The transition to 3-D was a difficult one for franchises whose identity was defined in the second dimension. Some series, like Mario, The Legend of Zelda and Metal Gear Solid, managed to reinvent themselves for a new generation of players while others like Castlevania and Contra still have not figured out even today how to really work in 3-D. Capcom’s Mega Man franchise managed to both succeed and fail when it was brought into the third-dimension in the brilliant yet painfully underappreciated Mega Man Legends sub-series of games. Twenty years after the release of Mega Man Legends on the original Sony PlayStation, fans are still waiting for closure they may never get while still holding a special place in their hearts for a part of Mega Man’s legacy that many chose to thumb their noses at for some reason or another.
When it was released in August 1998 in North America, the original Mega Man Legends was a modest success, spawning a prequel starring the game’s friendly protagonist and secret admirer of Mega Man, The Misadventures of Tron Bonne and a direct follow-up. For purists though, Mega Man Legends wasn’t quite what they wanted out of a 3-D Mega Man game. Fans were accustomed to change from one generation to the next: the SNES’ Mega Man X series was a far darker take on the hunt-the-8-robot-masters formula, but it still felt like Mega Man. Mega Man Legends on the other hand, didn’t, at least at face value.
In Mega Man Legends you still play as a character clad in blue named Mega Man, but in this fiction he’s a treasure hunter, referred to as a “digger”, who lives in a world filled with mostly water where humanity takes refuge on tiny islands. Diggers scour ancient ruins in search of devices called refractors that are a valuable power source with the “Mother Lode” refractor being the Holy Grail of all them. The first game takes place on an isolated island called Kattelox that Mega Man, Roll – his mechanic/technical support and not his sister – and Roll’s grandfather get stranded on. While uncovering the mysteries of the island’s ruins, they run into a family of dangerous, but also kind of silly, pirate family known as the Bonnes and uncover part of Mega Man’s origins.
Mega Man Legends doesn’t charge you with hunting down eight robots and there was probably some minor controversy on the early message boards about the title character not wearing a helmet on the game’s cover. In spite of all of this, there’s still an inherent Mega Man-ness about Legends at its core. You’re not collecting weapons from fallen enemies, but you’re still building weapons from the parts you find during your adventures like shields, missile launchers, swords and drills among others. Like in the best Mega Man games, the right weapon allows you to go deeper into the catacombs below Kattelox for greater rewards like money to upgrade your equipment or items that can be turned in to complete side-quests given to you by the island’s residences.
The first Mega Man Legends was a solid proof of concept, but it also felt small. There was a lot to do on Kattelox from going through the main quest, mini-games and completely optional side-missions that are easy to miss, but you’re only ever experiencing a small part of a world that feels so much bigger than what the player gets to experience. Where the series truly delivered on the promise of the bigger picture only hinted at in the first game was in its direct sequel, Mega Man Legends 2, released on October 24th, 2000 for the Sony PlayStation, that would mark the sad and abrupt end to the series.
Mega Man Legends 2 feels more like a game trying more to be the PlayStation’s answer to Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda than a sequel to the game that came before it. You’re still doing a lot of the same activities as the first game, but instead of being isolated to one area, you’re given multiple islands to explore, some with their own sprawling Zelda-esque labyrinths. The islands and dungeons are even themed like those found in something out of Nintendo’s revered franchise like a desert island, an ice palace and fire temple. This game even has its own obnoxious equivalent to the dreaded water temple found in Ocarina of Time.
Your equipment is expanded upon with armor that will allow you to move faster underwater, not slip on ice, avoid fire damage, and not succumb to paralysis. Money can also be spent to upgrade your airship home, the Flutter, with amenities like a fridge or TV that don’t give you any stat boosts, but you’ll still find yourself investing in them anyway because of how invested you get into the world Mega Man Legends 2 develops. You’ll stumble through a dungeon constantly getting lit on fire because you want to get out and buy that model airship for Roll so you can read her journal entry where she talks about how much she cares about you. Like Mega Man 2 on the NES, Legends 2 feels like a game that was put together by people who really wanted to make it and that heart shows in the final product.
For a game on the original PlayStation 18 years ago, Mega Man Legends 2 is still a gorgeous game. It pulls off an early version of cel-shading before that technique became prominent in the next generation of consoles and its developers got a lot out of the then five year old console which was about to be replaced. Though the themes of its worlds are not wholly original and very much read like a “how-to Zelda” guide in some respects, each area, including the creepy underground dungeons, are filled with color and read like the anime style the Legends series was going for. The characters, returning and new, are similarly filled with personality in their writing and design. You feel bad for the hardships that have befallen the Bonnes between the first and second chapters and good luck determining whether you think Tron Bonne or Roll is a better love interest for Mega Man. The various robotic enemies you face, the Reaverbots, wouldn’t be out of home in either a Wily or Sigma palace stage either.
Mega Man Legends 2 was fighting an unwinnable battle before it was even released, and it’s understandable, yet still disheartening as to why Capcom has rested on the series for over twenty years. A large portion of players who loved the first two Mega Man games never viewed Legends as what the series should look like in 3-D, as its world and themes deviated far from what had come before it. There was also the issue of Legends controls which even die-hard fans of the series tolerate at best, wherein you continuously have to adjust the camera with the shoulder buttons, though Legends 2 did alleviate that problem somewhat with a very helpful lock-on mechanic. Mega Man Legends 2 was also drowned in a very crowded holiday season and saw competition from the release of the Sony PlayStation 2, the last gasp of breath from the Sega Dreamcast and The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask.
Without spoiling its conclusion, Mega Man Legends 2 ends on a cliffhanger that has still gone unresolved nearly twenty years later. There was an attempt to continue the series on the Nintendo 3DS but those plans were terminated when Keiji Inafune, who had guided the Mega Man franchise at Capcom, had a very public and messy split from the company. The entire Legends trilogy was added to the PSOne Classic market for both the Sony PlayStation 3 and PS Vita, however all the games arrived at a time when the Vita market had already shrunk considerably and players had moved on from the PlayStation 3 to the newer PlayStation 4.
As to what the future holds for the Mega Man Legends series, it’s difficult to say but there’s more reason to be optimistic today than ever. Capcom has been doing a terrific job this generation mining their back catalog of games either with full on remakes like the upcoming Resident Evil 2 remake in 2019 or compilations like the Capcom Beat ‘Em Up Bundle and the Disney Afternoon Collection so never say never. Until then, if you’ve never experienced the Mega Man Legends series, there’s never been a better time to visit this overlooked portion of Mega Man’s legacy that culminated in Mega Man Legends 2, an underappreciated classic that deserved far better than what it got when it was released so many years ago.