Battle Network’s near perfect combat

Mega Man Battle Network is known for its unique battle system that hasn’t been replicated outside its sequel series, the Lego Ninjago: Spinjitzu Smash Flash games, with one of them outright ripping sprites for testing purposes, and to a lesser extent in One Step From Eden. All these mentioned titles don’t really replicate the polish Battle Network had, mostly because the team went through numerous iterations during the first game’s development and managed to polish it up in the second and third game. The three last games in the main series sadly don’t do justice to the combat system, and it’s all because Battle Network‘s combat system maintains a very delicate balance that’s very easy to break in terms how well it works. Think of the many versions of Tetris that change the shapes and number of tiles per shape, and you get the gist of it.

A standard field layout, with red being the player side and blue the enemy side

At the base of the Battle Network combat experience lays two elements; movement and resources. As every game’s battlefield is a grid of 3×6 panels, most often initially split as 3×3 for player and opponents, movement becomes impossibly crucial. The 3×3 area is a combination of multiple factors, one being that it is both claustrophobic and roomy enough to allow swift motion from one panel to another. Motion between panels is animated through a zip, where the characters sort of teleport between the panels. While you could have a character jumping or running, or just doing away with the animation, the zipping has a small frame of animation that deactivates and actives the hitboxes on each panel.

Timing becomes incredibly important, as in some games successfully avoiding enemy attacks might require high-level of movement management, though rarely frame accurate. Because of this the play often gets hectic as the player is required to navigate panels, or whole lines and rows of panels, to which opponents’ attacks land all the while trying to land your own hits. The 3×3 panel layout is perfect for this, as it keeps the area wide enough that going from one corner to another requires moving four panel’s distance, as there is no moving in angles. It allows wide enough variety in enemy attack patterns as well as options to escape to enforce quick movements without necessitating for the player to move too far. Perhaps it’d be better to showcase a video, and then go deeper why the system works the best in its most famous form.

A very simple, very easy battle, where the player still has to mind the Mettaur and Ghost’s movements. Instead of using Battle Chips, he chooses to delete the Mettaur by Buster. While doing this, he blocks the Ghost’s attack, in which it moves in front of the player and licks him, By positioning in front of the Mettaur, the Ghost has to retreat. Longplays are a nice way to grab a small segment and just embed from a certain timecode onwards.

4×4, the layout One Step From Eden uses is one panel line and row too big, as traversing the area becomes too large for fast-paced action. Even if movement speed was raised, it’d still be an extra panel to traverse Not only that but the balance breaks as there is no longer a central panel. All attack patterns can become far too widespread. 2×2 would be too small on the other hand and too limiting in every sense, which is the case with Mega Man Star Force, as it effectively butchered the play by limiting the player to one row of movement while enemies have 5×3 area to cover. Moving only left and right is not nearly as engaging as full-range of movement. One of the main issues that end up popping up also from a larger grid stems from the player’s need to scan a much wider area for enemy action. With 3×6 you have large enough space to keep an eye on everything that’s happening, yet with larger fields require splitting attention due to wider spread space, enemy patterns and landing attacks. The issue is inverse in smaller grids, where you end up having less space to keep an eye, which also has to simplify the patterns.

While One Step From Eden flows well, it’s hampered by its expanded field

The full range of movement there is with the caveat that the player can only move in X or Y axis in Battle Network. Allowing the player to move diagonally would break the balance, though in larger fields it might become a necessary addition. The 3×3 layout and up-down, left-right movement offers a balance between the player being able to effectively navigate all those safe zones while leaving the chances of player cornering himself by mistake or making bad judgement calls. 4×4 or larger does contain the same thing, but again that extra low and line build that safety margin too much, making balancing the attack patterns and movements that much more difficult.

The 3×3 panel is perfectly balanced to offer tile-based movement that isn’t too widespread or too tight. It’s an optimal solution.

All this of course can only be supported by the resources, which are aplenty. First is, of course, the selection of weaponry in form of Battle Chips, which go from single-row attacks to multi-panel X-shape shots. A standard Virus opponent often has only one form of attack and defence, though sometimes this defence is just moving. The Viruses are thus paired with other types that either compensate each other weaknesses or pose a challenge for the player in terms of panel navigation. Some Viruses have passive defences that must be circumvented in an indirect manner, some have none. For example, there is a Virus that has a shield in front of it that prevents direct damage from ahead and moves towards the player area. Once it reaches its area limit, it puts the shield on the player side and causes gradual damage via Poison. Early on the best method for the player to deal with this Virus is to use a Wide Sword, a close-range attack that does 1×3 area of damage in front of the player, the player being in the centre. Other times the player finds himself against a tree Virus that recovers HP faster than the player might be able to dish out due to the panels having a beneficial element. Thus, either cracking or literally burning the grass off from the panel the tree is standing of negates this effect.

