, their faces contorted bizarrely as wireframes tugged and pulled against each other like stitched seams of digital Frankensteinian monsters.
In Legends, 2-dimensional facial animations evocative of anime expressions were painted onto the polygonal heads of characters. This immediately allowed for a wider range of gesticulating not just in the movements of a character’s body but also in their face, the seat of emotions. Super Mario 64, as good as it was, didn’t feature a protagonist who could offer more than a blink of the eyes (and don’t even get me started on what Crash’s animation looked like) but in Legends the cast could visually demonstrate joy, fear, excitement, affection, dizziness, arrogance, condescension, rage, surprise, exhaustion, and suspicion.
That’s the year prior, though. What about 1997 itself? Well, what games came out in ’97 that are suitable for comparison? I took a look at our Archives by Year. 1997 showed we’ve so far reviewed Breath of Fire III, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, Final Fantasy VII, Final Fantasy Tactics, and… uh… haha… Wheel of Fortune 64. Out of these, BoFIII, SotN, and FFT don’t represent fair comparisons since they heavily featured 2D sprites and pixel art over polygons. Wheel of Fortune 64 can easily be dispensed with as being totally hideous with its ultra-blurry digitized real actors.
Final Fantasy VII, however, was a mostly 3D game. Mega Man Legends beat it out in the character department: Legends’ characters were fully articulate and fully expressive with those facial animations I mentioned. They were less impressions of characters and more fully realized, and they didn’t have stumps for hands. Compared to the emo stares of FFVII, it’s night and day. Further, Legends didn’t have to wrestle with characters attempting to move with a d-pad across the flat surfaces of complex pre-rendered backgrounds.
Let it be known though that I summarized my impression of FFVII’s graphics with a 9/10 whereas I’m summarizing Legends with an 8/10 for the same department. This is simply due to Legends lacking impressive (in its time) FMVs and the gorgeously detailed backgrounds that FFVII possessed, all of which outclassed the jagged edges and occasionally ugly textures in Legends. This game’s own environments are comparatively simple and in many cases dull, with the odd flourish, flair, and sense of visual drama.
What about some other games from 1997? Quake II, Tomb Raider II, Ocarina of Time, GoldenEye 007, Star Fox 64… you can see how some of these attempted the same effect as Legends with their facial animations, to varying effect. Metal Gear Solid was another great game that came out the following year in ’98 and there are still differences between MGS and Legends.
All of this says to my mind that Mega Man Legends was a standout title in the still young 3D scene. At the very least it figured out a way to embrace the blocky character models and incorporate it into the character design to create a game that’s full of character. If you ask me, nothing could be more necessary for a game where story is a significant feature.
Legends is certainly much better than its blurrified N64 counterpart:
Maybe the biggest shock of all was when a Rockman game barely featured any rock ‘n roll! Mega Man was so named in Japan because of the rock influence meant to be palpable in the amazing soundtracks of his original games. The soundtrack to Mega Man II remains one of my all-time favorites in gaming.
Why ever the developers opted for that stereotypical PlayStation One sound over rock ‘n roll, I’ll never know. Once you hear it, you’ll perhaps recognize it as being completely typical of mid-90s gaming music. I don’t know what that synthetic strings-striking noise is, but it’s all over this track:
Sounds like any other action-adventure game. This inevitably created a full soundtrack with remarkably few songs that remain memorable. They’re nowhere near as catchy, hummable, iconic, or engaging (what have you) as the many great Mega Man songs that came before Legends. In fact, this next track is one of only two songs that I remember on a whim from the game. It only plays in one tiny area, too, but it reminds me of kicking that can:
There is one track that I really enjoy, “The Main Gate”, which plays during the last dungeon at the end of the game. This song has the pace and energy that Mega Man games were known for. It’s too bad it loops every 22 seconds, which is another downside to a lot of the songs on this soundtrack: they’re very short.
It’s not so much that the music itself is terrible so much as it’s merely passable in a series that was originally named for a musical influence. That’s not to say that Mega Man games must only have rock ‘n roll, but if this is the trade-off… let me just say “I like that old time rock’n’ roll”.
Of course, music isn’t the only consideration for Mega Man Legends’ audio features. This game includes a lot of voice acting. On the whole, I think that most of the performances are pretty great though rudimentary at times, which could just be emblematic of early video game acting.
