Quirky. Funny. Unique. A battle system with the trappings of a TCG. When I picked up Magi Nation as a used Game Boy Color game at Blockbusters, I wasn’t fully aware of the great journey ahead. Despite being a pre-played copy, the cartridge still came in a mint condition box and included a promo TCG card of the game’s protagonist, Tony Jones. I’ve still got the card, sleeved, in my dresser drawer of game swag treasures along with other notable pieces of gaming memorabilia.
Originally, the Magi Nation IP launched in October 2000 as a trading card game created by Interactive Imagination. The game never rose to the level of commercial success enjoyed by the Pokemon TCG or Magic: The Gathering, but fostered a dedicated fan-base nonetheless. Likewise, the Game Boy Color game released the following year would never become a smash hit at retail, but hooked a core of loyal followers who will never let people forget it. And here I am, doing my duty to an oft-overlooked RPG.
Magi Nation stars Tony Jones, a young sooooo-90s kid bullied into entering a dark cave by the neighbourhood bullies in his new town. Inside, he picks up a mysterious crystal and falls into another world. Upon awakening, he is attacked by strange monsters but is able to summon his own “dream creature” from the crystal he’s holding to fend them off. Afterwards, he is taken to the treetop city of Vash Naroom by an old man named Eidon. What ultimately follows is a quest to bring down a mysterious group known as the Dark Magi and destroy the ominous “Shadow Geysers” that are erupting out of the earth, and it’s all set in motion by a misconception about Tony’s identity coupled with his desire to find a way home.
There were a vast array of Poke-clones that came out during the peak of the Pokemon phenomenon, and Magi Nation pulls more than a few tools out of the monster collect-a-thon shed. As one might expect, players will spend a lot of time raising wild monsters — known as dream creatures — to pit in battles against other monsters, but the process of collecting them is a bit different from your standard fare. Each time you defeat a dream creature in battle, it leaves behind traces of its power in a material known as “animite”. By collecting enough of a particular creature’s animite, you can forge a ring from which the respective dream creature can be summoned in battle. You can summon up to four creatures at a time during battle, and all the while you yourself are casting spells to heal wounded creatures and support their offense. The game has special, extremely powerful dream creatures called “Hyrens” which are a huge asset if you can track them down and collect their animite. With a bit of training they will absolutely steamroll anything in your path.
Outside of the generally well-executed RPG framework, there were quirks that gave Magi Nation its own unique flare. For example, there were a handful of decisions left to the player which really surprised me back then. What other circa 2000 handheld RPG can you think of where you’re permitted to make the choice of stepping back from the final battle and accepting a bribe, deciding to let the bad guys destroy the world? If you want to screw over the Moonlands and let the Dark Magi run amok, you can go right ahead. Also, depending on how you react to a scenario close to the end of the game, two girls that you know may be killed. That certainly never happened in Pokemon. The game has no less than four different endings, and which one you’ll view is based on your decisions in the game. However, the feature that really sets Magi Nation apart from other portable RPGs of its time is quite simply its narrative genius. First of all, let’s be honest: the plot itself is pretty good, but nothing mind-blowing. If so, why am I applauding the story so much? Because Tony’s dark sense of humour and relentless cynicism serve as the game’s biggest selling point. The way Tony reacts to many situations in the game had me chuckling back then, and he makes countless humorous remarks, even when simply examining random objects in the environment. He’s a funny guy, that’s all there is to it.
Interestingly, the game was actually treated to a Game Boy Advance remake which, oddly enough, saw release in Japan but was never localized for English-speaking audiences. Notably, the game not only updated the original’s graphics with the GBA’s newfound visual fidelity, but also changed the TCG-style battle layout to a format similar to more traditional RPGs. This may have been an attempt to increase the game’s appeal to Japanese gamers, if I were to guess at the reason behind the change. Also, the few areas where random battles occurred in the original game were altered so that enemies were visible on the map just as they were everywhere else (in the form of a small sparkle), and creatures previously unavailable were made acquirable. A few new Dream Creatures were also added to the mix. Perhaps most noticeable is the fact that Tony Jones’ appearance and name were altered for the Japanese release. His blonde hair and blue eyes were replaced with black/blue hair and brown eyes, and his name was changed to Dan. Furthermore, his dialogue was substantially altered so that he comes off as more of a peppy, outgoing anime protagonist as opposed to the brooding, cynical Tony Jones we knew and loved in the North American GBC game.
Another GBC entry in the series was in development, titled Magi Nation: Keeper’s Quest, but was soon shifted from Nintendo’s handheld to PDA devices. It’s still available online for purchase to this day. Keeper’s Quest once again features Tony Jones, but is a puzzle game rather than a full-on RPG. A proper GBA sequel dubbed Magi Nation: Invasion was reportedly in the works as well, but was ultimately canned. A shame.
The Magi Nation Duel TCG itself went out of print in 2002, only two years after its initial release. However, the Magi Nation universe was not ready to slip into oblivion just yet. Five years later, Cookie Jar Entertainment, having picked up the rights to the franchise, would produce a television series based on the Moonlands world, starring a Tony Jones who looked similar to the Tony Jones of GBC fame. However, the tone of the TV series strays far away from many of the qualities that made the original Magi Nation properties so appealing (namely, the blend of dark fantasy with a TCG core), and is clearly intended for a young audience. It has more in common with Pokemon or Digimon than with the original source material in terms of atmosphere, which is a bit disappointing since Magi Nation was originally created as a bridge between child and adult fantasy. There may be Magi, Dream Creatures, and the like, but it’s safe to say that the TV series is a bit detached what was done in Magi Nation Duel and the GBC game. Also, Tony’s Furok dream creature is now blue instead of brown. Why? There are some marketing decisions I will never understand.
Believe it or not, there actually is another Magi Nation game kicking around these days, albeit in the form of a child-friendly MMORPG titled Battle for the Moonlands. It seems to have garnered a substantial enough audience to sustain itself, as you can even pick up point cards for use in the game at 7/11 and other stores. I noticed these cards lurking in various convenience stores the other year and was quite surprised and pleased to see the Magi Nation brand living on. I haven’t checked out the game yet, but maybe I will one day to see how it stacks up to the legacy of its forerunner.
With a TCG and video game combination executed as wonderfully as Magi Nation was, one can only wonder how such imaginative efforts fell out of the spotlight so quickly. Perhaps it was because the market was so saturated with Pokemon clones back then that it was near impossible for a property like Magi Nation to stand out. Sure enough, good ideas never truly die, and the franchise was revived with Cookie Jar Entertainment’s new cartoon and MMORPG, but it’s a shame that the original TCG and video game lineup didn’t stick back then. I always thought that the worlds were very imaginative, that the art direction was gripping, and that the characters were interesting enough to warrant a full-fledged follow-up to the first video game and a continuation of the TCG. As it stands, Magi Nation for GBC is a neglected relic of the past that deserves revisiting. Above all, it is memorable for its enchanting and gorgeous — for its time — universe, and a story that shifts between lighthearted moments and dark twists, but is consistently chock full of humorous dialogue. It may not be the RPG masterpiece of the decade, but it’s certainly a lost gem worth digging up.