Grasping for a feeling that you can't quite explain? Visions of eggplants dancing in your head? Four-piece blocks on the brain? Three-channel audio got your tongue?

Enjoy some olde tyme retrospectives on Japanese games from back in the day, previously inaccessible but now available in English! Games that will make you hop to attention, beg for mommy, and say...

How exotic!

In December of 1993, Square was on top of the fucking world! They had just released Seiken Densetsu 2 (Secret of Mana) that summer, a game where you slash up beasts and gain holy loot, and in celebration of winter's onset they put out a game on the 10th called Romancing SaGa 2. The Romancing SaGa series is theoretically really great, so great that we don't deserve to play it in English at all. But this article is not about Romancing SaGa 2.

Anyway, Romancing SaGa 2 was badass, but not badass enough I guess, and so Square did something they had never done before: published another company's Super Famicom game. That company is one you might know for titles like Lolo and Kirby: HAL Laboratory! At the time they employed a guy you might know, and he executively produced this game. His name was Satoru Iwata! Here is a picture of him at a very reasonable resolution. HAL's game came out a week after Romancing SaGa 2, courtesy of Square's publishing arm, and it was called Alcahest, which can be translated into English as "Alcahest," which is an ancient word for "radical and exotic."

The story so far: a demon god busted up the world a thousand years ago. Now there's some crazy power hungry country who wants to gobble everything up, and you are just a guy with a sword who almost gets tricked into dying, but then one of the mystical guardians saves you. He is like "hey you, what the hell were you doing back there? Didn't you realize you are the one guy in blue clothing that can possibly prevent the entire world from turning into hell?" Of course you didn't realize it, but now you do, which is good, because the demon god is coming back, and he is hungry for tiny men with crunchy bones.

To understand Alcahest's gameplay you must first be familiar with games like the underrated Soul Blazer trilogy, and maybe Zelda? Imagine taking those games, putting them entirely on rails, and loading them with action and cool graphics. It's Alcahest! The music is pretty catchy too and really has that early-90s-era Super Nintendo reverb. Sound designer J. Ishikawa, you can live.

Though the game is only eight levels long, it took me about ten or twelve godforsaken hours to actually finish it, and probably a little more if you count all the agonizing times that I died because of some dumb crap. This game seemed much easier and more attractive at the beginning than it got to be as I went along. It is no exaggeration to say that I was seriously regretting my personal How Exotic policy of mandating that once I start a game for this column, I absolutely must finish it. It is a pretty tough game. When you die in this game you not only lose a life but you lose your points and you get... punier. I never really figured out how you become puny exactly, but the numbers go down, and that is no good. Puny heroes get burned to death. There is a password system, which is convenient, if you like trying to read your own handwriting and analyze the differences between 1s and ls and 0s and Os before weeping softly into your tattered hands.

In this game the gimmick is that you have different swords and different allies to help you. As you complete various levels you will be granted the powers of the guardians in the form of swords that let you attack the enemies in new ways (stabbing, stabbing a lot, jumping into the air and then stabbing, dashing and stabbing, etc.). Your computer-controlled partners also have powers, like healing you or shooting energy balls at the bad guys and all that stuff. While this sounds like it might be kind of RPG-ish, I assure you it is strictly an action game and by the numbers: the progression is defined and unbreakable. Your sole sense of progress comes in non-statistic-based gameplay. Figuring out what enemies are weak against what sword comprises most of the strategy, though if you're like me you will just pick the newest one and hit everything with it until it dies because it is too jarring to switch entirely to a new set of special moves from the one sword with the handy dash attack.

The biggest problem of course is that the enemies just never leave you the hell alone, even after you kill them. This game is NES-era bad when it comes to the respawning, especially since you can kill a screen full of enemies, walk barely away, and come back to check around for a shortcut or treasure box only to discover all those bastards are back again. It really sucks after a few hours to have to continually fight the same guys after you already beat them with your sword, just cause you are running back through part of a stage to hit a switch. Some of them take a while to kill too, cause of weird defensive stuff they do, and it is just terrible, just god damned terrible, to have to fight them again.

The bosses are somewhat invigorating after the doldrums of charging through a few parts of each similar level's backdrop. Some of them take up large parts of the screen and other ones relentlessly pursue you. And really, they are almost all tough. There were a few times I barely squeaked out a victory and yelped for joy, but there were other times when I was mercilessly slaughtered and tossed the controller across my house like a canine chew toy, which is what I wished to be relentlessly just to end the suffering.

Ultimately Alcahest is a sexy illusion: a previously unavailable game with extravagant box-art, the Square pedigree, HAL development and early to mid-90s flavor. But underneath what you get is a little less gorgeous than it was in your mind: a well-put together, occasionally fun but exceedingly average slash and bust cut-cut game with annoying bad guys, a scantily clad lady or two, and a giant butterfly girl as a final boss.

Satoru Iwata: (laughs)

This game was patched for English text in 2002 by FH. You can read more about the game and their work here.