Bosses often had extra shielding or similar gimmicks. Here, the player probably tries to limit the Boss’ movement through cracking the panels

Resources like these change how the player must meet the battles, at least until the player unlocks game-breaking combos and other fun post-game content. Combining action games’ fast movement, albeit in a more limited sense, to an RPG standard rock-paper-scissors Elemental system makes the resources an essential part of the play, and managing to design and develop these resources makes or breaks the whole system. Not only does the player have to have access to a wide variety of solutions to a single combat problem through the selection of Battle Chips, but also have them balanced so that these strategies must be changed from time to time.

The Battle Chips selection changes as the series grows, and many of the staples get dropped in favour of new Chips. This has caused numerous balance issues, as many high utility Chips are dropped in subsequent games and their replacements are not nearly as useful. While this forces the player to adopt new tactics for each game, the truth is that the selection of weaponry does determine how well the battles are fought, and how enjoyable the play ends up being. While there are a couple of hundred of listed Chips and their combined Program Advances, the majority of these Chips end up being copies of each other in different strength. This is of course to give the player chance to use the same family of Chips in stronger form as enemies become tougher and acquire more HP fat. This is another standard RPG mechanic though, much like how Final Fantasy has Fire, Fire 2 and Fire 3, so does Battle Network have Cannon, HiCannon and M(ega)Cannon.

The selection of these battle resources allows the players to express themselves and their favourite ways of battle. While others prefer the straightforward Cannons, others might aim for more damage with combinations of Chips. One method would be to use Area Steal, which takes one 1×3 area from the enemy side and turns it into area player can enter. This temporary steal deprives the opponent panels to move in and greatly expands the player’s movement options. This disrupts the opponent’s movement options while greatly increasing the player’s. Either side can, in effect, steal all of the opponent’s side bar the one they are standing on, causing what’s called an Area Lock. This is extremely useful in games where Battle Chips randomly hit enemy panels for damage multiple times. Area Locking an enemy to a single panel forces all the hits to concentrate on one panel, causing e.g. a hit worth of 80 repeating on one panel five times, causing total damage of 400. Add Chips that increase damage per hit, and the damage increases significantly.

Battle Network needs to limit access to these resources so that the player can’t have the perfect build all the time. This is realised first in making a Folder with a set limit of 30 Battle Chips. You can’t have less or more. By doing this, the player is forced to insert multiple different strategies into the Folder, often in a way where combinations of Chips can also work on their own, if necessary.

An example of similar Chips and Codes in a Folder

Secondly, all Chips have a letter code that limits what the player can choose in one go. Unless multiples of the same Chip is selected, no Code can be mixed and matched, outside the *-Code. For example, the player could have Cannon A and Cannon B or Cannon B and Bomb B, but not Cannon A and Bomb B. This locks the player from having all the strategies at his and at the same time but also introduces the chance of having only one Chip they could choose of they build their Folder without much thought. The amount of same Chips per Folder varies between games, with the first game allowing ten of the same, second game dropping this to four, third game rising it to five, and the sixth game introducing the idea of each Chip having a megabyte size, with larger Chips only be allowed a lower amount. Higher ranking Chips are more limited, with Giga Chips only allowed one entry per Folder.

Thirdly, the player can only access five Chips from his library via Custom screen at the start of a battle by the standard. The importance of having a Folder with large amounts of the same Chips, or same Code letter, becomes pressing depending on the player strategies. The player has to live with the selection the random number generator has given him until about ten seconds pass as dictated by Custom Gauge. At this point, the player can access the selection screen again, where he can choose another set of Chips, with the used one replaced with Chips from his Folder. The cycle between Custom screens is called a turn, though by standard a turn can last as long as the player wants. Under certain conditions, the Gauge can be fastened up or slowed down. In certain games, it becomes a puzzle element, where specific battles must be done under a turn limit and the Custom screen is opened automatically when the Gauge has filled up.

Custom Screen open at the beginning of a battle, with BN3’s Boss visible

The player can affect the number of Chips in their selection during the Custom screen by using the Add command rather than selecting any Chips. In the first game, it adds five more Chips to the Custom screen, with another use adding another five. This wasn’t the best system, as you’d lose all the additional Chips the turn you chose to use something. It wasn’t much fun. The second game introduced a change to the Add system, where the player had to sacrifice up to five Chips in the Custom screen to gain access to additional Chips. This Add system totalled to a maximum of ten, but the addition was permanent for the rest of the battle. This made the risk and reward already presented by the random choices as you might find it necessary to sacrifice stronger weaponry for a wider selection. It also expanded turn-by-turn options dramatically. The number of Chips available could be affected with outside effects, like Styles that changed the player’s element and weapons, but also via Customisation blocks that would become available in the third game. These ended up as the only options for the player to expand the selection, as the Add function was removed. However, this also removed the added risk and reward option, and further limited the maximum amount of chips from 10 to 8, drastically changing the nature and the balance of the battles themselves.

