Published on June 28th, 2012 | by Nichomaxwell2
Ever Hear of Alcahest? Well, it’s a console game…and therefore, REVIEWABLE!
Year: 1993 // System: Super Famicom (SNES) // Publisher: Squaresoft // Developer: HAL Laboratory // Director: Atsushi Kakuta // Producer: Satoru Iwata // Genre: Action RPG
>>> If the title doesn’t ring any bells, then you’re not alone. Alcahest was a uniquely styled role-playing game that never made it to the States. No reason was given for why, although it can be assumed that the RPG genre hadn’t caught on in North America until Final Fantasy VII burst onto the scene in 1997. Even so, we American gamers missed out.
Alcahest was the brain child of two gaming juggernauts: Square, the company behind the above-mentioned Final Fantasy VII, the Mana series, and Kingdom Hearts, for which Alcahest may have served as a source of inspiration, AND HAL Laboratory, responsible for the well-received Adventures of Lolo series and Kirby games and the future creator of the cult classic EarthBound and the phenomenal Super Smash Bros. series. If a remake of Alcahest were to come out today, the collaborative efforts of Square and HAL Laboratory would be noted with just as much press as was the partnership between Square and Disney when they put their heads together to develop Kingdom Hearts.
And had Alcahest received major attention over here, then every bit of it would have been deserved. The 1993 action RPG stunned me with its addictive combat system, smooth mechanics, tight controls, and memorable adventure.
The story isn’t particularly amazing or worth turning into a full-length movie. The tale follows as such: every 1000 years a star appears, signaling the return of the demon god Alcahest, who wishes to rain chaos and destruction upon humanity. Alcahest accomplishes this by fueling the greedy ambitions of warlords, an emperor, and a namek lookalike named Babilom, who carve up the world for power and destruction. A mysterious warrior known as Alen appears. Alen receives guidance from one of the world’s four guardians, and from there, the player’s journey begins.
Upon first taking the reigns of the controller does the experienced player notice how this RPG takes influence from Zelda, Final Fantasy, and arcade hack and slashes and then rolls them all up into one very different game. Alen fights with his sword and blocks attacks in front of him with his shield. Unless otherwise noted, Alen takes damage if he his hit from the side or back, moves forward, or slashes, the latter two actions dropping his guard. The first level does an excellent job in introducing two floor panels in the over-world: one that torpedoes Alen across the stage, shattering to bits all adversaries in the way, and another which allows Alen to leap from platform to platform. As the player progresses new game play forms are introduced.
While there is only one puzzle to solve in the entire game, each stage features an exploration system which charges the protagonist with finding certain items that opens up new areas of the level or makes traversing a passage less dangerous. Since the first two stages seemed the most heavy-handed in having the player search for items in order to move on, exploration throughout the rest of the game won’t seem to bad. Additionally, the translated version of the dialogue gives the player clear indication of what lies in their way and the exact steps they need to take to overcome those particular obstacles.Given the considerable length of the normal playthrough already, the creators didn’t do anything to deliberately confuse the gamer to arbitrarily elongate the game.
The difficulty more-so follows the rules of an arcade-type than an RPG. The options in the main menu allow you to customize how many continues Alen starts with. That’s right, continues. In an RPG game! Whenever Alen dies, he has to use up a continue, and if he’s out, then the player starts the game over. However, each stage gives you a password, so if you write down the digits, then you can pick up on the stage where you last left off, but you have to make sure you wrote the password correctly, and you will have to start the whole level all over again. This was perhaps the main drawback to the enjoyment factor of the game.
However, it’s fairly easy to earn continues. Whereas experience points in your standard RPG gains you character levels, Alen uses that EXP to pick up continues, furthering the hybridization of the role-playing and hack-and-slash genres. The less continues you start off with, the quicker that Alen will earn new ones over the course of the playthrough.
Furthermore, the gamer can roll at his or own pace by choosing from one of four difficulty setting, each setting allowing the player a maximum number of continues to start with. Easy allows up to 8, Normal 5, Hard 1-3, and Pro none. The pro level pits you against a merciless brand of enemies and bosses with ridiculously long health bars. Taking down bosses in Pro requires patience and endurance. However, the Pro battles are totally possible and pretty enjoyable given that in-game fighting between your decked-out characters and the menacing villains is explosive eye-candy. The Pro challenge levels out to the difficulty of the NES games like Ninja Gaiden andContra.This is definitely what you play once you have a handle on the mechanics. The lower levels, meanwhile, offer just enough road blocks to make you feel like you’re earning your keep.
Meanwhile, the combat system rocked!
HAL Laboratory and Squaresoft fused together a beat-em-up engine with assistant characters and summoning tricks to create a monster of epic proportions. Every single button and option available to you revolves around combat. You start off by slashing with your sword while being able to hold down the button to charge up a special spin attack (hi, Zelda), then gain your first partner (Garstein the wizard) whose attack synchronizes with your own and can use a powerful special through the press of another button, then pick up guardian blades which you can cycle through with your L and R buttons and use to summon the Guardians as well as power up different types of blade specials, and THEN in the final two levels you have all assistant characters available to you, through which you cycle by pressing A.
