Sometimes, I like to see what games a company made prior to hitting it big. It’s a fun exercise, trying to tease out what their design philosophies were before they started following a standard template that’s harder to tease out. Game Freak serves as a good example. The company originally started off as a fan magazine, reviewing anything the Japanese gaming scene of the 1980s could offer. After a few years of doing this, the staff realized they had the knowledge to make games just as good as the ones they reviewed. And so Game Freak was born.
That story might not seem important, but it contains important hints as to how Game Freak designed their games, including Magical Taruruuto-Kun. An unlikely candidate, I know. This obscure Genesis title might look like just another licensed game, but there’s more to it than that. As you’d expect from a developer that found its start reviewing game, Magical Taruruuto-Kun shows a wide influence. The game borrows liberally from many other platformers, from Mario to Monster World to Castlevania. Yet it still bears the Game Freak seal. It doesn’t blindly copy these games, hoping to gain what they already have. Instead, it breaks from the action aesthetic they’re known for to pursue something warmer and more whimsical.
For me, the most striking influence comes from the Valis series. For those who don’t remember (and who can blame you?), the Valis games put you in the role of Yuko Ahso, a Japanese high school student transported to a fantasy world. She must fight off various creatures to liberate the people from evil. Understandably, these games were very action-y. Not action-y in the Ninja Gaiden sense, mind you, but they were still fairly pressing. The games render the world with a level of detail that make it appear rough, and enemies constantly rush at Yuko. There’s a sense of urgency in play that forces you to take action. And save for the bomb that was Syd of Valis, this was a formula the series consistently delivered on.
I only mention these games because of how precisely Magical Taruruuto-Kun mirrors them. For one, the games share similar stories: as magic creeps into the real world, it’s up to the eponymous Taruruuto to journey across a magical world and set things right. Said journey entails pushing almost exclusively right through sparse levels, using your sword and basic magic attacks to fight off various monsters; just like Valis. It’s almost eerie how much Taruruuto-Kun mirrors its predecessor. Even looking past the generic fantasy anime premise, the game borrows so much and so specifically that it can’t be just a coincidence. The two games even share similar level progression: like Valis, Taruruuto begins his journey in regular Japan, treks through a magical wilderness, and ends in a castle, face to face against a Castlevania-esque villain.
To Taruruuto-Kun’s credit, though, they’re very smart allusions to make, as the contrasts that result from them highlight the game’s strengths. Consider for a minute why you’d play these games. In Valis’ case, everything you do is a means to an end. Kill these enemies to show off your skill, or navigate these challenges so you can feel a sense of accomplishment. Not so for Taruruuto-Kun. Here, everything can be enjoyed for its own sake. The world is not a static thing to be navigated. It’s a playground, fine tuned toward play and play alone. It offers Taruruuto slopes he can slide down and blocks he can play around with. And his powers are no different: he can pick up objects in his vicinity, give them a mischievous grin, and then launch them as projectiles. From this, it’s easy to see how well Taruruuto-Kun’s design lends itself to play. The game invites the player’s interactions rather than outright demanding them, lending the actions an inherent value. No wonder, then, that the game ends up as carefree and delightful as it is.
Unfortunately, the game isn’t always so carefree. There are moments when the game suspends its playful mood in favor of something more game-y. More complex structures, challenges that demand skill, etc. I found these moments especially disappointing in the game’s third stage, as they imply that the play isn’t worth anything on its own, but just preparation for challenges to come. Why the game would negate its most striking elements so badly is beyond me.
Yet for as egregious as that moment was, I’m willing to gloss over these blemishes. The game could use some breaks every now and then, and few if any of the challenges are difficult enough to break the game’s image. Most important, though, is that skill and success are secondary to what Magical Taruruuto-Kun is doing. Even in the game’s more onerous moments, its childlike spirit shines through. Although it’s often overlooked by Game Freak fans, I’d posit that Magical Taruruuto-Kun sums up the developer’s image just as well as Pulseman or Pokemon. It’s the archetypal Game Freak game: a melting pot of influences from more notable games, mixed in with distinctive mechanics that welcome play.