A little look at… Princess Crown

To be specific, this is A little look at…  the 2005 PSP port of Princess Crown, which is completely identical to the 1997 Saturn original bar a change of font (an all-new white-on-white farce that somebody should have been fired for even thinking of suggesting), an additional art gallery and sound test (accessed by handing granny the cute black cat on the story select screen), and the option to use either the original 1:1 pixel screen size or one of two stretch/fill settings.

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Princess Crown is quite reasonably considered a proto-Vanillaware game, and George Kamitani’s influence  is crystal clear from the instant the first beautiful segmented-sprite battle queen leaps into view. Almost twenty years and one handheld port later and the game’s art style is still a joy to behold; the odd mix of traditional pixel art, pre-rendered graphics, and the occasional polygonal blade or spark effect coming together as a melting-pot of techniques that don’t usually gel, but somehow just do.

Some of this may be attributed to the extreme attention to detail found within the game - watch a cherubic centaur boy wipe a single tear off his cheek when you knock him backwards, or a group of goblins giggle and slap their backsides to try and goad you into attacking; every character and enemy you meet has similar artistic flourishes and for the first few hours the game is a peerless display of late-nineties 2D art and technology singing in harmony. Unfortunately Princess Crown’s honeymoon period soon wears off and it  becomes clear this attention to incidental detail comes at a steep price as you walk past the same tiny pool of NPCs and battle palette swaps of the same enemies over and over again. The scenery fares no better, with the oft-visited forest and cave settings constantly recycling the exact same assets making it literally impossible to distinguish one location from another, as you can hopefully see in the screenshots below:

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These places aren’t even the worst offenders, as later on a haunted house and two nigh-identical towers (one pink, one purple) have the scenery repeat so often it feels as if Gradriel’s making her way through an old Hanna-Barbera cartoon. Princess Crown is far from the first or last game to pull this sort of trick, but there aren’t many of the same era that do it so often, so obviously, with such a small selection of assets.

The story suffers a similar rollercoaster of quality, veering between incredibly exciting (albeit brief) scenarios involving pirate ships and burning castles to tediously chatting with every last NPC in the village until you find the needle in the haystack who’ll say ‘Oh yes, we’ve been having SPIDER TROUBLE. You’ll find them in THIS PARTICULAR CAVE TO THE EAST’, or bouncing back and forth between a specific NPC and a local point of interest to complete a quest. It wouldn’t be so bad if these conversations were only required for side quests or acted as a bonus for the lore-hungry, but as new progress-essential locations in Princess Crown refuse open up until you’ve suffered through this particular routine new locations feel more like a checklist of interaction points that must be worked through until you finally stumble across the one event flag you needed to trigger than an unknown land waiting to be explored.

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While the plot may feel like a grind the battles are generally frustration-free – not once was I required to run up and down a path whacking assorted jellies and ‘Dohdohs’ for an hour to meet the main story’s level requirements, and Gradriel herself responds well enough that any damage taken while fighting feels more like my fault than the game’s. However her move set offers little in the way of variety or tactical depth, and her opponents may be well animated but all battles fall into a simple pattern of dash-attacking to close the distance then pulling off a short combo (in practise this means mashing the only attack button) before unleashing her rising slice (hold the attack button down) and repeating once she’s caught her breath and the monster’s back on its feet. Princess Crown’s fly in the ointment rears its head again here as once again you’re given a very small selection of very well animated enemies to battle, and as such it doesn’t take long at all before they start to repeat. The ‘best’ example of this over-recycling is probably the hugely important character-killing monster Bloody, who turns out to be… a recoloured demon sprite - the same one you’ve been seeing since the intro - with a very slightly different head.

The good news is at least the equipment/item system is based on an interesting concept – everything is meant to be used up and discarded, or can be knocked out of Gradriel’s hands in battle, so you can’t afford to become too reliant on a particular shield or spell because they’re gone before you know it. Limited inventory space, as well as a distinction between Gradriel’s personal battle storage and her fairy-borne luggage, helps to encourage the overly cautious to consume things and discard anything that’s not going to be useful in the short-term, as does the way enemies often act like item-dropping pinatas during battle. It’s not enough to lift the battles out of their brainless rinse-and-repeat drudgery, but it’s still a nice idea.

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For all my gripes it’s clear that Princess Crown isn’t a bad game but I do feel it’s an incredibly uneven one; brief flashes of excitement and promise are constantly drowned out by a lot of tedious backtracking, too frequent sub-Golden Axe enemy encounters, and a plot that keeps splitting off and fizzling out rather than building towards an epic finale. These days gamers all over the globe can easily get hold of a wide range of 2D ARPGs that offer a better experience than Princess Crown, whether that means buying digital copies of Guardian Heroes or Capcom’s Dungeons & Dragons series, or simply hopping on Amazon to pick up one of Vanillaware’s later works – there’s no real need to track this down unless you’re a import Saturn/PSP collector or a Vanillaware fan who’d like to see how it all began.