The little blue guy just doesn't quit. For the third year in a row, Capcom's heroic robo-lad Mega Man stars as a virus-busting computer program in the Battle Network series. And with so much practice, he's getting quite good at it. While each game has a great deal in common with the others, the series manages to make respectable improvements each time. If you've never navigated a Battle Network before, the third installment in the sharp collect-and-battle series is a great place to start.
In the not-so-distant future, humankind is living comfortably in an advanced computer age--at least when their world isn't being ravaged by the increasingly prevalent Net crime, that is. Mega Man is a computer program partnered with a boy named Lan, helping him to surf the Internet, check e-mail, and delete hostile viruses with extreme prejudice. You control Lan in the real world and Mega Man in the cyberworld, working together to solve puzzles and progress through the story.
Considering Lan's age (he's in middle school), the game's bright colors, the consistently upbeat soundtrack, and the occasionally silly characters you'll run into (who often have tongue-in-cheek tech names like Mayl or Dex), the game does seem to skew a bit toward a younger audience. But if you give it a chance, you'll realize that the game is pleasing to the senses, and anyone can be humbled in the challenging battles that make up the meat of the game.
The digital scrapping takes place on a rectangular grid divided into player and enemy areas, where you'll use your reflexes to dodge attacks and punish the enemy with Mega Man's arsenal of battle chips. These chips are drawn randomly from a folder, which you'll customize over the course of the game. Each has different attack or defense properties--some are more powerful against certain enemies, and some can be combined with other chips.
You can power up Mega Man as well. HP memory lets him take more damage, and regular memory lets you lock in powerful chips so they'll always be drawn at the start of a fight. You'll eventually be granted an even higher degree of customization. Style changes give you an elemental strength, weakness, and the ability to use programs for that style. These programs are like puzzle pieces that you must rotate so they touch the command line, giving you unique powers that include the Battle Network version of WinZip--allowing you to pass through narrow passageways on the Net.
New to the series are bugs, which happen when programs aren't properly placed or you're otherwise breaking the rules regarding your folder. In fact, there's an entire style for Mega Man based on the exploitation of bugs. Along with the very slick-looking PDA interface, the inclusion of bugs and program manipulation really helps immerse you in the faux high-tech world.
Net navigation is also fairly easy. You'll open up shortcuts and new areas at a rather brisk pace, and the main paths through the central area of the game are marked gold to help keep you from getting lost. In the real world, people will provide you with plenty of clues to keep you moving. Additionally, with a tap of the L button Lan and Mega Man can ask each other for help as to what they should be doing at any time. Aside from the fact that you'll lose your progress if you're deleted by unexpectedly strong enemies, the game flows at a nice pace and also gives you plenty of chances to explore and take odd jobs on the side.
Trading and battling with a friend over the link cable is also worth a try, and of course since there are two versions of the game, each with slightly different chip catalogs, trading is required should you want to collect each of the nearly 300 chips in the game. Even if you're not worried about hunting down every last hidden item, the game still provides a fairly lengthy run. Conceivably, those who might have grown tired of the series wouldn't find the kind of major changes that would provide a fresh experience in this latest pair of installments--but fans of the series will love them. If you haven't given this particular Mega Man spin-off a spin yet, now would be an excellent time.