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Skies of Arcadia
Publisher: Sega (2000, Dreamcast)
In Sega's Skies of Arcadia, you're the leader of a group of air pirates -- made explicitly clear to be "good guy pirates" -- traveling the world over, fighting all kinds of "bad guy pirates", and helping anyone in need. The world is largely unknown, comprised of dozens of islands floating in the skies, miles above the poison that lies on the surface of the earth.
The explorer's map that shows your ship's position slowly expands from a tiny circle to a gigantic view of the entire world, keeping note of the myriad artifacts you discover. The hero Vyse is surrounded by two lovely ladies -- his fiery childhood friend Aika and the mysterious demure newcomer Fina. By the end, everyone flies into the metaphorical sunset, dreaming of all of the adventures yet to come. It feels like the end of the best Saturday morning cartoons never made.
Around the same time, the holiday season of 2000, Square released Final Fantasy IX. If Final Fantasy VII's theme was "life" and Final Fantasy VIII's was "love", then Final Fantasy IX was "history". It was meant be a concession to old school fans of the series, one that would adapt some of the themes of the older games and put them into modern trappings.
It was well intentioned, and a very solid title -- black mage Vivi remains one of the most noteworthy characters in the Final Fantasy canon -- but all that resulted was a fairly simplistic game with all of the bloat of the other PSOne Final Fantasy titles, without the impressive storytelling -- in short, it tried to be the best of both worlds without reaching either. What Square didn't realize is that you can't elicit nostalgia just by simplifying the customization systems or name checking events from older games.
And this is the reason why Sega's Skies of Arcadia manages to touch so many gamers' hearts -- quite simply, it feels like childhood. As if springing from the imagination of a five year old, it elicits a feeling of wonder and imagination -- that behind everything lies something daring and new.
It harkens back to the time when your backyard was full of dangerous creatures, and the local swamp was inhabited by dinosaurs, and the sewers were an intricate series of mazes that ended up treasure. It's the exact same sentiment of the Legend of Zelda series, before it fell prey to the crushing throes of tradition. And it never feels like its pandering like Mistwalker's Blue Dragon, which just seemed to be trying too hard. It's a breezy, natural, and altogether remarkable game.
Of course, none of this would've worked if there wasn't anything interesting beneath the shadows of the world map, but Skies of Arcadia succeeds because there is no generic dungeon, no faceless town. Everything from the secretive underground pirate's base, to the tree clubhouse feeling of the jungle city of Hortec, to the gorgeous waterfalls and Asian-inspired shrines in Yafutoma, to the Middle Eastern desert lands of Nasrad.
You don't even need to talk to the inhabitants to understand the culture behind the game's nations -- all you need to do is walk through their country. Dungeons don't just seem like some landscape you're walking over -- each and all of them have depth and texture, the kind that you'd usually see in platform or action games. In fact, this devotion to architecture is what gives Skies of Arcadia its unique identity.
The rest of the game is not exactly perfect, and does fall victim to some dull game design. The combat system is a bit plodding, with its gimmick lying in a super energy bar shared amongst party members, allowing for special attacks. The constant random battles, especially in the original Dreamcast release, don't do it any favors either. Ultimately, though, Skies of Arcadia has all of the straightforward charm of a 16-bit games wrapped up in modern trappings, an unfortunate rarity in the field.