When you think HAL Laboratories, you immediately think Kirby. This is natural since it is by a long shot the most recognizable character ever to come out of the Chiyoda-based software house. Yet with over three decades producing video games, it goes without saying that HAL has a diverse back catalogue going all the way back to the Famicom era and sadly most of them remain Japan-exclusive. For this reason you should feel no shame if you've never heard of Alen, the protagonist of the one-shot Japan exclusive action RPG / dungeon crawler Alcahest, released by Squaresoft in late 1993.
One thousand years ago, a legendary swordsman aided by the power of the four guardians sealed away the demon Alcahest, but the ominous star in the night sky foretells that the seal is about to be broken and Alcahest will once again rain terror upon the realm. Babilom, an envoy from Hell, is determined to prevent the reincarnation of the legendary swordsman before he can reach its full potential. Now that we have clearly defined that the plot is exactly what one should expect from your typical RPG, it is time to meet Alen, our unwary hero who begins the game being chased down by two lizardmen. Upon being cornered, Alen is saved by one of the four mysterious Guardians who gives him a sword, a shield and a helpful "Find me and I will join you!" incentive speech.
This is when you take command of Alen and the game does a very good job in tutoring you on the controls. First and foremost, the "Y" button attacks with your sword and holding it will allow you to build up a charge attack, something that you will be doing quite a whole lot until you conquer all of the eight game stages. Fortunately, the shield is not merely a decorative item; facing a direction and standing still will parry most attacks that head your way. You can run in any direction by double-tapping and holding any of the eight directions, which is not only a great way to quickly explore the top-down world but also boosts your attack power. "Start" lets you look at your inventory, as is mandated by The Holy Book of RPG design.
The controls are spot-on and intuitive, but careless running around will make Alen bump into traps, spikes, lava or enemies at weird angles, so some discretion is advised. Dying means you lose one of the limited number of continues you have at your disposal. That might sound odd given the game's obvious RPG trappings, but Alcahest is neither a pure action RPG or arcade dungeon crawler, but a combination of the two. Your "score" equals your experience points, and these allow you to level up Alen's vitality when you reach the required amount. Enemies respawn as soon as you leave and re-enter any screen, so it is possible to abuse this to make Alen stronger early on - assuming you have required patience to do so, of course.
Alen will not face the minions of Alcahest alone for long. The first level does a really good job not only showing you how to play but also demonstrating how to use allies. On your journey you will travel with five other companions, one at a time. Garstein the Wizard is the first you meet, but later you will also travel with a princess, a knight, a cyborg and a dragon god. Their company is rather welcome since they all add firepower to your basic sword attack and if you have MP - gathered from Orb pickups - pressing "X" will allow you to use their special power; these range from Garstein's screen-clearing explosion to more specialized ones like the ability to fully heal Alen. In addition to this there are the four Guardians themselves, whom not only take the shape of elemental swords for Alen to use but can also be summoned with "B" to attack enemies and be freely switched around with the "L" and "R" buttons. As you might have deduced, Alen has some rather interesting back-up possibilities during his arduous quest.
RPG quest elements pop up from time to time and once again the very first level illustrates this facet of the game with delicate expertise. You can't go to into the caverns because they are filled with gas so you need to seek out a gas mask. Once inside the caverns, areas of darkness can't be traversed easily without a torch. Even after gathering these two items, you are conditioned by lava in the depths of the cavern and as such need to find a pair of ice boots to make the safe crossing to the inevitable boss lair. Onwards to the next level and you get new challenges to overcome and new puzzles to tackle in a whole new setting.
If all of this is beginning to sound to you like The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past it is probably not by accident; we have a feeling that was exactly what HAL was aiming for here. It might lack a huge open world to explore and vibrant cast of characters to interact with, but Alcahest certainly offers interesting gameplay and puzzle-solving wrapped in excellent graphics engine that sets itself apart from the regular cute "super deformed" style so common on the system. The soundtrack by Jun Ishikawa does the game no harm, either; it contains several very memorable tunes that perfectly compliment the action on the screen.
Graphically and sound wise Alcahest stands up extremely well for a late 1993 Super Famicom release. We would have rated it higher if it offered more replay value once you conquer all of its eight levels. In fact, we would love to have seen more content because the game truly is a gem in the Super Famicom library and we can but speculate on the level of success it might have gained with Western gamers had it ever been localized. In its original state the game's Japanese dialogue will probably confuse those looking for another import classic to add to their collections - it is certainly possible you will get hopelessly stuck on this one unless you know what to do next. Fortunately Alcahest was translated to English by F.H. back in 2002 and revised and corrected by King Mike in 2014 - make sure you take advantage of those patches on your RetroN 5 or Retro Freak. It might not be the biggest and shiniest jewel in the rather large legacy left by the late, great Satoru Iwata, but we certainly smiled when we saw his name pop up under the title of "Producer" in the staff credits. If you want to spend a few quality hours in front of your Super Nintendo, look no further: Alen's quest is definitely worthy of your time and proves that there's so much more to HAL than cute pink blobs.