Nippon Ichi's Rhapsody was a bit of an anomaly when it was released in America in 2000. As much as statistics will try to tell you that there are a significant number of girl gamers out there, it is still very much a boy's playground. Rhapsody is an RPG about a sixteen year old who talks to puppets, and sits around waiting for her gorgeous prince to sweep her off her feet. There is also singing. Lots of it, complete with Broadway-style dancing and silly lyrics about being "true to your heart".
Needless to say, this did not go over very well. To the average PlayStation owner, this had all of the appeal of a Barbie game.
While Rhapsody was meant with indifference in America, the overwhelming cuteness found an audience in Japan. Known as "The Puppet Princess of the Marl Kingdom", there were two more installments in the series, plus spinoff mahjong and puzzle titles. Nippon Ichi stayed unknown outside of Japan until Atlus translated Disgaea, their breakout strategy game. Since then, the company has opened up operations in America and several of their games have been localized since. This includes La Pucelle, another strategy RPG based on the Marl Kingdom universe. There's a whole other article devoted to Nippon Ichi strategy RPGs.
All of the Marl Kingdom games are 2D, with the exception of the PS2 game, which uses sprites on 3D backgrounds. They're hardly technical marvels, but the excellent artwork by Yoshiharu Nomura surpasses most any RPG in the 32-bit era. There's also a uniquely goofy sense of humor that permeates all of the games - one of the characters, a sweet, innocent little girl attacks with magnums and machine guns, while another calls upon unholy storms of pancakes and flan. Combined with all of the quirky characters - including an extremely likeable group of villains - give the Marl Kingdom games a pleasant charm unheard of in most RPG epic angst fests. Even the melodrama is very tongue-in-cheek.
Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure / The Puppet Princess of Marl Kingdom (マール王国の人形姫) / The Adventure of Puppet Princess - PlayStation, Nintendo DS (1998)
Long ago, in the small Orange Village in the Marl Kingdom, lived a young peasant girl who dreamed off finding a prince...
The heroine of the game, Cornett is a sixteen year old village girl who lost her parents at a young age. Though strong, she still wishes to be saved by a dashing young prince. She attacks with her trumpet, which can also be used to power-up her puppet friends.
Cornett's best friend, Kururu is a flying puppet fairy who is surprisingly down to Earth. She find's Cornett's constant day dreaming to be a bit silly, and urges the young girl to take the initiative when it comes to guys.
A spoiled, conceited rich brat from the Rosenqueen family, who sports gorgeous looks and a horrible personality. While she looks down upon everyone, she's really just lonely and fights desperately for some legitimate affection. She also wields a variety of submachine guns, and commands a small army of mobsters.
The prince of the Marl Kingdom, Ferdinand admires Cornett's unique spirit, although he's more shy than his royal demeanor would let on. He holds a contest in hopes of finding a suitable girl.
An evil witch who is concerned that she is, by far, the fairest woman of them all. She also falls in love with Ferdinand at first site, although she expresses this by accidentally turning him into stone and whisking him away to her fortress. Naturally, it's up to Cornett and Kururu to save him. Marjoly's followers include Gao, Crowdia, and Myao, three bumbling idiots who serve little more than to annoy her.
The battles are all fought on a tile-based grid, similar to most strategy-RPGs. In addition to controlling Cornett, you also command an army of puppets, who can be recruited throughout the game. However, all of the fights are extremely simplistic, even at the highest difficulty setting. All of the enemies are extremely weak, and there's rarely a time you need to put any effort into combat, short of walking up to a foe and attacking them. Cornett can also play her trumpet to strengthen her companions, which slowly builds up a power meter. As it increases, you can perform a variety of amusing special attack, such as summoning a rain of sugar candy or attacking with gigantic pieces of flan. Outside the battle scenes, the game is fairly straightforward, although all of the dungeons are plagued with painfully repetitive scenery. However, almost all of the monsters are recruitable as party members, and there are a few subquests to find extra puppets.There's very little in the way of voice acting, although the songs are available in both English and Japanese. Despite the hokey lyrics, the melodies are surprisingly catchy, and the singing in both languages is well done. The translation is also first rate, with lively writing, splendid characterizations and lots of humor. There are a few Working Designs-style references that may bother some people (Etoile makes an amusing Matrix reference after giving Cornett a beatdown), but none of them are particularly out of place.
