This classic GameCola article was originally published in February, 2008.
If you could ask 100,000 RPG fans—fans who were crawling dungeons in dimly lit subterranean establishments of their own long before Final Fantasy VII made that concept popular—what their favorite SNES RPG is, eventually you would get to me. The first thing I would do, in response to your question, would be to slap your silly ass and shake you like a hooker piñata. “Such a waste of time!” I’d scream in your face, and then I’d drop you on the floor, picking up candy pieces that fall where they may. There would be no second thing; I’d be finished.
I find such questions abhorrent. Rageworthy. We KNOW what their favorite RPGs are. They’re Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy II, Final Fantasy III, Secret of Mana, Zelda, Super Mario RPG, occasionally EarthBound, and never anything else. SNES RPGs are measured by these seven titles, and the presence they have in RPG fandom overshadows any other possible title.
That’s why, in existing circles of SNES RPG fans, HAL Laboratory’s Arcana rarely comes up. That’s not ENTIRELY why (and we’ll get to that in a few minutes), but it takes the highest level of RPG buff to remember this game without needing a screenshot. You wouldn’t believe it to look at it, but this game was created long before HAL Laboratories made it big with Nintendo’s Kirby and Super Smash Bros. This game was a stepping stone to keep them afloat long enough to try something else. In fact, they made dozens of games before (and after) Kirby and SSB came along. With such a large and seemingly busy-looking gaming list (which can easily be Wiki’d), I doubt even HAL remembers much about Arcana. From almost every analytical perspective, this game just screams “forgettable”.
So, why is this game forgettable? Why doesn’t it at least deserve a place next to Breath of Fire II in the hearts of SNES RPG gamers? Why doesn’t it have its own OC ReMix? Is it because the game is cursed? Is it because the competition from Square and Enix is too high?
Or is it because it’s a short, slow, unremarkable example of a subgenre of roleplaying that’s geared more toward select hardcore players than a mass audience anyway?
I’d put money on all three, personally, but the lion’s share of cash goes to the latterest option. Arcana is forgettable because there’s not much there to remember. From the very beginning, it was destined to be generalized into a stereotype of what sucks about RPGs. The storyline vaguely resembles Lord of the Rings and just about any other RPG background story you’ve seen before. Your character is the last of a clan of people that doesn’t seem to serve any purpose in the story other than to give the hero a special ability no one else has. It’s a pretty useful ability: You get to use magic cards in battle that simulate magic spells. From there, the story’s not worth detailing. It’s standard issue stuff, and you’ll get to see it all, because this game is all about linearity and there are no unsolved questions (well, no, there is ONE, but it never gets answered).
But, who plays an RPG from the early ’90s and expects a damn good story, anyways? The few fans of this game first played it when they were too young to give a damn about what’s what and who’s who. They just wanted to crawl some dungeons and kill some goblins. If you haven’t figured out by the pictures yet, this game is squarely a first-person, menu-driven dungeon crawler. Nothing more.
Once you get past that, the game itself is a testament to what solid, focused gameplay can do to a lackluster setup. The graphics and design are nothing impressive, but they’re bright and colorful, and some of the character and enemy designs really do something for you. The music is unusually well done for a game of this stature, and nothing that I can recall seems out of place. It fits right in.
Battle, as with any RPG worth its weight, is the cornerstone of this game, and it’s definitely the most mixed element in its programming. Again, standard issue stuff like levels and good equipment make or break you in a fight. No crazy systems to memorize—hell, you barely even need to look at the screen. The fights don’t range much in difficulty; it’s not ever easy or totally difficult. The “system” this game touts to set itself apart from the herd is that you get one of four elemental spirits who add a permanent helping hand in battle. That’s great, because character count means EVERYTHING in this game, and that’s where the system faults. You get a total of four characters while the enemies get up to seven (and I swear to God I’ve seen eight). A lot of battles usually make you choose between very repetitious sword swinging, or using up your cards or MP to clear out enemies. Your “spirits” are never very strong, they have horrible attack and defense and medium-grade spell casting, and don’t even get me started on whoever decided to name spells “Attribute 6”, “Attribute 13”, “18”, “15”, “9”, etc., etc.
But, what really breaks the battle system is that ONE death is all it takes to end the game, with dungeons offering no save points at all. You rarely ever see a boss coming, and NONE of your new characters (who sometimes show up mid-dungeon) come with equipment.
The other major item that breaks a game with a lot of potential is the total lack of exploration. Granted, you get LARGE Wolfenstein-style dungeons to go through one square at a time, but that’s it. It’s totally on-rails. You don’t get to GO anywhere you want. You don’t get to go back to the forest or tower; if you leave town, you’re heading to the ice dungeon (which I guarantee will test your limits). There are no secret rooms in any of these dungeons, and you don’t find really good treasure until you’re 60-70% of the way through the game.
That’s all there really is to this game: first-person combat and on-rails exploration, and you don’t even really get that much of it. If this game judged time, I’d say it lasts a good 12 hours, maybe 20 if you get stuck in the ice dungeon (and you definitely will).
Having said all that, I must now say that I’ve always liked this game. It’s very focused and solid and represents what classic SNES RPGs are REALLY about. It looks, sounds, and plays fine, but this game was destined to be nothing more than a stepping stone for the big boys to go across. If you own a cart version of this game, you probably stole it from me. The ROM version is far better, with save states and the ability to watch Vegas Vacation or Young Frankenstein on the telly while you play. I will always remember this game, but I can’t always recommend it.