The night before last, I was told that there was an Arcana Heart machine sitting in Chinatown Fair. This is unusual for two reasons: the first is that Chinatown Fair is Chinatown Fair. They're notoriously cheap, and have to be to survive the dead US arcade scene. When new fighting games have come out in the past, CF has passed them up in favor of making consistent money on the same games people have been playing for the past seven years: Third Strike, Marvel vs. Capcom 2, et al. When CF does try something new, it either bombs miserably (nobody could make sense of Senkou no Ronde and it was gone after two weeks) or is botched (CF's Guilty Gear setup was a PS2 in an aging cabinet with a completely incorrect button layout; wonder why nobody played). That they bought a new game at all is event enough.
That the game was, for Christ's sake, Arcana Heart, was yet more unusual. It's a Japan-only game, to start with. Arcana's a very recent game from Yuki Enterprise, the very small company responsible for Samurai Shodown 5 and not much else of note. CF used to always stick to US-released material from Capcom, SNK, and Namco, but the reality of the US arcade scene is that those people aren't releasing any more fighting games to the arcades here. This had to start happening; it was just a matter of when.
On top of that, as you can see from the game's homepage, the game is Moe Fighter: the kind of all-girl 2D fighter that used to never make it to the arcades, never mind an arcade in the States. But owing to the success of Melty Blood: Act Cadenza (another popular game that CF passed over), Yuki went and made a high-res 2D all-girl fighting game. And Chinatown Fair bought it. How unusual.
Yesterday, naturally, I took a bit of time out between classes to visit Chinatown and CF. My first order of business was food; I had a dollar and the dollar dumpling place had five dumplings for me. Forgive my digression here: when you want to spend your money (and your lunch hour, when I worked around here) playing videogames, concerns like food kind of fall to the wayside. You start measuring your money by the quarter, and you end up eating your lunch at a place like this. Walk in, hand the lady a dollar, and the lady will give you either an overcooked or an undercooked plate of dumplings; this is up to chance. If there's a seat, you sit down at the bench in front of the mirror and watch yourself eating these cheap, greasy, delicious things. It's a little unsettling, but it's filling and it's cheap.
After the dumplings, I was going to spend the rest of what I had on Bleach DS 2, Treasure's latest and the sequel to a game I spent a lot of time on. But over at the store I learned that it wouldn't be in until after I was back in class. I decided to, you know, not cut that class, and not blow all my money in once place like I would have on Bleach. There's plenty of time to buy that; certainly no shortage of copies. CF was closed, so I headed to the closet arcade in the back of Kong Man Center on Bowery. There isn't much standing room, but there's a lot of Neo-Geo machines and, strangely, a Fist of the North Star. I love me some of that, so I killed some time trying and failing to reproduce Rei's infinite dragon punch glitch.
Then, after all this shit, I actually went back to Chinatown Fair and actually played the goddamn videogame I'm supposed to be talking about.
The cabinet is a Naomi Universal (image stolen from the educational System 16) that used to house an outdated Virtua Fighter 4 with bad controls; no big loss there. Speaking of controls, the control panel on this machine has been fitted with Japanese-style sticks and buttons; CF always used Happ stuff exclusively, so this is pretty unusual too. It's also a sign of the only direction the remaining arcades in the dying US scene can go; at best, things will be a small reflection of the much larger and healthier Japanese scene. Everything will have to be an import. Arcana costs 75 cents to play; that's 1 quarter up from the usual, and old standbys like Third Strike only cost a quarter. This is the way things are going.
This cabinet was probably picked for the crispness of its monitor; Arcana Heart is really gorgeous in stills. I say "in stills" because the game suffers from an exaggerated form of the Guilty Gear problem; in order to make the amount of high-resolution, highly detailed sprites it takes to make a fighting game, the animation has to suffer. Street Fighter 3 doesn't have high-resolution sprites, but it does have the smoothest animation ever accomplished in a 2D fighting game. Unfortunately, the longer you look at Arcana Heart, the worse it begins to look. Individual frames and backgrounds are lovingly detailed, but they don't come together nearly so well. It's functional, sure, but I'd like it a little shinier. On top of that, the characters themselves are very bland moe archetypes with little to no original thought put into their design. I must, however, give credit for the grappler character, a small girl riding what appears to be a giant Dragon Quest slime. That witch is pretty cool, too. Well played, Yuki.
(I should warn you, as an aside, that the videos I link do don't do the crispness of the artwork any justice. Being that the crispness of the artwork in stills is the game's main selling point, it sort of looks like ass. But I can't find any high-resolution screens, so maybe, if you get the chance, you should take a look at the game yourself?)
As for the game, well, I was too busy having my ass handed to me to figure anything out. This game had only been at CF for a couple of days, as far as I knew, and the guy next to me already had the stoic swordswoman archetype down pat. When I asked him how he'd figured out the game in such a short period of time, he reached into his bag and produced four months' worth of scans of Arcana Heart articles from Arcadia magazine. Impressive. I couldn't make much of them, so I went back to trying to figure out things for myself (and getting 15-hit juggle comboed over and over again in the process).
The basics: There are four buttons, three for light, medium, and heavy attacks, and the fourth "Arcana" button. The Arcana button is multipurpose; it handles things like dashing and air recovery. What's interesting about the Arcana button is that it's used for both defensive and offensive cancels; to either stop (by cancelling out of a block) or continue (by cancelling out of an attack) offensive pressure, respectively. The combo system, of course, hinges on proper use of these cancels, which can lead to some very long air combos which, as a side note, serve to show off just how huge the backgrounds are. By the end of my beatings, I had only figured out the most basic of cancel combos with the heroine Aino Heart (literally "Heart of Love" and the biggest groaner of a name I've ever seen in a videogame).
The other element that sets the game apart is the support system. After you pick a character, you pick a spirit which can be called upon during the match. The supports have their own special moves, and the idea is to pick something which complements your character. All I could figure out about them is that you could get the one I picked to throw a Dragonball-sized fireball which leaves you completely open for the opponent to, likewise, throw one at you. Mutually assured destruction; you'd never use it in a serious match situation, but it was good for a laugh.
Three bucks later I wasn't terribly impressed by the game; the presentation was a little underwhelming, and I couldn't figure out any of its systems. I've been watching a lot of videos, though, as I've been putting this post together. You can, of course, do the same; just google "arcana heart" or go to MatchPile, which has a huge collection of direct-downloadable videos of Arcana Heart matches. I have to say, the more of the game I watch, the more interested I am in figuring it out. I might be back next week... maybe.
And I haven't forgotten about that Ar tonelico thing; I'm just simultaneously lazy and busy and frankly, with this, moe'd out. It'll get written. Promise.