From Mary Shelly's Frankenstein to Spielberg's AI, the notion of an artificial being, created in the likeness of a human, is a subject that continues to captivate fans of science fiction. Ironically, despite the interest, characters like Frankenstein and David are often tragic; their lives made miserable by the fear and suspicion of real people. Such responses aren't always justified, but that's how people would probably react when faced by such beings. The very existence an artificial being after all, challenges our notions of what constitutes life: their existence tells us that life doesn't necessarily have to be biological in nature, and life can occupy spaces outside of our own existence, such as the insides of a computer. In a way, it is the ultimate encroachment of technology upon our lives; as living, biological entities, the attributes we believe are uniquely, and exclusively, our own, would no longer be.
Perhaps the most famous humanoid robot in videogames is Mega Man, and like David in AI, he was created in the image of a young boy. In Mega Man Battle Network however, Mega Man is no longer a robot, but a software program known as MegaMan.EXE. As a program, Mega Man lives in cyberspace, protecting computer networks from hackers and computer viruses. Although Mega Man is still artificial, hes quite a departure from the Mega Man most people know. Whats most interesting however, is the world of Mega Man Battle Network, because the real people seem to harbor little if any of the fear and suspicion one would expect in such a story. But before I get into that, I will mention something about the gameplay first (which is very good).
At its core, Mega Man Battle Network is a Japanese-style role-playing game (RPG) complete with random encounters, maze-like dungeons to explore, and the inane dialogue between townsfolk. Its also a genre that is, to date, very well represented on the GBA. Mega Man Battle Network however, brings a number of elements that helps to differentiate itself from games like Golden Sun and Breath of Fire, and makes the game very playable as well.
Rather than create a fantasy setting, Mega Man Battle Network takes place in a world that is surprisingly analogous to our own. In the game, the Internet has become a vital part of everyday life it is so important that people must continually stay connected to computer networks through the use of a PDA-like device called a personal exploration terminal (or PET). Inside of every PET resides a virtual person known as a Net Navigator (Navi), whose duties include delivering emails, homepage maintenance, and in Mega Man's case, acting as an alarm clock for his operator, a fifth grader named Lan Hikari. Unfortunately, cyberspace is also littered with all sorts of dangerous computer viruses and hackers, threatening the peace and stability of the worlds computer networks. Naturally, its up to Lan and Mega Man to help protect the networks.
During the course of the game, the player will need to switch between Lan and Mega Man. As Lan, the player explores the real world, jacking his PET into various electronic devices, allowing Mega Man access to different computer networks. Once jacked in the player takes control Mega Man, exploring cyberspace, and fighting viruses Mega Man will inevitably encounter.
Besides the interesting (albeit cosmetic) ability to move between the real world and the cyber world, the game also offers a compelling battle system. During battle, Mega Man has the ability to move about in real-time, allowing him to dodge enemy attacks. Mega Man can also attack enemies with his buster canon, but his most powerful attacks come in the form of battle chips. Instead of magic spells, Mega Man Battle Network uses program enhancements known as battle chips, and Mega Man can carry up to thirty of these at a time. During battle, a time gauge appears and once the gauge is full, five battle chips are randomly drawn for Mega Man to use. There are restrictions to the selection process, so Mega Man may not be able to use all the chips drawn during that turn. As mentioned, the battle chips work like magic spells, with effects ranging from attacks and summons to healing and environmental alteration.
Most turn-based battle systems tend to get repetitive and tedious (one guy always attacks, one always casts spells, and one always heals). The battle chip system in Mega Man Battle Network on the other hand, is much more unpredictable, and the random selection of battle chips discourage players from using the same strategy over and over again. I also think the ability to move about the battlefield in real-time is especially noteworthy, as you can actively dodge attacks, instead of helplessly watching your characters getting hammered as you wait for your turn.
There are over one hundred and seventy-five chips in the game, and most are left behind by defeated enemies or bought from stores. There are rare chips of course, and those are hidden throughout the game.
While the gameplay of Mega Man Battle Network is excellent, what fascinated me most was the world in which the game took place. Unlike Frankenstein, AI and other similar works, the real people have little or no anxiety at all towards the Navis. Rather, the characters are depicted in an almost idealized setting, where the Navis have become integrated into society in a plausible manner, and play essential roles in the lives of their human operators.
Certainly, the game never asks any of the big questions regarding artificial life. It makes no distinction between simulation and reality; it never suggests that Mega Man is any different than Lan. I suppose it could tackle such questions, but that doesn't seem necessary. It is a game that is intended to accommodate an audience of children after all. Instead, the game naively presumes that the Navis are just as real as humans: they think like we do; they feel like we do; and like humans, they are both good and bad.
In the end, despite all the anxiety, that may be why people are so fascinated by artificial beings: artificial life, artificial intelligence, robots—they are all built in our image, and how they turn out ultimately says something about us.