The Mega Man Battle Network series was a brilliant idea from Capcom to offer a refreshing and unique departure from the classic action platformer, while still delivering a colourful and engaging gameplay experience. Though it wasn't the first time the Mega Man series flirted with becoming an RPG, it was by far the most memorable. Mega Man Battle Network 3 stands as the perfect distillation of the core gameplay principles that made this sub-series so great, and it still holds up surprisingly well today.
Everything in Mega Man Battle Network 3 is happening in a parallel timeline to the original series; the difference is that network technology flourished rather than robotics. A virus busting fifth-grader named Lan and his NetNavi - an A.I. program that lives inside this world's equivalent of smartphones - MegaMan.exe, take centre stage as the two main characters. In a tale with light elements of a spy film, the storyline follows Lan and his friends as they partake in the N1 Grand Prix, a competition devoted to finding the number one Netbattler. As the competition goes on, a more sinister plot is discovered to be going on behind the scenes and it's up to Lan and MegaMan.exe to stop it. The storytelling can be a bit cliché at times, but it's all presented in a charming and light-hearted manner.
You alternate playing as Lan and MegaMan.exe in the real world and cyber world, respectively. Many things in the environment, including mundane objects such as kitchen appliances, are either connected to the internet or have an internal computer of some sort. When Lan encounters an object such as this, he can "jack-in" to it and upload MegaMan.exe. The perspective then shifts to MegaMan.exe as he explores the digital world inside. Transitioning from one character to the next is smooth and seamless, though more of the gameplay happens on MegaMan.exe's end than on Lan's.
The cyber world is positively infested with viruses and this is where the combat elements come into play. While MegaMan.exe is running around, he'll randomly and a little too frequently get jumped by viruses. The random encounters can get mildly irritating when you're trying to accomplish an objective and have to partake in a distracting netbattle every twenty seconds, but the combat is so engaging that it's mostly not an issue.
Battles take place on a separate screen on a 6 x 3 grid - each side gets nine tiles to manoeuvre, and the flow of combat is something akin to a hybrid of turn based and real time. To fight off the viruses, MegaMan.exe has one-off battle chips and his trusty Mega Buster at his disposal. Five battle chips at a time are randomly selected from a folder of thirty that you put together outside of battles, and each one has an alphabetical chip code that determines what kind of chips can be used together in a turn. Once the chips are chosen, the turn starts and it becomes an active fight as MegaMan.exe and the viruses dance around their respective sides of the grid, dealing and dodging attacks. This system works well and helps keep combat moving at a brisk pace, with new virus types found in different computers keeping things from getting too stale as attack patterns are memorized.
Customization has a surprising amount of depth, especially compared to past entries in the series. A new system called the Navi Customizer allows Lan to install programs that he and MegaMan.exe find throughout the world that bestow various combat benefits, such as a powered up Mega Buster, a shield that generates at the beginning of each fight, or raised health. Figuring out how to best manage the limited space on the grid requires the player to think outside the box and it adds an additional strategic element to combat. Another fun addition is Style Changes, which are basically just different forms MegaMan.exe can take that give him different elemental advantages in combat and change his Mega Buster. For example, a water-based style gives him a bubble shot and prevents him from slipping on ice panels, but makes him more susceptible to electric attacks. There's a wide variety of styles available and finding one that complements a player's gameplay habits can add an additional layer to combat.
Outside of combat, the world is presented in a friendly and vibrant manner. The story takes Lan over a variety of environments, such as his suburban neighbourhood, a laboratory or a beach, and all the locales are populated by an oddly charming cast of NPCs. However, it's the digital worlds that MegaMan.exe explores that really steal the show. Lan's world is colourful, but MegaMan.exe's world is colourful and stylish. Navigating circuit board-like streets and talking to various other programs along the way makes for a charming visual to portray the abstract concept of digital activity. Often the environment will have a particular theme, such as how a digital representation of Lan's Principal's school computer is populated with desks and floating No. 2 pencils. The soundtrack is mostly composed of chipper, electronic tunes that help keep the atmosphere from getting too stale, but it's rather forgettable.
The Mega Man Battle Network series is known for its high level of replayability and Mega Man Battle Network 3 is no exception. Long after beating the game, players will be kept busy collecting all 316 battle chips, finding and taming particular viruses, and chasing down the ghost data and Omega versions of defeated Navis on the undernet.
Mega Man Battle Network 3 was notable for being the first time the series went with dual releases, but the differences are marginal; the only things changed being some chips, a couple of Navi battles, and style changes. Much like with the Pokemon series, one version isn't really recommended over the other as the core experience is the same either way.
Mega Man Battle Network 3 is very much the point where the series hit a peak. The gameplay systems and presentation are on point and it meshes together to form a very satisfying and unified whole. There are occasional issues with random encounters and corny dialogue, but it doesn't detract from the overall experience in a major way. When it comes to RPG-lite, virus busting Mega Man action, it doesn't get any better than this.