Madou Monogatari I, the first game in the series that would go on to spawn the eternally popular Puyo Puyo series, is harder than you’d think to pin down; every version is different from the last, including the ones that are supposed to be more straightforward ports than all-out remakes. Almost thirty years have passed since the game’s 1990 debut on MSX and we’re still no closer to seeing a single definitive version of the game, and it’s unlikely that we ever will.
What this means is that while the bare bones remain the same between revisions – tiny child Arle must face a magical tower filled with monsters and traps alone in a first person dungeon crawling environment – everything from the dungeon floor layouts to puzzles to battle systems and even the physical appearance of enemies can be drastically between releases and as such each is most fairly treated when considered as an entirely individual entity.
This particular Game Gear game – the first of four Madou Monogataris on the system – gives an incredible first impression; the UI layout will feel instantly recognisable to Madou players, even going so far as to retain a simplified version of the golden border that acts as an ornate visual replacement for that standard RPG experience bar, and for first-timers it all appears very bold and beautiful with lots of large sprites and excessive animation.
Almost all of the Japanese computer game’s visual flourishes have survived the transition to Sega’s portable, something of a necessity as some of them are integral to the game’s design. A full quarter of the screen is permanently dedicated to displaying Arle herself, her close-up portrait serving as a replacement for a health bar. An adorable grin means she’s completely healthy, whereas a more tired expression would indicate she’s in need of healing. In battle her portrait is replaced by a full-body view to show her animatedly throwing spells as well as wincing as she receives damage, with simple text descriptions to let you know how she’s doing: Arle can tell you if she’s still all right or if she’s hurt, but you’ll never know exactly how much health she has remaining or see any form of numerical representation of any of her stats. Enemies are handled in the same way; you’ll know if they’re giving and receiving damage, and the text will give some indication of it being a little or a lot, but you’ll never be told anything more specific.
For an old handheld game is the amount of aural feedback players get as they battleis unbelievable: Both Arle and the enemies she encounters are incredibly vocal, dishing out actual speech – specific lines that directly relate to what’s happening – with each conjuration and blow taken, and it’s so clear you can even recognise what’s being said without checking it against the accompanying text. The only issue here is speech of this quality seems to be rather taxing for the Game Gear, creating a pause in the action whenever it’s used – and it’s used quite a lot, which has the unfortunate side effect of making battles take just that little bit longer than you know they have to. The good news is these samples can be turned off (and back on) at any time outside of battle so you are free to decide for yourself if you want to put up with the pauses or not.
All of these details help to give the game a kind of character and style that a lot of other dungeon crawlers lack and Puyo fans will feel instantly at home amongst the Skeleton-Ts, restorative curries, and Arle’s familiar (ICE STORM) battle cries. There’s a definite feeling that Sega/Compile were really pushing the Game Gear hard with this one and trying to pack as much into that little cart as was humanly possible, bless ’em.
But with all this effort turned towards these relatively minor (but welcome) details some of the more fundamental aspects of dungeon crawler design appear to have been overlooked. Navigating the tower is far more difficult than it should be due to the incredibly small number of wall and floor tiles used; if a particular tile hasn’t got a door embedded in the wall then there’s nothing at all to distinguish one empty space from the next – no little crack in the flooring, no moss, no puddles of water, no torches on the walls, nothing. So even just a few steps from your starting position two of the four directions you can look at are already literally indistinguishable from each other, and this is a problem that only gets worse as it goes on. Treasure chests are completely invisible unless you’re occupying the same tile as them – and then if you do turn around the chest will “turn” with you, always being dead ahead even as you face the opposite way – it’s disorientating and sloppy. Stairs and other floor-traversing warps are even worse as they have no graphical representation at all, not even on the mini-map – that’s the mini map that’s nestled in with the rest of the menus and not assigned to either the I or Start buttons, even though neither of them do anything at all when you’re roaming about – the only reason you know what’s happened is because it’s printed out in plain text. This is especially maddening in a labyrinth designed to have a lot of back-and-forth between floors, and creates a tedious issue for the player that could’ve easily been avoided. At least you get a compass to help you …eventually. If you happen to stumble across the right chest on the right floor, that is.
The battle system forgoes any sort of equipment or traditional attack/defend system and replaces it with a set of spells for Arle (some learned as she levels, some discovered as you progress) and the option to use any restorative items she’s found or bought along the way. For a game that leans this heavily on magic you’d expect there to be an extensive list of spells to cast that do all sorts of exciting things to but Madou Monogatari only has nine all game, and not even all of those can be used in battle.
This lack of tactical options is brought into sharp focus by the ridiculous difficulty balance of the early enemies, all of which can wipe Arle out in one or two hits and sometimes before she’s even had a turn herself. If an enemy launches a critical hit or a sweet little Puyo brings in another Puyo to form a chain there’s absolutely stuff all you can do about it; no clever counters, debuffs, shields or pre-emptive regenerative spells come into play, not ever. I should stress that I found the difficulty of these initial fights so bizarre I took some time out to test the randomness of these outcomes on a real cart (in a real Game Gear) as well as on an emulator – it just really is that random, and until you get a few levels under Arle’s belt success is entirely down to luck. This is all at a time when Arle’s only healing comes from consumable items or levelling up, and makes the first few floors a deeply disheartening experience. If you do manage to tough it out the enemy balance comes crashing back the other way, the overly-frequent random encounters twisting into pointless time-sapping snags. On a more positive note you can save at any point outside of battle in any of four save slots – and you’ll need to, as defeat doesn’t just kick you out to the title screen but completely resets the game, right back to that first Sega logo.
With all of these frustrations piling up it’d be easy to say that I’m being unfairly harsh towards Madou Monogatari I, that this is just how old games were – but that’s not true. FTL’s Dungeon Master and Humming Bird Soft’s Laplace no Ma came out in 1987. Falcom’s Dinosaur first graced Japanese computers in 1990. Sega’s own Shining and the Darkness came out in 1991 – around two years before Madou Monogatari I launched on the Game Gear. For further context: when Madou Monogatari I came out Link’s Awakening, Secret of Mana, and arcade Daytona USA were all new releases – this wasn’t the gaming Dark Ages, and there’s no good “It’s understandable, nobody knew any better” reasoning for these design choices.
What Madou Monogatari I does well, it does really well. Arle and her wild gang of friends and foes are a fab bunch, and it’s no coincidence they were able to carry this series, the Puyo series, and to a point Compile themselves for decades. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with them. I love them. I even have Puyo plushies, for heaven’s sake. But the nuts-and-bolts of the game can’t help barging in at the worst moments to sour the mood: The illusory walls. The extremely limited bag space that can only be alleviated by purchasing expensive extra storage from shopkeepers you can’t see until you bump into them. Puzzles that require items from other floors. Almost every damned chest triggering a do-or-die encounter. Progress-critical items being expensive consumables bought from the haphazardly scattered invisible shops, or hidden away in one chest in a floor of identical chests. One-way doors. To be blunt, the greatest challenge here isn’t to your skills, it’s to your patience.
Most frustratingly of all to a large extent these things aren’t a Madou Monogatari problem but specifically a Madou Monogatari Game Gear problem: I haven’t played every port and remake but at the very least neither the PC-98 or Mega Drive versions of the game felt quite this unforgiving or mean-spirited. I’ll freely admit here that I’ve only played as far as the fourth floor (there are ten in total) – maybe it gets better. Maybe. I will be honest: I truly do not know. What I do know is that after putting up with the base level of player-hostile design for a few hours and only seeing the game throw ever more aggravating tricks and traps my way as a “reward” I’m not prepared to stick with it to find out, sorry.