Lately, I've been thinking a lot about how many things seemed so much better in the 80's and early-mid 90's. Cartoons were better, music was better, even video games were better. I'm mentioning this because once again, I've finished a game made in the 2000's that has left me not knowing what to think of the state of video games today and worrisome about their future. Magi-Nation was certainly an ambitious attempt. If I had to rate the game based on competency, it would probably score pretty high. The designers definitely showed a lot of talent for graphics, character art, and some puzzles, but somehow, it just doesn't all come together for a fun game.
Magi-Nation is the story of Tony Jones - an average teenager who finds himself lost in a fantasy world where he must use Dream Creatures to battle monsters and villains, a la Pokemon. The graphics are exceptionally well-done, especially for a Gameboy Color game. Some of the backgrounds are almost Chrono Trigger-quality and have a striking amount of detail. There is some really interesting architecture and grotesque images in the dungeons (called Shadow Geysers). Character and monster designs are especially good. They're done in an anime-inspired fashion, but retain a unique, refreshing look.
There are five areas of Magi-Nation, and each is based on a specific theme. Vash Naroom is a forest world. The Underneath is a subterranean cavern overgrown with mushrooms and fungi. The Cald is a bubbling lava zone, Orothe is a fascinating undersea environment, and Arderial is a kingdom built among the clouds. I gotta love how objects in towns often pertain to their surroundings. The Underneath houses have chairs and beds made of giant mushrooms. Cald has melting cabinets, chairs, and tables that look like kidneys! These areas look pretty cool, but if this sounds kind of generic, that's because it is. In fact, as good as the graphics are, I couldn't help but feel that much of the game looks inspired (or maybe ripped-off) from earlier RPGs and adventure games. The forests and caves look very much like something out of Crystalis or Zelda: A Link to the Past. Some of the weird statues and architecture are reminiscent of Secret of Evermore. The overworld resembles Earthbound's Lost Underworld (even the volcanos of the Cald are drawn in a similar style.) Therefore, I often got the feeling that I wasn't visiting a unique fantasy environment, but rather a hodgepodge of RPG worlds past. Also, the game's box shows a magnificent mushroom city, but the actual mushroom town in the game is far less impressive.
Magi-Nation is also very dark. It's difficult to see some areas on a Gameboy Color, and I can't even imagine trying to play it on a Gameboy Advance. Be aware that my screenshots here make the game appear much brighter than what it actually looks like on the GBC.
The developers of Magi-Nation used MusyX, a GameCube tool, to create the game's many musical themes. Unfortunately, I didn't find myself being too impressed by them. The battle themes are good, particularly the boss music, and so is the creepy Shadowhold theme but I can't really say that much else is. The rest of the music ranges from average to downright irritating and sounds somewhat grainy. This just goes to prove that it doesn't matter what development tools you use if you don't have good tunes! Magi-Nation's soundtrack doesn't have anything on Kid Icarus: Of Myths & Monsters or GBC Azure Dreams.
CONTROL: The biggest problem with Magi-Nation is that it is slow. Everything about it is slow. I have to wonder if the programmers didn't realize they were making a cartridge-based game, but even if it was a CD game, there'd be no excuse for this amount of slowness. Tony walks too slow. Even when he runs, he seems to move too slow, especially when compared to such nimble characters like the Crystalis and Secret of Mana heroes. Movement on the overworld is slow. But the worst offender is the battle system. Every time your turn, or one of your monster's turns comes up, the game prints the menu out line-by-line rather than have the whole entire menu appear at once! There is no option to make text scroll faster, and yes, it scrolls too slowly.
I think back to the first menu-based RPG I ever played, which was The Magic of Scheherazade, and I remember how whole entire menus popped up at once on the screen. Think back to Final Fantasy 1 (on the NES), and how you could set the text speed to 7 or 8 and just watch the battles fly by. But not Magi-Nation. I've heard complaints that Azure Dreams (GBC) had a battle system that was too slow. Compared to Magi-Nation, Azure Dreams was greased lightning.
