Puzzle games, especially competitive puzzle games, are one of those beasts that just seem to have such a strong pull on just the right kind of people Oh sure, we all love Tetris and Bust-A-Move, but the rabid appeal of games like Puyo Puyo will never achieve the same level of ferocity, in my eyes, as a good fighter or even sports game. But there is the demand, the fan base, and the ever changing type of puzzle that captures the hearts and minds of so many. And, for a time in the 90s, Japan was all about the Magical Drop, a vertical tile matching game that garnered enough success to make several sequels, the latest of which finally hit Steam in 2012 with really terrible reception. But, in the wake of SNK porting anything they can get their hands on, the Nintendo Switch is now the proud home of the classic Magical Drop II.
This is another case where history and mystery may beat out any actual appeal for the gameplay itself. As a vertical puzzle game, the genre has already been milked dry with Snood and several variations from PopCap games. The execution is alright: you can take down a number of same colored drops from the top of the screen and then re-fire them in the right places to match three. Multiples of the same color that are touching at this time will also disappear, and this can lead to a chain reaction (which was the name of the original Magical Drop in the US). There are also power-up items that appear when going against the CPU which can hinder their ability to complete sequences, and they get hit with more drops faster when you get a chain going.
Magical Drop II also has a cast of character avatars that are loosely based around Tarot cards. Players have a chance to choose Fool, Justice, World and several other anime interpretations of fate, each with their own special power that controls how fast the drops descend. Newer players would want to choose a character with a slower drop rate, as the penalty for mistakes is significantly lower, whereas advanced players would want to choose someone with a faster rate, as time is essential. Your objective is either to see how far you can go (puzzle mode) or to defeat a series of other AI players (versus) in order to meet a mysterious boss at the end.
The game itself, I feel, controls horribly. You have to move one square at a time left or right, and it takes way too much time to move between squares. In the puzzle mode, you have convenient doors that let you teleport to the other edge of the screen a la Pacman, but those don’t exist in versus mode, leading to a contest of who can mash the button faster at the right speed. If you accidentally fire a drop onto the wrong spot, it becomes incredibly time consuming to re-absorb and try and correct your mistake, which is absolutely fatal against higher level CPU characters or avid player. Magical Drop II is definitely a game of first blood, in which whomever gets the first major chain will undoubtedly win. To be fair, the clunkiness was probably a gold standard when this released in 1996, but we have come twenty years since then in gaming advancements, and the nostalgia factor doesn’t hold up in the face of frustration.
Also, for a game who’s sole point of interest is the characters, I was surprised how banal and bland they came across. Effort and consideration were clearly put into making the portraits of them at character select and during battle look dynamic and fun, and that’s where the effort stops. Between matches you get stumpy representations just dumbly looking at each other across the background of where the next “fight” takes place. The only time you see dialogue is when you lose a match, and it’s something incredibly simple, such as “I knew I could beat you!” For comparison, Capcom had released Street Fighter II four times before Magical Drop II, so I know it was possible for designers to consider trash talking or even basic conversation between matches. Don’t get me wrong, they’re all cute enough, and I can see why it garnered several sequels in Japan, but my God they are BORING.
Magical Drop II does have its positive notes as a NEO GEO Switch release, however. For one, a puzzle game makes perfect sense with the online competition, as players will be thrilled to compete and show off their skills and timing in this unforgiving puzzler. And, for Western fans, this is one of the few times where the Japanese port has actual content that never got localized, in lieu of simply changing outfits or localizing text. The U.S. version of Magical Drop II was stripped of Hirameki mode, which is a setting for players to do their best to work through pre-constructed puzzles. This is actually a really nice addition to the game, and adds some replay for single player enthusiasts, which, I suppose, SNK didn’t consider to be as relevant in the West at the time. You don’t need to understand Japanese at all to enjoy it, and it’s always interesting to notice the big difference in games that got moved across the ocean years ago. You’d anticipate massive outcry if a game got an entire mode removed for localization nowadays, but, in the era before the Internet was the norm, people may not have even known for months afterwards.
With a cutesy soundtrack and some surprisingly clear digital voices, Magical Drop II rounds out this Switch release as a decent, novelty piece for players looking to expand their NEO GEO collection. It’s by no means the worst game I’ve ever played, and the dated and historic nature of the title makes the missteps far more forgivable than those of the abandoned Steam release, Magical Drop V. Fans who remember this game from their childhoods will certainly be interested to pick it up again and brush the dust off their bubble bursting skills. For newer puzzle fans, however, it might be a history lesson in frustration, while simultaneously goading yourself into trying one more round to beat Magician. Pick up Magical Drop II, but do so with tempered expectations and a backup plan should your gaming evening go sour.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Nintendo Switch code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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