It's somewhat strange that I never got into the Battle Network series. On the surface it ticks off a lot of the boxes I like: strategic action-RPG gameplay, fierce boss battles, and a Mega Man coat of paint—what's not to love?
Well, a dirty secret of mine is that I've always struggled to get into CCGs (collectible card games). There's nothing I hate about them per se, but deck balancing has always felt tedious to keep up with, especially considering that your opening hand is usually random (plus I've always shied away from PvP-centered games). I understand that a lot of enjoyment can be found in carefully hand-crafting your deck so that you get a lot of synergistic combos, but I find myself focusing more on the unpredictable variables; I bemoan not knowing my opponent's hand and detest waiting helplessly for specific cards to show up. But in a lot of ways, Mega Man Battle Network is a really friendly gateway into the CCG domain, especially since its 3x3 movement grid allows the player a lot of freedom from the restraints of the "battle chip" system. The game is still obnoxious in plenty of ways, but it's an admirable first attempt into a fairly untested domain.
There's not much I can complement about the level design either, sadly. I appreciate Battle Network's rigid isometric viewpoint because it often makes the scenery feel more dynamic and lively, but the dungeons are very oldschool in that they're as bland and monotonous as can be. One floor doesn't differentiate itself from the next, and while each dungeon's "gimmick" adds some much-needed variation, trail & error is an inextricable part of most of these gimmicks. The net in particular is a tangled mess of pathways and dead ends, which really begin to grate on you when you're constantly running into low-level foes. You do acquire pass codes that let you skip ahead to areas deeper in the net, but you're still required to traverse a "floor" to access the shortcut, so there's not much time saved there.
I'm hesitant to claim that "a lot of the Battle Network feels designed to waste your time", because I recognize the repetitive and labyrinthine structure of the game is meant to provide the player with plenty of combat experience & loot (as well as make the game harder to beat on a single rent). And for what it's worth, combat is designed to be so fast-paced that it's not that much of a chore to slog through the game's high encounter rate. There's a surprising amount of enemy attacks you'll encounter, and some of the enemy combinations can be downright dastardly, which makes balancing your chip deck an important, necessary, and fascinating part of the game. While at first it feels like not much can be done with a 3x3 player space, Battle Network frequently whips out surprises against the player. The biggest takeaway from my experience is that this system shows a ton of nuance and longevity, which makes me glad that it wasn't merely a one-off.
Because—let's be honest—there's a lot of improvements that Battle Network could make.
Now, not only is it important to keep in mind that I have not played any of the future installments, but that I am also by no means adept at Battle Network's battle system. In fact I kinda stink at it, which is why these issues stuck out to me:
1) The "Add" button is a waste of time. I really like the idea of essentially going into battle defenseless in order to acquire a larger chip hand later, but the bonus chips disappear in one turn! One! I suspect that this is to done to make setting up super powerful combos trickier, but the custom meter builds up so quickly and enemies are so weak that it's frankly better to use the chips you're given rather than wait for better ones. Speaking of...
2) There's way too many chip letters. As far as I can tell there's over a dozen or so, which makes balancing your folder for synergies meaningless unless you grind for specific letters. And the game doesn't even let you see what letters a chip is capable of holding! This led to me just shoving a bunch of the same chip into my folder (since you can bring multiple same-type chips into battle), especially since...
3) Almost nothing is better than sheer offense, and because of this, some chips are going to be tremendously more valuable than others. Case in point: Quake chips and DynaWave! Why ever go for anything else? Either the range is short, the damage is poor, or it's too situational/fiddly to use (Ringzap, Dynamyt, TimeBom, Dash) that you're better off sticking with something simple, direct, and powerful. Don't even get me started on the awful guard and X-Panel abilities; had I encountered more durable foes I would've found the defensive abilities more valuable, but why waste time slotting a RemoBit when I can just flatten fools with 5-panel crushing Quake? And lastly...
4) Let me make multiple chip decks! Seriously!
I have some other niggling complaints, but I've spent so much of this entry ragging on poor Battle Network that I need to take some time to reiterate that I enjoyed and appreciated what the game brought to the table. It was a bold, new, dangerous direction to take Mega Man, and thankfully it works. Due to the length of the dungeons, Battle Network feels like a complete experience, and the experience is at its best when you're squaring off against its numerous challenging bosses. Suffering a defeat and being forced to sift through your chip folder for a good balance of recovery, utility, and damage chips (ie Quake chips) is a lot of fun. And testing out new chips and contemplating their utility helps to motivate you whenever the story fails to do so.
I feel as though I've been overly critical of Mega Man Battle Network, but I think that's in large part due to my own personal struggle with CCGs. The game didn't really change my thoughts much: I still dislike the RNG of your initial hand, feel that a lot of the chips are either useless or fiddly, and have yet to find a strategy more optimal than prioritizing brute strength. But the groundwork laid here is solid, and I'm definitely intrigued to keep trucking along, wondering if the series will ever fix the "Add" system or condense its plethora of letters. Mega Man Battle Network is an admirable game, and had I played it in my childhood rather than my post-adolescence, perhaps I would be singing a very different tune.