5 Reasons to Try is a column where we tell you about games we love that aren’t well-known or of the moment. In this installment, Features and Trending Editor merritt k talks about Magical Vacation, a Japan-only Game Boy Advance RPG that received an English fan translation 15 years after its original release in 2001.
1. The Pedigree
Magical Vacation was developed by the studio formerly known as Brownie Brown and since renamed 1-Up in light of their frequent and close collaboration with Nintendo. While probably best known for Mother 3, they have also worked on titles like Fantasy Life, Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, Super Mario Odyssey, and even Animal Crossing: New Horizons. They may not be the most prolific developers out there, but nearly everything they’ve produced is a certified banger. Magical Vacation was Brownie Brown’s first original title, and it lays out some of the design sensibilities that would go on to inform a wealth of modern classics.
2. Exquisite Vibes
Speaking of design sensibilities, the vibes in Magical Vacation are off the charts. The character sprites and pastel colors are fresh and charming, while the landscapes would look right at home in a YouTube compilation of 1980s Japanese jazz tracks. And while the game’s soundtrack suffers from the GBA’s limited audio capabilities, it’s still got some chill bops.
3. A Truly Unique Fantasy World
In 2020, fantasy RPGs are still mired in the legacy of Tolkien. And when writers do try to create something new, it’s often just a different set of names for the old standbys of elves, orcs, dwarves, and so on. You won’t find any of those in Magical Vacation, though. Instead, you’ll encounter puppets, mudmen, “Love Ambassadors,” talking pots, dodos, ancient robots, and gummi frogs.
You play as a student at a magical academy, which is well-trod ground, but the narrative gets surprisingly dark very quickly. The titular vacation the characters take turns out to be an elaborate scheme to raise an army of demon-possessed child soldiers, and it’s up to you and your friends to put a stop to it. It’s kind of like vaporwave Harry Potter, and I mean that as a compliment.
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4. The Dynamic Battle System
Most JRPGs encourage the player to conserve their resources and use as few items and spells as possible. Magical Vacation flips this on its head — the default attack here is magic, with each character possessing a different flavor with its own unique strengths. You regenerate MP every turn, which means you can blast away with your low-level spells constantly or save up for a bigger attack. You can also summon spirits you find around the game’s world, which essentially act as damage modifiers for the next attack of the matching magic type. But enemy spirits can cancel yours out, so you end up with a kind of Pokemon-like elemental rock-paper-scissors dynamic. It feels dynamic in a way that traditional JRPG battles seldom do, yet it’s simple enough that it feels approachable.
5. This Guy
Pinecones are his siblings. Please give him pinecones.
If you want to try Magical Vacation for yourself, you can find the translation patch to apply to your totally legal backup of the cartridge pretty easily online. Or, you can just watch me play it.