Madou Monogatari: Hanamaru Dai Youchienji - Staff Retroview  

Cute & Colorful, Slow & Boring
by Mike "JuMeSyn" Moehnke

Click here for game information
Less than 20 Hours
+ Icon-based menus make for an easy import
+ Cute, amusing scenario and events
- Long, repetitive battles
- Big dungeons with almost nothing inside
- Short - but feels much longer
+ Offers a way to kill low-level enemies instantly
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   Compile's Madou Monogatari series was the source of the characters seen in Puyo Puyo, and the loony cast was usually the greatest strength of this RPG series. Throwing these outlandish personalities into the mix should have resulted in a highly entertaining RPG, and it eventually did in 1998 on the Saturn. Before that relative triumph, Compile kept tweaking the same scenario of Arle Nadja undergoing her magic examination, informally remaking the same game repeatedly. Madou Monogatari: Hanamaru Dai Youchienji (Story of the Magic Road: The Greatest Kindergartner) ditches the first-person format of all the earlier games and broadens the scope of the action from a single large tower to various subsets of nature, but forgets to keep a fast pace. The result is something that only diehard Madou Monogatari fanatics need take interest in.

   As in the nearly-concurrent Mega Drive game Madou Monogatari I, Arle Nadja is a five-year-old girl who must pass her magic school examination. Unlike any other Madou Monogatari with that setup, she is not forced to climb the many floors of a tower specially constructed to train magic students, but instead must retrieve eight orbs scattered around the portion of the world to which she has access. Arle is an interesting protagonist, since she does act like a little girl, but the nonlinear approach makes the orb acquisition rather episodic, and not particularly interesting. The simple fact that a five-year-old girl is triumphing over enemies that daunt adults is not the news item that would be expected, which is rather a disappointment. The language barrier isn't very strong in this game, and figuring out what goes on will not be very challenging, but there is little reward for going through the effort.

   Even easier to understand than the story is the battle system, because it uses icons exclusively. Instead of physically attacking (Arle is a kindergartner, after all) magic spells or items are the only options in combat. To make up for the mandatory use of spells, Arle's basic Fire, Icestorm, and Thunder attacks consume no MP. Gauging the use of MP is a strange business anyway, since the game offers no numbers about anything except money. HP are represented by Arle's onscreen expression and some hiragana text, MP by another expression she makes after using a spell, and experience by nine jewel icons at the bottom of the screen that are slowly filled. The system of almost no numbers worked a lot better in the Mega Drive's Madou Monogatari, because Arle has far fewer expressions by which to gauge her condition in this game.

Beings with a big foot are overly sensitive about it - who knew? Beings with a big foot are overly sensitive about it - who knew?

   Aside from the lack of physical attacks and the icon-only interface, Hanamaru Dai Youchienji's combat proceeds like many other turn-based random battle systems, save that every battle is a duel between two opponents. The attack and reaction animations are cute, but they take a long time to finish, and they cannot be fast-forwarded or skipped even with repeated hammering on the A button. Enemies are rarely a serious challenge, but plodding through them is very time-consuming. Probably the best thing about this Madou Monogatari's combat system is the ability to instantly win against low-level enemies by pressing the shoulder buttons before the encounter actually begins, but the random nature of encounters means that sometimes enemies too strong to kill in one attack will appear, making this system less useful than the similar one in Earthbound.

   The minimal numbers extend to the out-of-battle interface, where icons denote every possible action. A little trial-and-error will quickly familiarize the player with the function of everything in the menu, which conveniently allows for saving at any time. The minimal equipment provides boosts to something in Arle's magical arsenal, and does nothing more precise because of the game's numerophobia.

   Hanamaru Dai Youchienji can easily be completed in less than twenty hours, but a lot of that will be spent running between the same areas in dungeons that use the same basic designs, so that the game falls into a bizarre nexus in which it seems much lengthier than it actually is. Later boss battles are particularly obnoxious, requiring dozens of turns to complete. A couple can exceed half an hour unless Arle has been massively grinding. These fights are not difficult, as watching Arle's condition and healing when appropriate will solve just about every conceivable difficulty, but their infuriating length is a definite turnoff.

Arle Nadja, Unlikely 5-Year-Old Savior of the Frogs Arle Nadja, Unlikely 5-Year-Old Savior of the Frogs

   This Madou Monogatari is definitely cute, but aside from that aspect, its visuals are unimpressive by the standards of 1996. Arle's spells each have a different animation, and the enemies are well-animated, but their move variety is not extensive enough to remove rampant repetition. The dungeons use a limited number of room layouts, making them boring to venture through. In compensation, the outdoor environments are colorful and interesting, and the denizens of the world are interesting to behold.

   The very lengthy boss fights would be less annoying if the music played during them was not incredibly repetitive. To compensate, the music outside of battle is varied and interesting, meaning that any OST release would have mostly good tunes. There is a little voice acting in battle, consisting of clips that will be familiar to any Puyo Puyo player, none of it straining the SNES's audio.

   For a game about a precocious five-year-old magic student fighting a tea-drinking skeleton and an out-of-tune harpy, Madou Monogatari: Hanamaru Dai Youchienji is surprisingly dull. Other Madou Monogatari games have shown how to make the combat interesting, and simply wandering around the bizarre world of Puyo Puyo ought to be entertaining, but this game shows how a seemingly can't-miss concept becomes dull. The Super Famicom had an enormous library of games that were never localized, and many of them are more worthwhile to investigate than this.

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