Friday 11 July 2014

Snes Review : Mega Man Soccer (Game 050)

It's amazing how much you forgive when you love something. A cat digging holes in your garden is annoying until you realise it's your cat. That four year old on a train singing every song the from 'Frozen' suddenly becomes adorable when you realise it's your own daughter.  The game 'Heavy Rain' explores this concept, asking how far would a man go to save the child he loves? In this game Ethan Mars literally crawls across broken glass and chops off a finger with a rusty saw to save his son. He is driven to do unthinkable things purely by an over powering sense of love.

Anyone who has read previous posts should be in no doubt that I am not a football fan. Recently, the only way I have found I've enjoyed a soccer game was by pretending it wasn't a soccer game at all. Yet despite my dislike of "the beautiful game" I have actively sought out one specific soccer game for many months. It's been on my wish list even though IGN called it "one of the worst soccer games you’ll ever play".  So why would I be so keen to play bad game based on a sport I dislike? The reason is simple, on the box is a bomber wearing blue armour. If my previous posts make it clear that I don't like football games, equally apparent should be how much I enjoy 'Mega Man' games. I like them so much that even a picture of the series protagonist on a box makes me keen to play a football game; it's surprising the things you'll do for love.

When it comes to ‘Mega Man’ games, be it the X series or classic games there is an established formula. Although there may be unique gimmicks to each game, at their center is always is a little guy in blue running from right to left shooting in two directions and stealing abilities from the corpses of the fallen. It was a style that remained constant up until the game skewed off in an RPG direction with the ‘Legends’ and ‘Battle Network’ games. These though were obviously not the first ‘Mega Man’ spin off. Indeed, so obscure and surprising was a game that centred on Mega Man’s penchant for Soccer, that many, even now, hardly know of its existence.

In general ‘Mega Man’ games, while not known for their involving stories are at heart narrative driven adventures. The reasons for having to fight eight robot masters is at times hilariously tenuous, the writing may often be melodramatic but still there is a clear story in each game. Things are no different when Mega Man plays Soccer, although close scrutiny of this tale really does it no favours. It’s a story delivered through a cut scene at the beginning of championship mode, a story of good versus evil and man against machine. Picture the scene. Just seconds before kick off an explosion rocks a football stadium. Dr. Wily's for some reason seems to think that a soccer stadium has some sort of underestimated strategic worth in his on going battle with mankind.
Unfortunately for him, his master plan is somewhat thwart by the fact that this game is being watched on TV by long term science rival Dr. Light. Knowing that only Mega Man can stop any Wily menace (he has after all done it four times previously at this point in the series’ timeline), Light activates the presumably dormant ‘soccer’ chip in Mega Man. He sends him off to do battle on the pitch shouting “Go Mega Man! You must save soccer and the dreams of those who love the sport” if the official art book is to be believed. Upon his arrival at a besieged stadium you would think that with an arm that’s essentially a laser blaster, the best idea would for Mega Man to simply shoot the villains. Despite being all he has done in every other game though, this idea is never entertained. Instead Mega Man goes for the far more sporting option of deciding supremacy playing 90 minutes of football. With so much at stake, and considering he is not known for his sporting prowess it’s not the most logical of decisions for a hero to make. Equally curious is how Mega Man has become a whole team rather than an individual. Anyone with a passing interest in the series has to ask themselves where all these other Mega Men have been every other time that Wily has attempted global domination?

While the story may not make an ounce of sense when compared to the logic of the rest of the series, what is impressive is the way in which the series staples have been translated to a very different genre.  In story mode (known as The Capcom Championship), while you may start off with a team of all Mega Men things quickly change.  As is series tradition, the first thing a player must do is decide which Robot to challenge from the familiar ‘Master Grid’. As you defeat teams made up of re-animated bosses from previous Mega Man games the player gets to keep one character from their team.  With each addition the combined abilities of your team increases, echoing the ‘Mega Man’ trait of a hero gaining a fallen villain’s skill. Each acquired character too also has different stats, which make the various players feel different.
While Mega and Skull Man are good all-around characters that perform well in any position, Ice or Gemini Men are perfect strikers thanks to their great speed. But the characteristics of classic Robot Masters extend beyond the characters themselves. Stadiums too are tied to their unique quirks; evidently Pharaoh Man loves to play football in the middle of the desert and Fire Man doesn’t even let an erupting volcano prevent him from  a kick about.

But despite the variety of possible player and pitch combinations the nuts and bolts of ‘Mega Man Soccer’ are rather limited. Even after one game, it soon becomes apparent just how basic a game it is. Play is limited to passing, shooting and clearing the ball, with the last two almost indistinguishable. Only a small area of the truncated pitch is visible at a time, so passing often requires more luck than skill and the radar displayed at the top of the screen proves very little help. When not in possession of the ball, the robot players are equally restricted. You are given a choice between a slide tackle or a ball stealing manoeuvre, with the less aggressive approach being so hard to pull off effectively a player will never use it. Consequently, you’ll end up spending the majority of the time slide tackling anyone that has the ball since there really is no penalty for doing so. When compare to the much greater offensive and defensive options seen in ‘Sensible Soccer’ or even ‘Fifa’, ‘Mega Man Soccer’ seems outdated.