When Tony arrives in Magi-Nation's world, the local folk begin to think he is a reincarnation of the "Great Magus Kyros", who will save their world from doom, as foretold in an ancient prophecy. Unfortunately, Tony's presence in Magi-Nation, itself, appears to be causing trouble, as it's allowing the Shadow Magi to create portals called "Shadow Geysers" from which they can escape the wastelands where they were imprisoned long ago. Magi-Nation is more story-driven than other "monster-catching" RPGs, such as Pokemon, which is why it's a shame that the story isn't particularly interesting or original. It is one part Secret of Evermore (Tony gets lost in a fantasy world and has to find his way home), one part Secret of Mana (something bad happens, and all the townspeople blame it on you), and one part Working Designs-wannabe (lots and lots of dumb jokes.)
Tony is portrayed as a kid who always keeps his cool, but sometimes his complete lack of fascination with his new surroundings hurts the atmosphere. I can't feel a sense of wonder about a place if the main character acts like it's nothing special. Other than a few humorous quips (usually involving "conversation" with inanimate objects), Tony almost never has anything interesting to say.
The story is often unfeasible; there are way too many scenes where the main villain, Morag, is about to kill Tony, but doesn't for one reason or another. Korg and Zet, two bumbling villains who are like the "Bebop and Rocksteady" of the game, engage in a bunch of Looney Tunes-like antics, but they aren't particularly funny. Neither are most of the other "humorous" characters that are in this game, and there are plenty. There are other problems, such as plot threads that go nowhere, including one that involves the game's final boss, whether or not Tony really is Kyros (or how important it really was), or whether it's really because of Tony's presence that Morag can create the Shadow Geysers. For all intents and purposes, the third one seems to be true...until the last part of the game where Morag creates a Shadow Geyser in an area that Tony has not been to, yet! I really dislike it when games take that old "anything can happen because of magic" cop-out. It's enough that I often have to suspend disbelief for the incredulous things that game writers want us to believe, but once rules have been set, they should be adhered to.
CHALLENGE: When I was playing Magi-Nation, I almost felt as though its challenge was irrelevant. No matter what I did with this game, I just couldn't seem to have fun with it, so I'm not sure I would've cared much if it had been more difficult. But as it stands, I'll explain what I did like about Magi-Nation first: I liked that it had puzzles in the dungeons. That's something that seems to be dying out in modern RPGs. Of course, the puzzles weren't much different than what you'd find in the average Zelda game. In fact, there's a block/switch dungeon that's very reminiscent of the Tower of Hera in A Link to the Past, and the final Shadow Geyser has "pipe mazes" similar to that of ALttP's Turtle Rock dungeon. But at least they existed. At least they gave me something to do besides fighting all the endless, mindless random battles.
And therein lies another problem with Magi-Nation...the battles are ever so endless...and mindless. Although there are close to a hundred monsters to catch in Magi-Nation, it doesn't really matter too much which ones you choose to train. Any monster, when leveled-up enough, is more than a match for any other monster in the game. Why even have a gazillion different monsters to catch if you don't need them? There's practically no strategy involved at all.
So almost all methods of overcoming challenges in Magi-Nation relate to being leveled-up enough. None of the bosses in the game gave me much trouble, until I got to the aforementioned Korg and Zet. I could not beat them with my current team of monsters, and I tried other monsters on them, but nothing worked. So I leveled up, quite a bit, and then had little problem with them. The funny thing is, after that, I had no problems with any other bosses, either! Even the final boss was a surprising pushover. His spells seemed like they didn't do anything at all, and he used no monsters I hadn't already seen in the game before.
I've seen so much work go into Magi-Nation. I've seen such careful attention to details in the graphics and character designs. There were some decent puzzles and mazes that I enjoyed navigating, especially that optional Shadow Hold dungeon. That place has some of the creepiest and grotesque atmosphere I've seen. But do you think that while people were working hard on those elements that somebody could've noticed the battle system is running way too slow!! If Magi-Nation had been made long before Magic of Scheherazade or Final Fantasy 1, and I had played it first, my thoughts would have been that this game has an interesting play style that just needs to be perfected. But this game was not made years ago, it was made in 2001, and some RPGs have already reached perfection! There is practically no excuse I can think of for this other than that the game was rushed to completion (which it probably was, considering that there are monsters in the game that cannot be caught without use of a Gameshark.) No, I don't expect every RPG to be "just like" my favorite RPGs. I don't expect every RPG to be "perfect". I realize that sometimes people have good ideas for games, and when those ideas are realized, they can usually offer some fun and challenge, even if the final product isn't quite a "masterpiece". But Magi-Nation is just not that much fun!
