Monday, 30 April 2018

When RPGs Aren't

I've always had a passion for video games. I remember when the Pong machines started appearing in malls and shopping plazas. In the early 1980s my favourite game was Robotron 2084. There was one night that a friend and I were really on fire playing the table top version and actually froze the game. We had a stockpile of men in memory and there were so many enemies on the screen that we would die as soon as the screen generated. I managed to dodge and kill a couple of enemies and the game went, "Uh, what?" The screen froze, but I was able to move my player. As the player encountered enemies it wiped them off the battle field like an eraser. The arcade gaming experience was exhilarating.

Jump forward a few years to the time my wife and I purchased our first home video game console (from Consumer's Distributing, which no longer exists): the Nintendo Entertainment System. Naturally, as a fan of arcade games, I wanted Double Dragon; a button-mashing, beat 'em up game. My wife wanted Dragon Warrior. We got both.

Double Dragon turned out to be a frustrating affair. I was used to big buttons to smash and large joysticks to slam. The tiny buttons and direction cross, manipulated solely by each thumb, proved to be an impediment to the enjoyment of the game. (I did get one of the big ball joystick controllers with the oversized buttons at one point, but the lightweight base made the game play even more annoying.)

Then my wife introduced me to Dragon Warrior. After dying between the castle and the first town, my wife informed me that I needed to stick close to town and kill as many weak enemies as possible. We called it "building" the character, as the object of the exercise was to 'build' up the statistics of the character and make it stronger. (These days the kids call it "grinding" because it's so much like work, but seriously this just shows the negative attitude of the gaming community. You're not reducing the character's abilities. You're not 'grinding' them down. You're building them up.)

Dragon Warrior (Dragon Quest in Japan, and now worldwide) is a role-playing game or RPG. It involves following a storyline, talking to people, helping them out, solving puzzles, searching for items, and fighting enemies. 

The fight system is turn-based, meaning you take a turn and then your opponent takes their turn, until one of you is knocked unconscious. It is based on Dungeons & Dragons, which employed sets of multi-sided die to calculate the outcome of encounters. Dungeons & Dragons was the origin of the RPG genre. This turn-based fighting system is as much a part of true RPGs as is the story.
A game without a turn-based combat system is not a real RPG.

The Tales series, Mass Effect, Ni No Kuni, Dark Souls, and all the rest of the "action" RPGs are not true RPGs. "But," you say "all those games have stories and stuff and you're playing the role of a character. Isn't 'role-playing game' just being a game character?" No, it is not. Would you consider Super Mario an RPG? You play the role of Mario. The story is that the Princess has been kidnapped and you have to get her back. You're playing a role, so it must be an RPG. It is not. It is an arcade game. Action RPGs, as sweeping and involving as they are, are glorified arcade games.

Turn-based battles don't have to be boring. They can be more 'action-oriented'. Take the 'Active Time Battles' of Final Fantasy. Try your hand at the battle systems in Mana Khemia, and Mana Khemia 2. The 6-person team battles in Atelier Escha & Logy are amazing. (Side note: Linca rocks.)

This brings me to my final point, which is a message to the developers at Square Enix, makers of the Final Fantasy (so named because it was the founder's last effort to make a profit) and Dragon Quest series. 

The penchant to move Final Fantasy to an action-based combat system will not produce the profits you seek. Think about those who started with the first Final Fantasy and have remained loyal fans over the years. Remember those who jumped platforms after being committed Nintendo aficionados to PlayStation, just so they could continue their love affair with Final Fantasy. Even if those fans started playing when they were 10 years old, they are pushing 40 now. Their eyesight isn't what it used to be. Their reflexes aren't as swift. They want to keep purchasing your products, but their bodies aren't up to the strain of action-based combat. Most of your audience is even older. Are you seriously going to spit on your fan base and tell them you don't need or want them anymore? Will you forever seek only 'fresh meat' in the guise of children who have to ask their parents for money to buy your games? Or will you honour the ancient ones who helped put you where you are today and help teach the new generations the lessons of the turn-based battle system?

Thankfully, the Dragon Quest series has always been and, hopefully, always will be a turn-based RPG. A true RPG in every sense of the label.

Only time will tell if Final Fantasy XVI and the Final Fantasy VII remake become real RPGs or merely arcade game wannabes.

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