Mega Man actually sounds like a boy (or a teen) like he looks, instead of sounding like Mickey Mouse or a high-pitched woman attempting to sound like a child. Tron and Teisel are standout characters. No wonder Tron got her own sequel/spin-off (The Misadventures of Tron Bonne) and someone should’ve given Teisel’s actor an Oscar. Lots of energy there.
However the acting leans somewhat toward patronizing at times, possibly indicative that members of the cast thought they were creating a toy for kids instead of creating characters in a story. That’s evident from the opening narration with its pronunciation of “flying machines”, though there are plenty other examples of the actors delivering their lines as if they’re talking to children.
Poor sound mixing, that symptom of primitive voice narration where the voices paused when the text in a speech bubble finished crawling before the player cycled to the next bubble… Mega Man Legends had a cool story with an interesting premise that might have soared a little higher if you felt all the actors believed in it, but maybe that’s asking too much for its time.
Now’s the time where we talk some mega SPOILERS! Yeah, this game is showing its age but maybe you haven’t played it and don’t want the finer details handed out. If that’s you, Ctrl+f Gameplay to skip down to the next section.
What interests me most about Mega Man Legends and its plot comes right at the end after Mega Man has fought the Bonnes and dispatched the thieves multiple times. Mega Man as a Digger and the Bonnes as pirates were searching for Kattelox’s great treasure, which they discover lies within the Main Gate, an ancient series of technologically advanced labyrinths.
Mega Man enters the Main Gate and awakens an artificial life-form called MegaMan Juno. Juno claims he recognizes Mega Man and identifies our hero as a “purifier model”, calling him MegaMan “Trigger” under the command of “Mother”. Turns out Juno is a bureaucratic machine whose duty it is to maintain the installations at Kattelox Island. This unfortunately includes purging the island of Carbons (a.k.a. people) living on the island, since they’ve exceeded their pre-described limit. Juno reveals that Mega Man has suffered some form of memory loss and to the Blue Bomber’s horror, Juno proceeds with protocol: initializing a geosynchronous space station called Eden to purge all of the Carbons from the island, killing them. That’s dark and dramatic, much more so than fighting off pirates!
Mega Man is able to defeat Juno and stop the purging process, of course. That’s thanks in no small part to the Bonnes and to Data, who has a secret identity of his own to reveal as well as knowledge of Mega Man’s past. This final touch of mystery that tied Mega Man to the ancient machines is one thing that really made me enjoy Legends’ story and it left me wanting so much more of this world than we ultimately got.
In Japan, Mega Man Legends was known as Rockman DASH, where “DASH” is an acronym for “Digouter’s Adventure Story in Halcyon days”. The phrase halcyon days comes from a Greek myth about the forlorn wife of a man who died in a shipwreck. This Alcyone threw herself into the sea in anguish and the gods transformed her and her husband into halcyon birds, or kingfishers. Because the Greek gods did random crap like that all the time (turning in heifers to get their pork on). Aeolus, a god of the wind, kept the seas and storms at bay for seven days each year so that Alcyone could lay her eggs in her nest on the beach. These storm-less days of calm came to be known as the “halcyon days”, a phrase meaning a time in the past remembered as peaceful, placid, and happy
Hold onto that thought.
The space station which Juno attempted to use to destroy all the Carbons of Kattelox was called Eden. This is an easier reference to recognize; movies and games tend toward superficiality with biblical references, using familiar religious language in a lazy effort to grant their narratives more gravity than their writing naturally purports. It’s actually pretty funny that writers regularly fail to reference with accuracy literature that has been around for upward of 2000 years. My background is in theological studies and I do a lot of cringing when it’s clear writers picked references for the baggage those references carry without much sense of their normative meaning.
This occurrence of “Eden” however is a little more meaningful than some other instances. At least it was retained in the English release unlike Xenoblade Chronicles 2 which swapped out “happy garden” for “Elysium” and destroyed its own Paradise Lost vibe.
Eden of course was the location of the garden in the Book of Genesis where YHWH originated the first man and woman. Not a whole lot of space is spent in canonical Scripture concerning Eden, though there’s a whole swamp of later embellishments, heretical and mystical texts to sift through if you can avoid drowning in them. What is said about Eden in canon though seems to describe it as an idyllic place of virtually limitless freedom, where the man and the woman could eat from any tree, except of course for one.
