Note: the avoid confusion, Rockman and Forte refers to the game I’m reviewing, where Mega Man and Bass refer to the characters the player controls in it.
Last week, I wrote about Kingdom Hearts Re:coded, an unfocused game without any conflict or direction. So it’s eerie that I find myself writing about Rockman & Forte: Mirai kara no Chousensha, the mechanical equivalent of Re:coded. Just like that game’s trivial story, Rockman & Forte is a hollow recreation of the better games to precede it. Its world is barren and devoid of life, and while the game has the power to change, it never seems to realize that it does.
The irony here is how close the game is to its ideal solution. It’s not some far-off hypothetical, because I already see promise in what the game’s doing. A villain by the name of Mega Man Shadow arrives from the future with his Robot Buddies. The real Mega Man must now team up his rival Bass to prevent these new foes from wreaking havoc on mankind. As generic a premise as it sounds, I think it contains something worth investigating. Not only does the villain come from the future, but his sleek design and V shaped helmet are reminiscent of Mega Man X’s character design. So read along these lines, the story would be a clever allegory for the damage Mega Man X’s action-oriented identity has caused to the Mega Man franchise. Mega Man himself even suggests as much when he comments on how he felt a piece of himself die while fighting Shadow.
However, this reading overlooks Rockman & Forte’s gameplay. Add that into the mix, and suddenly, Rockman & Forte becomes a compelling argument for why the franchise needed to change in the first place. While this game knows what ingredients go into a Mega Man game, it doesn’t know how to use any of them. The Robot Masters illustrate this well enough. Despite their futuristic schtick, they rely on gimmicky and unfuturistic concepts, like a begging Buddhist priest robot.
However, I think the weapons Mega Man and Bass collect reveal a lot more. For those of you who don’t know much about Mega Man, part of what sets the games apart is its weapons. Whenever the player beats a Robot Master, they gain the weapon the Robot Master uses. There’s also a rock/paper/scissors element at play (which weapon works best on which Robot Master), but that’s far from the only reason why this system works. Ideally, each weapon carries a tactility to it that lends it a unique identity. Guts Man’s weapon lets Mega Man lift boulders, and Top Man’s lets him spin in place like an idiot.
Unfortunately, I don’t sense any of that tactility from the majority of Rockman & Forte’s weapons. Using weapons in this game feels less like you’re physically acting upon the world, and more like you’re pressing buttons to make something happen in a game. Barrier Wind lazily undulates toward your target, and the Flame Mixer makes a bit of fire crawl to the top of the screen. There’s nothing to these weapons beyond their immediate function. They’re boring and utilitarian, and the rest of the game follows suit. I can’t think of many other games that felt so robotic and mechanical to trudge through.
I think some of that comes from Rockman & Forte bumping up against its limitations. We must remember that this is a WonderSwan game, and that the WonderSwan was a portable system. These facts limited what the designers could’ve done with the game. I don’t mean that in the obvious ways, either, although those are certainly relevant. The tiny 224×144 resolution explains why the game traps most of its action within a single screen. Anyway, the point I wanted to make is that the game’s presence on a portable system exerts broader influences on its design. Because this game is on a portable system, it needs simple systems the player can engage in short chunks. That means easy to read levels and components that don’t demand too much thought from the player, both of which are present in this game. So I can understand the limitations Capcom faced in making this, and at least on an artistic and musical level, I’m willing to applaud their efforts.
I’m lessing willing to applaud them for this game’s gameplay aesthetic. Or, to be more precise, its lack of any. Say what you will about the limitations; they’re still no excuse for how empty this game is. A game is supposed to work within its limitations to say something, not use them as an excuse to stay silent. Sadly, Rockman & Forte chooses the latter. Its world doesn’t carry the straight action aesthetic of Mega Man X, nor does it give off the relaxed-yet-still-involved vibe that its 8-bit predecessors did. Rather, the levels make the intended course of action abundantly clear, and leave little room for the player to botch things. I always felt like the game was designing its spaces to teach me whatever skills it deemed important. To what end, I’m not sure. Said spaces never gave me anything to practice my lessons on, as they were permanently stuck in that rote teaching mode. No doubt this is what makes the game feel so robotic to play.
The best case the game can make for having any purpose is through its protagonists, Mega Man and Bass. The player chooses which one they will play as when they start the game, and each one has their own unique identity. For example, where Bass can aim his shots, Mega Man can charge his to make them more powerful. Where Bass can jump again in mid-air, Mega Man can slide into places that Bass can’t reach. The distinctions between them are evident at a raw mechanical level. However, that doesn’t mean anything if those differences fail to manifest at a structural level. How can they? The two characters navigate the same set of challenges, which end up being so formless as to demand the same actions from both characters. This means that each hero only uses their unique abilities to retrieve minor trinkets, like the health refill on a high up platform. Granted, this is a problem Mega Man games have always had (as Mighty Gunvolt can attest). I only wish that it hadn’t shown up here.
I can imagine a lot of reasons for why this game ended up like it did. The franchise had been around long enough for its profitability to outpace its ideas. Its presence on the relatively small WonderSwan might have led Capcom to put less effort into it than they would a more notable Mega Man game. In any case, none of this changes what the game ended up becoming. Like its own antagonist, Rockman & Forte tries to live up to the Mega Man name, but is doomed to fade into obscurity because it doesn’t recognize what makes Mega Man work.