GameSpite Journal 10 | Mystic Ark

Mystic Ark | Dev.: Produce | Pub: Enix | Genre: RPG | Release: July 1995

Traditionally, RPGs either engage us though finesse of play or with a captivating narrative. We continue because we are having fun or want to see what happens next. Good RPGs do both. Mystic Ark may be the only RPG that instead survives on wit. Consider this example: In a magical library, the player stumbles upon ďThe Happy Book.Ē This cheerful tome offers a handful of services for sale: protection from damage floors, a level-up, and to never be poisoned again. Protection from damage floors seems like a good idea, and the book will sell you a pair of boots that do just that. However, the only dungeon that had such obstacles has long since been left behind and youíll never experience them again. The level-up is revealed to be a cruel joke. The book hands over an obscene number of experience points only to snatch them away; shame on you for thinking it would be so easy. By this point itís obvious whatís going on, but that poison immunity is tempting; and while it isnít cheap, it isnít outrageously expensive either. If they player decides to take the plunge the book will cram every last space in the playerís inventory with antidotes, about fifty or so. In a game with a limited inventory this is annoying. In one that only allows you to sell or drop only one item at a time, itís downright cruel. As they say, be careful what you wish for, and as always ďgullibleĒ is written on the celling. Simply, Mystic Ark isnít afraid to screw with you.

One of the holy grails of the rom-translation scene, Mystic Ark is the sequel to The 7th Saga. But donít hold that against it. Like a beautiful butterfly emerging from the worst worm, Mystic Ark transcends its origins. Due to the complex hex-editing required to rewrite the game in English, Mystic Ark remained one of the Super Nintendoís last major RPGs to receive a fan-translation, taking a full ten years to complete. It wasnít until 2010, when two independent fan translations were released within weeks of one other, that players were finally able to parse just what was happening in this offbeat game. Certainly, people who had taken the plunge and attempted to make their way through in Japanese were soon thwarted by its surreal opening.

The game begins with a montage in which rotating disks chase down various characters and turn them into wooden figurines. Elsewhere, a mansion materializes on a deserted island. Inside, the figurines are displayed in unending stillness until one of them shakes itself to life and transforms into the player character. A voice explains that the mansion is the nexus of all worlds, and some force is abducting people from throughout the multiverse to keep them here. The player is apparently the first person with enough strength of will to reverse the transformation and so must travel from world to world seeking the ďMystical ArksĒ with which to free the Nexus. And so rest of the game involves the player finding secret entrances on the island, solving whatever problem awaits them in each new world, and returning with an ark with which to unlock the next world. Each is unique and strange. One might involve a conflict between two crews of pirate cats whose ships have been stranded on the dry floorbed of what once was an ocean, or nomads who live in villages carved into giant fruit, or a world where the nature of reality has gone amuck and itís up to Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison to fix it. Eventually, an overarching narrative emerges, but itís content to remain in the background and let the world scenarios take center stage.

Gameplay, thankfully, is much improved from The 7th Sagaís flavorless grind, but compared to other RPGs of the area itís still rather bland. The twist comes with party composition. The player can imbue two of seven wooden figurines with the power of the arks and bring them to life. Much of the strategy involves which two the player brings to battle. Each of the seven is unique, with their own strengths and weaknesses. Sadly, despite this interesting premise, challenge doesnít find its way into the game until past the half-way point, and even then only for bosses. 90% of the time itís enough to simply wind up the auto-battle function and let the game play itself.

While the party-members are interestingly designed from both illustration and skillset standpoints, they are barren of any characterization. They never utter a word or serve any purpose beyond battle options. This works, though, because Mystic Ark isnít overly concerned with things like character or plot or even nuanced play. Nope, Mystic Arkís primary interest to mess with you, and itís not afraid to use your expectations of the RPG form to do so. Right from the get-go, it starts to change things up by letting the player explore Nexus Island in great detail. The player can examine items and scenery close up, touching, prodding, and experimenting. Thereís almost a point-and-click adventure game feel to these sections, and combined with the loneliness of the island it recalls Myst more than it does Final Fantasy. Inside the worlds, everywhere, there are little puzzles, challenges, and tests. The player might find a room in a dungeon containing three chests and are told they can chose one. If they decide to open the others their HP and MP is reduced to 1 and are left to monsters with no resources. Or they might come across a dungeon filled with that staple of RPG treasure trickery, mimics, only to find that these monsters pose no threat and will heal the player instead. In fact, only one is fightable, and doing so takes some work. Or they discover a land where no sound exists, all background music disappears and they must find a new way to talk to NPCs. Or theyíre challenged by a ďpuzzle potĒ to tough mind-benders and promised no reward, and indeed solving them all provides just that. At every turn, the game teases the player in a way thatís unique unto itself. And while Mystic Ark doesnít break down the walls of RPG genredom, it does lean heavily against them.

Itís a shame that Mystic Ark never saw light outside of Japan for so long. If it had gotten an international release it might occupy the same niche as EarthBound does today: Quirky and well liked and remembered for its singular uniqueness. Now, even with the new translations, Mystic Ark remains obscure, mostly prompting surprised exclamations of ďthey made a sequel to what!?Ē Yes, most times a crappy game will beget a crappy follow-up, and itís better to err on the side of caution than get stuck with the metaphorical inventory stuffed with useless antidotes. But sometimes the risk is worth it. You might find a surprising new world where you least expected.

By Philip Armstrong? | March 4, 2012 | Previous: EarthBound? | Next: Chrono Trigger