Friday 3 October 2014

Snes Review : Megaman and Bass (Game 060)

Knowing when to stop is of paramount importance when it comes to safe guarding a legacy. Outstay your welcome and you tarnish the reputation of previous games. It’s always best to leave an audience wanting more. Many game series have been accused of ‘jumping the shark’; milking the franchise just that bit too much by churning out too many sequels. ‘Mega Man and Bass’, while certainly not a half arsed quick cash in, is undoubtedly a sequel too far for the Blue Bomber. It is the sixth Snes game to carry the ‘Mega Man’ branding and were it not for a brief foray into the ‘Soccer’ genre’ ‘Mega Man and Bass’ is universally considered the worse ‘Mega Man’ game on the system. It’s a game that has been designed without enjoyment in mind, a deliberately obtuse and brutal game that unsurprisingly isn’t that much fun to play. Fortunately it’s a game that most haven’t seen, as it never saw a Super Nintendo release in the west and were it not for a Game Boy Advance port would probably have by now been forgotten.

You have to wonder if in 1998 even Japan wanted another ‘Mega Man’ game on the Super Famicom. Gamers had at that point been enjoying ‘Final Fantasy 7’ for a year. It’s almost two years after ‘Mario 64’ revolutionised gaming and eighteen months after the PlayStation’s ‘Mega Man 8 ‘. As series producer Keiji Inafune put it “bringing out a new title on the Snes was a little backwards at the time”. On the plus side as it was one of the last Capcom published games released on the Super Famicom it was made by experienced hands that could show off exactly what the console is capable of.

For me though, ‘Megaman and Bass’ isn’t as attractive as either the ‘X’ games or ‘Mega Man 7’. Without black outlines the characters look less precise and charming. An anime aesthetic appears to have been dialled back in favour of slightly more realistic proportions, which I believe is a misstep. The reason for this is probably because the vast majority of the art assets were taken from the Playstation game ‘Mega Man 8’. With the transition to 32 bit machines, perhaps Capcom wanted to show an audience that ‘Mega Man’ games were still relevant. Characters are larger than they have ever been, with more frames of animation and more colours to each sprite. Levels have scenery passing in front of the characters and animated backgrounds; all technically impressive but the slight problem is that these graphical ‘upgrades’ damage game play. Platformers require precision especially when you have to do timed jumps across vanishing platforms with little margin for error. When you press a button you need Mega Man to leap and then you need to know exactly where to position him on screen so he lands on a platform. The more complex a character avatar is the harder it is to read quickly and consequently the harder it is to successfully judge jumps. There's a reason the series returned to its 8bit roots when ‘Mega Man 9’ and ‘Mega Man 10’ were released on modern systems. It’s not down to purely nostalgia it’s also because pixel perfect precision works better with simpler character sprites.

Graphics should enhance an experience, not hinder a game’s functionality. Therefore while ‘Mega Man and Bass’ may look like an attractive 32 bit Play Station game on the Super Famicom, I really would prefer it to look like a beautiful 16 bit Super Famicom game.

The musical score for ‘Mega Man & Bass’ was less a collaborative effort and more a collection of songs from familiar 16 bit composers. Naoshi Mizuta  and Akari Kaida rather than create tracks together, composed their own songs individually. Despite Kaida later working on the soundtrack for ‘Mega Man 10’  the music in ‘Mega Man & Bass’ successfully captures the theme of each level, yet fails to be memorable. Nothing is offensive, but nothing particularly stands out, which for a ‘Mega Man’ game is somewhat of a let down.

While the ‘Mega Man’ games are usually applauded for their exceptional music and visuals, they are best known for their non linear structure and creative boss battles. Typically a player can choose any level to start from and at the end of each is an enemy robot master. Beating this boss gets you his weapon, which a different boss, on a different level is weak to. Much of the enjoyment therefore comes from trying to determine which boss is weakest to which other boss’s weapon. Its fun determining the best order to complete the levels in and obviously this starts with working out which boss is weakest to Mega Man’s default weapon. Deviation too far from this established game structure always leads to a poorer game and ‘Mega Man and Bass’ has changed things in two crucial ways. Firstly, you only have a choice of three stages to pick from at the start. Considering all eight need to be completed to finish the game, it really makes little sense to limit the player, even if the other five levels open pretty quickly. Limiting the initial line up limits the amount of exploration needed to find the best stage to approach with your starting abilities. Likewise, the thrill of finding a Robot Masters Achilles’ heel is diluted since the combination of weapons against foes is reduced.

Not that it matters much though, as it quickly becomes apparent that only Cold Man can be beaten with Mega Man’s simple Master Buster. Trying to face any other robot master using just the default weapon is pointless, they can’t be beaten. They all hit too hard, can’t be dodged and have such random movement patterns that it’s impossible to find an opportunity to attack. Playing as Bass only makes things worse.

