Developer: Capcom Production Studio 2
Release Date: June 24, 2008
How much can you change a good formula without ruining it? If it's the Mega Man series, the answer is, "so much that the word 'ludicrous' becomes an understatement." With Mega Man 9 just announced for the download services and literally going back to the formula of the oldest NES releases, it is startling to see just how much has changed in each iteration of this series. Mega Man X took the original formula and added more detailed and precise controls. Mega Man Legends took the series to a 3-D open-world style long before it was popular and added many RPG elements. Mega Man Zero mixed and matched some elements of Legends into the X gameplay and threw on heaps of difficulty, while Mega Man Battle Network concurrently went for an action-TCG style and even more RPG elements than Legends. Mega Man Star Force for the NDS took the style of Battle Network and twisted the camera to an over-the-shoulder viewpoint and was more like a traditional TCG.
Indeed, the grand tradition of this 20-year-old series continues with Mega Man Star Force 2, which is pretty much an incremental upgrade, new story, and new bosses on top of the previous iteration, and it's just fine and fun, not in spite of that, but specifically because of it.
The basic gameplay premise in Mega Man Star Force 2: Zerker X Ninja is much the same as the previous iterations of the series. Run around as Geo Stelar, then wave-change into Mega Man to run around as him. When Mega Man's in play, random and scripted viruses will attack you, at which point you will go into 3-D, over-the-shoulder combat, during which you can dodge from side to side and shoot enemies. However, the real power comes from your battle cards — 30 cards that represent your primary attacks, allowing you to use more advanced and powerful weapons, summon other characters to use their specials, and generally wreck fights. This combat remains simple, yet consistent and surprisingly tactical, especially as the various wrinkles start coming into play.
The most basic tricks that Mega Man Star Force 2 offers are Counters and Lock-On, which were present in most of the series' prior games. The former means that if you hit the opponent right as he's landing an attack, he gets stunned, and you are given a completely random extra battle chip. The latter changes the "your row only" rule by letting you jump up to hit an enemy head-on, thus preventing melee attacks, such as the Sword Chip, from becoming situational and borderline useless, as they often were in the Battle Network series. More complex tricks include Star Chips, which increase the damage of other chips, and Tribe On, which is harnessing and transforming into the spirit of ancient "tribes." Randomly appearing special cards let you switch into the form of the version of the game you selected — in this case, either the Fire Zerker or Wood Ninja. (That, and it being a way to keep two saves, is the only difference between the Zerker and Ninja versions of the game, as well as the Saurian version in Mega Man Star Force 2: Ninja X Saurian.) Of course, unlocking the other forms is not only possible, but rather easy, and you can even take on two or even all three forms at the same time. The resulting Tribe King form is a surefire way to break the game wide open.
Mega Man Star Force 2 also introduces the Link Power system, which is essentially a simplified version of the Program Grid from the Battle Network series. The amount of Link Power you have is proportionate to how many special programs you can carry at once. More HP, a larger capacity to carry battle chips, and the game-over-preventing undershirt are just a few of its advantages.
All of these new and old rules twists mix up Star Force 2 just enough to surprise new players, but are quickly adjusted to, leaving the game to stand on its story line and the obsessiveness of its players. The plot follows similar patterns to the last game, emphasizing the nature of friendship. Geo Stelar needs to be able to rely on his closest friends, just as they rely on him in the form of Mega Man. The technology he keeps around him also tends to come in handy. Against this backdrop, he faces off against Lady Vega, who seeks to use the Lost Continent of Mu, whose ancient civilization is somehow perfectly compatible with extra-modern wireless technology, to take over the world. As usual, this means a mix of mostly kid-friendly shenanigans, including the return of past bosses, new opponents to fight and cool systems to use — the usual works, really.
Capcom's development team pulled out quite a few stops with Star Force 2. No longer do the graphics look like they could be done on the GBA without much loss; characters are larger and more detailed, and motions are much smoother. The best comparison I can make is to look at Capcom's Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney and compare the art quality of the new style to that of the older games in the series. It's that kind of jump, and it really does make a huge difference. The resulting art style is also much brighter, suited to the game's slight upward tilt in tone.
The graphics also play with the two screens, putting non-combat gameplay on the bottom screen while the top shows what is going on above you. Usually, this does not matter, but it is really nice. Sound effects haven't improved massively, but the non-inclusion of voice has proven to be a good thing for the game's longevity. The music quality has gone up; while no song is likely to be quite as iconic as those of the original Mega Man games, I found them to consistently add to the intended mood and experience, and generally be much more enjoyable than the music of the past several Battle Network titles.
Mega Man Star Force 2 is an improvement on the same old formula. It plays exactly the same in the overall sense, but it refines things a little, patches in a new story, and generally upgrades things to be better suited to the DS system, avoiding gimmicks in favor of polishing the gameplay and graphics. To casual players, it is mostly the same game. To fans of the series and its predecessor, though, that's just fine. Pick up either version and link with friends to break the game wide open. Certainly, it shows that Capcom knows how to find its audience and make a fun romp for them.