One of the biggest reasons why I love the PreCure franchise is that the tenets in its production and narrative design lies in the idea that the show effectively reboots itself after every year. At the end of every series, a new one takes its place, its creative decisions based on the lessons learned from the process of developing PreCure series before it. Each continuity effectively represents a stage in the life of the franchise, formulated with the knowledge known by its creators up until that point in time. In a sense, looking back at PreCures past is effectively a history lesson in the approach that PreCure has taken ever since its inception.
In a way, what Pretty Cure is in the world of anime is a whole lot like Magic: the Gathering in the world of tabletop gaming; its overwhelming popularity and visceral appeal in the 90s effectively established the game as a mainstay of the genre (and depending on who you ask, innovating and forming the genre itself). As a result of this sustained popularity, Magic from a design standpoint realized that it needed to grow up and start going in directions necessary to continue being a perennial fixture of the gaming landscape. Both Pretty Cure and Magic both underwent this particular phase with Futari wa Pretty Cure: Splash Star anime series for the former, and the Ice Age and Alliances expansions for the latter. It resulted in a paradigm shift that would set the stage for further development and exploration of creative possibility with both products from a business standpoint. Pretty Cure jumped into the team dynamic and never looked back, while Magic jumped into expansion block design and ran with it even up until this day.
The primary difference between both franchises is that while both are set in a fantastic annual tradition and live off of the basic tenets that make their own products tick, Magic: the Gathering is a much more storied entity, its roots dating back much farther into the past than PreCure. Its age is an indicator of many more lessons that it has learned over time in the design of their game compared to its magical girl counterpart. Reading through the game’s head developer, Mark Rosewater’s annual articles reflecting on the state of design in Magic: the Gathering, one can easily gain an understanding and appreciation of the process that goes behind every single year’s worth of planning and development of an immensely popular product, often seeing the lessons learned from the experiences that were had in making specific creative decisions and analyzing the audience’s response from those decisions.
Dokidoki, as a work of fiction, is a highly flawed product, and a lot of the criticisms laid on it stem from realizations that Wizards of the Coast (the company that publishes and develops Magic: the Gathering) had when they set to do the exact same thing with their own product. As the 10th anniversary series in the history of the PreCure franchise, Toei Animation established a nostalgic approach to the show’s production. Everything about that show bleeds familiarity (for better and for worse) with PreCure series past, not only with specific plot devices, but with visual shoutouts littered in between. If one is to evaluate the show based on its design goals, then yes, the series is successful at oozing to the brim with these references for itself and even other shows in the magical girl genre. That said, it’s come at the cost of very tightly strained plot and character dynamics, as well as the inability to focus on what kind of nostalgia it wants to provide.
Wizards knows this feeling too well. It made its own valiant attempt at nostalgia through its 2006 expansion, Time Spiral, and its brethren sets Planar Chaos and Future Sight. It set out a goal to embrace the past to build the present, and using the knowledge of the past to find ways to surprise people with new things. Needless to say, there were a lot of flaws in Time Spiral block’s design, and the lessons learned from that entire year worth of game development were catalogued in Mark Rosewater’s 2007 State of Design article reflecting on this experience. Nearly every single design lesson that Wizards learned that year are design lessons that Toei will eventually encounter. Let’s take a look at each one.
Lesson #1: Nostalgia as a Theme, While Potent, Is Not Universal
Rosewater explains that the usage of nostalgia as a theme was a big gamble. Like PreCure, Magic: the Gathering implements set design based on themes, core tenets that are applied to the most basic tenets that are established by the game itself. It gives separate sets their own identity while allowing them to be integrated into the massive collective and historical card pool available for this customizable game. Pretty Cure takes the same approach with its own continuities. They use core tenet of transforming magical girls who use the power of friendship to kick major ass and act extremely goofy on the side as the base for specific identifying themes. Heartcatch was about Flowers and Fashion, and took an overarching narrative approach while focusing on side characters on an episodic level. Suite was about music, and infused the entire show with music from both a motif and thematic level.
What Wizards of the Coast failed to realize during the process of developing Time Spiral is that there was a problem with the audience perception and reaction to the implementation of nostalgia as a core tenet of design for the set. Some people really enjoyed the nostalgia, being rewarded by their knowledge of the past to live vicariously through it in the present. Others were less receptive of them, as they not only didn’t get the references, but felt like they were required to know them in order to become emotionally invested in them. This implementation of nostalgia as a theme resulted in a divide in the reception of the set, and has done the same for the audience of Dokidoki PreCure at large.