Rhapsody ultimately relies on its humor and characters, because the actual gameplay is a bit vapid. Still, it's a charming little game if you can get past that.
After its initial release in Japan, a cheaper edition called "Marl Kingdom +1" was published, featuring an art gallery and sound test, as well as a bonus CD. The American release also has these features, but instead of the fan CD, Atlus included a soundtrack featuring a wide selection of vocal and instrumental songs from the game. The Japanese PSOne Books release does not include any bonus CDs.
Rhapsody was also ported to the Nintendo DS in 2008. Although the core game is the same, the tactical battles have been changed to the more straightforward system found in Little Princess and Angel's Present. Kururu is also a playable character now, and there are a few mini-games. The Japanese version has a couple of additions, mostly notably, the integration of the first chapter from Angel's Present, where Cornet tracks down Elly's mother, and a post-game chapter focusing Sherie, taken from the fifth chapter of Angel's Present. Unfortunately, both of these were cut out of the English versions. What's strange is, all of the songs were left in Japanese in the English release. The reasoning behind this was that Nippon Ichi was unable to redub the songs for the additional chapters into English, and wanted to keep them consistent. But since the extra songs went missing entirely, what was the point? The North American version also has a few fatal glitches, suggesting the localization was extremely rushed, but Nippon Ichi's American branch confirmed that the removal of the bonus content was indeed, for whatever reasons, intentional.
Having found her prince, Cornett and Ferdinand settle down as rulers of the Marl Kingdom. Soon after, they have their first and only daughter, Kururu (named after the beloved puppet from the first game.) Twelve years pass, and the sheltered little princess finally wants to find a knight of her own.
The twelve-year-old daughter of Cornett and Ferdinand, Kururu is a little bit naive and is unaware of the lives of the common folk. Though she may seem spoiled, she has a good heart. Kururu continually tries to escape from her room in the castle to explore the world outside. Her nickname is "Pumpkin Pants", a moniker given to her by Cello at their first meeting.
Short for "Createur", Crea is Etoile's daughter. The apple apparently fell quite a ways from the tree, because Crea is sweet and mild-mannered, and much more mature than her mother. However, she still carries her mom's penchant for carrying heavy arms.
A young boy that Kururu meets in the forest, not far from where her parents first met. She believes this to be fate, but Cello just calls her a kid and tells her to scram. Needless to say, there is much tension between the two as the game goes on. He seems to be searching for a girl named Sherrie.
The apparent nemesis of Marjoly, Akujo is another witch who seeks to harass the Marl Kingdom. She's just turned 1000 years old, and seeks a stone called the "Shadow of Beauty" to keep her age from affecting her looks. Much like Marjoly, she commands a trio of nitwits, along with another army of cats.
The battle system in Little Princess has been given a complete overhaul, ditching the grid-based movement in place of the more traditional "line up and fight" style. While only the human characters partake in combat, the puppets are called upon to cast magic spells. Unlike the MP system in most games, casting spells will decrease your money (in small amounts, thankfully), so you're pretty free to use spells as you like. Once again, there are multiple difficulty levels, although the challenge is much better balanced than in Rhapsody. The 2D graphics haven't changed much, although the musical numbers are a bit more impressive, especially since they don't dim out the screen. Although some of the locations may feel a little bit too familiar, seeing favorite characters like Cornett and Etoile all grown up is pretty amusing. Overall, Little Princess is better paced and less brain dead than its predecessor, making for a much smoother game.
Like the original, Little Princess was re-released with a "+1" moniker. This features a bonus disc with some extra illustrations and a sound test. Unfortunately, the "PSOne Books" budget release does not come with this bonus disc.
Angel's Present (or Tenshi no Present, if you're sticking with the Japanese names) is made up of five short stories starring various characters from the Marl Kingdom games. The first is a side-story in Cornett's original adventure, and has the crew setting off to find the kidnapped mother of a young girl. (This was reintegrated into the Japanese DS version of the first game.) The second serves as an epilogue to Little Princess, as Kururu (now sixteen) must convince her father that the dashing Cello is a suitable husband. The third (and definitely the best) chapter stars Marjoly and her gang, as they hunt down their missing army of feline minions. The fourth stars a young kitten caught in a Romeo & Juliet style war, and the fifth is a prologue to the events in the other games, focusing on Sherie and the ancient winged people alluded to many times in Little Princess. (This was also featured as bonus content in the Japanese version of Marl Kingdom for the DS.)
