HAL Laboratory is perhaps most famous for its Kirby series. The little pink puff has gobbled and scarfed his way to our hearts with his simple but charming adventures. And he is a mainstay in the Nintendo company along with Mario, Link, and Pikachu. In spite of its status as a second-party video game publisher to Nintendo, HAL Labs has other games besides Kirby in its portfolio. Among them a lesser-known adventure game that is currently a Super Famicom exclusive and published by Square Soft: Alcahest. I think it’s a good RPG/Adventure game that’s well worth looking into.
Since the original text is in Japanese, you’ll need an English patch to not only fully enjoy the game, but take note of important clues. The patch I used is from someone who calls himself “F.H.” and is a 1.0 Beta with a few minor glitches on the password and chapter screens. But there is another one from KingMike’s Translations which looks a little smoother. Also of a side note; the late and much-loved Nintendo President Satoru Iwata was involved in this project as a producer.
Every 1000 years an evil star will shine. This brings about the revival of the demon Alcahest, the namesake of the game. He will bestow hate and death to the world and its peaceful inhabitants. When that happens, a hero will arrive and ultimately vanquish Alcahest and his forces. The evil star has shone again, and a wizard named Babilom and his cronies are hastening Alcahest’s return. This time the hero is a random warrior named Allen, who must reunite the Four Guardians of Fire, Water, Wind, and Earth and take on Babilom and Alcahest to restore peace to the realm.
The game is an overhead adventure, and Allen starts out by walking in eight directions (run by double-tapping the direction), swinging his sword, and blocking certain projectiles by standing still and facing a direction. The hero can also charge up his attack to deal more damage to foes. Allen has limited life, “SP”, and magic, and complete loss of his health will result in a Game Over which will cost him a continue. Every time he vanquishes an enemy, points will be rewarded which will add another continue.
During Allen’s quest you’ll find little blocks that you can cut and stepping on them will do different effects. For example, dashing through enemies or jumping to another area where the arrow is pointing. Also scattered in the game are treasure chests that contain more life, magic, holy cups that will refill the health bar when it hits zero, a temporary upgrade to your sword that will shoot a small rolling beam, or an important item needed to advance the game like a key, a gas mask, or an ID card.
During your travels you will encounter the young wizard Garstein, the princess Elikshil, the knight Sirius, the android Magna, and the dragon goddess Nevis, who will accompany and depart from you in various areas of the game. They all have different attacks and abilities which consume SP. Last, but not least, are the Four Guardians, which you must fight a boss to acquire them. You can change them with the L and R buttons ´a la Mega Man and they will not only make you stronger, but will do a different charged attack which must be used accordingly. As for the challenge, it’s not that difficult, but it won’t exactly hold your hand like the Kirby series does.
There are some frustrating moments like fighting bosses that can and will clobber you if you are careless, wasteful, or forgot to collect certain armor that will let you take more hits. Having a companion to help you fight is fun, though, and Elikshil can use magic that can heal Allen, making boss fights a little easier. If anything, the gameplay feels more like a glorified arcade game when set up with its linear, exploring fashion. The toughest bout is with the final boss, which there are two incarnations. And after fighting, healing, and clawing your way through, your fingers will probably be tired and sweaty by the time you reach Alcahest.
Since this is a fantasy adventure game, it’s natural to see fantasy elements in the design of the levels. The worlds themselves look like they might have come from Secret of Mana, which is of little wonder since Square Soft was involved. The finer points are of course the bosses, the gimmicks used not only to fight them but to clear the levels. And also the backgrounds of the levels where it makes you feel like you’re walking and hopping from one island to another.
Unfortunately, the main characters look like your average, generic type that might have come from a tired manga; Allen looks like a Fire Emblem afterthought (although he has a nice sword and shield). The supporting characters look like nothing to really talk about, ranging from the typical fair maiden to cliched knight (but with a nice whip like Simon Belmont). But Nevis is a decent looker. Babilom reminds me of a cross between Piccolo from Dragon Ball Z and Swackhammer from Space Jam gone medieval. Then there’s some evil emperor that looks like he might be Genghis Khan’s long-lost relative. I do like the cutscenes which play out during the game, and the ending is well worth the long fight.
The soundtrack to Alcahest is its greatest strength; it is composed by Jun Ishikawa of Kirby fame and uses the same type of soundfont used in Kirby Super Star. It brings about not only the best of HAL Labs in the 16-bit era, but it pushes the limit of what the SNES can do. Alcahest shows how capable the powerhouse really is besides other notable RPGs like Chrono Trigger or Final Fantasy III/VI.
I can’t really pick a favorite; it’s that good, and it’s even worthy to be on a smartphone playlist! If I ever had a minor complaint is that I think the two tracks for the final boss should be reversed; I feel it’s not as anticlimactic that way, but I digress. Each piece of music feels either more exploratory or heart-pounding, and the credits tune, if it could talk, will tell you that playing through was worth it.
In spite of the generic characters, the fact that you have to have a fan translation to fully play (unless you’re fluent in Japanese), and gameplay that can get a little too white-knuckled for its own good, Alcahest is worth noting because of its level settings, roving backgrounds, and more-than-stellar soundtrack. Mr. Iwata should be very proud to have produced this game. SNES or fantasy fans should play through this game at least once, let alone add to their collection.
In short, its sword needs some slight sharpening, but Alcahest (or Allen, technically) is up and ready to do great battle for peace, for justice, and for a nice little spot in our hearts right along with a certain pink puffball who has made HAL Labs so famous in the first place.
4 out 5 Stars.
Alcahest (video game). (2017, July 9). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alcahest_(video_game)
HAL Laboratory. (2017, November 10). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HAL_Laboratory
F.H. Alcahest. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.romhacking.net/translations/278/
KingMike’s Translations. Alcahest. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.romhacking.net/translations/2286/
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