Review – Princess Maker Refine
In a time of simulation games that border on uncanny valley in terms of both fine details and nuanced decisions, it’s nostalgic and romantic to look back at the sims of the past. Sure, we can always revisit the classics of Civilization before it took eighty-five days to complete a campaign, or Oregon Trail to really touch upon the fond memories of dysentery. Yet there was an entire, larger scope of sims that never really made it outside of Japan, and I used to pine for these games.
Reading about things like Wonder Project J in Nintendo Power made me jealous, and it all culminated in the late 90s when I discovered abandonware. Somehow, a fully translated review copy of Princess Maker 2 had made its way to the Internet, and I, along with a handful of friends, spent many a merry day raising our “daughters” and comparing outcomes. It was such an interesting concept that I couldn’t believe it never got an official release.
Still, time heals all wounds, and Gainax eventually realized that making money was better than not making money. The result has been the slow and sometimes erratic release of the Princess Maker games to various platforms, plus some of the more bizarre side games (Go! Go! Princess is a decent board game). Strangely, Princess Maker 4 still hasn’t gotten a localization, but Princess Maker 3 did get a Nintendo Switch port. I don’t exactly understand the ins and outs of it all, but there appears to be some kind of holdup in terms of who wants the game (it’s more story driven and less open ended than the others). Anyways, we’re here today to look at Princess Maker Refine, a redux of the first title, and how it lands on the Steam storefront.
Brace yourselves: it’s incredibly not great.
As it’s the first game in the series, Princess Maker Refine helps set the tone with a more straightforward approach than future games. You are a respected and beloved knight, and you found a young girl after a particularly fearsome battle against an evil demon. Rather than just let her die in the streets, you decide to adopt her and help her find her way. Over the course of several years, you make the plans that shape your daughter’s future, conducting her schedule for education, work and interests as you move forward towards one of many, many endings.
Despite the limited scope of what you can decide, the events of the game and your choices can turn your daughter into a future queen, a mighty warrior, an absolute vagabond, a prostitute (yes, really) or just a person who doesn’t really do anything. When you look at the age of the game, the ambitions are incredible in terms of how much replayability exists, and it’s easy to imagine this game turning everything on its head when it was released in 1991.
There’s really two ways to look at Princess Maker Refine: a modern lens and a historic one. From a historic lens, the gaming experience is both interesting and engaging. The routine of it all is very simplistic, but rewarding in terms of long-term, micro-scale planning. Each month you decide three activities for your daughter to do, and the activities will affect her various stats and her mood. Education is the fastest way to build up EXP for adventurer builds or charm for princess builds, but both require money. Lumberjacking is the best paying job, and also boosts your strength, but it will also drive down your more “feminine” traits and even one trip to the woods can seal off a couple of endings. Taking a break can help replenish your daughter’s fatigue, but it can also lower her morale with nothing to do, and that can make her become delinquent (which will prevent you from working some jobs and doing some chores).
Besides what you must do each month, there’s the optional chats and check ins, where you can try and motivate your daughter with little speeches, find out her reputation in the town, or try to schmooze your way into the castle to start hobnobbing with royalty, because how else can you climb the ladder when you’re a goddamn orphan? Again, building charm allows you to really engage with people, but too much charm and not enough moral guidance turns you into a hooker, which is not how anything really works but blame 90s Japan, not me.
Random events, like the annual harvest festival, give you a chance to attain prominence through battles and beauty pageants, and taking your daughter on a much needed (and sometimes expensive) vacation gives her a chance to bond with you, which strengthens your connection and helps her follow your advice better. She also might end up marrying you, but it’s a very difficult ending to attain, so don’t worry about creating something that’s inherently creepy “by accident.”
The nuance of it all makes Princess Maker Refine a great ongoing sim title that can easily be utilized in both short or long play sessions, especially since a month passes by in as little as two minutes. If you were to have an ongoing game, this would be a decent title that’s very low impact for any machine from the last twenty years. In spite of the Refine upgrade to improve the sprites and animation, it still looks and handles a lot like a game from pre-Windows XP days. As you might imagine, this is a double edged sword on most computers.
On the one hand, the tiny install size allows for a real “install and forget” mentality, and the lack of Steam overlay allows it to run smoothly in almost any situation. On the other, it can suffer from instability on some newer machines (I’ve seen that Windows 11 has issues). Also, the lack of Steam overlay means that getting screenshots was a pain in the ass, plus I like having the framework to support my gaming overall.
From a modern viewpoint, Princess Maker Refine is a serious disappointment for multiple reasons. First and foremost, the localization and calibration for modern computers is shocking, especially in comparison to Princess Maker 2. The release of Princess Maker 2 Refine uses almost all the original assets, translations and blockings from the 1996 “leak” and looks wonderful; I even installed it again to compare while doing my review for the first. In comparison, Princess Maker Refine is a janky mess in terms of phrases and wording. Your daughter constantly responds to everything with pointless ellipses and utterances like “Ummm” instead of actual words.
Conversations are stilted and janky, often one sided and they sound like monologues given at middle school plays. Text windows are sometimes hard to read, and other times they’re quite impossible thanks to errant popups physically overlapping other windows. Full screen or windowed, it makes no difference: some things are a perpetual mystery within the game.
Additionally, the elements that are there are so barebones compared to what comes later. Naturally, this wouldn’t be an issue at launch of the very first game ever, but we’re looking back with eyes of what’s available and what becomes. The adventure aspect where the princess takes a bit of a Zelda-esque jaunt is boring and repetitive compared to the dungeon variety that we see in Princess Maker 2. The conversations with your daughter are always the same, with the outcome rarely changing as long as her temperament stays the same.
You can hear short clips of characters talking, but it’s the same lines over and over, which just become exhausting after a bit. Also, in spite of the huge number of outfits that you get as you age, there’s no real variety therein. You get one per season, one per year, and it only has a dramatic change if you accomplish something grand in your maturity (becoming a princess, going on a date, etc.). There are moments where Princess Maker Refine borders on a clicker sim, having you grind out gold or stats for months on end just to hopefully unlock a new pathway to…click away at.
Having said all that, I think that there is some importance to having Princess Maker Refine available for Western audiences officially, and I recognize that this wasn’t an easy process for CFK Co. in terms of getting the rights and releasing it. The game has been scaled in terms of price, which makes it more reasonable to pick up on sale, and it does help you understand the path taken to modern incarnations. We never could have had the complexity of Faery Tales Come True if we didn’t first stumble around in the original game.
Looking at other games released in 1991, it’s honestly stunning to think that Japanese players had Final Fantasy IV, A Link to the Past and this jaw-dropping sim all in one year (and my family decided to get me Captain America for the NES…cool). So, while it may not have aged great (and honestly has been poorly ported), fans of the series can take a look in this time capsule for a few bucks, nod in recognition, and then probably never pick it up again. Sorry princess, your audience is in another castle.
The avatars are solid and capture the 90s anime aesthetic well, but nothing here is exciting enough to write home about.
A sim clicker that is the skeletal outline of a future, better series of titles.
Music clips, while good, are too short and don’t loop. Voice work is static, sparse and repetitive.
I enjoyed this only because I enjoy Princess Maker as a whole. I can’t imagine someone picking this up blind and having a good time.
Final Verdict: 5.0
Princess Maker Refine is available now on Steam.
Reviewed on PC.
A copy of Princess Maker Refine was provided by the publisher.