By the seventh stage, Alen, with his basic strike, five specials, four guardian summons, five assistant character basics, AND five assistant specials, earns a whopping total of 20 different attacks he can pull off, sometimes simultaneously to wow the player with visual effects
While facing Gordon in his final form, I had the Guardian Blade of Earth brandished with Nevis, the dragon god, assisting me. At the same time, I activated my Guardian’s offensive shield right before transforming Nevis into her dragon form via her special. While the massive lizard flew around hurtling fireballs after Gordon, I had Alen charging into him enveloped in a glowing green aura. I watched as the characters wrecked each other and sat astounded as to how I wasn’t having a seizure right at that moment. Oh, did I forget to mention the smooth operation by which the combat system functions? Controls are extremely tight and properly laid out, and the dash that your character can pull off to run through a level faster adjusts the pacing to the player’s comfort level. Of course, it also adds as a means of quickly escaping a grisly situation.
A couple more neat things to remark on: I loved how you could change Alen’s guardian clothes while sitting through dialogue, and that your partner never took damage. Sure, both parts were unrealistic (Who has time to change right when an evil overlord is threatening to poison the globe with his influence?), but it gave you less things to worry about. Your partner added as an extra asset, not as a liability that you had to watch out for twenty-four/seven. I would say I was bummed that you couldn’t control the assists, but in reality you were. Whenever you hit the attack button, they attacked. They stuck right with your avatar and only used their specials at your command. I do wish it were possible to use more than partner at a time, but perhaps it saved on programming space, or it prevented the game from becoming brokenly easy (and also two specials didn’t activate at the same time and cheaply use one Special Point or waste two).
I know I mentioned this earlier, but let’s take a closer look at this game and how it compares to Kingdom Hearts. Both titles were results of another company’s marriage with Square, both followed the Action RPG archetype, both employed fixed levels with exploration being the player’s means of finding the end-boss (although in KH you could return to those stages), both games alternated partner characters despite Alcahest allowing you more direct control of your partners, and both entries shared level types, specifically the “Edge” (Alcahest) or “End” (Kingdom Hearts) of the world stage. Plus, both games somewhat got on a soapbox on the end about how light is positive and dark is negative. Alcahest did this more-so than KH, but the similarities in the story were especially strong near each game’s end. Therefore, it’s not hard to believe that the setup of Alcahest inspired a formula that the good folks at Square could work with nine years later.
All-in-all, this is yet another title that slipped under the radar, and wrongfully so. Alcahest is fun, exciting, and absolutely replayable. I knew HAL put out a couple of bad eggs early in its run (Day Dreamin’ Davey, anyone?), and feared this was one of them. But with Square on board, HAL birthed a silent winner, and if only more regular players were to discover this gem through word of mouth and reviews like this, then perhaps Nintendo could get HAL on the line and set up a remake…or, better yet, a sequel…on the 3DS.
Challenge: 8/10: The password system is clunky to deal with and can get especially old whenever you’re playing on Pro, but the creators ensured a balance of strengths and weaknesses your character had to deal with through the course of the game. I thought it clever how they brought back bosses for a second go-around (SPOILER: you kill them, then face them in the Underworld), and only in Pro did boss battles become a tad tedious (and usually that’s because you asked for it). The exploration system may become a little repetitive near the end, but never turns monotonous, particularly since earning items changes from navigating mazes to taking down minions of the demon god. But in case you didn’t hear me the first time, the combat system is amazing.
Handling: 9/10: I couldn’t get over how responsive this game was! You can control your speed and manipulate the distance between you and your assailants. The controls are nicely laid out, particularly the placement of guardian cycling done through second-natured presses of the L and R buttons. Dashing did require a couple of taps, but this to me harkened back to Golden Axe, and the use of a dash feature controlled by the D-pad would factor directly into the Smash Bros. control scheme.
Innovation: 9/10: I’ve been saying this a lot, but Alcahest absolutely feels like its own game. It’s not that it worked with original ideas, but rather it mixed RPG elements with a hack-and-slash system in a unique fashion, and it executed that mixture with a brutal efficiency. You’ve seen the same story and perhaps the same level arrangement, but it’s possible you’ve never seen characters in an action-RPG from the early nineties fight quite like these do.
Core Experience: 8/10: Again, the password system can wear on you, and for an RPG, there’s not much to the game length. Latter levels also lack originality, but Alcahest wins in every other category. It has flashy presentation, nice visuals, excellent pacing, and severely underrated music. It’s not what I’d call a classic soundtrack, but it’s something a video game music connoisseur could get into.
OVERALL: 8.5/Great: This wonderful action RPG reminds me of Max Payne in that it’s not the best, but it has the right combination of mechanics to keep the player coming back for more. Alcahest simply demands all retro SNES players’ attention, period. So what are y’all waiting for? Go emulate an English translation of this bad boy and play the night away!