GameSpite Quarterly 8 | Halcyon Days: Mega Man Legends and the Lost Art of Sincerity

The problem with most video games these days is that they just lack heart.

And don’t bother complaining about how nebulous a term “heart” is. Even the lousiest video game is a creative work, an artistic endeavor by people who aspire to express themselves, and such things can’t entirely be dissected into quantitative elements. You can break a game down into its components -- its graphics, its sound, its mechanics, its story -- but in the end, you still have to go with your gut. That’s what heart is. It’s when a game grabs you by the innards, inspires you, and leaves you thinking to yourself, “These guys, they get it.”

Heart can go a long way toward smoothing over a game’s imperfections. Don’t get me wrong, though; heartless games can still be great -- usually the less heart a game has, the bigger its budget was, and a huge budget can buy a hell of a lot of pizazz and polish. Those, too, go a long way toward glossing over imperfections. But eventually, the impact of cutting-edge visuals and clever gameplay gimmicks fade as others crib those tricks and surpass them. But heart? Heart is always inspiring, regardless of how dated a game’s graphics or how rote its mechanics have grown over time.

Take Mega Man Legends, for example. Now there’s a game with heart.

Legends was actually fairly cutting-edge in its day, too: Though developed before Metal Gear Solid, it nevertheless employed in-engine cutscenes to advance its plot (and it featured lip-synched facial animation for its characters to boot, unlike Metal Gear’s shadowy blobs of abstract nothingness). And though it was produced and published before The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, it actually featured lock-on targeting. Yet Metal Gear is widely hailed as the medium’s most important innovator of seamless in-game cutscenes, and Zelda is remembered for revolutionizing 3D combat with the Z-lock. Rightly so, too. Metal Gear and Ocarina nailed those respective features, whereas Legends merely got them kind of right.

But there’s more to a game than raw innovation, and what Legends lacked in polish -- and here its creators clearly lacked the resources and talent of the nascent Kojima Productions and Nintendo EAD -- it more than made up for with its boundless spirit of adventure. More so than any other game before it, and frankly more than just about any game since, Legends was an interactive 3D rendition of the kind of light-hearted action anime that Japan just doesn’t produce anymore. We’re not talking high art, here. More like classic Slayers, or even mediocre fare like Final Fantasy: Legend of the Crystals. The sort of optimistic, carefree sense of wonder that even Hayao Miyazaki doesn’t really do anymore.

Legends blatantly swipes inspiration from the most popular anime of the pre-Evangelion days; it’s set in a flooded world reminiscent of Nadia of the Blue Water, dotted with islands and ruins calling back to Laputa: Castle in the Sky. Its ancient dungeons left by a forgotten civilization -- shades of Nausicäa, here -- even pay homage to Miyazaki with their Reaverbots patrols, many of which look remarkably similar to the decrepit robot guardians that protect Laputa. And in the end, the young hero’s pet monkey reveals that the amnesiac Mega Man was originally part of a larger system with nefarious motives and world-ending powers: An unabashed nod to Dragon Ball if ever there was one.

These familiar elements don’t feel cynical or calculated enough to come off as theft, though. Keiji Inafune and his team recombined them into an entirely new (if not quite original) world, one bursting with detail and personality. What could have been a mere act of bland mimicry instead comes into its own as a fully realized universe. Mega Man Legends succeeds thanks to its setting and the characters that inhabit it.

Smartly, Capcom chose to minimize the focus of Legends’ story. While it’s clearly framed within the context of a larger world, all but a few minutes of the game are set on a single small island. Mega Man and his family -- his adoptive grandfather Barrel and his technically-not-related-sister-slash-love-interest Roll -- crash land on Kattelox Island at the end of Legends’ prologue and spend the entire game trying simply to repair their airship and leave. In the process, however, they become ensnared in a tangled web of simultaneous events that all build to a climactic showdown and bring Kattelox to the precipice of genocide.

Yet while the gravity of the game’s final moments feels like a perfectly natural result of the story’s disparate plot threads (and abundant foreshadowing) coming together, the tone of the finale is quite unlike that of the rest of the game. On the contrary, Legends largely feels charmingly mundane. Mega Man is commissioned to explore the island’s subterranean ruins by the mayor, who’s curious to know more about the strange rumors and lore that surrounds her city. He deals with bureaucracy, listens to the concerns of normal citizens, coordinates his actions with the police, and steadily makes his way deeper and deeper into the underground as he uncovers new facts and passages.

Kattelox Island feels like more of a living city than the setting of any Grand Theft Auto game. It’s not as big, nor as structured, nor as detailed, nor as open as Liberty City or San Andreas. But it’s populated by citizens who react and respond to the growing tension of the island’s atmosphere. They actually notice what’s going on around them, and many of them interact directly with Mega Man in pleasantly trivial ways. It’s not exactly Shakespeare, but when the citizens of Kattelox come to the sea cliffs to wave the heroes farewell upon their departure, you recognize most of them and remember their silly little stories. That is the definition of heart.

