The nice thing about the games market is how often new things come out. Especially now, it’s easy to find a decent game in your preferred genre on your console of choice. The bad news is, it’s appallingly easy to miss out on good games that just slipped through the cracks or couldn’t compete with the constant “MARIO ZELDA PIKACHU ZOMG” hype. The portable market, with its smaller share of cultural awareness, is especially vulnerable to hype-drownage. So here’s a few things I think got lost in the shuffle that deserve another crack at the gamer market.
Game Boy Color, Game Boy Advance
March 15, 2001
Magi-Nation Duel was a trading card game not many people have heard of, with gameplay similar to Magic: The Gathering and Pokemon TCG. To promote the card game, Magi-Nation the RPG was released, and in my opinion, was probably the more successful of the two. The plot follows the misadventure of Tony Jones, who stumbles into a fantasy world and, of course, has to save it from disaster.
The first thing about this game that caught my eye was how nice the art was. While most games around this era were cartoony or 8-bit-esque pixel sprites, Magi-Nation expanded on the character sprite size a bit to fully lean into its anime aesthetic. (As it turns out, there actually is a Magi-Nation anime!) Battles consisted of a unique (at the time) summoner-and-summoned mechanic where Tony could summon fantasy creatures to fight for him. Defeated creatures could be re-summoned time and time again, as long as Tony had the energy for it—not unlike dueling card games, where the life energy of the player is the win/lose determinant.
In retrospect, the gameplay itself, with its secrets hidden in unexpected, Guide Dang It-level places and the bogglingly long slog without savepoints that is the midpoint dungeon, feels like it leans on the backs of the more complex and difficult RPGs of the console generations, like the SNES Final Fantasies. As such, it feels completely different from the more forgiving Pokémon and the less-plotty Final Fantasy/Seiken Densetsu games. And unlike a lot of games out at the time, Magi-Nation is funny. Even while its plot dips surprisingly dark at times, Magi-Nation doesn’t shy away from being occasionally silly or giving the protagonist a personality. Every time Tony gave a sarcastic observation or tapped his foot impatiently during a battle while waiting for my input, I smiled.
The Magi-Nation RPG fared only slightly better than its card game, Magi-Nation Duel: the game got a Japan-only rerelease on the Game Boy Advance as the card game floundered toward obscurity. Now, the game did come in late into the Game Boy Color’s lifespan, only a few months before the release of the Game Boy Advance. But in a world where the retro market is a thing and the Virtual Console hosts tons of old Gameboy relics, I think there’s still an untapped market for this cute and funny, yet challenging and solid RPG.
Revelations: The Demon Slayer
Atlus, Multimedia Intelligence Transfer
Game Boy, Game Boy Color, Sega Game Gear
December 23, 1992
Shin Megami Tensei is a series that, despite a general lack of popular awareness (until fairly recently), has had a fair number of releases. Revelations: The Demon Slayer is one of those releases, although people who played the game on Game Boy Color might not have even been aware this game was a SMT title until they started playing Persona and realized some things looked familiar….
Known as Last Bible in the original Japanese, Revelations: The Demon Slayer (and its sequels, Last Bible II and III, never released in English) is a spinoff series from the main Megami Tensei games. Rather than being set in the real world, the games all take place in fantasy worlds, rich with gods and devils—monsters with touches of Western religion here and there. Your save-the-world squad consists of three human characters and up to three of the monsters you’ve fought. In both its selection of monsters and its mechanics, Revelations is very much a SMT game. Monsters can be bribed or sweet-talked into joining you, and once they do, you can merge them with each other. Specific combinations will produce more powerful monsters, not unlike the mechanics of Final Fantasy Legend or Dragon Warrior Monsters.
Aside from being in color, the game looks pretty similar to the Final Fantasy games of the Gameboy era: that is, simplistic 8-bit, though the in-battle monster sprites are more detailed. Although its worldbuilding and lore are interesting, as a save-the-world epic fantasy game, it’s not particularly original or groundbreaking. But in light of the SMT series finally finding a solid foothold in the gamer consciousness, bringing all three of these games to the English market makes sense.
