Azure Striker Gunvolt: The Mega Man Network Review

Thanks to the fine folks at Inti Creates and 8-4 Ltd., The Mega Man Network has been able to play through and dissect much of what could be called the first post-Capcom Mega Man game–Mega Man without Mega Man, as it were. But defining Azure Striker Gunvolt in that way would do an injustice to one of the best platformers of this generation.

Gunvolt is a product of Inti Creates, the creative team behind the Mega Man Zero and ZX games, formed formally in the 1990s after the bulk of the Mega Man X and Classic series was released. With Keiji Inafune, the father of Mega Man, on board as the Executive Producer, Azure Striker Gunvolt is the first taste of Mega Man without Capcom. And it works. Really well.

As you can see by the screenshot above, Gunvolt's graphical work is impressive, even for a powerhouse like the Nintendo 3DS. Every sprite is full of detail and every bit of conversation artwork meticulously detailed. The animation of every character, down to the not-quite-Sniper-Joes everyday enemy, is beautifully animated and reacts to the variety of violent actions you can visit upon them. What is really remarkable from the technical side is that no matter how much crazy stuff happens on screen, the game never slows down (unless it means to), which is good because the dynamic of this game is quite a bit different than anything that any Blue Bomber has seen before.

As one could probably surmise from the official website or trailers of the game, Gunvolt plays a bit differently than previous portable outings that Mega Man fans might have experienced. The basic way of inflicting damage on enemies is a two-step process: First, you "tag" an enemy by shooting a bullet. Once you have tagged an enemy (represented by semi-transparent circles around targets), you push and hold the electricity button and no matter where you take Gunvolt, he sends pain to the tagged enemy. This has implications for gameplay that really free up both movement and battling.

This change in combat means that the Azure Striker hardly goes through the world like his Blue Bomber predecessors. Since you only have to essentially aim once on most enemies, a premium is put on both speed through the levels and dodging enemy attacks. Furthermore, there are some subtleties such as the time-limited Flashfield and the Prevasion system. The former's nullification of many projectiles and its slowing of Gunvolt's descent makes it useful in many areas, while the latter rewards players for not using Gunvolt's electricity powers by making him invulnerable to most attacks while not using the Flashfield. Figuring out the best use of each system becomes essential later in the game and gives the game a certain depth.

Like navigating the levels, boss fights are different thanks to Gunvolt's unique repertoire. Pattern memorization remains important, as bosses change up their tactics at least three times per fight, and oft times they will nullify Gunvolt's tags between switching gears. Thus, the flow of fighting bosses prioritizes dodging their attacks and holding down R while tagging and re-tagging when needed, rather than exchanging a few Mega Buster or Master Weapon shots. 

The boss fights against the Adepts (other artificial beings with certain elemental powers-- sound familiar?) can get absolutely insane, but they never feel completely insurmountable. Mega Man fans will notice certain elements to a few bosses that seem familiar, such as a boss that combines all the fun traits of Dynamo Man and Snake Man. Other bosses resemble the Mavericks of early X games, others still unleash a "bullet hell" on you, and yet another resembles Harpuia (or Tornado Man, for you Classic fans). One important reoccurring boss even features the very familiar ability of using defeated bosses' powers against you. All of them require some time to figure out their patterns, and thanks to Gunvolt's electric powers, all of them are as frantic as they are fun.

While Mega Man Zero and ZX were both fast and furious, neither comes quite as close as Gunvolt. Both veteran players that want a greater challenge and those players who need more help benefit from four connected systems to upgrade Gunvolt’s inventory and repertoire. These systems together form a deep gameplay system that benefits all players, but will particularly help those who put in the time and effort to make it a focus during gameplay.

First, as Gunvolt defeats enemies and makes his way through his world, he will gain experience points (EXP) and build levels. As Gunvolt gains experience, his attacks and defense grow stronger. More importantly, every few levels, he will earn a new Skill, such as the offensive skills of Astrasphere (a huge aura of energy) or Luxcalibur (a gigantic sword of electricity) or support skills such as the Galvanic Renewal (restores all life energy). Skills cost certain Skill Points (SP) with the more powerful costing more SP than the weaker ones.

The second major system is the synth system. Materials are gathered at the end of each level (with more earned through finding and grabbing ribbons in each level) and can be “synth’d” together to make gear. This gear enhances Gunvolt, giving him a stronger weapon, or to execute a double jump (or two), or enhancing energy gained by power-ups and so forth. The rarer materials (that, of course, lead to more powerful gear) are awarded for completing challenges. Challenges are certain objectives presented by Asimov, Gunvolt’s old boss, and tend to consist of finishing levels under a time limit or doing other specified tasks. Most challenges become available upon defeated an Adept, while some are generated by gaining enough Kudos Points.

The third system is the Kudos Points are awarded through a variety of means, like defeating multiple enemies simultaneously or defeating an Adept with a Skill. Playing through levels without taking significant damage or otherwise being a great player will lead to even more Kudos Points.

Finally, the fourth system worth mentioning is the Grade System. If you have played any of the Zero games, you will be familiar with what this system entails. A welcome change this time around is just how forgiving the game is with the player. Obtaining an "S+" is still inhumanly difficult, but it is possible to get an “A” without being the greatest player in the world.