As the title suggest players have a choice of character to play as and this is the first game in the ‘Mega Man' series that you can finish without having to ever play as the Blue Bomber. Each character has its own style of play. Mega Man is true to the original character design; he can run, jump and slide but, as is tradition, he can’t shoot in any direction other than sideways. Bass is a little more dynamic with the ability to rapid-fire in any direction and to perform double jumps. He echoes Mega Man in the ‘X Games’ and interestingly, many of the levels in the game seem to be primarily designed for Bass and his specific skills. However while you may progress through the stages easier as Bass, as soon as you reach a boss its clear how physically weak he is; only three shots from a robot master will kill him. His default weapon is less powerful too. One minute of constant bombardment is required for Bass to beat a boss. Mega Man struggles less, but both characters will only win if you use the weapon that a Robot Master is weak to, (which Mega Man or Bass can both collect from other fallen level bosses).

These are (with the exception of Blizzard Buffalo in ‘Mega ManX3’) the hardest Robot Master fights seen in a ‘Mega Man’ game, yet you must get the tactic to defeating them right first time. Losing a life may return you at the checkpoint right before the boss’ room but it doesn’t reset your ammo. Subsequent attempts at all but the first boss therefore become impossible, since you no longer have the energy to use the only weapon that can defeat them. This forces the player to return to the beginning of a stage, doing anything else is suicide. This would be fine if the levels were enjoyable, but they are sadly some of the worse seen in a ‘Mega Man’ game. They are filled with awful enemy placement that hampers progress to such an extent that deaths often feel unfair.

Getting over tricky spike pits is in previous games felt fun and satisfying; showing a mastery of the game. However in ‘Mega Man and Bass’ success too often is down to random chance. You can perform every jump across vanishing blocks perfectly, yet still be killed by an enemy that unexpectedly drops from the ceiling just at the point when you are about to successfully land the final jump. In Burner Man’s stage for example you can die on in spike pit simply because you fell through a hole in the floor that you couldn't see. Similarly Astro Man’s stage sometimes requires you to fall off the bottom of the screen to progress the level. This would be fine if at other times, in the same level, doing this didn’t mean instant death. There is no way to tell if a fall will kill you or not without experimenting  and the punishment for getting it wrong is being forced back to the start of the irritating stage.
Bass can skip over these trouble spots with his double jump and superior abilities, but Mega Man doesn't even the Rush Adapters seen in ‘Mega Man 7‘ to help him. The difficulty obviously reaches its peak at the endgame Fortress Stages.
These levels are long, relentless and peppered with screen filing bosses that can end a robot life in one hit. Worse still one boss forces the player to continually leap over platforms, while the screen intermittently blanks out.  You can die simply because you can’t see where you’re meant to be jumping. This boss is called the "King Plane", which is at least appropriate as it sounds a lot like the expletive that you will be screaming.  

It’s not a tricky game it’s an unfair one. I pride myself on being good at ‘Mega Man’ games, having beaten the majority without cheats. Yet I can’t progress too far in ‘Mega Man and Bass’ without abusing emulator save states and using an infinite energy Action Reply code. Even with both of these the final end off game battle and the bosses that precede it were still frustrating and near impossible. Unavoidable instant deaths in a boss fight should never be part of a game’s design, even hits that take three-quarters of your life is too much in a game without Energy Tanks and no quick way to heal yourself.

According to Inafune, ‘Mega Man & Bass’ was intended for younger players who still owned a Super Famicom and did not have the means to experience the latest ‘Mega Man’ game on the newer more expensive Playstation. "When we made the shift in hardware there were many children who couldn’t play ‘8’" Inafune once said. “Even though ‘X’ had opened its world up on the SNES, the original series only went to ‘7’ on that console. That’s why we decided to bring out another title for the Snes that was based on ‘8’, for them.” If this was the case, his advice to make the game "as hardcore as possible" really makes no sense, since I doubt even the most patient child could ever finish the game. 

Not that finishing the game is worth it though as the story is ludicrous, even by ‘Mega Man’ standards.  A robot by the name of King has made a declaration that robots should rule over their creators since they are “superior to humans in every way”. To achieve his goals of killing all humans, he has gathered an army of robots to start a rebellion;  though it’s not a very inventive revolution as two of the robots he is using are lifted directly from ‘Mega man 8’. Doctor Lights sends Mega Man to stop King and Doctor Wily sends Bass (most likely just to get the fortress back that King seems to randomly be living in). Mega Man and Bass are not really acting as a team therefore, but individuals with a shared goal. At no point do they cross paths and the game should really have been called 'Mega Man OR Bass’. A better design choice would have been to grant the player the ability to switch between the two in the same way that you can summon ‘Zero’ in ‘MegaMan X3’. You would of course have used Bass for the levels and Mega Man for the boss fights, but just this simple idea would have solved a lot of the games problems. It would have essentially doubled your energy, making the game as a whole half as hard. Levels would have been less frustrating since they are designed for Bass anyway. Meanwhile Mega Man’s charged weapon and stronger armour would have made the boss fights more palatable. Death would have been less of a constant looming inevitability.

