Insomnia | Videogame Art

Arcana Heart (2006)

By Alex Kierkegaard / October 5, 2007

After the rather disappointing Tenkaichi Kenkakuden I would not have imagined that Yuki would have a game such as this in them, but that's what people can do with proper motivation. Tenka, with its haphazard approach to system design and its ugly upscaled sprites, is so exactly the opposite of this meticulously crafted and charming high-res fighter, that it's hard at first to believe they were made by the same people. So how are we to explain this huge discrepancy?

Life has taught me that it takes desire, talent, opportunity, and necessity to make something great. Yuki has already shown desire for greatness by moving into the arcade fighting scene, leaving behind the throwaway, low-budget console and cellphone games they spent their first years making. Talent we know they posess; one catches glimpses of it in both SS Zero and Tenka, despite both those games' lack of self-confident, bold direction, and their various other shortcomings. But opportunity and necessity? The guys at Yuki hadn't had much of either until now.

By striking out on their own, they broke free from the creativity-stifling oversight of SNK Playmore and from the constraints of working on a long-running franchise, and created for themelves the opportunity to go all out and make something new. At the same time it became imperative that they take full advantage of this opportunity, otherwise they'd never manage to gain a foothold in the saturated and highly competitive arcade fighting scene. Because to cast aside the security of SNK and the Samurai Spirits franchise meant to make something great or die: derivative, broken or plain simply boring games hardly ever make it into Arcadia's charts (and this is especially true of brand-new, no-name titles), or if they do they drop right off the moment their novelty wears off (see The Rumble Fish 2, Hokuto no Ken and a string of other recent titles). Time and again, when the dust kicked up by new releases settles down, we are left either with the latest, finely-tuned iterations of truly great games (see Accent Core and Act Cadenza Version B), or with the proven classics of the past (KOF 2002, 3rd Strike, etc.) Those are the kinds of games a new challenger must face if it wants to carve out its own niche — to do so successfully, it must create its following by diminishing those of its opponents.

Spend some time with Arcana Heart and you'll realize it was built from the ground up to do just that. Extremely well-balanced, with a fun and versatile system, fast-paced, extravagant, offering a wildly-varied cast of characters, practically glitch-free — the game delivers on so many levels it's hard to decide at which point exactly to start singing its praises. It unashamedly rips off ideas left and right from a dozen recent, popular fighters, and expertly re-combines them into a new and coherent form — into something that, when all is said and done, just works.

A great many of the game's strengths stem from the arcana system, which is its only element that's genuinely new. This system — taken as a whole, though it's made up of several smaller parts — is not really comparable to anything, though one way to think of it is to remember the Slash and Bust system of SS3 and 4, and imagine how it would work if each character had ten different "versions" instead of two. But that description still covers only part of what the arcana system does.

So what does it do then? At first glance, not that much. Each arcana confers on your character its own set of moves (Fire gives fireballs, Electricity gives lightning strikes, etc.) and supers (which work exactly like regular supers), and if that was all there was to it the whole thing would have been a sham ("So with this arcana your character gets this new move! With another arcana, she gets a different move! How in-depth!"). But then some arcanas give you certain abilities which aren't direct attacks. Earth gives you a shield when dashing; Time gives you the ability to teleport; Love lets you float down from a height as opposed to simply falling, etc. etc.

Then there's the Arcana Force mode which you can activate only once during a round, and which acts as your "get out of jail free card", among other things. You can go into this mode at anytime, but it's especially useful whenever you are getting comboed. In the middle of the combo press A+B+C and your character will fly out of it, float above the ground for a couple of seconds, then land and recover immediately. After that your super meter starts getting depleted in exchange for a special power, the exact effect of which depends on your chosen arcana (Death poisons your opponent if you land a hit, Wood regenerates life, Time stops the clock, etc. etc.) You remain in Arcana Force mode either until you run out of super meter, or until you end it yourself by initiating the Arcane Blaze, a special attack which drains what's left of your meter and calls forth the spirit of your arcana, which basically proceeds to tear your opponent a new one.