It’s a fast paced game of football with very little call for tactics beyond placing each character in the best position to maximise their strengths. Indeed, with walls around the pitch ‘Mega Man Soccer’ is actually closer to five-a-side match, albeit with 8 players on each team.  It has an arcadey feeling that’s magnified further by the robot players’ other ability; the devastating special shot. Available to be used only twice per game this is an intensely powerful kick that in true series tradition is a different for each robot master. Mega Man shoots the ball from his Mega Buster for example, while a bunch of skulls rotate around the ball as it shoots toward the goalie when Skull Man does it. Of course since the opposition also has two of their own almost unblockable special kicks, the benefit to each team cancels each other out. The show stopping special attacks may look pretty but in the end they are nothing more than an initially dazzling distraction. From the outset you know that both teams will have at least 2 goals by the final whistle and I found I tended to routinely use both special shots as soon as a match started.

A competitive sport is only as good as the opposition you face. In many ways the amount you can enjoy a sports title depends on the difficulty curve; too easy and you get bored too hard and the game becomes impenetrable. Based on this ‘Mega Man Soccer’ initially seems quite balanced. In early games, the computer puts up  robust opposition; reflected by the low final scores. After several games though cracks in the AI begin to show with alarming regularity. Own goals become almost certain, and the computer’s other favoured mode of attack is to take ridiculous shots that would never stand a chance at going in the goal. All players on the pitch behave independently of one and other, moving at random even when with the ball. For a computer controlled robot, kicking the ball is something you must do within a specific time frame even if there is no one around to challenge possession. All non human controlled players are at best erratic and at worse outright idiotic. That is with the exception of the goal keepers, who seem to have speed and foresight greater than the rest of the team pout together. It is nearly impossible to score in your opponent’s goal, unless you are on top of it. That is of course without resorting to cheap cheats. It quickly becomes obviously that the easiest way to score is simply to shoot at the goal from an angle. From straight on the goal keeper always blocks a shot, but from 45 degrees it seems they simply can’t get to the ball. Within half a dozen games, these faults are second nature. The outcome of any game is then determined by how often you can get to the sweet spot to play the ball at the angle the goal keeper can’t get to. This guaranteed win initial feels exciting, but the problem is once you have learnt  all of the AI’s tactics  you can easily score a dozen goals in a game and at the point ‘Mega Man Soccer’ ends up being too simple and quite frankly boring.

Of course it wouldn’t be a ‘Mega Man’ game without a brutally hard final boss. In ‘Soccer’ once Mega Man has defeating all the Robot Masters and gained all of their abilities he is thrust into a confrontation with not just one Dr Wily, but a whole team of him. As seems to be a rule too in a ‘Mega Man’ game, this final level is brutally difficult even when exploiting all the game’s glitches. For a aging Doctor, Wily is impressively fast with a football and impossibly accurate when it comes to shooting at an off screen goal. Unlike the Robots you have played against before him, he somehow can also stop your power shots, meaning the guarantee of at least two goals is gone. Defeating him was more a case of luck rather than skill, only possible because the ball got some how stuck between two of my players at a point in a game when I had a goal advantage. All the frustration and effort of finally defeating Dr Wily though leads to nothing. Despite the flimsy narrative being introduced in the opening cut scene it is never resolved.  There is no animated conclusion, no on screen text telling you if harmony has been returned to the world of soccer. There’s not even a credits roll, displaying a list of every individual who contributed to the development. Instead, successfully beating the story mode in its entirety flings the player back to the title screen. The identity of the game’s developers remains shrouded in mystery, as is the fate of mankind.

There are three other gameplay modes, but none of them are significantly different to the main game, and each mode also share the story modes flaws and exploits. Exhibition mode may allow you to customize your own team and choose a field to play on. However, when you are only allowed to play against a team of underpowered Mega Men there’s little challenge. Tournament mode allows you to pick a pre-made team and compete against others in a bracket-style competition. Ultimately though this isn’t very satisfying, since the only reward you get is the word “Congardulations” to appear at the top of the screen after every victory. League is a similar mode, except now you compete in a league to try to be the best team. Once again there are no rewards for all of your hard work.

It all sounds like an odd, third party cash-in but it wasn’t, it was both published and developed by Capcom, technically making this an "official" Mega Man game. As such, what’s interesting most about ‘Mega Man Soccer’ is that it actually does a number of series firsts. It’s the first ever ‘Mega Man’ game that not only lets you play as a Robot Master, but gives you twenty different ones to choose from – twelve more bosses than most other ‘Mega Man’ games. Being an official Mega Man game, brings with it expectations particularly considering the series’ reputations for fantastic music and beautiful graphics. In this area at least ‘Mega Man Soccer’ doesn’t disappoint. As this game fits in the ‘Original Series‘ rather than the ‘X Series’ it seems fitting that the sprites are closest in look to those seen in ‘Mega Man 7’. Bulkier and larger sprites crowd around the football pitch, well animated and full of charm. As all the opponents that Mega Man faces come from NES or Game Boy games, this too is the first time they have been given a 16bit lick of paint. For long term fans it’s great to see old favourites in greater detail and handled with such care.

