Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Madou Monogatari

Compile / NEC Avenue
Arcade CD-ROM

I am writing this with a clear conscience. You see, somewhere, there was a little girl alone in the dark, crying her eyes out.

And I am the one who saved her.

You will hear more self-congratulatory remarks from me; but for now, I only ask that you reach into your past and travel back with me to a time of gloom and misery for the gaming community at large, an epoch during which the PS2 and XBox were merely trying to get their acts together and the pitiful GameCube was entering its initial stages of futility. The sole sliver of light that penetrated the looming dark cloud of mediocrity materialized in the form of the Wolfgames guy's PC Engine listings, which seemed to harbor a limitless supply of trinkets and oddities that I felt compelled to buy. My insatiable hunger for bizarre, expensive rarities ultimately led me to Madou Monogatari, Compile's dungeon-crawler counterpart to their irresistible line of Tetris-like Puyo Puyo games.

Understand that I had absolutely no intention of actually playing this game, as at the time, my extremely limited knowledge of the Japanese language seemed to negate the possibility of making headway in an import RPG. I figured that if the opening cinemas ran their course without a hitch, the game's functionality would be verified, and I could leave it to sit comfortably among my other essentially useless collectibles. But then I ran into Arle.

Arle, the cute little kindergartner who stood in front of an impossibly tall tower and looked up at me with sad, almond-colored eyes.

"I have to go inside, without my sensei... and I'm really scared..."

Good grief. Tell me, reader, what was I to do at this point? A noble warrior such as I, a warrior who had aided the legendary Gogan in CRUSHING the Jagu Empire, a warrior who had accompanied beautiful Babbette on her quest to slay sinister Galam, a warrior who had braved the horrors of Last Armageddon and lived to tell the tale... was this warrior to leave a young girl all alone as she undertook such a perilous mission?

"Damn it," I said aloud. "Let's go."

And off we went on a journey that shattered the foundation of everything this grizzled warrior had come to expect from a video game.

Imagine my shock when discovering that hit points, experience points, and all other RPG conventionalities had been jettisoned in favor of simpler but so much more adorable means of monitoring Arle's status. I needed only to look at my little friend's face to assess her constitution: a wide-mouthed smile meant all was okay, while a whimper equated a plea for health restorers.

I realized XP counters were but an obsolete superfluity when resourceful Arle broke out a tiny ribbon that slowly changed hue from white to deep purple as the heroine herself grew in strength. I grinned despite myself at these revelations and looked forward to a quest I knew would be full of surprises.

And no aspect of this amazingly beautiful adventure disappointed me. Heartbreakingly sweet melodies established an atmosphere of euphoria and wonderment as Arle and I encountered lots of wacky, lovable characters, including a drum-playing, glasses-wearing eggplant man and a devious demon-horned, lion-tailed cheerleader.

Certainly, not all of the denizens of this mysterious tower were overjoyed to make our acquaintance; but when push came to shove, "innocent" Arle would always tell me to stand back as she chanted bizarre incantations and took care of the nuisances with relentless ice storms and raging infernos.

And none of this went down as you'd probably expect. Madou Monogatari takes traditional role-playing elements and adorns them with new garb to make the experience as exciting and adorable as possible. Sleep spells, for instance, are hardly new to the genre; but while they are typically useless add-ons to lengthy magic menus in other games, Madou makes them AN EVENT TO BEHOLD! Young Arle actually dresses up as a sheep and blows on a horn, which itself releases mini-sheep that the enemy counts until he falls asleep!

Now how cute is that?

Well, perhaps not as cute as the courageous one-inch-tall elephant that frequently came romping along to aid us during particularly brutal showdowns.

Certainly not nearly as cute as Arle's gleeful "LEVEL UP!" yell, emitted when her little ribbon reached the desired shade of purple.

But don't get me wrong, reader. This adventure wasn't all laughter and giggles, I assure you. Arle and I had our share of spats along the way.

