Before Vanillaware came along and knocked 2D sprite work out of the park with titles like Odin Sphere, Muramasa: The Demon Blade, and Dragon’s Crown, the artist behind their distinctive style, George Kamitani, was an employee of Atlus. While working there, he was handed the job of directing an exclusive for the Sega Saturn. From there the world and premise for Princess Crown, a side-scrolling 2D action game set in a high-fantasy world, was born.
If you played Vanillaware’s first title, Odin Sphere, then you’ll be familiar with a lot of the elements from Princess Crown. The later title was pretty much a redo of this game. There are enough differences in both story and gameplay to warrant a look back at this Saturn exclusive, though.
The game has a similar structure to Odin Sphere‘s in that it frames itself as a storybook narrative. You even start the game in a cozy living room where you can pick up books or a cat off the ground. Picking up the book and giving it to your grandmother begins the adventure. For those of you haven’t played Odin Sphere, it starts exactly the same, except grandma is nowhere to be seen, you just hop into a big fluffy chair and start reading by yourself.
Now, that’s how you start a video game
Set in the kingdom of Valendia, Princess Crown‘s story follows 13-year-old Gradriel as she ascends to the throne. However, before she becomes queen, she’s not going to spend her time just sitting on the throne being a passive ruler. Her kingdom is in trouble, and much like her mother before her, Gradriel has been trained to fight. When trouble comes knocking, this princess takes up sword and heads out to face her enemies.
Princess Crown‘s fighting system relies on a stamina bar. Any action you perform eats up stamina, except for moving and standing still. Stamina regenerates rather slowly as well, so this is definitely not a button masher by any stretch of the imagination. Your attacks and defensive moves need to be well-planned lest you find yourself out of stamina and winded. In that instance, you’ll be unable to move and will leave yourself open to enemy attacks.
The real reason dodos became extinct
Pressing the dodge button at the right time during an enemy attack will bring up a menu where you can choose to slide through the attack or dodge backwards. This is an interesting system, that require perfect timing, so be sure to practice to get that timing down.
Also, pressing back on the D-pad while an enemy is attacking will automatically send you into a blocking animation. This is similar to the mechanics of a lot of fighting games. The only difference here is that blocking also eats up stamina, so if you are standing far away from an enemy while they attack and you are backing away, you’ll lose stamina. This is a rather annoying quirk.
There’s always time for cheeseburgers while adventuring
Though some of the screenshots may make this look like a typical sidescrolling beat-em-up game, the game doesn’t quite play out like one. As you are roaming through the levels, battles will occur as random encounters, so enemies cannot be seen beforehand. From there, you’ll be engaged with an enemy, usually in one-on-one style combat.
When trouble comes knocking, this princess takes up sword and heads out to face her enemies.
If you’re not patient with the stamina system, then you will end up taking heavy amounts of damage and most likely see the game over screen over and over again. The best approach is not to think of Princess Crown really as a beat-em-up, but more as an RPG with some reflexive elements.
Watching your enemies movements and choosing the best opportunity to perform any action, from moving to dodging to attacking, is the key to making this system work. It takes some practice and some readjustment of your preconceptions, but it does become much more enjoyable if you think about it in this way.
Princess Crown‘s sprite work is incredibly detailed
One other common complaint lodged against Vanillaware games is the repetition of their backgrounds. While in all of their games, the backgrounds are gorgeous, painstakingly detailed pieces, they do tend to repeat quite often. This is the birth of that trope, and being a 20-year-old game, these ones lack the definition of later releases to make that repetition more tolerable.
Beyond those gripes though, the character designs are top-notch, showing off Kamitani’s early style and pointing towards the more bombastic designs that would become the norm in future titles. The character and enemy animations are also very fluid, making battles fun to watch whether you’re playing or just experiencing the game through videos online.
I like your chain accessories, bro
Vanillaware’s games are also known for their great soundtracks, and here Princess Crown doesn’t quite live up again. Some areas are completely devoid of music. This isn’t necessarily an issue as there is some ambient noise, but it does grow tedious, especially when you’re trekking through same-y looking backgrounds. When the music does pop in, it’s serviceable at best. There’s nothing that is really going to grate on your eardrums, but also nothing is really going to catch your attention either.
Another interesting thing to note, for the longest time the game was only available in Japanese, but recently an English patch has been released for emulation. After a quick eBay search, used copies for the Saturn run anywhere between 60-70 USD, and they’re fairly common. The PSP re-release usually goes for 20-30 USD, and since the PSP features no region locking, this may be the easiest way to play the game legally. You’ll just have to deal with the Japanese if you decide to go the legit route.
In the end, Princess Crown is an interesting yet flawed game. It’s still worth checking out, especially if you’re a fan of Vanillaware games and Kamitani’s art style. Just go into it knowing that it’s not quite as polished as the future Vanillaware games. If you’re just looking to see the origins Kamitani’s style and what would become Vanillaware’s design philosophies, then this is the game that started it all.