Indeed, I found that to have most fun with the game I simply had to give up trying to complete it. I only really enjoyed the game when I instead focused on the sub-quest; collecting the hundred CDs that are hidden across the levels.  When collected each CD rewards the player with biography data on a Robot that Mega Man has beaten in a previous game. Pretty much the entire cast in the ‘Mega Man’ world up to that point are included, even some the strange lesser-known robots like the planet themed bosses found in ‘Mega Man 5’ on the Game Boy. The information on each is silly; no one needed to know that Ice Man doesn’t like hot baths, but for long term fans it’s a great embracing the series’ long history. The majority of the CDs can't be obtained without acquiring specific weapons which means you'll have to come back to the same level multiple times to collect them all. It’s a far more fun and exciting way of playing especially as a lot of these weapon upgrades are more creative that a simple projectile palette change.

It can never be a good sign, when you have to ignore what you’re supposed to be doing and find your own fun in a game. If we play games to relax and enjoy ourselves, why would anyone decide to play through a game that been deliberately designed be unfair. Infune said that “the two phrases [he] used a lot during development were “you’re going too easy [on the player]” and “isn’t there something harder you can do?”. It wasn’t his best direction.  ‘Mega Man’ games may be infamous for their difficulty but this is usually presented as a fair challenge.  ‘Mega Man and Bass' is arbitrarily hard. A good game introduces a challenge to a player then rewards them for completing it successfully; the bigger the challenge the bigger the reward. ‘Mega Man and Bass’ tasks the player with insurmountable obstacles and should you manage to overcome them the reward is more often than not an unexpected death rather than praise.

To play this game though (especially in English on the Super Nintendo), you have to put the effort in. There’s very little chance that this game would be anyone’s introduction to the ‘Mega Man’ games. It’s fair to say the only people playing it on anything other than the Game Boy Advance re-release, have taken time to get it and clearly want to play it. They are probably like me, they love 16 bit ‘Mega Man’ games and simply want some more. But these very fans are the ones who should be most cautious. Is it worth playing a game you know to be “one addition to the series too many” just to say you’ve played all you can? Or is it best to leave the memory of the other titles untarnished? Much like the developers of ‘Mega Man and Bass’ it’s important to know when to stop.

The collector in me is glad I have all the ‘Mega Man’ games, but the gamer in my heart wishes I had never experienced it. Sometimes it’s good to not go for that last E Tank as to get it means throwing yourself on that instant death pit of spikes. 

Where did I get this game?
Do you ever think you’re trying to like a game simply because you went to so much effort to get it? Somehow by playing it for longer, the endless search for it can be justified, as can the money you’ve spent. I stopped enjoying ‘Mega Man and Bass’ after about four Robot Masters, yet I kept on punishing myself until King’s fortress. Looking online reveals that these aren’t even the last levels of the game, but I’m happy to never see beyond them as the journey to the true end is not an enjoyable one nor is the narrative resolution worth the effort.

As mentioned this game was never released on the Super Nintendo outside of Japan, yet I am playing on an English language cart. This is because I am playing on a Time Walk Games reproduction; a translated version of the game that looks exactly like the game would have done were it for sale in the US. Finding this game (still shrink wrapped) was not an easy task as Time Walk Games no longer make Reproduction carts. I could not buy directly from them but what I could do was buy from a fellow collector who had a spare un-opened copy.

 The excitement I felt when I received this game was greater than I had ever experienced buying any game from eBay. When it arrived it felt like being transported back 20 years, back to a time of youth and childlike enthusiasm. I held it in my hands and just gazed at it. I was momentarily mesmerised by a wash of nostalgia, not for the game itself but for owning something brand new, that I had never played before. I toyed with the idea of not undoing the shrink wrap, but that felt wrong somehow. This game had been made by the wonderful team at Time Walk to be played and enjoyed; it was just a shame that I could only do half of this. I think in actual fact I got most pleasure from simply seeing the game for the first time, complete with its meticulously designed instruction book, poster and box.

I had obviously heard a great day about Time Walk (having written about their closure for the Retro Collect website) but the words of other’s did not do justice to just how good the reproductions they made were.  It’s probably for the best that they are no longer trading. Having seen ‘Mega Man and Bass’ I would love to own their entire catalogue of reproduction carts and I would imagine 90% of them would be more enjoyable to play than this game.

I often joke with fellow collectors that I “enjoy a good box more than the game” but it was without question true in this case. ‘Mega Man and Bass’ is a game I am thrilled to own as it means I own every ‘Mega Man’ game on the 16bit Nintendo machine, but I doubt I will ever have the masochistic urge to play it again!

If you wish to get the Japanese original; 'Rockman and Forte', check on Solaris Japan as often they have a game in stock cheaper than the final price it goes for on eBay. The also have a few gadget that removes any worry of getting charged extra at customs, so they're worth a look.

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