PlayStation, Game Boy Color
November 13, 1997
Originally released in 1997 for the PlayStation, Konami made the inexplicable decision to port Azure Dreams to the Gameboy Color a year later. Unsurprisingly, the move to a portable console with much greater hardware restrictions produced a game that, in comparison to the original, is inferior in every way. 3D graphics were turned into 2D sprites that aren’t any more advanced than Link’s Awakening (released four years before). The dating sim elements are completely gone (boo!) and the town development was stripped down into a simple set of graphical upgrades. Even the main dungeon had its number of floors reduced by ten.
But for those that didn’t have the original PS game to compare to, Azure Dreams is a solid JPRG and the first to bring roguelike play to the English-speaking Gameboy Color market. Gameplay is centered around the mysterious tower and the main character’s quest to ascend to the top in order to find out what happened to his father. The floors are randomly generated and filled with traps not unlike those of games like the popular Mystery Dungeon series (which was likely an inspiration). The twist to Azure Dreams is that the character returns to level 1 every time he enters the tower: he must rely on upgrading weapons and shields to advance. He also can enlist the help of monster familiars, including the super-adorable Kenwe, as they do not lose their levels. And while the sprites and overhead map may not be particularly impressive, the monster battle sprites and character portraits are rendered in loving anime-style detail.
Though the game had a quasi-sequel released for the Nintendo DS in 2005, even the PlayStation version failed to make a franchise-forming impact. But it’s no longer 1997. Games like Pokemon Mystery Dungeon, Izuna: the Unemployed Ninja, and Shiren the Wanderer have all successfully carved out niches, particularly in the DS and 3DS markets. Now’s a good time to join in a market that finally exists!
Dragon Warrior Monsters
Enix, Eidos Interactive
Game Boy, PlayStation, Nintendo 3DS
September 25, 1998
It’s the year 2000. The super-popular Japanese series, Dragon Quest (then known in the US as Dragon Warrior due to ongoing trademark issues) is having a surprisingly hard time finding its footing in the American market. After seeing the continued popularity of Pokemon Gold and Silver (released the year prior), Square decides to try hitching their wagons to this runaway horse and translate a spinoff game they’d made two years prior: Dragon Warrior Monsters.
Despite popular belief, DWM itself was not a simple “slap Dragon Quest sprites on a Pokemon game.” Dragon Quest had previously explored monster-recruiting mechanics in Dragon Quest V (which predates Pokemon), and much of the engine and graphics are based in the Gameboy ports of Dragon Warrior I+II and Dragon Warrior III (which were in turn based on their NES counterparts.) Unlike Pokemon, where monsters must be caught prior to making them faint, monsters in DWM must be defeated before they can be recruited, with meat replacing the Pokeball. Breeding is also a more central mechanic in the game compared to Gold and Silver, which had only just introduced the concept. It’s more similar to a Megami Tensei game: the monsters used to breed disappear, and the result can be a completely different species, with its parents’ skills and a bonus to its max level.
The actual plot involves a boy on a mission to rescue his sister from a monster that snatched her, and in doing so gets involved in a monster tournament/quest to save the world. Battling and recruiting are largely done through Travelers’ Gates, which lead to randomly generated worlds. The selection of monsters, at 215 available, is enough to keep you catching recruiting them all for a while and contains many familiar faces from the Dragon Quest series (including some bosses).
Dragon Warrior Monsters did well enough in the US for its sequel pair, Dragon Warrior Monsters 2: Tara’s Adventure and Coby’s Adventure, to also be released in English, and continued with the Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker and Joker 2 on the DS. Neither of the Joker games did as well as the original Dragon Warrior Monster games, likely because they aren’t as good. This sucks because of the games on this list, DWM actually did receive a port/remake onto the 3DS, Terry’s Wonderland, which put the game in 3D and expanded the recruitable monsters to 300. It looks fabulous, but it’s Japan-only and thus unplayable unless you also have a Japanese 3DS. (This is why region locking is bad, kids.) And with Seven Seas releasing the Dragon Quest Monsters manga in the near future, now’s a great time to get on translating this, Square Enix. I know you’re not shy about milking your franchises.
Anyone that’s determined enough can likely find a ROM of all of the above games. But I’d much rather have a chance for myself and other gamers to thank the people that gave us these games so long ago by actually being able to pay for them. The Virtual Console and mobile markets are right there. So let me give you money, y’all!
Longtime writer, temporary office minion, and nerd of all trades, tiakall is a fan of lengthy subordinate clauses and the Oxford comma. She enjoys plants, cats, puns of varying quality, and making cannibal jokes before it was cool.