Battle of the Networks: Comparing Mega Man’s Internet to Our Own - Mega Man Monthly
...Talking about Mega Man is my forte!
Welcome to Mega Man Monthly! I have about ten million things to say about Mega Man and considerably less days to write them all down. My only hope lies in a monthly schedule, so every month I’ll tackle some new idea I had about Mega Man. I plan to cover everything ranging from individual games, entire series, broader concepts, and even things that seemingly have little to do with the Mega Man games at all. It’ll be a surprise!
The Internet: vast, unknowable, kind of a pain in the neck. More importantly, it’s an everyday part of life – you’re probably using it to read this right now. Things weren’t always like this. The Mega Man Battle Network series serves as both an interesting time capsule of the internet that was as well as an indicator of its future. That makes it an interesting point of comparison to how the internet has developed over time.
Battle Network games released at a time where the internet was rising in prominence yet had not yet fully formed. It’s easy to say, then, that Battle Network predicted the future. A world where the internet ties into everything around us? Who would have thought! Something even the developers of the games admit, however, is that pretty much everyone had similar ideas of where things were headed. The world of Battle Network existed within our reach. That made the series appealing as a concept.
With something like Pokemon, you inherently have to remove yourself from reality a little to insert yourself into the situation. Unfortunately, Charmanders aren’t real. At least not yet. We may have some fascinatingly screwed up genetics experiments waiting in our future. With Battle Network, you could see yourself having something like a Mega Man in your pocket with considerably less ethical lines crossed.
It felt natural that one day the internet would be implemented into everyday life. Robots and devices like Tamagotchi already provided primitive glimpses into that kind of reality, and plenty of science fiction helped fill in the gaps. It’s no wonder Battle Network called the broad strokes of how our society progressed into the “net society.”
If you look real closely at our “net society” though, you’ll notice that Battle Network’s vision of the internet’s future differs from our own in some key ways. Check your pocket: is Mega Man in there? I didn’t think so, probably just some lame smartphone. Of course, I’m not just talking about the obvious things like the lack of net navis or absence of cords. It goes without saying that announcing you’re going to “jack in” to things didn’t quite catch on. I guess that I in particular should be grateful for that.
The internet of Battle Network strays from our own in a broader, more fundamental sense. While you could boil that down to the unpredictable nature of reality, that Battle Network proposed a future that simply didn’t get all of the finer details right, we should not be so quick to dismiss it. We can learn from Battle Network’s internet. How does our present reality’s execution of the internet compare to Battle Network and what can we take from it? Those are the questions I want to explore. Now that the battle routine has been set, it’s time to execute!
During the age of Battle Network games, I had a very different understanding of the internet than I do now. It was more mysterious, and dare I say, more “real.” I don’t mean that in a literal sense so much as that it felt like a separate place that could actually exist on a map if it were physically possible. I’ll explain.
In the early 2000s, the internet was less a way of life and more like a tool. You went to it when you needed something. I was around ten years old when I started to get really into Battle Network, so what would someone like me need from the internet? Information about video games, of course.
My first stop was usually GameFAQs. I have no clue where I first heard about it, probably from my brothers, but simply accessing it felt like a cheat code. You had to type in the whole address into your browser bar, and even more extreme, you had to spell it correctly. If you accomplished this colossal task, you gained access to a seemingly infinite vault of knowledge: Cheats, guides, the elusive FAQs, and most importantly, the message boards.
I loved browsing message boards. Actually I still do, I just get a very different kind of enjoyment out of it these days. Back in the days of Battle Network, I had no concept of who any of these people posting messages were – that they could just be some random dweeb or a dumb kid like me never crossed my mind. No, instead, I figured these guys must be important. After all, they knew how to make an account and post things to begin with. In fact, they seemed to know everything. They somehow knew what games were coming out in the future and they casually revealed shocking revelations. Apparently Mega Man isn’t actually Mega Man’s real name. In Japan (allegedly his birthplace), he goes by “Rockman.” Bass is actually “Forte.” Life was never the same for me once I learned that Bass had a way cooler name in Japan.
