The pixel art seen throughout Magical Vacation, Brownie Brown’s 2001 GBA RPG, is never anything less than utterly stunning. Every location is bathed in comforting pastel colours and brimming with astonishing levels of detail, this art encompassing everything from lush forests to industrialist towers and populated by fluffy dog people, talking puppets, and every other kind of fantastical being your mind can possibly imagine. Transparent overlays bring an additional softness to every screen they appear in, and no surface is left undecorated. Shiny coins and hopping frogs are waiting to be collected on the soft grass growing by animated streams, lending the game an air of childlike wonder.
Every screenshot looks like a supremely talented artist’s mockup of a fantasy RPG that is too densely detailed to actually exist.
And like many an unplayable mockup, little time has been spent worrying about the practicalities of these beautiful vistas, basic readability often pushed aside in favour of showstopping awe. It’s rarely crystal clear if you’re approaching a path-blocking barrier or an elevated object the party can walk under, and more than a few very ordinary exits get lost in the visual noise. Organic environments often leave you wondering if the scattered stones within them are decorative, obstructive, or part of a natural path, and at one point a dense forest filled with bubbling purple pools of something invites you to use stone staircases that clearly pass through holes in the grassy dirt to… other parts of the forest, as if you’re stuck in some bizarre forest layer cake. For every instance of astonishing beauty there’s another where you’d give an arm just to be able to tell if the cavern ceiling above was disguising a walkable trail or meant to be viewed as the edge of the map.
The battles—random and otherwise—you inevitably encounter in these places are magic-focused, MP a slowly regenerating resource as well as a constant concern, your party’s unchangeable elemental alignment and appropriately themed spells something that must always be taken into account if you hope to do any serious damage. Do you unleash a character’s screen-wide attack and spend the next few turns dishing out physical damage while their MP recovers, or proceed more carefully? Do you take an extra turn to summon a passive spirit designed to dramatically enhance the effect of a follow-up spell, or decide to inflict a smaller amount of damage right now? There are a lot of questions to ask yourself in every battle, and no single right answer.
As inventive as it can sometimes be, too often Magical Vacation shows its worst and most shockingly unimaginative side. Fainted characters gain no XP, leaving those most likely to fall in battle further and further behind. When party members unexpectedly up and leave the group they take everything they were wearing at the time with them and only return it hours later (if at all), when you have no use for it. The first 15+ hours or so of the game sees people erratically coming and going like this, leaving you unable to form any strategic plans or safely use the many permanent stat-boosting items you can find during your travels on anyone other than your own self-insert avatar, because you’re the only person who will never leave the group without warning.
This is basic stuff that shouldn’t be happening in any game released in 2001. We had online RPGs, Metal Gear Solid 2 and Shenmue II. We knew better.
Sadly, Magical Vacation doesn’t. At one point you’re made to trudge through an overly-long and unskippable trading sequence set within a multi-floor tower, your task being to find the right mouse in a level packed with identical rodents based on a small clue the last in the chain gave you about the next’s behaviour. Uneventful exploration may lead to an unannounced boss fight, the death you could have avoided with a quick pre-battle trip to the inventory screen demolishing any unsaved progress you made. The humour of a generic wandering fish trying to extort money from you after bumping into them fades on the fifth, tenth… fifteenth click through the exact same dialogue in half a dozen entirely unrelated locations.
The game is so determined to engineer weird scenarios for weirdness’ sake it never seems to stop and ask if any of this is actually much fun for the person on the receiving end.
Magical Vacation just doesn’t really know what it wants to be, or even what to do with what it has. Everyone and everything is named after either delicious foodstuffs or their ingredients—Pistachio, Masala Tea, Cafe au Lait and so on—but the game itself couldn’t be less interested in cooking or eating if it tried. Suplex ’em up Resident Evil 4 demonstrates a greater interest in food, and that game lets you go fishing with a gun.
Due to this lack of focus we end up with a story featuring talking pots, puddle-people, and a literal magic school bus that chooses to open with a tale of childhood exile, the player’s lightly customisable character shunned from their village (and apparently by their parents too) for their supposedly creepy magical abilities. In my case, this terrifying power manifested as the ability to chuck large acorns at monsters, before growing to… chucking multiple walnuts at monsters. The punishment simply doesn’t fit the supposed crime. Other characters, playable or otherwise, tend to come and go before they’ve made more than the most superficial impression, and if they do return later you find there’s rarely anything more to them anyway. Your friends, scattered across multiple planes of reality during the prologue, don’t seem to want to find each other, their teachers, or a way back home all that urgently, yet the writing doesn’t do enough to make you believe a bunch of kids are on a magical adventure into the unknown either.
There is no cohesion here, Magical Vacation unable to decide if it wants you to enjoy offering pinecones to an eccentric being wearing a giant top hat or witness someone try to murder another’s cursed relative for their blood, opting for a “Why not both?” approach that denies the story the breezy whimsy of former as much as it does the dark fairytale bite of the latter.
It’s galling to see a game repeatedly show the incredible only to then leave us stuck playing something so relatively ordinary. The actual RPG running underneath Magical Vacation’s graphical splendour is muddled and irritatingly average, the gulf between the game you see and the game you play raising questions as to where the development time/expertise/interest was spent, and if it was spent wisely. A game that’s ordinary throughout is just an ordinary game. A game that veers from spectacular to serviceable is a painfully disappointing hodgepodge at best, and a woefully mishandled project at worst.
[There’d be nothing here if it wasn’t for the support I receive through Ko-fi! Please consider leaving a small tip if you’ve enjoyed this or any other article]
5 thoughts on “Magical Vacation: From the spelltacular to the magically mundane”
This game looks so pretty, it makes me sad that those good looks are wasted on such a disappointing RPG experience.
Great screenshots! It looks so beautiful and I can’t imagine the detail that went into the sprite work, just a shame to hear about the gameplay. Didn’t Brownie Brown have a large hand in Mother 3 and a few other well-received things?
They did! You can read a list of their work here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1-Up_Studio
Comments are closed.