Magic Knight Rayearth was the last US market Sega Saturn title; a dubious honor I’m certain no video game wants to hold. Final titles for a console should seemingly point to a pinnacle of the console’s life. By this time publishers should have figured out all the intricacies of programming for said console, producing content of incredibly high quality. Instead with Rayearth we were given the exact opposite, and most none of it the game’s actual fault.
Magic Knight Rayearth is a manga series by the all-female group CLAMP. It was an isekai title before isekai was cool (isekai = character(s) transported to another world). Three girls on a field trip to Tokyo Tower are whisked away to a magical land called Cephiro. Cephiro is in chaos as it’s literal ‘pillar’, Princess Emeraude, has been kidnapped. The lack of her constant prayers are turning Cephiro into a mess, and as a last resort she summons the three girls to “save” her; save quoted as the ending has a massive twist. It also served as a vessel to animate giant mecha, as the goal of the three Magic Knights are to revive legendary ‘mashin’ to assist them in their adventure.
Rayearth on the US market Saturn was somewhat doomed from the start. What eventually became the final title for the US market Saturn should have probably been one of the first. The title was written about in English publications very early in 1995; EGM I remember wrote a small piece on the game wondering who the publisher would be, if the game came over at all. Publisher Working Designs picked up the publishing rights from Kodansha well early into the Saturn’s US market life span. In 1995, Rayearth was immensively popular in Japan. The first animated television season had just been released the year prior and Kodansha marketed the property to it’s fullest. There was no end of character goods and various items one could purchase with Rayearth themes, and for a while Rayearth was very profitable for CLAMP and Kodansha.
Working Designs themselves were behind a huge 8 ball from the get go. When the game finalized in Japan publisher Kodansha suffered from a hard disk crash containing the master files for the title, effectively wiping out a large chunk of the game’s programming – at least that’s the story everyone was told. Working Designs had to rebuild code from scratch; something as a publisher, not game creator, was difficult. Later they would have immense troubling licensing the Rayearth property itself from Kodansha, and went as far as considering different names for all the characters (again, the characters themselves were hot character goods commodities) and having to spend considerable time reworking all logos for the US market, only to find English language resources having been previously developed. Despite WD’s comments regarding localization, I’m certain in addition to any actual programming they had to perform a lot of road blocks were licensing fees Kodansha were forcing on WD for the title, possibly inflated by the title’s then popularity. Many of the secondary characters also have incorrectly translated names, which in hindsight I wonder if it too was another licensing issue.
The biggest elephant in the room however was Sega of America President Bernard Stolar’s stance on 2D games, particularly RPGs. Having come from the Playstation’s early days at Sony, Stolar believed 2D titles on the Saturn could not effectively compete in the established 32 bit era and pushed for most third party developers to create 3D titles. The issue was these developers were often cross-developing for the Playstation, and when both versions would release more often than not the Playstation was viewed favorably. When the late 1990’s RPG boom hit with the release of Final Fantasy 7, the Saturn did not have a comparable library for the US market. Working Designs’ tenacity for publishing niche’ games came to a head at E3 1997 when Stolar’s comments about all Sega titles in the US needing to be “five star” – that is, meet qualities that most 2D RPGs could not – pushed Working Designs to move away from Sega completely, and their planned US market release of the LUNAR remakes was shifted from the Saturn to a Playstation port (the LUNAR Silver Star remake already having been produced for both consoles in Japan).
With the work that went into Rayearth and the issues that besieged the game, it became not only the last US market Saturn title but also was released nearly two full months following official loss of support by Sega for the US Saturn market. I personally had extreme difficulty finding a title locally. I spent DAYS checking everywhere I could think of, and even was told at a local Electronics Boutique that the two copies they did receive were quickly snatched (how truthful that was is questionable). I eventually ordered the title direct from Working Designs, at a price that was higher than expected but not as high as the title goes for nowadays. I’ve seen this title command + $300 USD through auction and that personally is a bit insane.
