Whenever I start growing bored of JRPGs, I reread the manga series Magic Knight Rayearth. Created by the legendary manga team CLAMP in 1994, Magic Knight Rayearth is a six volume manga series about three schoolgirls summoned to the magical world of Cephiro. There, they are told they must embark on a quest to save a princess named Emeraude from the clutches of the evil high priest Zagato.
Although this premise covers only the first arc of the series, anyone who has played a JRPG will find it familiar. In fact, the first arc even has the characters call attention to JRPG influences, calling Zagato “a boss villain” and lamenting their lack of experience points. However, the entire series also contains other elements that more JRPGs could use more of.
A Great Cast of Characters
One of these aspects is having three main female leads—the cute, energetic Hikaru, the blunt beauty Umi, and the intelligent, bookish Fuu. There is a startling lack of female main leads in in RPGs, especially female protagonists whose storylines are not connected to male leads. The only popular games I know of with these kinds of characters are Final Fantasy VI, Final Fantasy X-2, and Tales of Legendia.
In addition to the female leads, Rayearth also features male characters like the sorcerer Guru Clef, the young warrior Ferio, and the magic swordsman Lantis. They not only balance out the cast, but play roles that are just as prominent as the female leads. Thus, this series takes after other magical girl series like Shugo Chara and CLAMP’s Cardcaptor Sakura by appealing to multiple demographics.
Within this large cast of male and female characters, there are heroes and those who don’t neatly into the villain box. Each villain throughout the entire series is a sympathetic character with their own motivations for doing what they do. This is especially apparent by the end of the first arc of the series, when the quest takes a tragic turn.
For example, one henchman of Zagato is a child named Ascot. A summoner of friendly monsters, Ascot only works for Zagato because he was the only one who let Ascot and the monsters live in peace. Ascot’s personal conflict is resolved after a lengthy battle with Umi, which allows her to literally level up her armor and weapon and grow as a character.
A Different Kind of Magic
Besides the characters, the magic system is pretty interesting too. In Cephiro, you can use elemental magic and its strength and growth is determined by willpower. While this seems cheesy, it actually results in some nice character development. One memorable moment occurs when one of the girls is badly wounded by the witch Alcyone, one of Zagato’s henchman. Through righteous fury, Hikaru manages to retaliate with a more powerful version of the first fire spell she learns.
In addition to the magic, the girls eventually gain evolving swords and armor that change as they grow in skill and as characters. Their weapons also become the key to unlocking mashin, giant robots associated with specific elements. My personal favorite mashin is Rayearth, the fire mashin that initially appears as a giant wolf with a mane of fire.
Together, the characters, the magic system, and the entire series tell a grand tale about love, friendship, and what it takes to hold the world together. I’ve reread this series many times and it never fails to emotionally move me. It is also worth noting that the series was adapted into a video game for the Sega Saturn in 1995. Unfortunately, I was too young to be aware of the 1998 English release, but that doesn’t mean that there can’t be a remastered mobile version or new games with similar elements.
A New Kind of Story
More JRPGs should be like Magic Knight Rayearth because decades after its release, it still stands out as a compelling story with fun magical elements. Most importantly, it could shake up one of the most well-established conventions of all roleplaying games, Western andJapanese—the singular heroic protagonist the player is meant to identify with. Dragon Age, Mass Effect, Skyrim, and JRPGs galore feature “chosen one” stories meant to make the player feel special, reinforcing the idea that they’re the most important person in the world. While this can feel empowering, it can also get stale.
By putting the player in direct control of Hikaru, Umi, and Fuu all at once, a Magic Knight Rayearth game could show that it takes more than one person to save the world. And more than that, it requires different kinds of people working collectively. This wouldn’t just be a welcome change from the established formula—it would convey an important truth about the world that players could carry out into their lives long after they put down the controller.