It's only once all the above settles in that you begin to see the beauty and real purpose of such a complex and extremely versatile system. Once you reach that point, a myriad questions will start popping up. Which arcana better complements Kamui's extremely long reach? Does Lilica's high speed work better with Electricity (which gives you strong clashing properties), with Water (which allows for safer rushdowns thanks to protective bubbles), or with Wind (which adds triple jumps, double air dashes and other crazy movement options)? And these are just three of more than ten customization options that you can explore with each and every character...

The possibilities in this game are truly mind-boggling. And it's not just about figuring out which character/arcana combination is The Best, as oftentimes there isn't one. Each choice has different pros and cons, and some of them will complement your own playing style well, while others won't. The hard part doesn't even begin until after you've made your choice, since then you have to come up with strategies that you can use to exploit that choice to its full potential. You can boost Kira's already considerable strength to the extreme by picking the Earth or Steel arcanas, for example, but how do you use all this power to punish a highly mobile character that picked the Love arcana (which can shoot a laser that immediately extends to the other side of the screen)?

Any way you look at it the arcanas end up, fittingly enough, at the center of everything. They give you a set of extra tools: your position in the tournament food chain will be determined by your degree of competence in using them. Watch any high-level match and you'll see that superior arcana usage is what sorts out the winners from the losers. Some players even learn several different arcanas, choosing among them depending on which character they are going up against.

Remember how Battle Fantasia was being touted as some sort of an RPG/fighting game hybrid, but ended up with little more to show for it than some lame hit point counters flashing on the screen? Well, Yuki gives you the fighting game with the deepest customization option yet, and they don't even make a fuss about it.

The arcana system also solves to an extent one of the perennial problems of brand-new fighting games — i.e. the limited roster of characters — while at the same time adding some extra spice to mirror matches, since the two players will almost always end up pulling off completely different moves and strategies. Games like KOF: MI and XI may have almost hit the 50-character mark, but this game gives you over 100 possible combinations (hint, hint), and every character/arcana added in the future will only keep increasing this number (exponentially, no less!), not to mention potentially giving you the chance to improve your own character.

But even beyond the arcana system, the game keeps delivering the goods in every way imaginable. Check this: the D button is not only used for your arcana powers — it pretty much does everything else worth doing in this game. You can use it to shoot your character at your opponent as if you were wearing a jetpack, not only for the purpose of continuing combos, but to chase him down and create ambiguous mixups. You also have what are called homing cancels which allow you to cancel any move instantly and continue comboing your adversary, not just on the ground but also in the air, regardless of distance, you can just fling yourself at your opponent, or cancel instantly on the ground into another move. This allows for seemingly endless combo possibilities. In addition, there are guard cancels. One thing about many games is that there are characters who can attack for long periods of time and constantly keep the pressure on. With the guard cancel system you can get yourself out of blockstun in one of two directions, meaning that once you're on the defensive it doesn't necessarily mean you're stuck forever, something which keeps the pace of the battle alive.

If Yuki had stopped right here they'd still have had one of the best fighting games to hit the arcades this decade. But these guys were not messing around, man — they were going for gold. In order to give you enough space to make use of all the crazy movement options, they added the hugest playing field ever — easily three screens high — completely dwarfing what was seen in the Marvel games. So when you knock your opponent out with a super you send them flying up a couple hundred feet in the air, at which point you follow up and the battle literally takes to the skies! with skilled players being able to almost make it look as if their characters are flying. There are even characters that can get above the top of the stage and continue comboing without even being visible! And the strong vertical feel of the game is equalled by its horizontal aspect, making it truly feel as if the battles are fought all over the place. This last point depends on who's involved, to an extent — characters like Mei Fang, Saki and Heart do homing cancels forward and jumps into instant air dashes into hits for their combos, where they sometimes go from one end of the screen to the other. Or you see people juggling forward as opposed to up. And then you have the arcana powers which go full screen...

The game is just tons of fun. It says a lot that I could see this even during the location test phase, when people where pretty much randomly pushing buttons. But now? Fucking forget about it.

