Arcana Heart location test
By Alex Kierkegaard / November 6, 2006
Arcana Heart is an upcoming all-female, high-res 2D fighter from Yuki Enterprise, the developer that made the last two Samurai Spirits titles for SNK. It's an extremely fun game that mixes original ideas with elements from various other succesful fighters, and which promises to more than redeem the company from its association with the recent Jingi Storm fiasco.
Yuki quietly held the first location test a couple of weeks ago at a little-known arcade in Chiba, about a fourty-minute train ride east from downtown Tokyo. Though I didn't manage to attend at that time, evidently the game must have gone down well with players, because soon after a second location test was announced, this time being held in four arcades across the country: in Tokyo, Chiba (same place as before), Osaka and Fukuoka.
This extended test, which started on Friday and ended late last night, was a big surprise to everyone, and points towards strong publisher support and eventual wide distribution. We still don't know who the publisher will be, or even what hardware the game is running on, but given how polished and fun it is I've no doubt it will easily find its way to many game centers, and claim its place next to the latest versions of everyone's favorite 2D fighters.
The good thing about this second loke was that Leisure Land, the Tokyo arcade were Arcana Heart was shown, is in Akihabara, about four-five blocks from where I live. So I was spared the trouble of hauling my ass all the way to Chiba to see the game in action (not that I would have complained if I had to go there, of course, but I appreciate the convenience all the same).
It's a decent place, which stands out in my mind mainly because it was the first Tokyo arcade to bring in After Burner Climax (on the 26th of last month), and also because the staff there are always nice and courteous. On the minus side it looks rather garish from the outside; the lighting inside is far too bright, resulting in lots of glare and reflections from the arcade monitors; and the ventilation system is rather poor. So yeah, I wouldn't say it ranks among my favorite spots, but at least they offer a large selection of games, including many old classics (Golden Axe, The Tower of Druaga, The Punisher, Alien Vs. Predator, etc., and at the moment even 4-player setups of both Capcom D&D games).
Once I got there, rather late on Friday evening, I instantly realized the game would eventually be big, before even so much as glancing at any of the monitors. It was about the most crowded location test I've yet seen, with roughly as many people gathered around the four cabs as there were at the KOF XI loke over a year and a half ago. That's saying something, considering Arcana Heart is a brand-new game from a largely unknown developer. In contrast, Arc System's Battle Fantasia attracted about a fifth of the crowd, and that loke was only held for two days, and then only at a single arcade.
The level of enthusiasm was just out of this world, with a long snaking line circling the cabs in the limited floor space of the arcade, and people practically prepared to camp out in order to have a go. Now of course I was very glad to see all this interest in a new 2D game, but it meant I wouldn't be playing it as much as I would have liked to. Because I absolutely hate lining up for anything -- especially if we are talking about hour-long waits just so I can get kicked from the machine within less than five minutes.
As it turned out I didn't do that bad. I took the opportunity to study the system and the basic movelists (several copies of which were helpfully stuck to the walls of the game center), and when my turn eventually came I somehow managed to beat my first two opponents without even breaking much of a sweat. Then someone, who must have certainly had a few goes already, came on and started pulling one combo after another, and that was it for me. No way I could have stomached another hour-long wait -- I decided I'd have just as much fun watching the others play.
So I spent the next hour or so going around taking pictures and making videos, all the while trying to identify the best players, so as to film them squaring off against each other. This proved to be quite hard, and for some reason the coolest things would happen whenever I had my camera switched off or pointing in another direction.
A remarkable thing happened at one point. This guy who was waiting in line behind me tapped me on the shoulder and told me to stop taking pictures, "because it's not allowed". I was so surprised at this I don't even remember whether he addressed me in English or Japanese. You see the other players always see me pull out the camera, but no one has ever found the courage (or cared, even) to say anything to me so far. In any case I turned around and told him that I wasn't taking pictures, just making a video, and then turned back and kept shooting. He didn't make a comeback.