Equally important to the game, however, are the villains. The Bonne family of marauding air pirates aren’t the true force behind the game’s events -- in fact, they ultimately pitch in to save Mega Man at the last possible moment -- but they’re the catalyst for much of the story. Their attempts to avenge themselves on Mega Man for thwarting their initial attempt to besiege the island provide Legends’ most memorable battles by far, and their actions are integral to the plot. Early on, for example, Mega Man’s attempts to enter one of the island’s ruins are undermined, quite literally, by the Bonnes’ plan to dig their way into the underground. In the end, the Bonnes fail to unearth the ruins, but their excavation makes it impossible for Mega Man to reach the now-aerial entrance until his own airship is flight-worthy again.

The Bonnes aren’t even particularly despicable. On the contrary, they’re a family unit -- shades again of Laputa’s Doga -- closely knit by blood and the genuine affection shared by the three Bonne siblings and their 40 robot minions. When first we meet Bonne mastermind Teasel, he’s fretting in his flagship about the well-being of his younger brother and sister. Granted, said brother and sister are currently demolishing Kattelox’s civic center area in an attempt to extort the island’s leaders for the right to plunder the valuable energy refractors hidden underground, but that touch of humanity makes the Bonnes unlike any other video game villains.

The Bonnes are flawed. They obsess over Mega Man, and they let their anger get the better of them. At the same time, we see them huddled in conference, consoling one another on a failed gambit, and regretfully accepting blame for the ultimate failure of their endeavors. No wonder that when Mega Man stumbles across them a few hours later, alive and well and scheming one final mad scheme, he’s overjoyed to see they lived through the destruction of their airship. They’re greedy and violent and pretty amoral to boot, but the Bonnes aren’t bad folk.

As Mega Man follows these two plots -- the mystery of Kattelox and the threat of the Bonne family -- to their respective conclusions, it becomes more and more obvious that Kattelox is a sinister threat lurking beneath a veneer of civility. The citizenry is completely innocuous: normal people living their lives. But the criss-crossing underground pathways of the island ruins eventually reveal themselves to be a single massive labyrinth spiraling outward from the mysterious Main Gate, which is locked by a set of keys stored in surreal underground chambers whose ceilings are dotted with twinkling starlight and populated by the game’s most ferocious Reaverbots. They hide, far below, the terrible secret that wipes Kattelox’s surface clean every few centuries.

And as the stakes below ground begin to grow, you begin to notice the peculiar shape of the island itself: A perfect circle broken by curiously circular lakes and bays. An artificial place pockmarked with impact craters, some relatively fresh, some worn smooth and overgrown by time. When the Eden system activates to initialize the island and wipe out its overpopulated citizenry, you want to protect Kattelox -- not just because you (as Mega Man) were the unwitting agent of Eden’s activation, but because you can’t help but like the people of Kattelox and want to keep them safe. (And their marauders, too.)

Now, it’s true that Legends isn’t perfect. The third-person shooting is clumsy; the game predates the Dual Shock controller, so Mega Man’s controls are limited. You can’t lock-on while moving, and you don’t have a right stick to adjust the camera. The graphics, while expressive and stylized, are boxy and feel a bit low-resolution. The voice acting, though quite good in parts, is sometimes head-slappingly childish. Most boss battles boil down to running in a circle while trying to keep a bead on your target.

These flaws don’t actually hurt the game too badly. Once you get past the first hour or so of Legends, the controls feel more natural and the voice acting becomes less grating. The world starts to fall into place, you begin to earn upgrades for Mega Man’s weapons, and the Bonnes appear to kick things into high gear. Legends proves to be a fairly brief game by contemporary standards -- the minimal story is easily finished in eight hours -- but it feels entirely complete.

There’s a ton of optional content to hunt down: side quests to complete, mini-games to master, out-of-the-way corridors to explore, and weapons to collect. By the time you reach the Main Gate, a thorough player will have uncovered the full extent of Kattelox’s vast, interconnected ruins, and solved most of the problems plaguing the citizens topside, too.

So no, Legends isn’t perfect; but it has heart. And that’s something that transcends both bullet points and the passage of time, making Legends a great game that just might be better now than it was in 1998. After all, it was easy to overlook this ambitious but rough creation back then in favor of its more polished competitors. These days, though, we can better appreciate just how rarely games as joyfully sincere as this come along.


By Jeremy Parish? | July 16, 2011 | Last: Tenchu: Stealth Assassins | Next: Parasite Eve?