Yuki looked at every single half-decent fighting game out there (and not just arcade ones; also doujin and console) and picked and matched what they considered to be their best aspects. The button layout is similar to Melty Blood; wall pushing and unblockables are ripped right off of HnK — in the case of the latter even straight down to the charging animation. The cancelable homing system resembles the boost of HnK; the Arcana Force mode works in principle like Melty Blood's Heat mode... the list goes on and on. Look hard and you'll trace influences from Guilty Gear, Eternal Fighter Zero, and even the Bleach games!

It's fascinating that this Frankenstein of a fighter doesn't just come apart at the seams under the strain of competitive play, but in fact ends up working better in many respects than the games it was inspired from. Finally, it transcends them and attains a character all its own.

This is because Yuki didn't just throw all these elements into a pot, add lolicon, stir and serve. Everything's been carefully considered and countless improvements have been made. The homing system may work like HnK's boost, but here you can delay the tracking and even pick the direction: backwards or forwards. The Arcana Force mode may work like Melty Blood's Heat mode, but Heat only offers you one effect (life regeneration), and it can't be used to get you out of combos. Not to mention that in this game just about everything can be countered.

With the arcanas creating so many possible character combinations one would think the game would be a nightmare to balance. Well, perhaps it was, but if so Yuki certainly delivered in this respect as well. There are just too many games out there where some characters stand no chance against the others. Arcana Heart is one of the few were every character can compete and win if the player is skilled enough (note I said every character — not every single one of the over a hundred character/arcana combinations...) There was some controversy at first over Kamui, but it turns out she's not fundamentally stronger — just somewhat easier to learn and exploit properly. At the other end you have characters that are really abstract and look as if they have no way of dealing damage (such as Yoriko and Maori), but the difference is in the amount of effort required to make them work. The point is that every character here is competitively feasible, allowing you to pick whichever you prefer without having to worry about tier lists. How they managed to pull this off with a brand-new game offering such a huge number of possible character configurations — how they avoided a handful of them totally dominating over all others — I have no idea, but in any case this has certainly got to be the game's crowning achievement.

Yuki's burning ambition with Arcana Heart can be clearly discerned all the way down to their aesthetic choices. For one thing, the all-female loli-archetype cast was chosen to draw people's attention, pure and simple. It was a smart move and that's all there is to it. After all, half the fighting games out there stick to traditional fighting themes; there's nothing wrong with a game based on the Japanese moe culture. There's an overall sense of blandness in the character designs, but you know what — not only am I convinced this was intentional, I've also grown to appreciate this sort of uniformity in the cast, who kinda look like a bunch of inbred orphanage escapees.

For another thing, at a time when even large companies like SNK have turned to shitting all over their own games (by upscaling low-res sprites) and Arcsys doesn't even bother to draw more than a couple of frames per move, Yuki respects players enough to do the high-res thing right. This may not be SFIII-smooth, but then again SFIII was not drawn at 640x480. What this is is the most well-animated high-res fighter yet, and here's to hoping it will shake others out of complacency. Developers and players need to realize there are only two choices when it comes to 2D: low res and high res, and if you are not prepared to do the high res justice there's no shame in sticking to low res. Just look at how well Cave is doing by following this strategy and how beautiful their games look. And did Gekka no Kenshi need high-res backgrounds to look awesome? Or do you find the upscaled mess of Tenka or KOF XI or Melty Blood preferable?

But back to the subject at hand. So here are, at last, after this torrent of praise for the game, its negatives: 1) The music and sound effects will make you glad you can hear fuck-all in a busy arcade, and 2) Backgrounds are extremely plain. What I'd like to see in a sequel? 1) Up the speed a tiny wheeny bit, and 2) Make hit effects more flashy (à la Guilty Gear). And that's it. Considering Arcana Heart was probably made on a budget a fraction of what SNK and Arcsys routinely have at their disposal, I feel bad even devoting a single paragraph to pointing out the tiny, insignificant flaws I found in it. That's how good this game is.