Magi-Nation also has a somewhat-unique way of dealing with "random" battles. In most areas, you don't just blindly stumble into fights, a la Final Fantasy games. Instead, little flashes of light randomly appear around the screen, and by running into them, you engage in battle. On the one hand, this means you can easily run through areas without having to fight. As boring as Magi-Nation's battle system is, that's probably a good thing. However, I know something's wrong with a game when I'm actually glad that I can just run right through an area without any consequence, thought, or strategy. It also leads me to wonder, "Just how is this game supposed to be played?" Just how much should I be leveling up at any given point? At least with RPGs that have random battles (Final Fantasy) or a set number of enemies per area (Chrono Trigger), I know that if I fight every battle I get into or monster that I can see, I should be leveled up enough for the challenges ahead. But with Magi-Nation, there's no way of telling until you run smack into a boss that you can't defeat. And most bosses don't appear until you get to the end of a long Shadow Geyser dungeon in which you cannot save! Again, maybe it's actually a good thing those boss fights were all so easy. Battles in Shadow Geysers are completely random, like Final Fantasy, and while part of me thinks that it would've been better had all areas been made like that, the other part of me is firmly remembering how slow and awful that battle system is!
And speaking of which, I should probably explain a little more how the battle system works. You can carry up to ten monsters with you, and you can choose up to four to fight. You use your own hit points to summon monsters. For example, summoning a monster with 100 hit points takes away 100 of your own hit points, and you must have enough to be able to summon the creature. However, after battle, all remaining hit points that your monsters have are transfered back to Tony. Once your monster(s) is/are summoned, you can command them to use normal or special attacks. Normal attacks cost nothing, but have no special effects. Special attacks cost a little of your monster's own hit points to use. Battles are turn-based, and you fight until you've defeated all enemies on-screen. In boss battles, you'll fight against another Magi (monster trainer), and unlike Pokemon in which you only have to defeat all the monsters, you must deafeat the trainer, itself, too. A novel idea, since you'll need to beat the trainer before he/she focuses back enough energy to summon more monsters.
Tony can also focus back energy. In fact, if you don't want to have Tony summon a monster or use a spell or item in battle, you have to make him choose "focus". But it's highly annoying to have to do that all the time, even if you don't need to, because the focus animation is too slow. And speaking of animations, every time a monster or character attacks, be it you or the enemy, a screen comes up showing a side view of the attacker and the character being attacked as they perform their moves, and there is no option to turn this off! When a character takes damage, not only does the numerical amount of damage appear over the monster, but the game slowly types out "X-Monster did XX damage to X-Monster" the same way it slowly types out the menus! Why was this necessary? Is there any gamer alive who wouldn't know that the "57" that just appeared over the enemy is the amount of damage you did to it?
Magi-Nation borrows many ideas from early, old-school RPGs. But while the creators of Magi-Nation were busy ripping off those games, they could have at least learned what made them so great and fun to play! Working Designs may have started this trend of publishing oldschool RPGs with "comedic" translations, and now everyone and their brother thinks that the only requirement for making a good RPG is filling it with lots of jokes. I'm well aware of the praise Magi-Nation has gotten from many websites and publications around the world, but it makes me wonder when I see some of those writings claim the fifth Shadow Geyser, which is absolutely necessary to beat to progress in the game, to be a "secret" dungeon! I wonder how hard I'd be laughed at if I claimed the Temple of Fiends Revisted in Final Fantasy or Ganon's Tower in A Link to the Past to be "secret dungeons"?
I'm not even going to get into how Magi-Nation was based on a card battle game, because I'm not into those sorts of things and know practically nothing about them. Nor am I going to get into how Magi-Nation was supposed to be a "Pokemon killer" (haha!) I will say that Magi-Nation does have a lot of hidden items and monsters, including this one really long, elaborate sequence of events you have to follow exactly to get the game's strongest monster. And I will admit that the second time I played through it, I had a little more fun, because I was able to take my time and fully examine the game's world (the urgency of Tony's quest the first time through seemed to overtake my desire to explore.) But all of these things didn't make Magi-Nation a good game...just a mediocre game with some extras. I have already heard rumors of a planned sequel to Magi-Nation called "Keeper's Quest". If I don't hear that it's a vast improvement over this game, it will see no attention from me.
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