The other noteworthy thing that happened was that one of the machines freezed up, and someone went off to call an attendant to come and reset it. Several minutes later the attendant arrived, opened up the cab and started fiddling inside. I was hoping for a chance to see what hardware the game was running on, but I just didn't have a good enough view from where I was standing. And when the game booted up again there was no on-screen indication of what the hardware platform was.
At least I used the opportunity to take the best picture of the game you are likely to see for a while. All the rest of my screenshots are slightly blurry to some degree, but the bottom-left one, which shows the frame at which the game freezed up, is as clear as you can get without using top-of-the line screen capturing equipment. And as it turns out it shows the Chun-Li-lookalike's tight high-res buttcheeks.
So what is it that makes this game special then? In short, it's the extremely fun customizable system, the cool jumps and air dashes that almost make it seem as if you are flying at times, and the nice variety of different attacks and cancels at your disposal. It's too early to pass final judgement on the system of course, but what I've seen looks very promising. So here's what I figured out so far.
After you pick your girl you get to choose between ten different arcanas for the match ahead (five of which were available at the location test). Each of those gives you access to a different set of powers, which are divided into five distinct categories (from simple extra combos and ranged attacks, to the powerful Arcana Force and Arcana Blaze techniques). At the bottom of the screen there is a long power gauge, to its left a number which I think signifies the remaining arcana uses, and above it three smaller so-called homing gauges. The power gauge apparently fills up every time you score a hit, while the homing gauges fill up as time goes by.
I am not totally clear yet on which gauge is used for what, but I get the impression that the homing gauge is used to string along air-dash attacks, while the power gauge to unleash the arcana attacks. Apart from that I'd describe the action as feeling a little like Samurai Spirits with air-dashes, at least if you pick the katana-wielding Kamui, as I did. Also some of the counters throw your opponent to dizzying heights, with the view pulling back and making the sprites look really tiny. This aspect is even more extravagant than in the Marvel vs. Capcom games, but I haven't used it enough -- or seen others use it -- to tell if it's pulled off well or not.
Visually the game is competently drawn, but with very little flair and grace. The sprite work and backgrounds are varied and colorful and get the job done nicely, but there is absolutely nothing memorable about anything I've seen so far. Though the resolution is the same as that of the Guilty Gear games, there is simply no comparison between the two. Even Melty Blood looks better in some respects than this, and in terms of character designs Arcana Heart is the generic-loli fighter that we've suspected from the initial location test images.
But when seen as a whole the game does have its own simplistic charm, and my eyes certainly didn't get tired or bored of looking at it for several hours. I tell you though, I have the feeling that if they had paid more attention to the art in this game, and hired some good illustrators and better animators, it would have set the arcades on fire. All the rest of the ingredients seem to be there so far... well, we'll see eventually I guess.
As an epilogue, I went back to Leisure Land late last night, about an hour or so before closing time. There were still quite a few people around, though of course not nearly as many as during my first visit. But by then the staff had at some point decided to hook up a large LCD monitor to one of the machines, and some of the fights were displayed on it so that more people could watch them. Now these monitors are meant to be used with widescreen high-res games like Virtua Fighter 5, so Arcana Heart was of course stretched and not looking its best, but at least the image was much brighter than that coming from the arcade monitors, and under the harsh lights of the game center that made a huge difference.
Moreover, many of the players had come to grips with the game somewhat by then, and the fights were much more exciting to watch as a result. So I made three more videos of higher overall quality -- if you can overlook the wrong aspect ratio, that is. All three of them star this one dude who was taking on all comers with Kamui, and beating one hapless challenger after another. Then someone gave him a real fight at last and I shot the whole match -- apart from the last few seconds when my memory stick decided to run out of space. It's still 157 MB of the best Arcana Heart action I've seen so far, so if you are only going to watch one video I'd say go for this one.
It will be rather sad to see the game gone from Leisure Land today. Everyone was having so much fun playing it, especially during the last few hours, that the place will look rather empty without it. I wonder when we'll see it again next.