a review of Arcana Heart
a videogame developed by Yuki Enterprise
and published by Attrativa
for the arcades and the sony playstation 2 computer entertainment system (shortly)
text by David Cabrera

3 stars

Bottom line: Arcana Heart is “inaccessible.”

This story is a little far-fetched and you’re probably not going to believe me, but here it goes: a few months ago, when I was in line to play Arcana Heart at Chinatown Fair, a girl approached me. “Bullstuff!”, you tell me, and then you give me a variety of reasons:

“This isn’t a girl game!”, you tell me. Arcana Heart represents a fascinating genre paradox: it’s an all-girl arcade fighting game targeted very specifically to the only people left playing arcade fighting games. The traditional genres have had to recapture this nearly exclusively male core audience by going after what they all left videogames for: moe crap. Moe is a Japanese term which approximately equates to “pink, covered in hearts”, “girls who act like children”, and “obsessively detailed fetishes”. Konami recently modernized Gradius by turning it into Otomedius: the Vic Viper turned from a claw-shaped spaceship into a doe-eyed girl with big tits.

Arcana Heart is a moe fighting game: that means that its crisp, high-resolution 2D sprites are all representative of some pink, heart-covered, childlike, obsessively-detailed fetish. I play Aino Heart (Heart of Love in English; eclipsing the entire Final Fantasy series for worst videogame name ever), whose powerful fetishes include a single hair which pops out from her head (the term is ahoge) in the shape of a heart, and a very specific ratio of exposed thigh between her stockings and skirt (the term is zettai ryouiki). She is the plain one. Other characters include ninja fox-girls in gym uniforms, the ubiquitous maid, and the grappler, a small girl half-suspended inside of a giant Dragon Quest slime.

What sane girl would even hecking want to be seen near this thing? is what you’re asking me, is what I, in my geek paranoia, was asking myself. I’d tell you to chill, man. Did you think she was even looking at the thing, dude? Did you think she cared that much? Come on. She just wants to ask a simple question: “Do you go to Hunter?” I tell her I do. So she just recognizes me from school. I don’t recognize her from school. I want to lie and tell her I do, but I don’t. I take it as a compliment.

She’s seen me around, she tells me, but the thing is, I’m inaccessible. It’s the look on my face, she says, and she pauses and emits a low, protracted “eeeueeeeuueeeeh”: the sound of ennui. She’s right. That’s exactly what the look on my face sounds like. I had no idea anybody was watching.

I try to explain myself: I just don’t smile easily–I’m lousy at taking pictures– but I’m actually pretty agreeable, and I totally warm up once I get to know people, but I’m seeing an airplane spiraling earthward in her facial expression. By the time I’ve told her to feel free to come over and say hi next time she sees me around, she’s got that “eeeueeeeuueeeeh” look going, and after a silence, she walks away. I haven’t seen her since. While I’m wondering to myself whether I’m really that bad, one of the guys I’m learning Arcana with turns to me with eyebrows raised and asks me if I knew the girl. “Same school,” I tell him. “Not too bad,” he appraises enthusiastically. Like we’re involved, or some stuff. Nevertheless, I’m glad somebody came out of that thinking I was cool.

Bear with me, here: this anecdote has something to do with a videogame. What my analogy is hamfistedly reaching for is that both I and this game are, to a point, inaccessible. This is why we get along so well.

Arcana is more inaccessible than I was to that poor girl: I’m a fairly old hand in the fighting game genre, but at first glance, this game was still completely incomprehensible to me. I didn’t understand how the more competent players were moving around, defending and attacking the way they did. I couldn’t so much fight as flop about like a fish, and was killed, torn apart and consumed as such. The game was so inaccessible, it turned out, that it and I made a fine match and got along very well together. The game opened up, and what was at first nonsensical now simply appeared liberated.

Freedom is a very sticky point in a fighting game, because fighting games are, by design, about the business of having or lacking strategic options. A nuts-and-bolts technical explanation is beyond the scope of this review, but ultimately fighting game players win by maximizing their own options while minimizing their opponents’. Arcana Heart uses two fresh new systems in particular– the Homing Cancel movement system and the mix-and-match Arcana special move system– to dramatically widen a player’s range of options. The Arcana is selected right after a character is chosen and acts as a support, giving the player additional special moves which often dramatically alter tactics from one Arcana to the next. Homing Cancels offer offensive options– particularly acting as the cornerstone of the game’s complex combo system– and defensive options that ensure that even in the midst of the worst beatdown, a player is never completely trapped.

The previous paragraph, jargony as it is, illustrates exactly what I mean when I call Arcana Heart inaccessible: beautiful high-resolution 2D aside, what makes this game special is exactly what makes it difficult to explain. What makes this game special is a string of little technicalities that form a backbone: plain and simple good game design. For the previously indoctrinated and well-versed fighting game player, even for the new player who puts some time into learning, fulfillment awaits. But this is a kind of player: this game has little to offer the player who cannot take enjoyment from simply learning the game, from the process of sorting the unintelligible into something that works. Most people aren’t. I can’t fully explain the joy I that personally take away from the genre: It’s a natural affinity, and if it’s not your thing, it’s not. Inaccessible videogames for inaccessible people, I say. Like attracts like.

–David Cabrera


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