The balance in a combat system that heavily relies both on certain kind of spatial movement and a large variety of resources and conditions. The first game doesn’t exactly use the system the best, with everything being more or less unpolished. By the third game, the balance between damage output, method variety, hit patterns, additional conditions, panel elements and more extensive character customisation that affects all these directly made the balance stand on its tiptoes, but perhaps ultimately also showcased how well the developers understood it all.

The Navi Customizer from BN3 further expanded how the players could play and with what strategies

All these things have to tick in proper sync to work, something that the staff of the later games didn’t understand as well as the previous team. For example, removing the Add option might not seem an important decision, but it nevertheless favoured few types of approach more in character customisation and Folder building over others. Chip selection, or rather designing how the Chips would work is nothing short of do-or-die, and sadly from the fourth game onwards, the Battle Chips were never quite balanced, often teetering on practically useless to game-breaking on their own. Of course, the enemy selection had to be on par with this, which again became an object of inquiry as the games went on, with some enemy patterns being simply not fun. The system lends itself for challenge battles well enough, though it became questionable when Battle Network 5 introduced Liberation Mission, a combination of turn-based strategy with turn-limited battles. While others enjoyed the challenge they posed, its attempts to shake the combat experience by putting the player in the middle of the field, sandwiched by two enemy sides, didn’t work out all that well. These combat scenarios became janky and even more dependent on proper Chip selection that forced players to farm certain kinds of resources, putting far too high emphasize on the Chips themselves rather than having a combination of player’s action parts and collecting.

Some of the higher level player-VS-player battles showcase strategies that aren’t used all that much in single-player campaign, and they can end up being relatively boring to watch and slower-paced than in-game matches. Balancing the Chips selection between single and multiplayer play is rather hard, as some Chips ended up useful only in one area or the other

The system itself is nearly perfect. At its core, it’s something that only a video game can do, similar to Tetris. However, because it is reliant on how the resources are designed and managed, it is very easy to screw up. Despite the first and the last three games managing to screw up this balance nicely, the wide variety of Battle Chips and their combinations despite other system changes also means the players can and will find ways to cheese the system. As such, the best way to expand the system is not to change the absolute core of the system, that is the movement and the 3×6 grid, but to expand on resources and the ways all the combatants can make use of them.

This is probably one those things where Battle Network truly failed in its play. While most of the enemies were Viruses, majority of the standard Bosses didn’t utilise Battle Chips until later on. Instead, they all have their own gimmick and are designed around them. However, if the Bosses would’ve had similar access to at least a proper Folder of their own in addition to their specialised field, the games could’ve been a step more challenging as well as throwing a wrench to the player’s gears at times. This might’ve taken away from the uniqueness of each of the bosses, though evidently, developers agreed the Bosses should use Battle Chips at least to a limited amount.

Secondly is that most storyline End Bosses simply don’t conform to the established rules. They are largely inanimate and despite their hype, end up being lacklustre due them becoming an issue of hitting their weak point, which is often covered until certain phases. Incidentally, post-game Bosses end up being far more entertaining in their difficulty and methods, as they break the rules just enough to be unique all the while having all the same benefits most other characters, including the player’s, have on the field. Bass is probably the best example of this, as his level of strength is relative to the game he is in. Initially being covered by Dream Aura that requires 100HP worth of damage, Bass gains new patterns and strikes in each subsequent title relative to the overall balance and content of the game.

While BN3’s Bass BS isn’t the most difficult version of him, in many ways it is one of the more iconic ones. This Japanese voice-over here describes its attacks and a method to beat him. The battle here showcases some creative use of Battle Chips, as well as FolderBack, a Giga Chip that restores all used Battle Chips back to usable state. It happens to be the most broken Chip across the series

The system doesn’t lend itself to be modified and replicated in large fashion without a complete overhaul. Any change to the core requires a total change to effectively every part of the system to achieve a similar balance. This is one of the reasons why Battle Network didn’t spawn copycat series despite its popularity, as any game that might use a system derived from it would instantly be called out. Star Force tried to adapt some of the core mechanics, but it didn’t pan out all that well. Player movement is one of the most fun aspect of the system, and reducing it to one dimension made everything else having to compensate for this, which they can’t. The system was already robust in the first game, though unpolished. Be it by design or happy accident, this prevents similar iterations and alterations that something like Dragon Quest would lead to.

For better or worse, Mega Man Battle Network combat is still unique since nothing quite like it has turned up. Perhaps it’s better that way, as the system was already explored and almost broken under Capcom, and variations of it have not succeeded to the same level. This, combined with the whole thing not being to everyone’s taste, probably means we’ll never see it outside few oddities once in a decade until Capcom decides to re-release or remaster the Battle Network games. Here’s hoping for that Phantom of Network remake.

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