Lesson #2: You Have To Have Something New
While Time Spiral was remarkably successful at digging into the past in order to establish the present, the ideas that were presented were essentially old ones presented in a newer light based on the changed landscape of the game’s perception and reception at the time. The set’s follow-up, Planar Chaos, set out to change the present to by questioning people’s perceptions of the present by asking “what ifs” to ideas that were posed in the past. They took familiar cards and warped them into new things using their new and appropriated philosophies in marketing and design. As a result, the next set didn’t feel as new as originally intended, and suffered as a result of it.
The problem with the nostalgia in Dokidoki is that too much of it resulted in a whole lot of similarities with previous shows. Specifically, despite having a myriad of references to Pretty Cure series in the past, there was a lot of familiarity with Fresh Pretty Cure in particular, specifically because of its effective execution of character dynamics and other plot elements. As a result, there wasn’t an effective marriage of past and future, bringing innovation through reinventing what was familiar. In a sense, Smile PreCure actually did this much more effectively even though it wasn’t exactly meant to be a nostalgia series.
The obvious throwback here is that to Yes! Pretty Cure 5, and it did so be re-presenting that show, “mired” in outdated design philosophy, and wrapping it up with a new production approach. The character spotlight cycle episodes gave a focus to the presentation of the show, allowing each individual girl in Smile’s cast to stand out remarkably well, while still maintaining the highly sentai-like dynamic that exists in the team as a whole, similar to what was established in Yes 5, Toei’s first foray into the team format, but still combining nostalgia with an eye of innovation that was set in Toei’s New-Stage mentality, but is sorely absent in this year’s series.
Lesson #3: Watch Complexity
The main disconnect about Time Spiral as a set was that even though a lot of old concepts were re-explored, granting familiarity to a lot of the veteran playerbase, the new players had a difficult time catching up by learning about past material and content. To even the playing field, Wizards of the Coast released another expansion called Future Sight, which treated the entire audience as a new player, introducing the most new content and rules never seen before in the history of the franchise in a single set. It was interesting and fascinating, but was ugly as clunky as hell.
Dokidoki PreCure is doing the exact same thing with its own self-imposed complexity. Not only is it designed from the ground up with a theme for nostalgia, it’s trying a lot of different things at once in order to adequately explore the different tenets that made up individual series past. It tried to do the aloof cure of Heartcatch and Suite and abandoned that idea without truly abandoning it. It tried to do the character dynamic of Fresh and put that idea on the backburner. It tried to do the character spotlight cycle of Smile during the Royal Crystal arc, and even disrupted its own cycle by adding another major character in the mix. It is yet to be seen what route it will take with its treatment of Regina, Ai, and Marie-Ange, but it is surely going to be similar to something we’ve seen before. The problem with all of this is that they’re doing all of this at once, and is severely out of focus and unable to capitalize on what it managed to do right; all that we see as an audience is a lot of other things that it’s doing wrong.
Lesson #4: Design Can Be Too Clever
While it is important for a franchise with a deep and rich history to seek innovation and make the game feel fresh each time, there lies a particular threshold for how innovative one can try to become when approaching a new set (or in the case of PreCure, a new continuity). What Wizards tried to do with Time Spiral, Planar Chaos, and Future Sight was create an overarching block design, utilizing the theme of Past, Present, and Future to convey the direction in which they developed the cards in each of those sets. While there was a clear theme for each set, the way each set tried to use nostalgia to create something new was executed in an extreme fashion in a myriad of directions, resulting in a lack of focused perception of the block as a whole.
Dokidoki is trying to do the same thing with its numerous shoutouts and the direction that it’s trying to take with its upcoming midway arc. While we don’t know at this point what the outcome of the Rescue the Princess arc will be precisely (promotional material has already suggested that it will end with the emergence of a new PreCure, Cure Ace), Toei is juggling a lot of balls in the plot, and regardless of whether or not certain plot elements will resolve or persist past the arc, the fact remains that at this point in the series, there’s simply way too much involved with the arc. Regina, Ai, Marie-Ange, Jonathan Klondike, Royal Crystals, King Selfish, the Trump Kingdom, and the PreCure themselves are all in play at this point, and we expect that another element in the form of a new PreCure will be added by the arc’s resolution a few episodes from now.
