GameSpite Journal 10 | Arcana

Arcana | Dev.: HAL | Pub: HAL | Genre: Dungeon Crawler | Release: May 1992

The first-person dungeon crawler has an interesting history on console systems. One could easily argue that RPGs owe their existence to games like Wizardry; the Apple ][ version of the game has been cited as the direct inspiration for Dragon Quest, and many Japanese developers of the Ď80s discovered the entire role-playing genre through Henk Rogersí Wizardry clone The Black Onyx. The dungeon-crawler was absorbed and filtered and reprocessed by Japan and transformed into something completely different, and itís primarily this distillation that the West associates with Japanese RPGs and console role-playing in general. Yet the console-based dungeon crawler lives on as an enduring niche, albeit one thatís rarely exported to American or European shores.

Even before Etrian Odyssey gave the world a taste of a properly modernized child of Wizardry, there have been exceptions. Shining in the Darkness kicked off a franchise that thrives even to this day (though without Camelotís involvement, itís sadly degenerated into otaku-bait), and of course Revelations: Persona laid the foundation for Atlusí modern prosperity. Easily forgotten in the mix, however, is 1992ís Arcana for Super NES.

Arcana is a product of HAL Laboratories from their pre-Kirby days, the era where the company drifted almost aimlessly from genre to genre in search of a hit that never came. HALís output in those days varied wildly in quality from deplorable (Fire Bam) to commendable (The Adventures of Lolo) to nice try (Captain Skyhawk). Arcana, fortunately, weighs in at the better end of the scale. Itís no masterpiece, but it was a good foundational effort that helped set the stage for the Super NESís eventual RPG dominance.

As the title -- a clever choice of localization for Japanís prosaic Card Master -- suggests, Arcana is a game built around cards. Theyíre not actually tarot cards, but no matter. The game predates Magic: The Gathering and other CCGs by a few years, but its inspiration seems to come from the same place. Each character in the game, whether hero, villain, dungeon monster, or companion ally, exists as a card. Exploration takes place through a first-person view, just like Wizardry, though HAL made no attempt at wrangling smooth scrolling out of the Super NES hardware so early in the consoleís life; players advance grid-by-grid.

The conceit of the card-based aesthetic helps make this feel less clumsy than it might otherwise, as it creates a sort meta-game context for Arcanaís exploration. The cards also serve as a cheat to help graphical performance, forming a sizable frame around your field of vision -- only about a third of the screen actually contains the dynamic dungeon or battle view, while the rest is a semi-static border of cards and descriptive text. Battle is fairly standard turn-based fare, with an emphasis on scarcity of resources and elemental rock-paper-scissors. Defeated characters are depicted as torn cards, which is a nice touch -- though considerably less kind is the fact that youíre only allowed to lose elemental companion cards. Should Rooks or any of his other human allies die while in the dungeon, bam: Instant game over.

But what did you expect? Itís a first-person dungeon-crawler; thatís not really a genre known for its forgiving nature. As old-school RPGs go, Arcana feels almost forgiving. And the card aspect may be a gimmick, but it makes for a nice aesthetic. A classic? Nah, but fondly remembered nonetheless.

By Jeremy Parish? | Nov. 30, 2011 | Previous: Contra III | Next: A Link to the Past