Many of the import games I play can be muddled through with little knowledge of the Japanese language; even RPGs tend to follow a standard structure, with the fighting options at the top of the combat menu and the spells and items further down. Action games are even more straightforward; I may not be able to make out the specifics of the story, but the imagery and recognizable plot formula elements mean most of the entertainment value is still accessible to Western consumers.
Magicoal, published in 1993 by NEC and Hunex for the PC Engine Super CD-ROM format, is not one of those games.
It's not that the game isn't playable -- it's a one- or two-player co-op action RPG, where wizard boy Rhun and magical girl Melvy run around the land, fighting monsters and talking to the locals. Both characters always participate -- player one can choose either, with the CPU or a second player handling the other.
The game features colorful graphics, with quite a bit of detail in the sprite animation, and the CD-Audio soundtrack is pleasant and unobtrusive; the first village theme sounds totally 80s, with synth drums and echoey guitar, and the stirring forest theme manages not to sound like a Legend of Zelda ripoff. Our heroes spend an inordinate amount of time picking flowers -- and it's not as simple as just passing over them. We have to be fairly precise about foot placement, which makes this more of a chore than I think it was meant to be.
Unlike most RPGs, in Magicoal we are free to cross the water at any time, saving the usual need to wander around looking for bridges:
There are the usual encounters with villagers -- the dialogue is entirely in Japanese, but it's a safe bet that this big-nosed gentleman wants something from us:
The RPG mechanics are fairly well fleshed out -- there are a lot of spells available, a limited number of which can be equipped at any given time, and Rhun and Melvy can transfer inventory items.
The combat, sadly, is not very complex -- our heroes fire magic missiles at enemies until they flicker and fade away, and none of the early villains seem capable of doing much damage. It's a good deal less challenging than the hand-to-hand combat of the Ys games, which takes a lot of the joy and drama out of the action, and the CPU-controlled character tends to be a crack shot compared to the player's hapless hero (your mileage may vary.)
There are the usual exploratory trappings -- this church has some treasure chests locked away, a guard who won't let us upstairs until later, and a sanctuary, although it appears the community worships Thor:
Outside the church, for some reason, an itinerant minister of some kind holds court in Jesus drag:
We battle some trolls, and interrupt an amateur evil wizard who threatens a girl and then zaps himself with summoned lightning. We witness the robed speaker speaking with the guard in the church. And so on, and so on. All of this works fairly well as a game -- the production values are high, with lots of animated cutscenes to illustrate key moments, and the story seems fairly involved.
But I kept feeling like I was missing out on something. The presentation suggests a good deal of humor, with colorful characters and copious dialogue, and I think that's the problem. A good localization could have made an English-language release of Magicoal memorable indeed, but in its original form a clueless gaijin like me has to get all the pleasure possible out of its routine action/RPG trappings.
And while it's all executed well enough, Magicoal's action never really takes off. It's fun to wander through the beautiful environments and knock well-animated trolls out of commission for a little while, but there's not much challenge to the combat, and the story is nigh impenetrable without some knowledge of Japanese. I eventually got stuck -- I couldn't jump the fences or leave the second town Rhun and Melvy discovered, and while I'm sure everybody wandering the streets was trying to share good advice, I wasn't getting anywhere.
It also didn't help that the local pastor made it clear that there's yet another tower far off, or perhaps floating in the sky, so we know where this is going well in advance:
Sometimes I have to admit that my limited language skills mean that I'm not able to appreciate what a Japanese game does well. Magicoal isn't a masterpiece, but its appeal seems based largely on its humor and characterizations, and they're sadly lost on me. Ah, well -- there are a lot more games where this one came from.
Japan, I mean.
If your Japanese skills are much better than mine, you could do worse than Magicoal. You might be able to find a copy for sale here.