Yesterday marked the 15th anniversary for the Japanese release of Sega's Dreamcast role-playing game Skies of Arcadia. Quite a number of retrospectives and tributes popped up around the Internet to celebrate the occasion.
Personally, though, I found myself vexed by the tone of the festivities. They came across as too upbeat, too cheerful, too affectionate. Where was the anger, the outrage? Where was the embittered rage I expect from video game fanatics? Why here, of all situations, did everyone elect to be so maddeningly upbeat? If ever a game justified resentment and anger, it would be Skies of Arcadia.
Not the game itself, of course. Skies of Arcadia was wonderful! When it debuted in October of 2000, it offered a much-needed antidote to the role-playing trends of the day. I loved Squaresoft's PlayStation RPGs as much as anyones, but they unfortunately embodied everything that was going horribly wrong with RPGs of the era. They were all too caught up in the race to create even more complex play systems, to surprise players with an even more elaborate plot twist than the last game, to present even more spectacular CG cut scenes. And many of those games were great, but even the best of them created the sensation that everyone producing RPGs at the time was caught in a baroque lockstep, a lemming race to create the biggest, darkest, most expensive game ever. Video game brinkmanship.
Skies of Arcadia's creators (now-defunct Sega internal studio Overworks) took a different tack, however. They created a game with a beautiful but never overly elaborate world; upbeat characters who didn't need to overcome any secret mental issues; a sweeping but straightforward storyline; an interesting but not excessively complex combat system; and nuanced yet enjoyable music. It truly felt like a throwback to the 16-bit era of RPGs in all but visuals, and it was great.
Skies debuted in the U.S. at around the same time as another "throwback" RPG, Final Fantasy IX, yet the contrast between the two games was striking. If Skies was a classic RPG in contemporary trappings, FFIX was a contemporary RPG dressed up in an illusion of nostalgia. Both were thoroughly excellent, but Skies felt more honest about itself. It came across as light on pretense, yet heavy on the sensation of exploration, discovery, and most of all adventure.
Skies brought with it a swashbuckling spirit. It starred a band of young sky pirates who managed to avoid all the stupid talk-like-a-pirate-day clichés that usually come with the concept, all taking an active role in an age of discovery reminiscent of Europe's long-ago quest to explore the New World. The hero, a young buccaneer named Vyse, lived in the shadow of an Empire (clearly inspired by Spain at its peak power) in a world whose surface had long since become obscured by endless, turbulent storms. Only random, floating islands scattered across the world offered habitable spaces, each hotly contested by their residents and the powers-that-be. In addition to the main story quest, Vyse and his friends could accept quests to discover legendary landmarks scattered across the globe. In a neat touch that made the world feel much larger than the hero's party (something of a rarity in RPGs), you could lose out on these discoveries to other explorers if you didn't track them down quickly enough.
Vyse airship played a key role in the game as well. It provided your only means of transport through the world, and new areas would become available as you advanced through the story and acquired new, better ships or improved the hull integrity of your vessel to withstand the turbulence the divided the sky into sections and layers. The ship also played an essential role in airborne ship-to-ship battles that played out at key moments. These strategy sequences, like the standard combat system, used turn-based mechanics, but they put your entire crew to use and played out with wonderful, cinematic camera work that created a truly epic sensation.
Even the standard battle system was nothing to sneeze at, though. Skies went old-school with combat and used straightforward turn-based mechanics, allowing three heroes to enter the fray and alternate slugging it out with bad guys. What set it apart from similar games, however, was the concept of a collective "spirit points" pool for special attacks. Mana existed as a shared resource for the party, and it would increase slightly after every turn. These spirit points grew enough to allow the party to use low-level spells and techniques pretty much every round; however, by conserving mana by blocking or using physical attacks for a while, you could build up more mana to use for advanced techniques, including incredibly powerful group attacks. Balancing your actions and knowing when to build spirit points was essential for surviving that challenging boss encounters, which did a brilliant job of using music to motivate the player: Once you whittled a boss' health down to half, the battle theme would change from ominous to upbeat. As with everything about Skies of Arcadia, even the soundtrack wanted to make players feel like a swashbuckling hero.
So then, what's to be angry about when it comes to a game so vibrant, so grand? Simple: The fact that Sega has never bothered to create a follow-up. How has one of the greatest RPGs of all time been almost entirely forgotten? Where are the remasters? Where's the sequel? Where are the ridiculous character cameos in Project X Zone? Nowhere, and that's terrible.
For a brief moment, there, it almost looked as though Sega was going to give the game the love it deserved. Sega reissued it with added content for GameCube as part of their "oh crap, now we're a third party" initiative shortly after the Dreamcast folded. A few years after that, Valkyria Chronicle—developed by a number of former Overworks and Skies staff, including Skies producer Reiko Kodama—gave off a similar vibe and even included several Skies characters as optional army recruits. Despite the common elements, however, Valkyrie Chronicle missed the point Skies had made so adeptly. It suffered from the same baroque complexity as so many other RPGs of the era, with an incredibly elaborate tactical combat system and some of the most long-winded RPG narrative sequences ever seen outside the Xenosaga series. A few years later, rumors circulated of a Skies HD remake for last-generation consoles... but that never panned out, and the notion appears to be long-forgotten by now.
So here were are, in 2015, celebrating the 15th anniversary of a great game that frustratingly failed to become anything more than a blip in history. Even Sega fans don't care; they chose to throw their weight behind the bloated, aimless Shenmue saga, which ultimately resulted in a revival campaign that broke all kinds of crowdfunding records. Shenmue, which featured plenty of great ideas trapped in a terribly mismanaged mess of a project, seems far less deserving of new life than Skies of Arcadia, an adventure that managed to create a world every bit as charming as Shenmue's... but also managed to be a complete, finished work within its given budget.
That kind of sensibility and discipline is more precious than gold in this day and age of bloated development costs. You'd think Skies would be a perfect candidate for revival, especially with the recent surge of interest in classic Japanese console RPGs. Not necessarily a sequel, mind you; Skies' wrapped up neatly with a self-contained story. There was still plenty of world left to be explored, if it came to that, but really what made Skies so great—the essential element I'd love to see Sega attempt to recapture—was the way it made adventure seem so effortless. Never overwrought, never too serious, always entertaining (even if the random encounter rate needed some major tweaking), Skies remains a fleeting masterpiece of an RPG that deserves more than just fond tributes. Someone should start an online petition. Those always work. [Image credits: HG101, LP Archive]