Welcome to a new series of articles called Puyo Museum chronicling different aspects of the Puyo Puyo’s history, along with other aspects such as Madou Monogatari, DiscStation, Compile, merchandising, commercials, books, and more. These will be released on a monthly basis talking about a random topic.
With that out of the way, let’s start off things simple with one of the video games. More specifically the sole Madou Monogatari installment on the ill-fated SEGA Saturn. For the sake of this article, all screenshots will be taken from real SEGA Saturn hardware and the game will be nicknamed “Madou Monogatari SS” unless stated otherwise.
Ah the SEGA Saturn. Out of all the SEGA consoles, this piece of hardware was arguably the console with the most mixed reception. Personally, I love it, but ignoring stuff like the infamous shoddy launch and such would be foolhardy.
But we’re not here talk to talk about that. We’re going to talk about a slightly interesting game from Compile, released in 1998. This game was simply called Madou Monogatari (commonly nicknamed Madou Monogatari Saturn or Madou Monogatari SS), a pretty standard JRPG at first glance, but with some odd quirks to it that gives it something of an odd edge that helps it stand out slightly, for better or for worse.
Now before we talk about this particular game, first let’s talk about what exactly was happening with the gaming industry during this time. This was the mid-90’s, where developers were taking advantage of the new technology. This notably meant that multiple RPGs were being produced during this time, taking advantage of the larger space courtesy of the CD-ROM format consoles like the SEGA Saturn and the Playstation. The most notable release being the critical and commercial success of Final Fantasy VII, which jump started a small renaissance of sorts where multiple developers wanted to create a similar smash hit JRPG.
Compile, unfortunately, was in a dire spot around this time. In a time when the company was spending too much money and was leaning towards bankruptcy, clearly a change in direction was needed in order to stay afloat. This started a sort of weird experimental phase of the company during the late 90’s, where they were clearly trying new stuff to freshen up their trademark Puyo Puyo series. This naturally meant that they wanted to follow the crowd and maybe try to recover with RPGs of their own, which would eventually spawn games like Waku Waku Puyo Puyo Dungeon and Madou Monogatari SS.
With Madou Monogatari SS, the game itself went through a bit of a development hell, with multiple proposals and scrapped ideas. In fact it wasn’t even planned to be an original title initially, instead it was going to be a remake of Madou Monogatari 1-2-3, more specifically the 2 and 3 scenarios with Arle getting kidnapped by Schezo and Arle being forced into a dark forest by Rulue and Minotauros respectively. However, this plan was then shifted to a more original title, albeit with a lot of experimentation with multiple scenarios ultimately scrapped for the game. However, they weren’t scrapped entirely, as they would later be repurposed for the light novel Madou Monogatari ’98 and the Shin Madou Monogatari series.
Even after solidifying a scenario after multiple attempts, the game still went through an overhaul during mid-development, as shown with the above promotional video for the game. At one point the game was going to be noticeably different, with entire cutscenes scrapped, the controls being a more traditional directional movement, there being a free-roaming overworld, and overall party system stuck with the ARS trio of Arle, Rulue, and Schezo instead of having the last party member rotate after key events. The last tidbit in particular is probably the most interesting one, since this effectively meant that characters like Witch and Draco were not originally planned to be party members, but enemies instead.
However, this older version of the game game did sneak it’s way into the final product in a sense. The prologue with Lagnus plays notably differently from the rest of the game, suspiciously like the older version in several key ways. Evidence includes a seemingly incomplete overworld you can explore, and the control scheme being a more traditional digital 8 directional scheme instead of the weird diagonal scheme used for the rest of the game. Even the tower Lagnus briefly explores matches up with the promotional footage above.
So with that background out of the way, what exactly is Madou Monogatari SS? Well it’s a JRPG. The synopsis (without getting into spoilers) is that prior to the events of the main game, a legendary hero named Lagnus Bisashi was tasked with slaying an eldritch horror called the Yogs. After fighting his way up the tower and slaying the Yogs, he seemingly comes out triumphant, yet severely wounded. But in a twist of events, the Yogs didn’t actually die, and dragged Lagnus into an alternate dimension. Arle’s dimension to be exact.
The rest of the game then follows Arle, as the world she’s in slowly gets consumed by the Yogs influence. Scattered throughout the land are strange pods that emit a weird smog, that causes anyone in the area to suddenly become hostile. This kicks off Arle teaming up with Rulue and many other characters such as Schezo, Minotauros, Harpy, Witch, Draco, etc. in order to rid of the Yogs influence.
Of course the story itself is straight forward, but what happens in-between helps give it a bit of personality. Similar to the Puyo Puyo games, the greatest strength isn’t the main story, but rather the interactions the different characters have between each other. The most consistent example of this is the dynamic between Arle and Rulue, where at several points their different characterizations bounce off each other. While they do work together, they also still have their moments of contrast highlighted, like Rulue being impulsive to the point of beating up characters like Minotauros or Harpy and Arle by contrast being more of the voice of reason.
Also to emphasize this, there are also character specific cutscenes that are only available if you have the right party member at the time. Some examples include Schezo falling for a trap and being buried under women’s clothing, Minotauros frantically trying to help a girl in need, and Harpy calming a baby down with her singing. They don’t technically benefit you in any significant way, but are a nice bonus anyway.