Like the time I used a warp spell to "cheat" and ascend to a higher level of the tower. Much to my surprise, the tactic worked, so as any shrewd strategist would do, I attempted to utilize it once more. Arle rose up... and banged her tiny cranium on the ceiling with a horrifying THUD before plummeting back down to the ground. There I was, sitting with a baffled look on my face as a little video-game kindergartner actually looked out of the screen and chastised me while rubbing the fresh bruise on her head.

"Sorry," I said aloud.

The mischievous scamp got back at me, though. Before long, we arrived at a dead end where an eerie voice made a terrible demand of us:

3000 GOLD!

Arle obviously wanted to pay up. Not one to go against the wishes of my little pal, I took a look inside our wallet to see how much cash we had earned to that point.


I frowned.

And so began my quest to earn 2983 GOLD just so my barely out-of-diapers partner in crime could drop it all at a dead-end wall for some mysterious voice. But I saved up that money, damn it, because I cared.

And then I watched in horror as two arms extended from the wall, tickled a delighted Arle, and vanished along with my 3000 GOLD.

You would think that some sort of valuable weapon or item or scroll or SOMETHING would be awarded for this endeavor. But no. All I was left with was a smile on Arle's face.

And somehow, that was good enough. I also had a smile on my face, as I realized that I was experiencing a video game that had no peer in its adorableness and ingenuity. And my feeling that this adventure was truly something special only increased as its intriguing plot continued to unravel...

Yes, Madou does have a plot... although it does not place its focus on "surprising" WE'RE ALL FROM THE SAME ORPHANAGE scenarios or "shocking" GEAR CRUCIFIXIONS or "tragic" ALBERT/AERIS/ALAN IS DEAD debacles. Instead, it concentrates on Arle's budding friendships and heated rivalries with the misfits she meets during her journey to uncover the secrets of the great tower...

...misfits such as SKELETON T, the tea-guzzling rogue who gave Arle fits in many a Puyo tournament and who stands as the first-floor boss in Madou. Their initial encounter here, as one might expect, is incredibly dramatic... and absolutely freakin' weird:

SKELETON T: What are you doing here?

Arle: Er... um... [looks at his cup of tea] ... that looks like black tea...


(The tea explodes all over the room.)


After such a... er, heated confrontation, one would probably believe that any hope for peace between the two rivals would be irrevocably lost. But things don't always turn out the way we expect them to, particularly not in the magical world of Madou. Arle later finds her old enemy in a decrepit state:

SKELETON T: Tea... I need tea...

Arle: HA HA HA!

(Me: BAHA!)

SKELETON T: Urrrgghhhh...

Arle: Sorry. Here, have some of my tea.

SKELETON T: Thanks! I owe you one!

In Madou, even SKELETON T can become a changed man.

Of course, he promptly attempted to murder Arle the next time we crossed paths with him. But that's what life is like within the dark tower of Madou. It's downright unforgiving... as was verified when Arle and I were forced to face


This challenge seemed simple enough at first. We entered a small room, whereupon a scary-looking monk asked us five yes-or-no questions. Sadly, his Kanji-ridden queries left me absolutely baffled, so we had no recourse but to guess at all the answers. Keep in mind that this was no small feat, as the evil monk refused to tell us which (if any) of our answers were correct. And so the guessing game began...


We were shoved out of the room by the growling monk.

We walked back in.


You can imagine how long this process took.

You can also imagine my exasperation when, after spending what seemed like hours inputting YESes and NOes, I finally stumbled upon the correct combination... only to discover that there were TWO MORE MONKS waiting to interrogate me.

Yet I pressed on, as this was probably the only video game I'd ever played that I absolutely felt the need to beat. I had to help my little animated friend complete her mission if it was the last thing I ever did.




And at one horrifying point, it looked like I was going to fail.

Arle and I found ourselves stuck on a floor shrouded in complete darkness, with all of our attempts to use illumination items proving futile. The solution embedded in cryptic Kanji-laden clues eluded me. I threw down my control pad and turned off my Duo-R.

But if Arle taught me one thing during our wacky adventures together, it's that there's always hope. We didn't give in to SKELETON T. We didn't give in to the three crazy monks. And we sure as hell weren't going to give in just because some bum turned off the lights.

I had business to take care of, a mission to complete... and a little life to save.

(And I did it. ^_^)

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