A little girl that Etoile finds lost in the forest. Her mom's been kidnapped, so it's up to Cornett and crew to save her. Elly is actually an Erlinger is disguise (one of those little mushrooms), so she doesn't appear in human form often, although she does make a cameo appearance in the store in La Pucelle.
Pekonyan is a tiny kitty cat in the servitude of Akujo. She is caught in an overwhelming tragedy - her beloved serves under Marjoly, thereby making them sworn enemies.
This being a PlayStation 2 game, all of the backgrounds are now 3D, although the characters are still sprites. It still looks pretty low-tech, but it runs smooth and loads quickly, which is better than most first-generation Playstation 2 games. While much of the music and many of the sprites are recycled, it still maintains the bright and pleasant feel of the previous games.
The battle system builds on the one from Little Princess, although spells go back to using MP rather than money. There can be four leaders on the battlefield, and each can have three partners, whether they be puppets, monsters or other human characters. Most partners cannot be directly controlled, but they'll attack randomly in combat, and also modify various statistics of their leader. At maximum, you can have sixteen characters on the screen, fighting at the same time. While this may sound like it would make the game too easy, some of the boss battles can get a bit rough, so matching up your characters plays a big part in the strategy. It's here where you begin to see the depth that eventually crops up in Nippon Ichi's later strategy RPGs. Even though some people may not enjoy its disjointed nature - once you finish a chapter, you never play as same characters again - but the format does keep the game from getting too stale. This is especially important in Kururu's chapter, considering that you're visiting some of the same areas and even doing some of the same quests as the previous games. Angel's Present is definitely the best of the series.
Before the Marl Kingdom series, Nippon Ichi was primarily known for small puzzle games. So it makes sense that they'd capitalize on their properties by returning to their roots. They published Marl Jong for the PSOne, which is, of course, Mahjong with Marl Kingdom characters. Given that this style of Mahjong isn't exactly well known to Westerners, it's a little hard to import unless you're familiar with the rules (I know I'm not.) They also released Marl de Jigsaw for the PlayStation 2, a puzzle game also featuring the characters. I can't say that assembling pictures piece by piece is really all that exciting, so only hardcore Marl fans need apply. Like most Japanese games, there are also a few cellphone-only games starring the characters.
La Pucelle isn't technically a Marl Kingdom game, because it separates itself from most of the characters, and the style of gameplay is completely different. Still, there are plenty of influences that can be found. The side-view battle systems used in Little Princess and Angel's Present look exactly like the fight scenes in La Pucelle, right down to the font used in the numbers. Some of the enemies are the same, including the Erlinger mushrooms and those silly little cat things. Angel's Present seems to have started the knack of giving goofy, random names to enemies that join your party as well. The Rosenqueen shop found in La Pucelle is owned by Etoile and Crea's family, as the busty clerk looks very reminiscent of their clan. Their theme music first showed up in Little Princess, and later appears in both La Pucelle and Disgaea as the shop theme. All of the music in the series is composed by Tenpei Sato, whose style remains consistent throughout. Homard, the pirate captain, is meant to be the son of Kururu and Cello, and Eri, the mushroom girl from Angel's Present, pops up randomly in the store as well. So playing the Marl Kingdom games will definitely help you appreciate a lot of the little tidbits in La Pucelle. Marjoly also pops up as a secret character in Disgaea.
In the end, it's a little hard to figure out who the Marl Kingdom games are aimed at. Given the subject matter, it's easy to surmise that they're aimed at adolescent girls. But the bizarre sense of humor and occasionally sultry character designs (Marjoly wears little more than a thong) definitely makes it seems like it's aimed at anime geeks. Given their simplicity, the first two titles definitely seem like they're aimed at RPG newbies, although Angel's Present certainly gives enough substance that more seasoned vets can get into it. It's a shame, then, that the later titles were never translated, because they're both quite a bit better than Rhapsody. Thankfully, they're pretty easy to play, and the writing level is simple enough that novice Japanese students should be able to understand what's going on. If nothing else, the Marl Kingdom paved the way towards even more excellent titles featuring Nippon Ichi's unique sense of humor.