thousandarmscover.png[“Might Have Been” is a bi-weekly column by Todd Ciolek that explores the ways in which promising games, characters, and concepts failed. This week’s edition looks at Atlus and Red Company’s Thousand Arms, released in 1999 for the Sony PlayStation.]

Risky business
The phrase “dating simulator” is seldom mentioned proudly among Western gamers, as it tends to conjure up images of saccharine anime romances and things unfit to describe on a work-safe website.

Such impressions paint a mostly accurate picture of the genre and its subculture in Japan, yet there are those interesting games that use dating-sim mechanics in the service of larger ideas. Thousand Arms was hardly the first to do this, but it was one of the first to bring the whole concept to North America.

While both Atlus and Red Company lent time and money to Thousand Arms, it was really the pet project of manga artist and anime creator Takehiko Ito, known for series that include Outlaw Star and K.O. Beast Century. Ito dreamt up a fantasy RPG, talked two companies into funding it, and recruited some of his anime-industry friends as staffers, including artist Hiroyuki Hataike and manga author Yuuya Kusaka. But perhaps the most important name on the project was Red Company producer Ohji Hiroi, who, at the time of Thousand Arms’ conception back in 1995, was working with Sega on Sakura Taisen, his own hybrid of strategy/RPG and dating simulator. Sakura Taisen became a phenomenon in both the game and anime sectors. Thousand Arms didn’t.

In a minor twist on convention, Ito made Thousand Arms’ hero, Meis Triumph, not a confused, tragic teenage swordsman, but rather a girl-crazed and relatively well-adjusted teenage blacksmith—a spirit blacksmith, to be specific. Rest assured that the remainder of the story’s jejune: after an attack on his hometown sends him fleeing, Meis heads for the nearest city and encounters a sweet-natured girl named Sodina, who introduces him to her blacksmith brother Jyabil and thus kicks off the game’s blacksmith-themed weapon customization. By the end of the game, Meis will traverse the world, face down an empire’s worth of enemies, and destroy a thoroughly evil would-be god.

[Click through for more.]

Based on a story by C.S. LewisInnocuous, PG-rated romance simulator

In fact, the game itself seems unconcerned with the plot, paying far more attention to the characters. Meis and Sodina’s band of allies grows to include the gynophobic warrior Muza, the tomboy pirate girl Wyna, the cynical conwoman Kyleen, the sickly blademaster Soushi, and the unstable Nelsha, who switches from a childishly introverted nerd to an angry, overdressed princess.

And that’s merely the playable cast; the supporting roles introduce Meis’ lecherous father, a frog-obsessed mechanic, a flamboyantly gay bandit, a rival blacksmith, a self-consciously observant village girl, Soushi’s deceptively nice sister, a soft-spoken (and possibly centuries-old) female blacksmith, and a five-member team of toolbox-themed goons. It’s a veritable textbook of RPG clichés, but the upbeat, comic style and Atlus’ typical solid translation help it greatly.

Most of Thousand Arms’ female characters figure into the game’s “dating” mode, couched here as a method for crafting better weapons. Meis’ attempts to court potential spirit-blacksmithing partners play out through conversations, with each girl spouting both stock questions (“Can you eat oysters?” “How do I look?”) and the occasional character-specific inquiry. While it’s all laughably disjointed by current standards, the banter’s kept afloat by solid voice work and frequent turns for the bizarre, as every question brings up two replies for Meis: one polite (“You look nice.”) and one not (“I like making secret gasses in bed.”) .

The humorous tone keeps things from becoming glaringly sexist or creepy, and if the girls’ responses are all two-dimensional, they’ve at least got their own mannerisms, desires and even unique mini-games for Meis to play. From its colorful art to a soundtrack that includes j-pop star Ayumi Hamasaki, Thousand Arms could've easily been an anime series instead of an RPG. Perhaps it should have gone that route.

Putting you at the heart of the inaction.A Thousand Arms to bore you

Whatever promise Thousand Arms might show is derailed from the game’s first battle, which kicks off what may be the dullest combat system seen in any PlayStation-era RPG. Fights are turn-based affairs, but only the lead characters from either side take part, with the rest of the party providing moral support or items.

This wouldn’t be such a bad idea if the game offered you direct control of the party leader or fighting-game special moves (similar to the ones seen in Atlus’ own Princess Crown), but attacks are handled through menus, and everything plays out with glacial tedium. With random battles popping up frequently, the game soon makes clear that it’s simply not worth trudging through another blandly designed, enemy-filled dungeon just to find the next town full of quip-spouting citizens and goofball dating opportunities.

If Thousand Arms failed, it wasn’t for Atlus’ lack of trying. In a blatant imitation of rival RPG publisher Working Designs, Atlus packed Thousand Arms with a “Collector’s 3-D Trading Card,” memory card stickers, and a mail-in offer for a free CD containing a soundtrack and outtakes (which were worth the trouble just to hear Nelsha's actress, Amanda Winn Lee, quote Full Metal Jacket). The game was even improved over its Japanese version, which had even more tedious battles. Atlus was out to make Thousand Arms a cult success, much like Working Designs had done with the Lunar games.

But there was little Atlus could do to improve the overall package, and Thousand Arms consequently fell short of its underground-hit aspirations. Reviews praised the game’s atmosphere but panned the combat, and the game's advertising, which promoted "going on dates with beautiful women," scared off as many sensitive players as it attracted open-minded (or lonely) ones. And for a final setback, Thousand Arms had to share a holiday season with Konami’s Suikoden II and Squaresoft’s competition-squashing Final Fantasy VIII.

Believe it or not, this line isn't suggestive at all when Metalia's actress reads it like she's teaching second-graders.Less than wild

Thousand Arms holds no special place as a groundbreaker. While it was a thoughtful attempt at bringing a popular vein of Japanese gaming to the West, it ultimately drew a much smaller following than other games with dating-sim elements, such as Konami’s Azure Dreams and Natsume’s enduring Harvest Moon series. At most, its only role was to herald a new direction for the North American branch of Atlus, which would go on to treat better games just as nicely as they had Thousand Arms.

It’s not hard to feel sorry for Thousand Arms. Countless RPGs are undone by boring battles, but it’s rare to see an an appealing one that could've succeeded if only it had faster, action-oriented gameplay. Thousand Arms is perhaps best taken as a flawed experiment by a team of anime veterans much better at telling silly cartoon stories than making actual games. And perhaps that experiment is best appreciated by loading a save file from the game’s final hour, warping from town to town, taking in the dating scenes and amusing townsfolk, and never, ever getting into a battle.

[Todd Ciolek is a magazine editor in New York City.]