Much like the attractive look, the music too is both in keeping with the established series style and suitable for the new genre. Though it would have been nice to have remixed versions of original themes for each Robot Master’s stage, the new tunes are distinctive without being distracting and very much ‘Mega Man’ melodies. With matches that last at least ten minutes, the music never feels repetitive or iterating. Many stage themes are in fact more memorable than the majority of music within ‘Mega Man 7’, even if they fail to measure up the majesty of the ‘Mega Man X’ Soundtrack.

While aesthetically and audibly the game may compare to the other ‘Mega Man’ games, in perhaps the most critical areas it falls short. Controls feel unresponsive and at times hard work, so much so that at the end of the match your fingers actually hurt from continually pushing in one direction. More critical to the game as a whole though is the fact it simply isn’t finished. Digging around in the ROM for the game actually reveals that the aforementioned missing story conclusion  is actually in the game, as are the end of game credits. What’s missing though is a line of code that triggers them, a careless oversight that is startling from a game published by Capcom; a company known for its attention to detail.  These are not the only things that are on the cartridge but not accessible form the game. Tinkering within the innards of the game reveals that ‘Mega Man Soccer’ was originally intended to support the Super Nintendo Multi-tap accessory, allowing for four players to play the game simultaneously. Buried within the ROM is the unused text "WARNING!  ADJUST MULTI TAP” and unused 3 player and 4 player icon graphics can be discover as well. Most excitingly for fans of ‘Mega Man’ is the revelation that the series antagonist Dr Wily was intended to be a playable character – another first for the series. However, no matter what you do, in the final game build you cannot get the cursor to highlight him. This renders the ability to play as him impossible without a cheat cartridge. It supports the general consensus that ‘Mega Man Soccer’ was rushed to market.

You have to wonder what motivated Capcom to sell what is essentially an incomplete game, were they pushed to meet an unreachable delivery deadline or did they simply loose faith in the whole game? Initially, everyone had such high hopes for the game perhaps seeing a lucrative franchise expansion opportunity. Series artists Ryuji Higurashi even has gone on record to say that the most recognisable Robot Master from the series including Guts Man and Heat Man were originally kept back for as possible sequel. It was a follow up that was never going to be, as this game was critically panned and overlooked in shops. ‘Mega Man Soccer’ remains the worst reviewed of all the 16 and 8 bit ‘Mega Man’ games. It’s the only Snes game from the series to see a release in America but not Europe, even though Soccer as a sport is much more popular internationally than it is in the states.

I knew as I flicked the power button for the first time that enjoying this game would be an uphill struggle, driven by a love of a central character but made all the harder due to the fact I disliked the sport on which the game is based.  ‘Mega Man Soccer’ is certainly the worst game to carry the name of the blue bomber and is also a pretty poor representation of football. It may look and sound great, but for even the most enthusiastic of fan, the branding isn’t enough to make you want to play for long. With a friend, the game may be enjoyable but on your own ‘Mega Man Soccer’ is flawed, monotonous and unfinished. Even with my adulation for the other games in the series, it’s difficult to be too excited about a game where even the creators and publishers seemingly lost enthusiasm at some point during development.

Ultimately Mega Man should really stick to what he knows best and I for one am mightily relieved he has hung his soccer boots up for good.

Where did I get this game?
I have in the past quite guiltily spent a small fortune on‘Mega Man X1 -3’ something I was not willing to do for this game considering its poor reviews. Fortunately, I can play Japanese games and the Asian version of this game entitled ‘Rock Man Soccer’ is identical except for the opening cut scene .  If you really want to play this game I would certainly suggest playing at least a Rom of the game prior to spending a three figure sum on it. Yes its a strange oddity, but there is no way i can imagine anyone getting enough play out of this game to justify that price.

You may not have noticed but every 10th game on this blog has been a ‘Mega Man’ game. I had intended to end this tradition for this 50th post, but with only two Snes ‘Mega Man’ games left to write about it seemed to be a little impulsive to do so. A bi-centennial post probably should have been for a better  game, but considering enthusiasm for the world cup still bubbles away (despite England managing to not win a single game) sticking with the football theme too seemed appropriate. Needless to say (and to perhaps compensate for this awful game) next week’s post will be suitably epic – a game that would perhaps have been more fitting for the allusive 50th post status.  

1 comment:

  1. Julian, Thegebs24 here (JuicyGameReviews). Well done on your achievements with this blog site. Looking forward to meeting you at Eurogamer 2014 :)


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