Content of the article: "Ever wanted to play a fairy tale brawler that feels like King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table played too much Streets of Rage and Double Dragon in high school? Then check out the unofficial Vanillaware trilogy — Odin Sphere, Muramasa, and Dragon’s Crown"
Another Vanillaware title is coming out later this month (which isn't very patient gamer of me at all), so I went back to revisit three other games from my favorite video game publisher.
Gameplay-wise, there's nothing too complex going on here. These are all old-school brawlers of yesteryear, but you may have heard the phrase "if it's not broken, don't fix it." If you're going to ape an old-school style, then do it right, and oh my gosh does Vanillaware do this to perfection. You won't find anyone doing side-scrolling brawlers much better than Vanillaware.
But the most enduring aspect of the Vannilaware style is George Kamitani's lush, gorgeous artwork. I cannot do it justice with words alone. Playing these games is like playing a painting in motion. Do yourself a favor and look up some images of his games. Assume incorrectly, like I did, that these are cherry picked examples from critical cut scenes. Then be amazed when you realize these games always look like this even in the most inconsequential moments of plowing through mobs.
Vanillaware is the perfect marriage of style and substance.
I haven't name-dropped any of the three games in the title yet because there is so much overlap. By and large, what I can say about the one applies to the other two, too. If you want to see me differentiate them, then it's time for me to nitpick.
I will play favorites. If you must play just one, make it Odin Sphere — especially the Odin Sphere Lefithrasir remake, which is a superior version of what was already a great game and just easier to get your hands on these days anyway. Odin Sphere is the first of the "trilogy" and the most triumphant example of the formula Vanillaware is working with. Muramasa and Dragon's Crown feel like respectable but not quite as deft efforts to recapture that OS magic.
OS also gets huge points for a stirring story of five very different heroes — each with their own agendas and their own distinct play styles — criss crossing all over the continent against the back drop of a war for a magical device of unfathomable power and a prophecy of the end of days. It's wild to see the boss of the fourth story showing up as a boss in the third hero's campaign, and that's not the only time you will see that sort of thing. It's the story of the end of the world. It's the story of a cursed princess fighting fate. It's the story of a black knight who just wants to be loved. It's so much all at once, and it hits every note just right. I haven't rooted for a cast of video game characters this hard since Final Fantasy VII.
Muramasa trades in the generic medieval European fantasy for a feudal Japanese setting, which might be right up your alley, but I do feel it's a step back in its much more straightforward story and a simplified battle system. Sure, it's tons of fun, but there are only two protagonists who play as carbon copies. Their stories only tangentially connect as well. It was a bit of a letdown to see such straightforward combat and storytelling after OS's sprawling narrative of competing protagonists and five distinct fighting styles. Still, it's a fun game that brings all of the usual Vanillaware polish, and the Muaramasa: Rebirth remake has the luxury of the four Genroku Legends DLC packs. Genroku adds back in the much-missed variety with four new protagonists who flesh out the world of Muramasa a bit more and bring their own mechanics to the table. The only downside of these DLCs is that I wish they were longer.
Then you have Dragon's Crown, which takes a huge step forward with six unique characters and then takes another one right back with a bog standard story of an evil cult threatening the good kingdom and threadbare characters. DC steers very hard into dungeon-crawling DnD style of classes-as-characters. Your Elf is an archer. Your Amazon is a fighter. And so on. I won't call these characters paper thin because there's no real characterization here to speak of. This is not an unforgivable sin; sometimes you just want to beat up monsters with cool-looking characters. But after the high water mark of OS and the competent storytelling of MR, DC feels like it dropped the ball in a big way. In a perfect world, DC would have taken after OS in more than just playable character variety.
Vanillaware shines when it combines the amazing visuals with a diverse cast of fun-to-play and fun-to-watch characters. DC gets one of those things right. MR nails down part of that formula and gets the other part stapled on through DLC. OS is the complete package, baby.
(I suppose I could take this time to talk about GrimGrimoire, too, but this is already running long. GG breaks the trend anyway. Instead of a side-scrolling fighter, it's essentially a tower defense game with a Harry Potter filter on top. It stands apart from the "trilogy," but it's still a gem in its own right. Maybe I'll make a topic about that one in the near future, too.)
If you like a retro style with a jaw-dropping look, then the Vanillaware trilogy just might be the games for you.
- Muramasa Rebirth: Another delight from Vanillaware
- Just finished Odin Sphere Leifthrasir and now i have to update my list of favourite Playstation Exclusives
- Just another (spoiler free) appreciation post for Witcher 3
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