Sunday, June 28, 2015

Game Boy RPG Series: Magi-Nation

I play a lot of handheld games, and I love RPGs. I've made it my mission to play and review every RPG released in the USA for the Game Boy and Game Boy Color consoles. My goal is to be able to experience these games and enlighten my fellow handheld collectors on their strengths and weaknesses. These games will be played in the order I find and acquire them. If you have any suggestions for games I should be on the lookout for, let me know.


Hooooo boy. Magi-Nation. Where to start? After trying to finish this game for a month now, I have developed a love-hate relationship with it. The creativity, charm, and effort that went into it has wowed me. The rushed execution and some head-scratching design decisions had me grinding my teeth in frustration. 

Let's start with a little background. Magi-Nation started out in 2000 as a trading card game called Magi-Nation Duel. Set up as a kind of cross between the Pokemon and Magic the Gathering games, MND developed a small following until it's last expansion came out near the end of 2002. In 2001, when the publisher, Interactive Imagination, was pushing the franchise the hardest, they published Magi-Nation for the Game Boy Color.

Despite being essentially a promotional title to push the franchise, Magi-Nation comes across as a labor of love in many ways. Magi-Nation has some of the most detailed pixel art I have ever seen on the Game Boy Color. The battle system is unique. The music pushes the technical limits of the Game Boy's sound processing. The writing is clever and engaging. Put it all together and it gives the distinct impression that the developers had a genuine love for the product they were creating.

Set in the fantasy world of the Moonlands, Magi-Nation follows human teenager Tony Jones as he falls into the magical world and has to find his way home. Along the way, Tony can summon various monsters known as dream creatures using magical rings he can forge in the various regions of the Moonlands. While Magi-Nation was created and developed in the US, the game is very much a JRPG made by fans of the genre. On top of following typical JRPG logic and mechanics, MN also indulges in a bit of deconstruction of the genre, which I found pretty amusing. There are in-jokes scattered around the dialogue and the flavor text when examining items throughout the game. It all adds up to a charming experience that feels unique. There aren't many other games like this.

The world of MN is distinctive and colorful. You can practically feel the heat when exploring the volcanic Cald, or a chill coming on when finding your way through the musty dampness of the Underneath. The graphics are nothing short of impressive. Magi-Nation almost looks like a GBA title. Each dream creature is well-detailed too, although I sometimes found myself wishing that some of the creatures had starker contrast in the color palette, as it was hard to see all the detail in the designs when placed over a black background.

Another standout feature of MN is the combat system. Loosely based on the card game, MN's system centers around a single stat called energy. Energy acts as HP and a sort of fuel. Tony uses his energy to summon dream creatures and cast spells, but faints if he runs out, leading to a game over. Being attacked will also drain Tony's energy. The amount of energy used to summon a dream creature will act as that creature's energy supply as well, essentially transferring Tony's energy into the creature. Using any special attacks will drain the creature's energy just like Tony's. And at the end of the battle, any remaining energy from the summoned creatures will transfer back to Tony. This energy system, while not the most complicated, was fun and once again served to make the experience of playing Magi-Nation into something distinctive and memorable.

With all the praise I've given this game so far, you may be wondering just why my opening paragraph was less enthusiastic. It has to be said, the idealized portrait I've so far painted of Magi-Nation is far from complete. As charming as it can be at times, Magi-Nation has some serious flaws. Let's start with the environments I mentioned earlier; they suffer from what I like to call pointless meandering. They are just too big, each one filled with multiple branching pathways leading to nowhere. Then there's the battle system. Each menu has a loading animation you have to wait through. It takes time for creatures to appear, for attacks to carry through, and there is no way to modify the text speed. This glaring omission is a perfect example of the frustration that can come from playing for long periods. It seems like the developers spent all their effort making a pretty game and forgot to take very basic things into account.

This leads to me to what I think is the biggest flaw of MN: The save points. There aren't any. The only way to save is in a town with an inn, or in the overworld. Stuck in a big dungeon and your break's over at work? Tough shit. Almost at the final boss and not sure if you're gonna pull it off? Hope you ran outside and saved before going back in. How, in 2001, a portable RPG was put to market with no way to save at your leisure is beyond me. I would have finished this game in a much shorter span if someone had taken the time to implement this most basic of features. But unfortunately I simply could not sit down and spend any time playing it unless I knew I would have at least 30 minutes to play, as there was no way to know that I'd be able to accomplish anything in a shorter amount of time without losing that progress.

I think Magi-Nation would have been better as a home console game. In fact, I think the developers approached the design of Magi Nation by imitating their favorite home console RPGs (although even those had save points). The long, winding passages, the long periods of time necessary to accomplish anything, it all seems to point to a game that one would expect to set aside longer periods of time to play. And that is not, in my opinion, ideal for a portable platform. Every successful portable game I've played has been designed around short play sessions. In fact, that's one of the main reasons why I enjoy portables so much. They're very addictive due to the nature of playing in short bursts.

So would I recommend Magi-Nation? Yes. In fact, now that I've finally completed it, I'm playing through it again in the new game + mode, bit by bit. The flaws are manageable if you're aware of them and plan your playtimes accordingly. It's frustrating because I think MN could have been so much more than it was. More thorough playtesting, and more considerate design could have led to a lasting RPG franchise instead of an interesting one-off RPG now forgotten by everyone but us Game Boy collectors.

No comments:

Post a Comment