Unfortunately what kind of sours the mood is the flawed presentation. Just by playing the game, you’ll notice that there isn’t any voice acting for the cutscenes, which is honestly an issue since it means that a lot of cutscenes lack the impact it should have otherwise. The static nature of the perspective and the limited sprite animations also means that a lot of cutscenes feel weaker than they should. Also there’s a lot of areas that are simply floating platforms in a void, which causes entire areas such as the forest and mountain dungeons to blend into each other.
But on a more positive note, the sprite work that is there is honestly kind of great. While the cutscenes are lacking the impact that they should due to presumably cut corners, character portraits and the cutscene illustrations are generally well done and full of personality like you would expect. Sprite animations during battles is also pretty great, everyone being decently sized and having unique animations for each attack. Battles also try to add a dynamic camera effect where the background will pan and zoom to give off the illusion of a 3D space, while at the same time not distorting the sprites.
The SEGA Saturn hardware though is not pushed to the limits in any significant way compared to games like Panzer Dragoon Saga or Shining Force III, but at the same time the game is perfectly optimized with the limitations of the console in mind. For example the game uses multiple methods to achieve transparency, using both main processors for the pseudo-transparency method using dithering the SEGA Saturn is known for, to the more traditional transparency, along with other methods such as manipulating the sprites to appear on every other frame. Because of this smart usage of the SEGA Saturn’s hardware, the game never suffers from the lag the console is traditionally known for.
Anyway, how Madou Monogatari SS plays is pretty straightforward. Like other JRPGs you are given a linear progression. By talking to NPCs in the towns, you are constantly tasked with going into dungeons, typically for the purpose of destroying those pods created by the Yogs. The game gradually guides you across the continent by completing these tasks. It’s easy enough that mere trial and error is enough to guide the player. Though of course the game does try to occasionally spice up the progression in order to prevent stagnation. For example, at one point you have a choice to either free Witch or Draco, which slightly alters how the game progresses with the next town and dungeon.
The dungeons themselves are effectively mazes with some light puzzle elements. There is typically one “right” pathway and a bunch of smaller pathways that either leads to nothing or an item. The puzzles are light, but at least come in different styles. For example one dungeon will have you putting a stone into statues to unlock pathways, while with another you’ll be tasked with warping between areas to reach the right location. You also sometimes use the character’s abilities in these locations to progress forward, like Arle’s fireball burning stuff or Rulue’s palm strike to shatter rocks or rubble.
However these same dungeons highlight a pretty noticeable flaw with the controls. You see, the game uses an odd “diagonal” control scheme where you are fixed in 4 diagonal movements. This alone takes a few seconds to get used to, but what really is bizarre is how you interact with walls. In other games, if you touched a wall, you’d simply stop. But in Madou Monogatari SS you instead automatically follow along the wall instead. This can actually create an annoying situation in tight spaces, where you just want to get out but the walls screw around with your movement.
Naturally while in these dungeons you’ll also encounter enemies. The game tries to give off the illusion that the encounters are truly, but in practice you’ll tend to encounter enemies every 20 steps or so. During these fights you’ll have the typical options available to you, such as different offensive and defensive moves, items, and other options such as the ability to flee.
The battles are honestly pretty straight forward, as you can beat a lot of enemies by simply spamming attacks. Even with the restriction of MP, the moves are often lenient enough that you can get away with spamming powerful attacks. Especially since leveling up automatically heals all your HP and MP, meaning you can strategically spam powerful attacks with little consequence. The only tidbit you’ll need to consider is Arle’s Fire and Ice spells, as enemies are weak to one or the other, and abusing Arle’s Diacute spell during the boss fights.
To possibly mix up these battles, an additional “Special” gameplay mechanic is also included. Once the SP meter is maxed, a character’s next attack will be doubled and guaranteed to hit. In addition, maxing out the meter will also unlock the character’s last attack, which is typically their strongest. However you are forced to use the “Special” mechanic on the next turn, and it even effects status moves, despite those not really benefiting from it.
With all these mechanics though, the difficulty is rather lax, with minimal grinding needed overall. Just by simply beating every enemy you encounter on your first trip through a dungeon, you’ll be at the appropriate enough level. In fact there will times where you’ll purposely avoid enemies simply because you’re already at a good enough level and just want to get out. Overall Madou Monogatari SS is a rather beginner friendly RPG, as it lacks complicated mechanics that would overwhelm new players to the genre.
The only other thing of note is the bonus Puyo Puyo-themed card game you can try out in the third town. It’s a simple take on Puyo Puyo, where the goal is to set off a chain reaction by manipulating your cards on hand and defeating your opponent. Your cards on hand will be added in the center, color coded by the typical red, blue, green, yellow, or purple. If no Puyos are popped, the next card in the deck will simply be added to your hand, but if you set off a chain reaction, the next card in the deck will instead be added to the center. If you properly manipulate your cards, you can potentially set off a combo that will inflict extra damage to the opponent.
Overall, Madou Monogatari SS is okay. It’s functional for the most part, but there’s not much here that hasn’t been done better by other RPGs. The main issue that can be argued is that it suffered from the circumstances at Compile, where they felt obliged to produce another RPG to compete with other games around this time period. But they were lacking the resources to make the game truly special, cutting corners in order to get the game out. Though it’s worth noting this was technically the only time SEGA staff were involved with direct development of a Madou Monogatari game, due to this game being released after the rights for the Puyo Puyo characters were sold off. Makes you think what would happen if they also kept the Madou Monogatari IP too.