The game itself is not extraordinary, and while it was probably novel around 1995 by 1998 it was incredibly dated. It’s setting is a re-telling of the original story from the ‘first’ season, with the added game content being the bulk of the changes (towns, unique characters, etc). It’s bright and colorful, with a super-deformed (chibi-style) character presentation. Many of the lines in the original Japanese release were spoken, so for the US release the choice was made to only voice most of the introductory portion of the game to speed the pace up. I’m convinced this was more a move by WD to not have to pay people to do voice-over work, and contrary to the manual’s statement regarding disk space the US market disk STILL has Japanese spoken dialogue present in it’s data files. The control is easy & responsive, and responds how you would expect a 2D action/RPG to. The musical score, containing many clips from the Rayearth anime, are accompanied by original works which are mood appropriate and sound very good, even by 1998 standards.
Like the original story, the characters evolve as the game progresses. These evolution points increase weapon capacity (each character’s weapons are fixed throughout the game) and results in minor visual changes in their armor. While there is not a level or EXP system, the game utilizes obtained crystals that can be assigned to each character. Each picked up increases either HP or MP, and all three of the girls have varying weapons and magical focus. For example, one part of the game has a town catching on fire where Umi, whose magical focus is water, becomes a key character in progressing.
That’s however where everything just, well, kind of ends.
This is a BORING game. Again it is very nice to look at, play, and listen to, but it’s just boring with slow progression. The absolute worst aspect is that while there are three characters only one interacts with the environment. That’s right. Not only can you only control one character at a time – no two player co-op – but the two not being controlled just linger with no environmental interaction. It really serves to disconnect them from what is going on, and it’s a huge missed opportunity. Secret of Mana, which came out YEARS prior on a 16 bit console, utilized all three party members simultaneously and even had three player co-op.
The game is also incredibly easy. It becomes a joke just a bit over half way through when Fuu, the character with a ranged weapon, receives a homing upgrade. Every time you let a shot off it follows an enemy on screen. Your challenge is thus avoiding strays that the weapon doesn’t hit, and by that point you’re probably not going to die. Honestly you shouldn’t die at any point of the game.
Working Designs injected a good deal of their typical humor into the dialogue and nearly everything in the game is searchable or can be interacted with – beds, dressers, etc – but the humor dulls quickly and ultimately has no real purpose other than to search through everything possible to try and collect all the Rainbow Amulets, which unlock extras as the game progresses. There’s also an extremely off-color line of dialogue early in the game uttered by the antagonist, which will both make you cringe and possibly question WD’s localizations even further than you may normally.
The end culminates with the doning of the ‘mashin’ mecha by the girls, which form together into one giant mecha they enter battle with… well I shouldn’t spoil Rayearth’s story but –-SPOILER-–
Princess Emuraude’s love for her captor forces her into a rage, bringing out her evil side and forcing the three girls to kill her –-SPOILER-–
Collectability of the title is fairly difficult. It’s been assumed that Working Designs possibly pressed around 5,000 copies; a fairly low number for any physical release. On top of that, three different designs for the disk were pressed, featuring each of the three heroines – a WD staple hood for games. This is typical of games WD released to increase collectability. My copy is the Fuu disk, which pleases me as Glasses is Best Girl (TM). A sealed copy is thus impossible to know what disk is inside, and opened copies run the risk of not being complete or similarly damaged. In the current market an opened copy of the game with all the contents inside intact and in very good condition brings $300 to $400 USD, and sealed copies have commanded double that figure.
Rayearth is thus a title that ultimately is for the hardcore Saturn collector; a holy grail that many are likely not going to search for. Ultimately that is a shame, because if there is one thing the Saturn could have done well in the 32 bit era was niche’ Japanese titles. I’ve long said considering all the titles that released in Japan it would have been interesting to see if SEGA had simply focused it’s US market release to be more of an alternate to the Playstation, rather than attack it head on. The console just never had enough attractable games in the US, and when they did come it was far too late.