A Bewitching Bulletstorm
Retro collecting has become a rather interesting hobby as of late, to say the least. Every system has its games that are the “must-haves”, such as the Mario, Sonic, and Mega Man franchises. However, there’s the “High Roller” titles that have gained notoriety in recent years. Games such as Little Samson on NES, Earthbound on SNES, and Snatcher on Sega CD all command a premium price nowadays, especially when found complete in box. Recently, another niche console from the 16-Bit era has caught people’s interest: NEC’s Turbografx-16 (known as the PC-Engine in Japan). The console has a pretty impressive library of titles (most notably shoot-em-ups), and a little title known as Magical Chase has made quite the name for itself. Released in 1991, PalSoft made this cute little game for the PC Engine. It sold very well, which warranted a release in the US on the Turbografx-16 courtesy of TTI. Unfortunately, the Turbografx-16 wasn’t anywhere near as popular as the PC Engine was in Japan, so many of the US copies of the game remained unsold due to the Turbografx-16 being discontinued shortly after its release. Reportedly, many copies of the game were sentenced to death by steamroller. As a result of this, as well as time passing and the retro game scene becoming increasingly popular, the cost of the US version has skyrocketed. A complete copy can easily cost $5,000 to over $7,000 depending on condition. While the Japanese version is still pretty darn expensive, it’s nowhere near as ludicrous as the US version demands. Having this grail on my personal collection list for some time, I managed to get a copy off of eBay for $600, which is far more reasonable. This review will be based off of my personal copy, and though there are some minor differences between the two versions of this game, they do function essentially the same.
While the notoriety of the game is primarily built off of the US game’s perceived rarity, it also has the honor of being a legitimately good game. Magical Chase falls into the category of the “Cute-em-Up”, a genre of shoot-em-up’s that, rather than using serious sci-fi aesthetics, have bright, colorful imagery and cute characters and enemies on display. Games like Cotton and Keio Flying Squadron are good examples of the sub-genre, and Magical Chase is a great example as well. In Magical Chase you assume the role of Ripple, a young witch who accidentally releases six ancient demons from a magic book. Being the plucky young witch you are, you go on an adventure to seal them all back up. The premise is simple, but then again this is a 90’s shooter. The story, if anything, serves to add context to the game. The gameplay is what’s important in a shooter, and like a finely tuned machine Magical Chase controls fluidly. While Ripple’s sprite is a little large, leading to unintended hits at times, her controls are tight and responsive. There are three difficulty settings to choose from, with higher difficulties effecting things like number of hits needed to kill enemies, enemy bullet speed, and so on. Easy only lets you play the first three levels, but the setting does serve as good practice with getting a hang of the game’s controls and the challenges that Normal and Hard mode have to offer.
Being a witch, Ripple has multiple weapons (or spells, rather) at her disposal. She also has two star shaped “bits” that can be rotated to different positions around her, locked into place, and absorb small bullets from enemies. You start out with a standard shot, and purchase upgrades via a floating shop balloon found a couple of times per level inhabited by a pumpkin-headed shopkeeper. Here, you can spend the gems you pick up from defeated enemies to buy different weapons for both yourself and your star-bits, special items to use, and you can also refill your health. In a departure from traditional shooter rules, Ripple only has one life but has multiple hits she can take before being knocked out. While the game makes itself fairly difficult with its constant onslaught of enemies, these refills make the game easier to manage. Especially since you can buy extra refills to use as needed outside the shop.
The PC Engine/Turbografx-16 is well known for its graphical capabilities, despite its diminuitive size. While it wasn’t quite as powerful in some areas as the Super Nintendo and Genesis, it far exceeded the original Nintendo’s capabilities (which is what the system was originally designed to compete against). Magical Chase does a good job of displaying these abilities very well, though it’s not the most graphically impressive among the system’s library. The game is chock full of bold, brightly colored sprites and displays some impressive parallax scrolling effects, which is a feat that the PC Engine is well known for having difficulty pulling off. Each of the six levels has a variety of enemies to go up against, and the levels themselves are varied and designed in such a way that adds an extra level of challenge to the overall experience. For instance, level two has stone blocks that you need to maneuver around. Level three has you sandwiched in between two airships that keep scrolling past you and moving close together and apart as if they’re flying in formation. As a side note, this level is one of my favorites in the game. The heightened tension of enemies coming your way coupled with having to avoid getting squished makes for an intense experience. While on the subject of graphics, it is worth noting that there are some minor, but noticeable difference between the US and Japanese versions of the game. Ripple’s sprite is softer and more cartoonish in the Japanese version. The first level in the Japanese version is filled with brightly colored Lego styled blocks, but in the US version the level is designed as a more realistic medieval style castle. There are also some changes to a few enemy sprites, and the item shop balloon is in the shape of a pumpkin in the US version, which is admittedly more fitting for the shopkeeper residing inside. Aside from these minor differences, the games are visually and functionally the same.
Sound and music are essential to a good shooter. Classics like Gradius and Thunder Force have tunes that are memorable and great compositions to listen to, and Magical Chase fits the bill nicely. In addition to the graphical capabilities of the PC Engine, the onboard sound chip puts out some great sounds as well, and it’s worked through nicely here. Hitoshi Sakamoto and Masaharu Iwata of Ogre Battle and Tactics Ogre fame handled composition duty for this game, and they worked together wonderfully. So much so that a soundtrack for the game was released in 2003! The tunes are catchy, bright and cheery, along the lines of a Kirby title, and fit the mood of the game perfectly. The sound effects work mesh nicely with the action and the music, and the individual channels are utilized in a way that really doesn’t overlap the music in a noticeable way. There’s really some ingenious programming work going on here.
Overall, Magical Chase is definitely a must-have in a PC Engine/Turbografx-16 owner’s library. While its price is definitely prohibitive to gamers on a budget, there are fortunately a couple of cost-effective options for people who aren’t too concerned with owning the real thing. There is always the option of an EverDrive, and there are also reproduction HuCard games being made via a company called Turbo Reproductions (Website can be found here: http://www.tg16pcemods.com/reproduction-hucards.html) where you can get the game on an actual HuCard for a reasonable price, and it even comes in a nice display case! If you aren’t in the Turbografx or PC Engine game yet, there is a similar and equally as fun game called Trouble Witches Neo on the Xbox 360 Arcade Marketplace. Whichever option you go for, Magical Chase is a great shooter in the PC Engine’s library. I highly recommend you give this game a try. I’m glad I did.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Released On: PC Engine (Japan), Turbografx-16(US); Publisher: Quest (Japan) TTI (US) ; Developer: PalSoft; Year Released: 1991 (Japan) 1993 (US)