Magical Drop 5 review: Magical Mess

I'd imagine that most people would pick something like Resident Evil 6, or Assassin's Creed 3, or the original ending of Mass Effect 3 as their biggest gaming disappointment of 2012. But as a testament to my oddball taste in gaming, I'd list my biggest disappointment as Magical Drop 5. I've been a fan of this weird, underappreciated little puzzle series for many years, and I have been eagerly awaiting the latest sequel since it was revealed at E3 2011. The reason I'm disappointed isn't because Magical Drop 5 is inherently a bad game, but rather because it's an unfinished one.

The fact that this was released in 2012 and I'm only reviewing it now isn't due to laziness on my part. Developer Golgoth promised a major patch to fix many of the game's issues since its release and, in good faith, I decided to wait until the patch hit before I wrote my review. But as said patch saw delay after delay, I began having a difficult time justifying my decision. "But Golgoth is a small developer," I said to myself. "You know how rough game development is, so cut them some slack." Besides, I was familiar with the myriad issues the game encountered simply being released at all.

Approaching two months after the game's release, MD5 is still riddled with online play bugs and missing some features. At this point, I think I've been patient enough.
%Gallery-175748% For the uninitiated: Magical Drop is what former developer Data East (may it live forever in our memories) billed as an "action puzzle game." It's an appropriate description: the game is as much about speed and seizing opportunities as it is about matching similarly colored spheres. Rather than dropping to the bottom of the screen and piling up, columns of colored, spherical "drops" flow in from the top of the screen. You control a little jester character at the bottom of the screen and grab drops using mystical vacuum powers. Via similarly arcane puzzle magicks, you can carry an infinite number of similarly colored spheres at a time. You then toss these spheres back upwards as a group, creating a column of three or more of the same color, which also eliminates any spheres connected to it horizontally. It's pretty straightforward.

Where the element of speed comes into play is in the creation of rapid-fire combos during versus play. Games like Puyo Puyo reward you for carefully setting up elaborate chains that eliminate many pieces with a single well-placed match. Magical Drop is almost the polar opposite – by grabbing, tossing, and making as many matches as possible in a short amount of time, you'll rack up a massive combo chain and cause your opponent's columns to fill with hard-to-eliminate junk. Characters each have different drop patterns, and knowing the way your opponent's drop pattern works – and being able to counter it quickly with your own combos – turns high-level Magical Drop matches into a frenzied puzzle rush. There are two ways to win: either force the opponent's columns of drops past the bottom of their screen, or satisfy your quota of eliminated pieces first, both of which require a degree of fleet-footedness.

It's this emphasis on swiftness and reaction time that's given the Magical Drop series a devoted, competitive fanbase. In particular, Magical Drop 3 on the Neo Geo was given a new competitive life thanks to emulators and netplay. Thankfully, it's MD3 that serves as the primary basis for MD5's visual and game design concepts. Golgoth has done a spectacular job of getting the pure look and feel of Magical Drop's aesthetics down, with fresh new character artwork that looks like a proper modernization of the beloved Tarot-inspired characters. (Also amusing is the nonsensical dialogue, which blurs the line between Engrish and a loving tribute to the badly-translated nonsense common in vintage Japanese arcade games.) Meanwhile, the game-wrecking "comeback mechanic" of the little-played fourth game, Magical Drop F, was very smartly left on the cutting room floor.

Further inspiration for MD5 is culled from outside sources. A brand new character, Bruce, is actually from a cancelled Data East Neo Geo game called Ghost Lop. His play style mimics that of his obscure source game – sort of a combination of Bust-a-Move and Breakout. While it's nice to see a cancelled concept eventually come to fruition in some way, the disparate play styles of Bruce (and fellow Ghost Lop refugee Mushman) versus every other character simply feel awkward. Brownie points for trying, though.

So yes, fundamentally, Magical Drop 5 is a very solid puzzle game and an absolute joy to play competitively – when you're actually able to play it, that is. On my PC – a mid-range i7 laptop I bought about 8 months ago – I've occasionally encountered random crashes both before and after the game was patched. (Admittedly, far fewer post-patch, but still.) Online play offers a lot of options, including both ranked and friendly matches, along with a very cool four-player mode. Unfortunately, it's impossible to gauge the upfront quality of players' connections, and even seemingly solid connections will drop, causing the game to stall out or crash altogether.

Even if you manage to get a match going and nobody drops out unexpectedly, desynchronization is a serious issue. Opponents' screens might not accurately reflect what they're doing, and their display will frequently push the orbs past the bottom of the screen – and thus past the point of what should be game over – but the game keeps on running.

To top it all off, certain game modes, like a traditional single-player Endless mode and the Team Battle versus mode, still aren't available. The recent December patch added some missing features, as well as various fixes and additional graphical touch-ups, but the game has a ways to go before it feels like a stable, complete product.

I have faith that Golgoth will deliver the patches it promises eventually. The question is simply when they'll come. There's the potential for a great competitive puzzler here, but the missing features, along with the iffy odds of actually connecting to an online game without something getting mucked up, make Magical Drop 5 impossible to recommend. If you're patient, I think odds are good that you'll be rewarded, but it's downright shameful that a fundamentally good product was released in such a shoddy state.

This review is based on a Steam download of Magical Drop 5, provided by UTV-Ignition.

Heidi Kemps is an intrepid freelancer living in the lap of luxury in Daly City. Her work has been seen on G4, GamesRadar, GamePro, @Gamer, GameSpot, and a wealth of international publications, some of which do not start with the letter G. You can follow her ongoing freelance adventures at @zerochan.

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