The testing tree, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (which I think is a name that denotes the point of experiential knowledge, making the distinction between good and evil based on the concept of disobeying God, the first act of rebellion), that’s the tree that they got in trouble with but in thinking about Eden, the place was a paradise, a kind of utopia. In fact, the Hebrew word for Eden used in Genesis is ayden which means “pleasure”. The word for garden used in the LXX, the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament and Genesis 2:8 is “παράδεισον”, paradeison or paradise. Eden was a place of safety and communion, bliss and natural joy where they lived perfectly open and transparent with each other (not ashamed of their nakedness) and where they could walk with the Presence of God freely and frequently as someone walks beside a friend.
That space station Mega Man Legends calls Eden was designed to create a paradise on Kattelox, one for machines of course, not humans. Without Carbons on the island, the Reaverbots could dwell without plunder or harassment in perfect mechanical bliss. Kattelox would be their “Eden”, their utopia.
That got me thinking on the concept of utopia, which has been written about for centuries. Plato’s Republic imagined a kind of perfectly balanced society, Kallipolis, the just city ruled by members at the top of a class-based system, the philosopher-kings, who had 50-year-long educations and were to be lovers of wisdom. They would never go to war but hire mercenaries from other nations instead. He also mentioned the prohibition of private property (which also meant shared wives) and redistribution of goods for equality of possessions but he conveniently left out the nagging details of how that could ever possibly be done in any kind of ethical or legal way. Oh and you also didn’t get to keep your own kids. Yeah, the state took care of them. I guess everyone has a different idea of utopia, sometimes dramatically different!
Thomas More’s book 1516
There are many common characteristics of utopia, and as I mentioned a perfect place might look and sound different to different people, but one that you frequently see in many models is some significant measure of equality. Equality is of course a major topic in Western society today, certainly in America, and it’s one that consistently seems to mark the line between fictional presentations of utopia and dystopia (the latter being the opposite of utopia: a fundamentally bad or flawed society). It’s easy enough to see that the lack of equality in the class-systems of Republic meant there wasn’t equality among all the citizens, but did they live in enough freedom and happiness to negate that? Which is to be the most primary: freedom, happiness, or equality? Equality without happiness is mutual misery. Equality without freedom is a shared cage. Happiness without freedom is ignorant bliss. I’ll leave you to think out the rest of that yourself.
In Fritz Lang’s 1927 science fiction drama Metropolis, the seeming utopia was built on the backs of a suffering worker’s class. In Animal Farm, the pretense of equality quickly dissolved when the pigs began playing the system. In 1984 and Fahrenheit 451, society is characterized as dystopian because of the control of information and lack of freedom. In Breath of Fire III, the goddess Myria was pulling strings to decide the fate of the world, over-zealously protecting people from technology, but that was a false utopia because again freedom was taken away. These thought experiments on the relationship between utopia and dystopia are fascinating to me, but what a lot of these stories take into consideration is Orwell’s “pigs”, the human element, what some call “human nature” or what others phrase out as “nobody’s perfect”.
That’s why I’m so skeptical of extropian beliefs, the… well quite nearly the superstition that scientific advancements will eventually create perfect utopian civilization for all, where virtue is inevitable, complete with immortality. Extropianism isn’t well supported by, say, the past 50 years where technology has grown exponentially and yet human beings have invented new ways to inflict pain and destruction on each other on a broader scale (see the 20th century or hey, the internet and social media), unless we’re to believe that technology’s improvements will allow us to be increasingly worse to each other before we’re suddenly, magically all better. And no, I’m not being anti-science. I’m acknowledging that science (especially unbridled “scientism”) has limits. Biology, sociology, and physics are not the same thing as ethics. Logical positivism failed, you guys. My only hope for a future utopia is in one which solves human nature problem, whatever you want to call it, once and for all.
“Kindness and good nature unite men more effectually and with greater strength than any agreements whatsoever, since thereby the engagements of men’s hearts become stronger than the bond and obligation of words.”
Back in Mega Man Legends (to bring this section to a close), Eden was to create a land where no human beings existed and call that “paradise” for its silence. I mean, yeah that solves the human nature problem, and that’s something stories about robot overlords have played around with before and the game is placing genocide in the hands of the villains, not advocating for it. Legends would seem to value freedom above all, the freedom to pursue life, liberty, and happiness across the wide open seas, finding refractors for the good of all humanity.
I like that.
There’s a lot to love in Mega Man Legends’ gameplay. Aside from the storyline, there are a variety of other things to do about Kattelox: repairing buildings destroyed by the pirates, contributing to a museum, playing the odd mini-game here and there. My fondest memories of Legends involve putzing around Kattelox from sector to sector and just exploring and interacting with the citizens. It put up quite the illusion that this was a living ecosystem of people.
