Mega Man 64 for those who only speak Nintendo
Everybody knows that there’s something special about Mega Man Legends. You know it so well that I don’t need to give you any actual proof. If that’s what you’re looking for, just think to yourself: Why would people be so obsessed with it getting a third game for decades? Why would they cling onto anything even remotely resembling that sequel? Why would they swear a blood oath against Capcom lasting thousands upon thousands of generations until they one day receive retribution? None of that is normal, so the only explanation can be that Legends is special. That’s just how this all works, probably.
What exactly makes Mega Man Legends special can be difficult to describe. It marked Mega Man’s first step into the third dimension, so it naturally changes a lot in the transition. It changes so much that you could say that Legends represents the Anti-Mega Man. Legends subverts traditional Mega Man on a conceptual level, twisting the experience in virtually every way beyond the fact that you can still jump and shoot.
Yet while subversion often comes from a place of cynicism or disrespect, Legends contrasts with its predecessors from a place of love. The steps it takes to uncharted territory build on what came before with a sense of reverence. The journey explores concepts normally out of Mega Man’s reach. It is the natural endpoint of the franchise in ways beyond just the literal continuity of the series. For the first time, Mega Man Legends gives Mega Man’s world a glimpse of that elusive everlasting peace.
Mega Man usually exists for conflict. Usually, Mega Man runs around shooting bad guys because if he didn’t there would be no game. The ending of the original game describes Mega Man’s battle as “never ending,” something its numerous sequels and spin-off series attest to. Despite that, the ending encourages him to continue fighting anyway for “everlasting peace.” Mega Man always fights for everlasting peace. If he didn’t, then there would be no Mega Man – not in his own universe and certainly not in ours. Capcom can’t sell games where Mega Man just sits around sipping E-tanks all day, at least to people who aren’t me.
In Mega Man Legends, however, peace has finally arrived. The world seemingly escaped its endless cycle of conflict long ago. This change results in both a very different Mega Man and a very different kind of game.
To fit this new age, Mega Man no longer fights for everlasting peace. Now, he lives as a Digger – essentially an adventurer in the vein of characters like Indiana Jones. Mega Man even finds himself in scenarios that resemble Indy’s adventures on more than one occasion.
This setup changes the entire dynamic of the game. Mega Man doesn’t find himself embroiled in any particular conflict or hoping to avert some imminent catastrophe. He simply explores the world in search of treasure for his own, but mostly his partner Roll’s, benefit. He adventures for adventure’s sake over an endless ocean. While similar to other Mega Men motivations in that it’s a never ending pursuit, it’s one that carries with it a fun and energetic tone rather than a melancholic or dramatic one.
The tonal shift reflects in the moment-to-moment gameplay. You jump and shoot bad guys in both traditional Mega Man and Legends, but the context is very different. In normal Mega Man, the jumping and shooting is the game – that’s where the challenge and fun reside. In Legends, the jumping and shooting is only a part of a greater whole.
Legends uses a laid back approach to Mega Man mechanics that makes this shift in priorities clear. A typical two-dimensional adventure relies on precision to challenge the player. Jumping over gaps and blasting enemies tests a player’s sense of positioning and timing; passing those tests forms the core fun of Mega Man. Legends relaxes those expectations. Jumps across gaps scarcely appear, and the few that do exist ask for little in the way of precision. Enemies tend to move slowly and predictably, providing plenty of time to react. You don’t even need to aim your shots precisely, as an ever-present lock-on button will do the job for you.
For a normal Mega Man game, the mechanics and challenges provide the fun while the world merely serves as a vague backdrop. In Legends, the world takes center stage while the action merely enhances it with a sense of tension and danger.
3D games pushed more fully realized worlds to the forefront of game design, creating games that moved beyond tests of skill to be fun. For games that emphasize their world, simply experiencing it is what makes it fun. In the case of Legends, exploring its island satisfies just as much as blasting a robot in the face does.
Kattleox Island may seem quaint compared to the game worlds of today, but it remains appealing due its cozy and detailed nature. It evokes one of those intangible kinds of atmospheres that fills the game with charm yet proves impossible to define. I’ll define it for you anyway, though, no worries. Don’t let the aggressive drivers fool you: Kattleox Island is peace incarnate.
