Adding RPG elements to a beloved side-scrolling franchise may seem like a stroke of insanity, but Mega Man has enjoyed more than a few titles that play off this idea while still retaining the atmosphere and challenge of the core series. Even a certain red plumber has proved that the transition can pay off, fleshing out a new perspective on a world normally perceived as background dressing. Mega Man: Battle Chip Challenge is actually a spinoff of a spinoff, taking place within the timeline of a wider Battle Network series but utilizing a different battle system to change things up. It’s complex, yes, but is this .EXE file worth running?
Taking place in an alternate timeline where AI programs and computer networks have advanced to dizzying heights of sophistication, virtual tournaments now pit these programs against each other in computerised battles. The usual heroes and villains still feature of course, taking on the form of Network Navigators or NetNavi for short. These avatars are controlled by their operator, all competing in the new BattlechipGP tournament to customise the ultimate AI warrior.
Players have a solid selection of operators to choose from, each paired with their own NetNavi who battles for them. Series regulars such as Lan and Megaman or Chaud and Protoman are joined by two new characters to make for a total of six, each with their own reasons for competing and differences in story mode. Many of Dr. Wily’s super charged robots also make an appearance as NetNavi, so it’s definitely enough to keep fans happy. It also helps that the music is totally on-par with the series’ reputation for memorable tracks, with some fantastic, electric tunes to amp up the battle scenes. It’s just unfortunate that those battle scenes need all the help they can get.
An RPG was never going to be as involving as the blue bomber’s platforming roots, at least not in the same way, but what Battle Chip Challenge suffers from more than any other title in the series is its incredibly threadbare gameplay. That’s not to say that there isn’t much to do, because there are plenty of opportunities available to take on opponents. It’s just that the game seems happier to let you watch it play itself than have an active role during battles.
Your main job is gathering the titular battle chips, which augment exactly what your NetNavi will do during fights. It’s a little like programming a robot to follow a set of commands and then watching it execute them with varying degrees of success. Like a trading card game, you create a deck – or in this case a program deck – from up to 30 battle chips of your choosing. Each of these represents a different attack, be it a sword slash, charge shot or an elemental switch. The more you collect, the more options you’ll have to exploit weaknesses and vary up your strategies, but in the heat of the battle you’ll have absolutely no input whatsoever. Once you’ve set out your deck the AI will choose a sequence of chips at random and use that as a ‘turn’, which will then pass on to your opponent who does the same. What this means is that outside of collecting and choosing your chips, there’s actually very little for you to do except watch this war of attrition play out. A smart player will take advantage of certain weaknesses of course, and there is room for strategists to plan out your deck to some satisfying extent, but holding down a button just to skip through text boxes gets boring extremely quickly.
Outside of battles, there’s no world-exploration to speak of, as each area available to you is purely functional. A store allows you to buy extra chips, your home computer lets you save and check records, and different tournaments form the bulk of the main story. Though there are a few shady individuals at work, there’s nothing really earth-shattering about the plot, so it’s there to accommodate the battle system and little else. Your focus is honed entirely on gathering, setting out a deck, and watching battles. The system is definitely a matter of taste, but due to a lack of outside elements if you aren’t totally on-board with watching fights then you really won’t have much reason to play. Without any real way to directly influence your Navi’s behaviour, players should be prepared to move from holding down a button to advance dialogue, to holding down the same button to advance battles.
It’s a shame, because there’s potential here for so much more. Damaging your opponent’s chips can result in a huge advantage by cutting off their options, and some rival NetNavi have exploitable patterns. Though it feels something like a Mega Man flavoured cash-in on the collectible card game genre so popularized at the time, chances are there’s enough here to addict those who still want to master the mechanics. The stripped down approach could be argued as functional rather than limited, but given the re-use of series assets and a general lack of graphical improvement, Battle Chip Challenge ended up feeling like a lazy aside to us.
Newcomers will be overwhelmed by just how different this title is from what we’ve come to expect from Mega Man, and it’s a variation of the spin-off Battle Network series to boot. Though there’s a lot to take in at first, there’s actually very little for players to do once things are up and running. The new battle system takes far too much control away from you and is based heavily on luck and patience instead of quick thinking and ongoing decisions. Familiar faces and some great music can’t quite save an experience that’ll frustrate more than it pleases.