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Magi Nation (Game Boy Color) artwork

Magi Nation (Game Boy Color) review

"Magi-Nation is a fine example of western RPG developers floundering for success in the RPG genre in the early 21st century"

The most interesting thing, in hindsight, about playing Magi-Nation is reflecting on how the power within the RPG genre has shifted within the last decade. Released on the Game Boy Colour in 2001, it arrived at a time when the Japanese ruled the role-playing realm. Western developer Interactive Imagination clearly recognised this, pilfering all of the elements it perceived made their eastern cousins successful. Despite featuring a distinctly ordinary American protagonist, the art style is distinctly anime-inspired. The story treads the well-worn path of a prophesied hero saving a fantasy world from a great evil. Perhaps most tellingly, the game was little more than a marketing advancement to promote a Pokémon-style collectible trading card game. When the video game received a belated release in Japan, the protagonist’s look was drastically altered to meet Japanese sensibilities (i.e. black spiky hair). It seems vaguely ironic now that Western RPGs are ruling the roost that Magi-Nation was held up as an example of the contentious argument that western developers simply could not make a good RPG.

Magi Nation asset

This is a half-truth (in more ways than one). Magi-Nation has a couple of things going for it, notably some of the most impressive graphics ever seen on the Game Boy Colour. Despite the focus on an ‘average American teenager’ aesthetic, protagonist Toby Jones is nevertheless nicely detailed, from his bright mop of blonde hair right down to the chain that hangs from his jeans. Although he hardly boasts a huge repertoire of animations, the few within his range are fluid and effortless. While supporting characters and enemies are not quite so detailed, and certainly a tad generic in their anime-aping stylings, they at least look pretty on the screen.

The same can be said of the environments. The principle city of Vash Naroom is your typical tree canopy settlement, complete with lamp-lit treehouses and gravity-defying wooden gangways. It’s a veritable Ewok village. Yet it’s quite beautifully realised, boasting vivid colours and a layout that encourages at least a cursory poke around. In fact, it’s the same throughout the adventure – you’ll traverse dark underground areas, bright leafy forests, and lava-spewing canyons. These are familiar locales, but executed with real style on the humble Game Boy Colour.

Magi Nation asset

Music helps lend individuality to these areas. The score wrings every last drop out of the GBC’s limited sound chip. Each environment is accompanied by a fitting signature tune, from breezy and catchy to dark and oppressive. Unlike many older handheld games, this isn’t one where the sound needs to be firmly muted.

Regrettably, it’s in other crucial areas that Magi-Nation suffers. As already mentioned, the story is woefully hackneyed. Toby Jones is pressured by bullies into entering a sinister cave. Inside he finds a mysterious crystal, the retrieval of which causes the floor to collapse into a hidden fantasy world. Here Toby is mistaken for a prophesied hero called Magus Kyros, destined to banish the insidious Dark Magi. Toby is more interested in getting home but is, of course, drawn into the battle of good versus evil. It’s uninspiring stuff to say the least, and you’re unlikely to become too invested in the proceedings. Still, it doesn’t hinder the game too severely, thanks in part to some light-hearted, witty writing. There’s an incident towards the end too, depending on player choices earlier in the game, that’s surprisingly dark.

The story’s shortcomings might be forgivable if the gameplay was fun. Unfortunately it’s more a tedious exercise in repetition. Looking to capitalise on the Pokémon craze, Magi-Nation sees you capturing and coaching miniature monsters, here known as Dream Creatures. Pokémon games have always done a stellar job of encouraging strategic and varied training/battling in a simple manner. Here it’s little more than a chore.

Magi Nation asset

The crux of Magi-Nation’s battle system is a substance called Animite, which is dropped by defeated Dream Creatures. This comes in two varieties. Plain Animite operates as in-game currency, whereas Infused Animite holds the essence of the source monster. The latter can be forged into a ring to summon that monster to battle alongside you. Animite is a needless complication of its inspiration’s relatively elegant system; the sheer wealth of Animite required to achieve anything borders on the ridiculous. To make a summoning ring you need a considerable sum of both Plain and Infused Animite, which is very much at odds with the paltry amount dropped by monsters.

It’s a shame, as the battles themselves could have been fun. Unlike Pokémon games of the period, Magi-Nation lets you summon up to four Dream Creatures to fight alongside you, drawing from a depository of up to ten at any one time. Toby also plays an active role in battles by casting spells or regenerating energy. It is technically possible to never call upon bestial allies, although you’d be giving yourself an unnecessarily hard time of it. This is particularly true due to the sheer length of even the most basic battles. In an attempt to encourage strategy the game eschews a traditional turn-based system in favour of sticking closer to its card game origins, the result being nothing but tedium. Battle animations are lengthy, and can’t be deactivated. You’ll soon find your attention wandering, your fingers working on auto-pilot. The game contains an odd mix of random battles and visible enemies. You’ll almost certainly avoid conflict when you can, and growl in frustration when you can’t. This makes levelling up your Dream Creatures rather a problem. When there’s no choice but to fight, the amount of experience rewarded is cruelly low.

Magi-Nation is something of a strange game. In many ways it’s so much better than it ever had a right to be, given that it was ultimately little more than a glorified marketing device. Its problems don’t stem from a lack of effort – the quality of the visuals and music is testament to that. Unfortunately its more cynical elements, particularly the derivative monster collecting and battling, are simply not remotely compelling or enjoyable. Magi-Nation is a fine example of western RPG developers floundering for success in the RPG genre in the early 21st century – which is to say, it’s an entry you can gladly give a miss.

space_dust's avatar
Staff review by David Owen (April 13, 2013)

David Owen is a freelance writer who also contributes to VG247, Eurogamer, IGN, and others. He likes Gitaroo Man more than is healthy.

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