From the moment that you crash land onto the island, it sets you at ease. The nature ambience practically invites you in. When you head into the city, the pleasant Apple Market tune welcomes you home. This cheery little subsection crams in tons of little details from the shops you explore to the people you can chat up. Of course, the biggest tourist attraction is the legendary kickable can ready to meet all of your recycling needs. So many fun “little things” hide in this one small stretch of area that I suspect that this is exactly where most Legends fans fell in love with the game. Apple Market masterfully condenses the key appeal of the game.
The best part of Apple Market, however, is that it’s only the appetizer. An entire town awaits. Although not as condensed, it contains an equally impressive amount of engaging detail. Technology has made great strides into realizing bigger and more open worlds, yet Kattleox’s town provides a great argument for keeping scope modest. While impressive at the time, Kattleox strikes a careful balance between feeling big yet manageably small. It also keeps its world alive by constantly updating based on your game progress, providing plenty of secrets and side missions to discover. It’s a great place to be whenever you’re there. You just gotta keep an eye out when crossing the road to avoid potential vehicular Megaslaughter.
You never really get the opportunity to experience a world like this in other Mega Man games. While you can largely blame the basic genres they tend to fall in, the change in premise and tone makes the biggest difference. It wouldn’t make sense for a Mega Man on an urgent mission to goof off kicking cans while evil robots conquer nearby construction yards and power plants. Get back to working for that everlasting peace, you bum!
Kattleox Island’s peaceful appeal shines through even the more decidedly unpeaceful aspects of the game. Mega Man still jumps and shoots plenty in this game, which can be owed to all of the potential dangers he faces. Although danger exists in the world of Legends, it buffers that danger in interesting ways.
Danger primarily comes in the form of the Reaverbots. Mega Man frequently dives underground to scoop up treasure, and plenty of Reaverbots lie in wait to protect it. Unlike the typical Mega Man bad guys, however, Reaverbots do not pose an active threat. They don’t come up to the surface and cause trouble nor do they actively seek out people to harm underground. Reaverbots act more akin to wild animals defending their territory. They are a passive force that you purposefully rile up in the name of adventure, which fits the overall vibe of the game well.
The Bonne family act as the true threats. As pirates with a fleet of destructive robots at their disposal, the Bonnes are capable of dealing real damage. In fact, they do cause some notable damage early into the game. Despite that, the game goes out of its way to soften their blows into something more in spirit with the rest of the experience. They execute their plans comedically and ineptly enough that they don’t come across as pure “bad guys” despite the bad that they do . It’s hard not to like the Bonnes, even if you end up literally paying the price for the trouble that they cause.
No character better represents the Legends attitude towards danger than Wily. Yeah, Wily lives on Kattleox Island, too. He runs a boat shop, says nice things to Mega Man, and helps him out on his adventure. What a perfectly pleasant guy!
Well, he may not literally be Dr. Wily (although the Mega Man X games imply some interesting things about his potential immortality…) but the intent here is clear. Legends uses this “Wily” to wink at the audience. His presence effectively says that even the single biggest threat in all of Mega Man chilled out in the ensuing centuries. The real danger has passed, so maybe it’s fine for Mega Man and the player to mellow out as well.
Of course, that’s not entirely true. Mega Man Legends only gives a glimpse of everlasting peace, not a full-on longing stare. A great crisis looms over Kattleox Island as many of its residents are more than happy to tell you about and then handwave away. While the revelations that come with that event are compelling in their own right, it undoubtedly moves the game (and its sequel) into a very different direction from where things begin.
To its credit, Legends saves most of the true stakes for the very end. According to an old interview, the developers initially planned to open the game with ideas that would later be used for the sequel. They made the right call in saving that initial idea for later. It would have opened the series on a completely different foot by introducing the greater plot and stakes of the series from the outset.
Mega Man Legends differs from both its sibling series and even its own sequel by allowing you to wallow in and absorb a more carefree world before raising the stakes. That fleeting glimpse of everlasting peace gives Legends a special charm that continues to stick with people long after playing.