Yes, browsing GameFAQs was akin to listening in on a wise council of sages who occasionally convened to discuss the finer details of Mega Man. They generously left their scraps of information for the peasants to enlighten themselves with. Within these scraps, I expanded not only my knowledge, but my horizons. These mystical beings often revealed the sources of their power by linking to other websites. Those links led me to fan sites, those fan sites led me to art, cartoons, and even more message boards. In this way, my concept of the “internet” rapidly expanded.
Basically, the internet felt like a maze. The more I explored, the more paths I uncovered. I frequently discover new favorite websites and different “homes.” My starting point at any given day never stayed consistent. Some days I’d start at a GameFAQs, and others my message board of choice, whether that was some Mega Man fan site or a (Nintendo) WiFi World.
Battle Network captures that feeling perfectly. Whenever you jack into the internet, you’d suddenly find yourself in a maze-like representation of the information superhighway. Depending on where you would jack in, you could traverse the internet from different angles or even set your own “bookmarks” to your in-game friends’ computers. Most roleplaying games already involve making the player explore maze-like dungeons, so taking this interconnected dungeon approach matched the nature of the internet well.
The internet in Battle Network actually pushes the idea of “place” far further than our internet ever did. We move from website to website with a simple click of a mouse. Net navis like Mega Man need to physically move to where they want to be. This version of the internet forgoes the abstraction of waiting for a website to load by having us traverse the network ourselves. One of my favorite dumb things in Battle Network is the idea that the internet is in fact so physically large and unwieldy to traverse that it has its own metro line. Between the physical space you move through and the overabundance of net navis and programs that inhabit it, the internet of Battle Network transcends simply being a place that exists. It is a separate world entirely.
Maybe the best way to make a place “real” comes from its element of danger. In the internet’s case, I think just about everyone fears viruses to some extent. Their existence gnaws at you in an understated way. Viruses represent a sneaky, underhanded type of invasion that everyone prefers to ignore until it becomes a problem. People often complain about random encounters these days, but there are some things that only they can accomplish – being the perfect mechanism for delivering virus battles to you is one of them. Just like how one absent-minded click could lead you to something dangerous, Mega Man constantly risks being assaulted by a rogue band of Mettaurs with every step he takes.
Very few places in Battle Network’s internet are truly safe, least of all the Undernet. Similar dark corners of the internet exist in our world. The simple idea that there are places that you shouldn’t go, or that some corners of the internet remain purposefully obscured, adds a layer of adventure to the internet experience. Real criminals use the Undernet to hide secrets and commit real crimes. The underlying sense of danger tints our perception that the internet is an actual place with genuine consequences lurking underneath. Of course, since Battle Network raises the stakes further beyond our reality in every way, most games in the series bring in some kind of world-ending plot by the end for good measure.
At one point, Battle Network’s internet complemented our own pretty well. It took a lot of the general feelings you could get from browsing the internet and supercharged them. Things have changed. People often called the growing stages of the internet the “wild west” – I’d say the net has since been considerably domesticated.
Although the internet functions largely the same as it did twenty years ago, its general usage has changed dramatically. Most activity now centers around a few key websites like YouTube, Google, or your social media of choice (pick your poison!). Smaller websites still exist and you can go to them the same ways you always have, there’s just less and less reason to do so. Social media in particular consolidates much of what used to be spread across multiple places into one convenient location. What used to be a constant chain of discoveries now feels more like a series of slight diversions that always bring you back where you started.
Is this all for the better? It’s hard to argue otherwise in terms of convenience. In my old age though (I’m typing this from my deathbed – must have caught a virus when I clicked that link up there cough hack), I often wonder if inconvenience goes underappreciated. To be more precise, I wonder if inconvenience plays an important role in getting people to connect with both each other and the world around them.
We don’t need to ride metro lines to get to Twitter, but I think Battle Network’s dungeon-like vision of the internet highlights what is lost. In the world of Battle Network, something as simple as shopping or meeting up with your friends becomes a major event because you have put in the effort to make it happen. The UnderNet wouldn’t be nearly as compelling without the legwork to get there. From removing barriers to access new areas to fighting off bosses for powerful battle chips to talking with the random programs that you pass by – you have to put yourself into exploring the game. You appreciate what you find as a result. That makes Battle Network’s internet feel special and like a living place.
