I took a trip down memory lane yesterday, thanks to the wonders of the internet. Finding myself with a few hours to spare, I began combing through some old archives and stumbled across a mostly-forgotten gem from my Sega Dreamcast and Nintendo Gamecube days: Skies of Arcadia.
Yup, I was That Guy back in the day: the dude in his early twenties moving back in with his parents after graduating college and playing Japanese role-playing games in the basement. It was a wonderful, magical time, filled with empty bags of Cheetos and 2-liter bottles of Faygo Creme Soda imported from Detroit, with my gaming interrupted only by inconveniences such as going to work, going to bed, and going to the bathroom. While I played nearly everything besides perhaps racing games, my go-to choice had always been the JRPG, as I figured the 2 years of Japanese I took in college should go to use somehow besides doing my own translations of hentai manga, and one of my all-time genre favorites (JRPGs, not hentai mangas) was Skies of Arcadia, which came out in November of 2000 for the Dreamcast. I liked it so much that when it came out again for the Gamecube in 2003 I bought it again, and after seeing a few screenshots and watching a couple of YouTube videos I decided I simply had to play it once more.
Now, this posed a bit of a problem for me, considering that both my Dreamcast and my Gamecube – and both copies of the game – are a couple hundred miles away from where I am, safely nestled in my parents’ basement. On top of that, the last time I was back there I encountered heavy resistance to re-appropriating those old consoles by my brother, who is one of those archivist types who keeps two of everything just in case the first one breaks. I really can’t make fun of him, considering the number of bagged-and-boarded comic books I have (also taking up space in my parents’ basement), but it put a serious crimp in my plans of reliving some of my most precious anti-social borderline Asperger’s syndrome memories, so I did what any other red-blooded American asshole would have done: I immediately found an emulator from the internet and downloaded a copy of the Gamecube version.
Starting it up again filled me with a level of nostalgic glee that probably isn’t healthy. It’s not even that the game is particularly ground-breaking in the narrative department, characterization and plot is your typical the-developers-wrote-this-while-huffing-paint-fumes level of bad D&D campaign goofiness, but with Skies of Arcadia it’s all in the delivery. The setting for me is what I remembered the most fondly, as the game is set in a world of islands of land floating far in an unending sky while pirates and privateers go flying about in Jules Verne-style airships, either getting into or getting out of trouble at every opportunity. It’s got kind of a steampunk Treasure Island feel to it, invoking a strong sense of adventure. It doesn’t hurt that one of the main themes of the game is exploration and discovery, as you’re rewarded for going out of your way in your airship and on foot, driving home that feeling of engagement even further.
It’s far from a perfect game, of course. The voice acting is awkward to listen to and the cartoonish, almost cel-shaded art style feels primitive and a bit on the childish side, but the environments and gameplay are rather compelling. The turn-based battle system, a bit of a staple in JRPGs, is interesting in that party members and opponents have a small measure of autonomy in that when you’re not directly controlling them, they will move about on their own slightly, which can create interesting synergistic moments when it comes to area-of-effect attacks, and it adds some immersion because characters don’t just stand idly by in a line while waiting for their turn to roll around.
However, the best part by far has to be the large-scale ship battles. If you’ve ever wanted to captain your own airship and lay waste to your enemies with cannon fire, this is hands-down the game for you – it will make your sky pirate dreams come true. Besides, who doesn’t want their own personal ironclad pirate dreadnought airship, raining fire down on their enemies?
All in all, if you’re ever wandering through a flea market and come across the game, think about picking it up if you have a few spare hours here and there – and especially if you’re a fan of the genre. You’ll be pleasantly surprised. Do yourself a favor though and see if you can’t pick up the Gamecube version, as it’s got a few graphical improvements and a bit extra content in comparison to the Dreamcast one; not only that, but the number of random battles you’ll encounter on foot in the Gamecube version was tweaked to not be nearly as annoying as in the original game.