One of my favorite things about the game has got to be the adventure aspect of finding items and upgrades in the dungeons. Mega Man can take the broken pieces of an ancient vacuum or the blueprints for a cannon or a mirrored crystal to Roll in her support car and she can create new sub-weapons for him. This is the closest Legends gets to emulating the characteristic ability of Mega Man in his classic games to use enemy powers when defeating bosses. I remember once upon a time being a little disappointed that Mega Man didn’t change colors with every new weapon, but that’s kind of silly to me now.
Each sub-weapon has various innate uses and benefits for different situations and this means that it’s a painful inconvenience when you find yourself needing or craving a different armament and you have to backtrack to Roll’s support car just to swap your gear around. This also means you’ll likely tend toward those sub-weapons most which cater to ambidextrous uses. I personally loved the Shining Laser. The Shining Laser was also super expensive.
See when you defeat a Reaverbot or any other enemy, they’ll usually drop refractor shards. Because we all now know that refractors are immensely valuable in the world of Legends, it should come as no surprise when I say that these shards form the game’s currency. And Roll doesn’t roll cheap. She’ll charge you for all the upgrades you make to your sub-weapons, but maxed out Shining Laser makes me retro heart happy. I once spent the time upgrading every single sub-weapon in the game because I loved Legends so much back in ’97. Never again.
Mega Man Legends had one disadvantage on the PS1 compared to its rival 3D platformers on the N64: the original PlayStation controllers before Dual Analog and DualShock did not have twin joysticks. Playing Legends all these years later off of PSN, I automatically went to trying to move Mega Man with the analog sticks but I was stuck with the d-pad. No 3D platformer should have to be stuck with the d-pad! Note Mega Man 64 didn’t really fix this with movement still being relegated in part to the shoulder buttons.
Mega Man can switch between using the shoulders or left and right to either pivot or strafe (game lingo for moving side to side exclusively) but it’s clumsy and it makes even picking up a ring of shards from a downed foe a chore that’s tough to complete. On the 64, Ocarina of Time and Super Mario 64 embraced 3D by giving you access to that joystick.
If ever they remaster Legends, I hope that’s the first thing they fix. It drags a lot of the experience down. At least there’s a handy lock-on feature, though!
Those same controls make it hard to get into Mega Man Legends, especially from the vantage point of modernity. A lack of description for the items you salvage while on a dig and the occasional difficulty in navigating your way around Kattelox, figuring out exactly where you wanted to go, are marks of the primitive era Legends came from. What’s important to mention here is these are marks which are certainly felt now but I can definitely recall even feeling them then in 1997.
I personally found it easy to become enchanted by Mega Man Legends and the world it presents. Though the story is linear, there were many things to do and explore. I spent a lot of time with the sub-weapons, as mentioned, and the museum was a place I became obsessed with stuffing full of artifacts and relics. Somehow I hoped that these would shed some light on the impenetrable past of this intriguing science-fantasy.
Mega Man Legends did something for Mega Man that he really needed, something which Mega Man X and I presume the Battle Network games did: reinvention. Legends was able to crack the stale formula without destroying it, leaving the classic series in tact and on its own for anyone to enjoy, creating a new spin-off series that was so tragically short-lived. Legends fascinated me with its ideas since I was a boy and it hasn’t stopped all these years later. A lot of it has aged and not always in every case gracefully, but the ideas remain just as wonderful. Firing the Mega Buster in 3D space was what I always wanted.
My Personal Grade: 9/10
I’m still in love with this game. Well, no that’s not entirely true. It’s gameplay especially is one point of contention between us. I had the hardest time forcing myself to adjust to its rigid sense of movement and it inevitably made me feel like I was trying to crab walk my way to the DMV. By all accounts a displeasurable experience.
However, Mega Man Legends still holds a lot of great moments and cool ideas. The memories I had of the scenes that stayed with me all these years still ended up being the strongest moments in the game. Patronizing at times and unpolished in others, my own personal grade looks past the flaws… because that’s what personal takes do. Nostalgia is a powerful thing, though I’d like to think I can still see where Legends fell short.
Maybe some halcyon day we’ll get our Mega Man Legends 3…
Aggregated score: 7.5
Did you enjoy this post? Consider becoming a Warrior of Light and join us in restoring integrity and quality to games writing. We specialize in long-form, analytical reviews and we aim to expand into a community of authors with paid contributors, a fairer and happier alternative to mainstream games writing! See our Patreon page for more info!
Categories: Game Review