I don’t know if people really appreciate just how much our internet grants us access to. From information to people, we are connected to a historically staggering degree. Yet it doesn’t really feel like it. It doesn’t feel as real or that we are all as connected as technology allows for. We all dump our thoughts and ideas into giant conglomerates of information but you have to go out of your way to really interact or be noticed. When so much exists, you get more strict about what you spend your time on. I’m sure that on some level that consequence naturally follows from the internet becoming a mainstay of everyday life. People tend to appreciate technical marvels more than the mundane mainstays. I just don’t believe that to be the full story.
My working theory is that the gradual contraction of the internet groups everyone into smaller sandboxes while simultaneously pushing them away from each other. It’s very easy now for people to stick to the big websites they know and stay insulated in the communities they choose. On top of that, there are now myriad ways to filter both the content you see and the people you interact with. No overt danger exists so no one gets hurt. At the same time, people rarely get too close. Obviously, you can’t blame anyone for choosing to avoid things they don’t want to see – this change in technology just results in a subtly different internet. This internet isolates people more than it connects. The wide world of the web has become lost in a haze of convenience and solitude.
If there’s one thing Battle Network’s internet teaches well, it’s the value of the internet as a place, which has unfortunately been eroded in its current iteration. I don’t know if there’s a great solution for bringing that value back. The Metaverse likely doesn’t hold the answers. That’s right: it’s finally time to talk about the Metaverse.
I can’t be the only one who thought about Battle Network when I saw what was going on with this Metaverse stuff. After all, it adds the physical element of Battle Network to our own internet! Who hasn’t wanted to go into the internet itself to do stuff you can already easily do on the normal internet? Perfect, right!? Well, right now it looks completely awful in every way, so that’s one issue. More importantly, I doubt that the physical element matters that much in the grand scheme of things. What really matters is that sense of connection. You don’t need to physically be in the internet to accomplish that. You just need a step between convenience and effort that makes sense and accommodates connection.
Net navis may hold the key.
Most people are likely familiar with the idea of an “internet persona.” We commonly create a version of ourselves on the internet that doesn’t fully capture the entirety of who we are. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Even in reality, we are often different things to different people. Our reputation is shaped just as much by our own actions as how people perceive them. No one can ever truly be boiled down to just one persona. That makes us complex and that complexity makes us human.
No matter how we choose to twist things, however, on some level our online persona reflects who we actually are. Having to put yourself out there on the internet on any level comes with risk. I suspect that this risk led to many of the decisions that got the internet to where it is today, both in technology and in people’s attitudes. Risk creates gaps between people. Net navis can help bridge that gap.
Unlike an internet persona or some abstraction of ourselves, net navis are distinct beings. Each one reflects their operator’s personality in some ways while complementing them in others. In the Battle Network games, they act as both friend and partner. Mega Man lore scholars know that the connection between Lan and Mega Man goes even deeper than that, but I think the same general principle applies to all net navis.They guide and support their operators on a level beyond simply using the internet.
Who knows exactly how technology will develop and if AI on the level of a net navi could ever happen. If we were to get to a point where these digital creatures rise to prominence, they could form the missing link that connects people both to the internet and each other. Net navis are partners, so rather than just creating the risk that comes with engaging with the internet, they help shoulder it. These partnerships automatically build in at least one relationship that each person can trust. Navis may even be a basis for people to connect with each other – that’s a lot of the idea behind customizing your navi with different abilities and battle chips after all.
Personally, I find it hard to believe that any kind of commercially released AI program could choose to be your friend over the business interests of the corporation that made it. Imagine the scandals that will emerge when it turns out that our net navis are sending their operator’s personal information to their manufacturers! Maybe if there were to be a truly open-source and fully customizable partner that you could develop on your own and trust, that would change things. That would be hard to balance with the DRM-encoded battle chips required to fight viruses, though.
There are definitely some kinks to work out with this concept. Still, I don’t think this is my craziest idea. I’m sure someone could figure all of this out.
While it’s easy to say that the future that Battle Network represents is some forever lost direction that technology could have taken, I want to take the more optimistic route. I say that the world of Battle Network may be yet to come. On some level that depends on how technology progresses, on another the responsibility at least partially falls on us to be open to such a change. Between net navis and our genetically engineered Charmanders, the future looks bright.