I’m about half-way through Mystic Ark. I had just stopped to check the time on a grandfather clock when I found myself in a world where abandoned computer servers litter a forest floor and everything is drained of color. Once again, I’m hooked. For a game with almost no plot to speak of, I’m surprised at how often it pulls me in. Never heard of Mystic Ark? Neither had I until about a week ago when I stumbled upon Aeon Genesis’ translation patch. Apparently, Mystic Ark was one of the holy grails of the fan-translation scene. As I understand it, due to complex dialog code hundreds of hours of tedious hex editing was required to create the translation. I’m not sure just what hex editing entails, but if the name is anything to go by in involves black magic. The translation proved to be so difficult the initial project lingered in limbo for roughly ten years. Then, in 2009, the project was picked up by Dynamic Designs. Their translation dropped in September. This spurred Aeon Genesis to finish their translation, which had also fallen into inactivity, and bam! two translations of a legendary Super Famicom RPG were released within weeks of each other. Yet, outside dedicated rom translation circles, no-one cared. Where were the news stories about the new translations? The blog posts and the forum threads? Why is no-one talking about this game? Maybe because it’s the sequel to one of the most abhored RPGs on the SNES.
Even if The 7th Saga wasn’t a completely broken game, it still would be aggressively mediocre. It has a flimsy excuse plot to send seven warriors out into the world to find seven artifacts of power. The artifacts are found, an ancient evil appears, the hero destroys it. Time travel is involved. It’s all very basic. The battle system is simple and the graphics are drab. Just about the only interesting bit is that you choose which of the seven heroes to play as, and then compete (and sometimes team-up) with the others to find the runes. Each of the heroes is significantly different from the others, so who you choose (and who you team-up with) does provide some verity.
But something bad happened when the game was localized for the west. Stories are conflicting, but either due to translator malfeasance, incompetence, or just a bad bug, the game was thrown wildly off-balance. Now, level increases gave half the status upgrades they did in the Japanese version. As a result, extensive grinding is required to stand against even the weakest of baddies. What was simply a mediocre game is now a frustratingly tedious one. It gets worse. This bug doesn’t affect the other six heroes. Around the mid-point you’re forced to fight one of them as part of the plot. They level up as you do, but for every level you gain, their strength doubles. It’s entirely too easy for them to get so strong as to be unbeatable. The game is beatable, but it requires finding the sweet spot between grinding enough to survive the random monsters while still staying a low enough level to get past the hero boss.
As such, The 7th Saga is mostly remembered as a balls hard, ugly game that doesn’t even have an interesting story to make it worthwhile. When the news came that The 7th Saga 2 had been translated no wonder people were indifferent. It’s a shame because Mystic Ark has very little to do with its predecessor. As the Final Fantasy games share a few comment elements but are for the most part unrelated to each other, so is Mystic Ark to The 7th Saga. What’s more, except for the simplicity of the battle system, every aspect of Mystic Arc is a huge improvement over 7th Saga. If the game hadn’t been a casualty of Enix’s 1995 embargo it might be remembered as one of the SNES RPGs classics.
Probably Mystic Ark’s most notable feature is its unconventional story. The game opens on an abandoned mansion on a small island. The inside is filled with wooden models of various people and objects. One of these figurines falls over and transforms into a young man or woman (depending on the player’s preference). A disembodied voice calling itself “The Goddess” informs this person that they have been brought here to the nexus of all worlds. Some force is abducting people from across the multiverse and bringing them to the nexus where they are trapped as figurines. The Hero is told that they are the first with a great enough inner strength to free themselves. The Goddess explains that the Hero will have to search the various portals in the nexus until they find their way home. However, to open these portals the Hero will have to find seven mystic “arks,” each one opening a door to a new world. And that’s it. The hero wanders worlds, solving local problems and finding arks. I’ve heard that things do start to come together near the end, but apparently the ending is a real mindscrew and fundamental questions such as who is creating the figurines and why are never answered. Simply, plot is not what Mystic Ark is about. It is much more concerned with scenario, setting, and tone.
The worlds hardly have individual plots either. Instead a situation and problem is established and the Hero helps to resolve to resolve it. This is what I mean by “scenario,” proto-stories that have the basics of setting, character, and events but never evolve fully into something that could be called “plot.” Think of classic dungeon-town-dungon-town structure of Dragon Quest or Earthbound. The player rolls into a new town and a situation is established, the king is tired of ruling or a giant pile of vomit has set loose a hoard of zombies. The player resolves the problem, the town is saved, and the player moves on to the next town. The genre lends itself well to this kind of… storytelling? Pacing? Progression.
Mystic Ark takes this trope to its extreme. Each world resolves around a singular scenario, which usually involves several dungeons and a town or three. Each scenario is engaging and makes for a great hook (though they do tend to be fairly whimsical. This doesn’t bother me, but I could see how it would turn off some people), but they are deliberately shallow. Like the main plot, no explanation is given for why anything is the way it is. For example, one world is populated by only children. They spend their time picnicking in abandoned cities and exploring the local wilderness. In the whole chapter there is one line that implies that something happened to the world’s adults, or even that adults could even exist in this world. But, if the world was not made for children, why is there a candy mountain and soda lake (both prove to be far less appetizing than they sound)? The nature of the children, the abandoned cities, and the foodstuff landscape has no bearing on the conflict of the chapter, and are never explained. Every world is like this.
This achieves two things: 1) against common sense, it gives solidarity to the worlds. They have permanence that is sometimes lacking in RPGs. If the designers are trying to tell a specific story sometimes settings can feel contrived, existing only to serve the turns of the plot. They don’t have weight beyond what is required for the story. The worlds in Mystic Ark feel like the existed before the Hero came to them, and that they’ll exist after he or she leaves. 2) It lends an atmosphere of melancholy and isolation to everything. Even the lighthearted and most whimsical bits have an underlining tone of loss to them. The hero is a tourist in the worlds she travels to. She does some good deeds, sure, but it’s hard to make connections when the NPCs are cogs of the scenario. Mystic Ark is about a lot of things but character is not one. Even the Hero is a complete blank slate. She’s a mute like Crono or any of the Dragon Quest guys. But even they got backstories and homes. Places within the narrative to which they belonged. The Hero of Mystic Ark has no home, no history. Any desire, emotion, reaction is what the player brings to her. Likewise, the other party members are figurines endowed with the power of the arks. They also don’t speak, have any history, or personality. They’re gameplay mechanics, not people. All this adds up to a lonely experience. It’s not at the forefront. It’s slight, but it’s there.
This is what I really like about Mystic Ark. The constant inventiveness, the fun and interesting scenarios, the undercurrent of isolation. People have compared the game to Myst. Yes, there is a strong adventure and puzzle solving element (which I’ll get to in a later post), but I think it’s that the games share that feeling of being alone. At least, to a degree.
Mystic Ark makes a deliberate choice to not follow the normal conventions of RPG storytelling. Especially considering the game was released in 1995, at the end of the SNES’s lifecycle, long after Final Fantasy IV defined what storytelling in RPGs was. To enjoy Mystic Ark is to embrace this. Those looking for interesting characters and a labyrinthine plot will be disappointed. Those who enjoy the moments as they come will find a lot to like here. Maybe if the game had been released in America back in 1995 it wouldn’t have found its audience, just like today. But I like to think that, given the chance, it would have captivated a few and be remembered today as one of the SNES classics.