#1 Cute girls, big lasers
If you are used to magical girl shows being about cuddly characters defeating monsters with spells, some light combat, and the powers of love & friendship, then the Nanoha series is an interesting alternative. Magic in this world exists for the simple purpose of blasting stuff into oblivion and there will be many an opportunity to do just that.
It’s a show that has an ensemble cute girls (and some male mages as well!) that go into combat with magic-infused swords, polearms, bows, and sometimes even bare fists. It’s the mahou shoujo alternative to Dragon Ball Z, as people fly around in the sky, smash opponents through scenery and buildings, and blast each other with laser beams that wipe out cities in the process. It’s destructive and highly cathartic to watch, which also helps set the series apart from its various competitors in the magical girl genre.
#2 The timeframe
Despite launching a franchise I rank among my favorites, I don’t actually think Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha the TV show is that good. It’s something I enjoyed watching and, by the end, I at least liked the characters enough to want to see more, but what then makes them interesting is that you get to watch these characters grow for years to come.
The series spans an unusually large frame of time for an anime series. Our original adventure introduces us to Nanoha, a girl from Earth who becomes embroiled in the work of the Time-Space Administration Bureau after discovering her magical talents. She joins this military organization and, across the sequels that follow, we get to see her pursue a career, move to a different world entirely, and become a mother.
The cast of young mages we were first introduced to in 2004 have all grown up, with Nanoha herself starting her adventure at the age of 9, but who is now in her mid-twenties as of the most recent stories. The very point of ViVid is that these heroes of previous seasons are now all working to support their kids and students, who live in the world the original cast helped create and protect. Individually the stories are not super impressive, but added together they form an amazing saga.
#3 Different seasons bring different flavors
Just like how the characters change over time, so too does the writer who created them. Masaki Tsuzuki is an interesting author and one who is not exactly attached to consistency. The result is that all of the Nanoha media has its own themes and feel to it.
The first two seasons are familiar magical girl content, focusing on a young Nanoha setting out on a magical quest alongside her friends. These stories are centered around rivalries, with the first season pitting Nanoha and Fate against each other, and the second having the two of them and their friends battle against The Wolkenritter. Then the third season, StrikerS, does more with its SciFi setting by taking the story away from Earth and adding political and ethical questions into the mix. ViVid, then, is a lighthearted story about the next generation of characters taking up martial arts as a sports activity and partake in a tournament.
Sure, sometimes you get something like Nanoha Force and that ends up on permanent hiatus, but the diversity of stories that are tackled throughout the series makes it unique and allows its characters to shine in a variety of different storylines.
#4 The movies
Following the success of the first two seasons and the somewhat mixed Nanoha: StrikerS, the franchise went through a bit of a break. We wouldn’t see the fourth season until 2015, 8 years later, and while a lot of side-stuff was in the works in the shape of manga, novels, and drama CDs, it left people waiting for the next big thing. Then, in 2010, we got the remake movies.
I mentioned before that I am not that fond of the first season and can see a lot of its flaws, but the first and second movie take their respective seasons and upgrade them in many ways. The pacing is much improved and the quality of the animation is many times higher than it used to be. It also tackles the stories in different ways, bringing in some alterations while staying faithful to the overall storyline and characters. Both movies are pretty damn good and I’d recommend the first one over the first season if you are looking to catch up on the franchise.
The movies have since continued and are now adapting an alternate storyline that follows the events of the PSP fighting games. I actually played these games and had to make some best guesses as to what the story was about, making it pretty cool that we now have new movies coming out that finally bring this part of the series to an English audience.
#5 Emotional character arcs (sometimes)
The ways of Masaki Tsuzuki are strange and incomprehensible. Sometimes he writes excellent characters with memorable storylines and emotional growth, sometimes he figures 15 is an acceptable number of villains for a season. While the flaws in his writing are often obvious, I also admire just how great some of his best stories turn out to be.
Fate Testarossa and the situation with her mother, the desperate quest of the Wolkenritter, watching Vivio grow up, almost every season has highlights like these and those come with some great hype moments when emotional character arcs culminate into fight scenes. I still sometimes watch the hospital rooftop scene from A’s or Nanoha’s battle to rescue Vivio, just because the emotional weight of those scenes gives me goosebumps every time.
Even when it doesn’t involve combat, the Nanoha series can be a real tearjerker from time to time. Fate’s struggles stand out in particular, especially in the movies where they added a bunch of extra scenes.