Demo Driver 8: Magical Drop V (#218)
I’m going to be totally honest with you, folks; when I saw the title of this demo come up, I was excited. Magical Drop and I have some history.
When I was a younger man going through a rather dark time in my life which I like to refer to as “the end of college,” I was first exposed to Magical Drop, specifically the second game in the franchise and specifically its Super Famicom release. Was it the most original title? of course not. But it was large, colorful, and very Japanese in the way that a puzzle game featuring anime drawings of the various tarot cards can be. It was a charming experience.
So I was sincerely bolstered by the thought of playing the game again in a new incarnation, because who wouldn’t be? Like any franchise, it’s nice to see the original developers still making new versions of…
Oh. Oh, it’s a new developer. Oh dear. Oh dear.
At its heart, the Magical Drop series is what video games generally refer to as “puzzle games.” You have a grid of colored baubles on the top of the screen, and that grid is forever advancing downward. One button pulls down as many linked colors as there are in a row down to the bottom of the screen, another flings them back up. Three or more in a row vertically clears a row, also destroying any baubles of the same color adjacent to the destroyed one. Simple, as these games are wont to be. The spin comes when you consider that it’s by nature an oppositional game, with even the single-player mode pitting you against a computer opponent.
If it sounds kind of boring from a gameplay perspective, like most puzzle games, it kind of is. What makes the whole thing come together in an acceptable fashion is sheer speed and general cuteness. There’s a sense of joy in the games that make them fun even when you’re losing horrible, and a sort of frantic kinetic energy that keeps pushing you to do a little bit better. Far more than other puzzle-style games, it’s a game of reflexes, almost a cross between a shooter and a puzzler.
Of course, it’s also a balance that is enormously possible to fuck up. For example, if the series is being revived by a different developer a decade after the last game came out in any media; that’d do it.
I don’t necessarily like banging on a game right off the bat based solely upon artistic style, but the fact is that Magical Drop V just feels wrong right off the bat. The art style feels subtly wrong, like it can’t decide whether it wants to be less Japanese or more. Considering that the game was developed by a French studio, “less” seems like the better option, but I’m not going to speculate on the exact path of development. I will, however, note that the game’s art bears all the hallmarks of a game trying desperately to convince people that it’s totally from Japan, really, right down to the untranslated voice acting with no options for any other art styles.
So I’m not a fan of the style. All right. But how does it play? That’s the real question, and a solid game is going to trump a bit of bad work on the character redesigns, isn’t it?
Unfortunately, the demo only offers one option to check out the gameplay, a head-to-head option with only two available characters and the usual plethora of difficulty options. Disappointing, but on the bright side, at least the games as a whole don’t really require anything more elaborate, right? Sure, the large amounts of art and little between-stage scenes of Magical Drop II were cute, but they weren’t the heart of the game.
But even the gameplay doesn’t seem to hold up well. What made the originals fun was the fine balance struck between speed and smart play against the AI, and the way that every match included multiple ways to win. Here, though, it seems as if that’s been entirely abandoned, leaving you with nothing more than frantic ball-tossing around the field and hoping for combinations to go off sooner or later.
The original had a nice balance of strategies, both in terms of characters and in terms of how you could win. You could try to hit your quota first, or you could try to hammer your opponent with big explosions and force their field off the edge of the screen. Some characters were better than others at one goal or the other, which meant that you had to really consider your approach. The AI for characters also varied based on these approaches, I believe. Sure, it wasn’t easy, but you always felt like your losses came at the hands of your own mistakes, not simply as the result of game fiat.
Playing Magical Drop V felt like the exact opposite. Win or lose, I didn’t feel like I had much agency beyond “just keep hammering away because faster faster faster,” rather than taking part in a contest of skill. It’s the worst sort of two-person battle, where victory seems as much like a matter of luck as a matter of planning and careful attention to detail.
Maybe it’s just a need to reacquaint myself with the mechanics of the game, but there’s not really any way to do that with the demo, is there? You’re not given other options.
It’s a shame, but as excited as I was to see a game I liked quite a bit when I was younger, this version just doesn’t seem to have the heart of its predecessors. Not that it’s surprising, of course – Data East is gone and it’s been a long time since Magical Drop 2 came out. But I shouldn’t be playing a modern game on my computer and finding myself wishing that the developers had just done a straight port of that game over to the PC with some proper online coding so you could fight people online.
As it stands? Even for its online functionality, this one just doesn’t seem to be worth the time. A shame, indeed. Let this be a cautionary tale about resurrections, then. Or just a sad one.