Latchkey Games is a weekly article that takes a look at games that perhaps didn’t quite get the amount of love they deserved: whether it was a game that was panned on it’s initial release only to become a cult classic, one that stirred the ire of series fans, or simply a game that fell through the cracks and was forgotten by time or overshadowed by a more popular release. This week’s game is Mega Man Network Transmission, a game in a franchise that’s whose difficulty is celebrated among hardcore gamers, yet was criticized for being too hard.
Mega Man games are hard.
Or, at least, that’s what everyone tells me. I’ve been playing Mega Man games since before I could read, so I don’t really think they’re all that difficult. Now, I’m not trying to pass myself off as some sort of gaming savant: I’ve got my ass handed to me plenty of times in genuinely challenging games like Dark Souls or Ninja Gaiden. I think I’m reasonably skilled, but I’m no pro or anything like that.
Yet despite that, I’ve never felt that Mega Man games were too hard; rather, the best titles in the series have always felt just right in terms of challenge. Maybe they don’t seem difficult because I’ve been playing them all of my life, but I’ve always thought that games like Mega Man 2 and the more recent Mega Man 9 were perfect representations of how to make a challenging game but not a frustrating one. Obviously, that’s a difficult balance to achieve, and even Mega Man hasn’t always hit the target: the later Mega Man X games feel more cheap than challenging due to sloppy level design (X6 and X7 especially,) and there were parts in the otherwise great Mega Man Zero games that crossed the line between genuine challenge and just being hard for the sake of being hard.
Today’s Latchkey Game suffers from a pretty piss poor attempt at creating an old school challenge a-la the old Mega Man games, but thankfully, the sloppy design is relegated to just one part of the game. Unfortunately, that part of the game happens at the very beginning, and it’s so unnecessarily hard and cheap that a lot of people gave up right at the very start. The game I’m talking about is Mega Man: Network Transmission for the Gamecube, an otherwise good game that made the tragic mistake of putting its worst part at the start of the game.
Set in the same continuity as the Battle Network spin-off series for GBA, Network Transmission blends the RPG stylings of its handheld prequels with more the traditional 2D action platforming of earlier Mega Man series’. The combination works for the most part: just like the old 2D Mega Men, the controls are accurate and precise, and the level designs are challenging and fair, and the RPG elements, which allow you to customize Mega Man’s stats and skills via “battle chips,” let you tailor Mega Man’s abilities to suit your specific play style. As with the old Mega Man games, there’s still plenty of one-hit kills from spikes and the enemies are almost always placed in positions that give them an advantage, but all it takes to surmount these obstacles is a little skillful application of Mega Man’s abilities and some old-school reflexes. If you could handle Mega Man 2 or Mega Man X’s difficulty, you can certainly handle 99% of the challenges that Mega Man: Network Transmission will throw at you.
In fact, most gamers will probably only really struggle with one specific part of the game: the first boss fight. The first boss has attacks that are initially hard to dodge, and his attacks also inflict a lot of damage. Like I said earlier, I’ve been playing Mega Man games for twenty years, and even I chucked my controller a few times attempting to beat this boss.
Network Transmission unfortunately suffers from a sort of backwards difficulty curve: the game is balls hard at the outset but gets progressively easier as you go on. This is due in part to the RPG elements that Network Transmission uses: Mega Man starts off weak and with only a few basic abilities and attacks, but as you progress, he becomes exponentially more powerful. When you reach the first boss in the game, Mega Man can barely survive a few hits and his basic attack will barely put a dent in most enemies. The first boss features attacks that both deal high amounts of damage and that are pretty hard to dodge (especially if you’re still getting a handle on the game’s mechanics,) and the whole battle only serves to exacerbate how powerless Mega Man feels at the beginning of the game. The boss has an obvious elemental weakness, but you won’t be able to exploit it unless you spend an inordinate amount of time grinding in the first level for the cash to purchase the opposing elemental attacks from the in-game store.
However, if you can beat that first boss (and that is admittedly a big “if,”) the rest of the game is actually pretty enjoyable. The strange difficulty spike at the beginning aside, most of Network Transmission is a well balanced, fairly challenging game. The subsequent boss battles feel much more manageable, since you likely have gained some key upgrades (including ones that increase the amount of damage Mega Man can take before he dies, or upgrades that increase the power of his attacks,) by the time you face them, and eventually you’ll build up enough of an arsenal of attacks and special abilities that you’ll feel more than comfortable with anything that the game throws at you. While Mega Man feels virtually powerless at the start of the game, he’ll feel like a one-man army by the time you manage to build a decent “deck” of battle chips. The rest of the game never becomes a total cakewalk, but it also manages to avoid the sense of unfairness and frustration that characterize its opening segments.
There’s a lot about Mega Man Network Transmission to like: the challenging platforming and combat, the highly customizable set of skills that Mega Man has access to, and the large, inter-connected”Metroidvania” style world that the game gives you to explore. Unfortunately, the game has that infamous spike in difficulty that has colored peoples’ perception of the game, but if you can overcome that one admittedly substantial flaw, Mega Man Network Transmission offers enough genuine fun throughout its whole adventure to compensate for any frustration you may experience at the beginning.