Even if Toei manages to simplify and refocus everything at the end of the arc, say, by combining regina and Ai into the missing Marie-Ange, who awakens as Cure Ace, who, alongside Jonathan Klondike, play a ringer role in supporting the main group in taking back the Trump Kingdom, allowing them to continue onwards a single group by their lonesome, there will still be a sense of exasperation in trying to take in and accept the resolution of all those events. While this is my ideal outcome of all the plot points established so far, the experience in getting to this single streamlined point focusing on the continued character dynamics between the four PreCure would be soured by the process. It would be like a gymnast trying to end a floor routine with a sophisticated tumbling sequence, only to stumble and crash across the floor in a cartoony fashion, somehow driven by their momentum to move back up to their feet, ending in a lavish pose and pretending that the entirety of the sequence never happened. We’re not even sure if Dokidoki will properly stick the landing at this point.
Lesson #7: Be Gentle When Messing with Sacred Cows
The reason why I left out lessons 5-6 out is that these lessons are specific to game mechanics as well as personal reactions to the feedback of the design process behind the release of the Time Spiral 3-set block. Lesson 7, however is probably one of the most poignant lessons learned from the experience, which, while not completely related to the idea of a failed ground-up design choice, is probably the most resonant response from the community that played the game during the set’s release. For Magic players, the different colours of spells (red/blue/green/white/black) represented different flavour philosophies and gameplay styles that were essentially toyed around with during the release of the set.
The philosophy of spell colour in magic, known as the colour pie, while not exactly immune to change, is still a sensitive concept for players who love the game. It’s the most emotionally resonant marriage of lore and gameplay mechanics that keeps players playing up until this day. While the shift in the philosophy was introduced to much dismay, it was a needed shift in order for the game to continue to evolve to this day, but the way the development approached the implementation of this particular shift was too extreme for many players to respond without stepping on their sensibilities of their perception of the game itself.
As for Dokidoki, it certainly feels like a lot of sacred cows are being messed with in the execution of the series so far. The hints at the potential redemption of Regina’s haphazard characterization reaches a little too familiarly to that of Setsuna’s arc in Fresh, especially within the newer context of Regina being a potential candidate for awakening as Cure Ace. Setsuna’s arc was the emotional climax of Fresh, and essentially still stands as one of the most powerful arcs in the entire franchise, setting a remarkable bar for its contemporaries to reach. While the reaction to Regina’s arc in relation to Setsuna’s is an immediate one, particularly within the tumblr community, it only reinforces the fact that the fandom is viscerally attached to specific things that make PreCure the great show that it is, and it’s something that should be acknowledged.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that Regina’s arc should not have happened at all. What this mean for Izumi Todo is that the approach that they take with regards to making references to familiar, loved aspects of PreCure series, past and present, should be one of great care and thoughtfulness. While they shouldn’t shy away from treading back into these sorts of elements, the approach must be taken with a better understanding of why the audiences loved those elements the way they did. Better treatment of the show’s characters, especially Regina, would result in a more forgivable outcome should Regina eventually become Cure Ace. In fairness, Regina would have been a particularly fascinating character if she was given her own continuity to be explored in its fullest sense, without the hindrances of other plot devices like Jonathan Klondike or Ai or the intense character dynamics between the main cast of PreCure.
The State of Pretty Cure, 2013
Pretty Cure is an amazing show with a fascinating history, filled with successes and failures, innovations and question marks. It is a constantly evolving franchise due to its refusal to stop making money through its irresistible merchandise machine and the drive to simply create more PreCure series each year. With each continuity comes its own lessons learned, and new opportunities to pursue different ideas and leaving a stamp in that wonderful history. Dokidoki PreCure, even with all of its faults, is still a part of that history, and is a wonderful part at that. Regardless of the outcome of its story, it has not failed to generate discussion regards to criticisms aimed directly at it.
The most fascinating thing of all, despite all of this, is that the audience is still watching. The audience is waiting with bated breath with every potential addition or subtraction to the plot, hoping that the ship will right its course, or even hoping that the future will be brighter than the present. Because people are still watching, Toei has to be doing something right. And it certainly is. It clearly recognizes all of the things that has made PreCure great in the past, but did not have the wherewithal to understand the effect of cramming too many interesting things into a single show that is already constrained by the tenets of the franchise’s basic design: to depict a group of interesting girls using the power of friendship to kick major monster ass every single week, while doing it in a fantastically novel way each year.
As someone immensely invested into this amazing franchise in the same way a veteran of Magic: the Gathering has similarly invested hundreds if not thousands of dollars into printed cards (I happen to be one of those too!), I can say with certainty that even though the series is taking a number of questionable steps, I have learned much more from those missteps than I have through the franchise’s successes. I simply hope that Toei merely do the same.