REVIEW: Mega Man Battle & Fighters Retrofits Legacy
I can't stop writing this game's title as "Power & Fighters"
Ports are adaptations, an approximation of another game recreated on different hardware. Porting a game from one hardware to another requires technical solutions as well as artistic ones. Ideally the ported game closely reflects the original experience, but other times significant changes must be made, sometimes to the point that it results in a completely different game altogether.
Exploring the nature of ports now seems particularly appropriate due to the recent Nintendo Switch release of Mega Man Battle & Fighters, which is essentially a faithful port of a port. Battle & Fighters itself blurs the scenarios outlined above together, resulting in something in between faithful and different. It is a testament to the creative deviations made in the porting process and what they can result in. Battle & Fighters adapts games that take advantage of the legacy of Mega Man and retrofits them into something that presents that legacy in a distinct way.
As a port, Battle & Fighters aims to bring the arcade experiences of both Mega Man: The Power Battle and Mega Man 2: The Power Fighters to the much smaller screen of the Neo Geo Pocket Color. (As a note, those games were also recently re-released as part of Capcom’s Arcade 2nd Stadium and I talked about them more in-depth in my review. Check it out! Or don’t! I’m not your boss and won’t give you a weapon if you defeat me). You could view Battle & Fighters as a fairly faithful port. It offers all of the content of those two games, down to the bosses and mechanical differences between the entries. Some compromises have been made in the transition to a handheld gaming device from the 90s, but this is ultimately still a game where you’re mowing down a bunch of Mega Man bosses in a row and you’re losing little of the arcade experience in the transition.
It would be simple enough to leave things there, but I’m far too pedantic to let you off the hook that easily. Compromises distinguish Battle & Fighters from its source material in ways that I find more notable than how faithful it is as a port. Not in a bad way though, at least for the most part; those compromises are what makes the game interesting. They mold Battle & Fighters into its own beast.
The arcade games resembled the then-latest mainline entry in the series, Mega Man 7, which was neat because that meant they could present the 8-bit bosses from the previous six games in a brand new style. That was really their main draw – the arcade games fleshed out the bosses with detailed visuals and new attacks that the original NES Mega Mans could not. Power Battle and Power Fighters aren’t just games about fighting off an onslaught of old Mega Man bosses; these are games that celebrate Mega Man’s legacy of bosses as a whole by advancing them with new technology.
Unfortunately, the Neo Geo Pocket Color can’t do all that; it doesn’t pack as much of a technological punch as full-on arcade hardware and cannot deliver on the various details and colors necessary to capture the same effect. What it can do, however, is accomplish something similar from an opposite approach.
In Battle & Fighters, the visuals travel back in time: less colors, less detail. The graphics don’t exactly resemble the style of the original NES Mega Man games, yet they still evoke their spirit. The game feels like a throwback to the original games, even if that has more to do with design limitations of the hardware than anything else. Call it a happy coincidence, because it allows you to glimpse a different angle on the celebration of Mega Man’s boss legacy.
Despite the retro makeover, Battle & Fighters doesn’t give up on advancements the arcade games made to the characters and bosses. The game instead brings those advancements to life in its more retro aesthetic. The bosses retain some of their more detailed design elements as well as their more complicated attacks and animations. Battle & Fighters even accomplishes the exact opposite effect of the arcade games by converting the Mega Man 7 bosses from their more advanced graphics into a less detailed NES-like style. Battle & Fighters pushes the presentation forward enough to be an interesting half-step that any hardcore Mega Man fan (translator’s note: deranged person like me) can appreciate.
The hardcore Mega Man fan may also appreciate the higher difficulty of Battle & Fighters compared to the arcade games. It’s not egregiously more difficult, to be clear. There are just some subtle changes to how the game was designed that up the difficulty. Your screen real estate has been partially foreclosed by the Neo Geo Pocket government, which leaves you with less space to move and dodge. Combined with the seemingly more aggressive behavior of the bosses, making it through (power) battles unscathed becomes much more difficult. I don’t mind the slightly higher difficulty – if I had the option to make the arcade games even harder than I can now, I would. Whether or not you would want that varies based on your level of Mega Man derangement.
Other changes are more questionable. As per Mega Man tradition, defeating a boss gives you their weapon. In the old NES games, you could only change weapons through pausing the game and selecting them through a menu. In Mega Man 7 and the arcade games, you could swap through weapons in-game at the press of a button. The Neo Geo Pocket Color only has two real buttons, so Battle & Fighters limits you to the former approach. This alters the game slightly, because you also have to be sitting completely still for the game to allow you to change weapons. This forces you to commit much more strongly to the weapon you’re using. I’m not totally sold on this being a bad thing, it gives the game a different strategic twist from the arcade games and harkens back to the NES games even further, but I understand if most people wouldn’t be as amused by this as I am.
I’d say the most noticeable problem with Battle & Fighters manifests in the screen scrolling. To put the problem in technical terms: it’s weird. The screen only scrolls when you’re very close to the edge; too close for comfort. You’ll often end up running face-first into the boss or their attack without knowing it. The scrolling works similarly in the arcade counterparts too, the difference lies in the screen real estate. Since the game scrunches your view of the screen already, you’re far more likely to end up in scenarios where the boss just hangs out off-screen a lot of the time. This quirk results in odd scenarios where you occasionally end up blasting a boss just out of sight for the entire duration of the fight, because that’s far safer than trying to chase them down. It’s not necessarily a game-ruining flaw, but it’s also not ideal and makes the game more difficult to survive. In most cases, anyway.
You want to survive because defeating a boss without dying grants you a shot at unlocking its respective database entry. These unlocks are based on random chance, but it’s exceedingly likely you’ll unlock at least one a playthrough. I like this system for a few reasons. First, it gives you an incentive to replay the games along all their different routes multiple times. Second, it reminds me of trading cards; in the original version of this game you could even link up with another player’s game and transfer your database entries to fill in each other’s collection. Third, who can resist the opportunity for cool yet worthless Mega Man trivia?
Well, theoretically the trivia is cool. If you can read Japanese, I bet it’s at least mildly satisfactory. The Nintendo Switch release of Battle & Fighters marks the first time this game has ever officially left Japan, which means that the game never received an English translation back in the day. Unfortunately, that hasn’t changed. All of the in-game text remains in Japanese and all of the Mega Mans remain as Rockmans. The only aspect of this release that was translated appears to be the game’s instruction manual. That’s fun to see, but it does not remedy the fact that the most notable unlockable of the game is essentially impossible to enjoy for a large portion of the western audience. I suppose the only Mega Man lore I really need to know is what Dr. Wily’s middle initial stands for, and I doubt any of these database entries contain the answer to that.
Battle & Fighters is a port for the curious: the kind of person who, like me, would want to know about Dr. Wily’s middle name, or what kind of attacks Guts Man is capable of when he really lets loose, or even just what Shade Man would look like in a style that more closely resembles the NES games. Ports are adaptations, and some rough edges aside, Battle & Fighters arguably offers the best of both worlds when it comes to a port: it faithfully adapts the appeal of the arcade games while being different enough to justify its existence. It retrofits Mega Man’s legacy in a way that could only have resulted from the porting process.