The music and sound effects are also spot-on, with the latter giving that perfect sense of action and excitement that is reflected in the absolutely insane situations a player can get into. The soundtrack sounds like, surprise, a bunch of tunes that would not be out of place in either Mega Man Zero or ZX. For a while I would have said they were mostly forgettable, but the level select, Adept Boss, and Media Tower themes have stuck in my head in the week since I've reached the ending, which is no surprise since Mega Man veteran Ippo Yamada composed the game's tracks.

The game's story is probably the best of any portable venture helmed by Inti Creates, and the "T" rating means they can be a bit more lax with the wordage and content. Without giving much away, our hero, Gunvolt, initially an agent for the rebel group QUILL (Quorum for the Unrestricted Information, Law, and Liberty) stumbles upon the mysterious girl in distress, Joule. In a world dominated by the Sumeragi Corporation, a Big Evil Corporation that uses Adepts for domination, our hero plays the part of both protector of this mysterious girl and all-around Good Guy Rebel. This, of course, leads him to do what we all love-- run, jump, shoot, and electrocute his way through enemies across twelve(ish) levels. Gunvolt grows closer to Joule (which sometimes leads to resurrection and near-invincibility, if you are lucky enough) as the game progresses.

Eventually, a number of mysteries are both introduced and revealed through a witty and well-localized script. Some fans may lament the lack of dialogue while moving through the levels, but if some videos are any indication, this may just be shooter (or striker's) preference.

The greatest impediment to the story is the post-game backtracking required to obtain the best ending. While collecting a gem in seven of the levels after defeating Nova is sort of a drag, the most puzzling aspect is that this is not altogether clear unless you open your save file back up and talk to Joule to learn about what is necessary to finally complete the game. Strange.

Overall, Azure Striker Gunvolt, like it spiritual predecessors, introduces enough new concepts while providing enough tried-and-true concepts that will please any Mega Man fan. The larger concepts make the game a blast, but older fans will notice details that reveal the game's roots. The structure of the game-an introductory level, choosing your own order through six levels and then a more linear romp through the end follows the Mega Man pattern to a T. Interestingly enough, the forced order of the rematches against the Adepts and the six (not eight) regular bosses is a callback all the way back to the original Mega Man.

Inevitably, folks will find something to be mad about in this game. Fans of the Zero series will decry how accessible it is and how the spikes do not instantly kill our hero. Others will frown on its relative shortness. Some may not like the ongoing story and the talkative characters or the anime art throughout the game. The most cogent criticism might be that the various systems-- EXP, skills, kudos, gears, Joule’s random resurrection-- might have been better executed if it was a bit more streamlined. Also somewhat strange is how opaque advancing through the game is sometimes: Both the “real” final boss and what comes after seems to be more accidental discovery than the game pointing you in the right direction. But if the past is any kind of indicator, Mega Man fans will likely accept some of the minute issues because of the strength of the overall experience. 

If Azure Striker Gunvolt is a look into the post-Capcom, and perhaps post-Mega Man future, then the horizon is bright indeed. Highest recommendation.

GET YOUR WEAPONS READY: MIGHTY GUNVOLT

Like Rush Jet with the Needle Shooter, temporarily free with the purchase of Azure Striker Gunvolt is Mighty Gunvolt, a five-level minigame based on nostalgia for other "parody" games like Kid Dracula or Konami Man. Players have a choice at the beginning to play through the levels as Gunvolt, Ekoro (the apprentice angel from Inti Creates' Japan-only rail shooter), and perhaps most notably, Beck from the other post-Capcom game featuring a blue robot, Mighty No. 9.

Each character comes with his or her own abilities and so the manner in which a player will clear the level is somewhat dependent on what character was chosen in the beginning. Beck can dash low to the ground, Ekoro can hover, and Gunvolt can double-jump, resulting in slightly differing paths through levels reminiscent of Mega Man & Bass

Despite being essentially a big joke, Mighty Gunvolt is an enjoyable romp and features a "combo gain" system that increases the player's offensive based on constant action-destroying enemies or picking up items will increase your offense, but taking more than 10 seconds between actions will set it back to normal. This gives meaning to the otherwise extraneous (but completely fitting) candy strewn throughout each level and provides an incentive to going through the levels expeditiously. 

The story, in true 8-bit fashion, is hilariously underdeveloped, with a brief introductory remark setting the game in an alternate universe where the world's love is in jeopardy. The quest to restore love to the world sees the player go through five levels (most very loosely based on Azure Striker Gunvolt) and face off against bosses that are almost all 8-bit demakes of their Gunvolt selves. In the end, our courageous protagonist faces off with Zonda (curiously enough, given what happens to him in Gunvolt) in a lair simply named "Mirror."

Mega Man fans may recognize this odd tie-in as reminiscent of the Mega Man a demake mini-game in Mega Man ZX: Advent. Newer fans may simply find it an interesting curio. Regardless of how in tune with the Blue Bomber's history, Mighty Gunvolt is a pretty fun minigame, and at its current price it’s hard to beat. As always, Inti Creates delivers a solid retro platformer and, hopefully, the first of many crossover games featuring various properties.

Azure Striker Gunvolt is available August 29th on the North American Nintendo 3DS eShop for $14.99. Until November 28th, ASG will come with a download code for a free download of Mighty Gunvolt.