Let's take stock of what I knew about this series going in.
"Cardcaptor Sakura for lolicons"
"Magical Girl anime with actual property damage involved and spells loaded as cartridges"
"seinen sci-fi superheroes masquerading as a shoujo Magical Girl show"
"Magical Girls vs. space battleships! Enough said."
basic plot: third-grader Takamachi Nanoha searches for the Jewel Seeds, artifacts from another dimension(s)
there's a good bad girl, Fate Testarossa, and Nanoha/Fate slash is very common, implying the source material may be slashy
I'd seen the names Hayate, Reinforce, Wolkenritter, Vita and Linker Core, not knowing any context. In retrospect, I know I had seen many more names but forgotten them.
I'd seen descriptions of the various manga, and what stuck in my memory was "What relation is Vivio to Nanoha?"
What really grabbed me was knowing about StrikerS, the idea of showing Magical Girls grown up and training a new generation. Sadly, not something I'd expect in a real shoujo.
Now, did it deliver what I hoped? I knew that much of what I'd heard wasn't from the first season, so see my forthcoming reviews of the sequels to get the full story.
When Nanoha is granted her powers, Yuuno tells her the long incantation/password. I think two things. 1: Wow, I didn't realize it was going to parody Cardcaptor Sakura this directly. 2: I hope she doesn't have to repeat this ritual every time. This show knows what the audience wants, though. Starting with her second transformation, Nanoha is able to cut the magic words. Here the show is consciously ridiculing and discarding Magical Girl conventions... somewhat. We still get to see the stock-footage transformation sequence until halfway through the series. Incidentally, after that point, when we see her transform from the outside, it's very quick in comparison. Later scenes in As pretty much confirm my realization that the transformation sequence is only in Nanoha's mind. I don't know enough Magical Girl series to know if that's the convention.
Early in the series, when the first episode still colors my vision cherry-blossom pink, it becomes clear that Nanoha is meant to be more awesome and cool than Sakura by virtue of being more powerful (a dangerous thing for a writer to think). Sakura's flying was rather... well, "girly", often riding her staff side-saddle. She could only use one power at a time, so she couldn't attack while flying. Nanoha flies with energy wings that grow from her feet. In the title sequence, when she flies, she is no witch on a broomstick. She flies like a superhero. When she does a big loop, it captures the ancient dream of flight in a way Sakura didn't (until she rewrote the cards...) It's only because of this context that the most familiar of powers is able to seem cool again, even liberating.
To continue the convention-breaking, Nanoha and Fate don't call their attacks. Their devices do so for them. This reinforces the idea that magic is just sufficiently advanced technology. However, in the second half, this is undone. Called-attack conventions creep in, and Fate uses incantations that invoke deities.
Okay, it's official. "Divine Buster" is (distant) second to "Genocide Sunshine" as an awesome-stupid-awesome attack name. This isn't the biggest attack, though. That one has a name and appearance that have me thinking "disco".
And oh, so much moe! Can anyone be as pure and good as Nanoha? Or so I thought, until the next season topped her...
Despite that, the saccharine ending theme doesn't fit. It's here that the show best masquerades as genuine shoujo.
The episode previews are one of the places it does so worst. Several spend their limited time on fanservice shots that aren't necessarily representative of the coming episode.
The last episode: sappy, soppy and slashy.
Eventually, I decided to compare the dub. It was painful immediately. Nanoha's voice is the worst among a set of uniformly exaggeratedly high, tinny kids' voices. My review score will apply only to the sub.