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The Current State of RPGs

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Silver Star

I’ve been missing the good old days of RPG’s lately. Like any other lonely, socially-awkward kid who grew up through the ’80s and ’90s, I owned a few different video game systems, beginning with the Bally Professional Arcade (I don’t know of anyone else who’s even heard of this one), then moving on through the Sega hardware — the Master System, Genesis and finally the Sega CD. While I had all manner of games, my favourites were the role-playing games; I considered them the serious, important games in my collection, and always dedicated more hours to their enjoyment over any others. I started off with Phantasy Star, an innovative and important early title in the genre; unfortunately, I never got to Phantasy Stars II, III or IV because by the time I got my Genesis, II was out of stores, and you can’t play III or IV without doing II, so I was stuck (this was back in the early ’90s when it wasn’t that easy to find used games). The next ones I got were the Lunar titles for the Sega CD. I absolutely love these games, even though they are of the ‘movie type’ as opposed to the ‘D&D type’ (I’ll explain those terms later). They were such huge and expansive games that they took months to finish, which is one characteristic of any decent RPG; come to think of it, I never did finish Lunar: Eternal Blue. That’s gonna haunt me until I’m old, I’m sure.

The thing that made these early RPGs so great is that they were often like playing a video game version of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) — call them the ‘D&D type.’ Every game had a basic plot that you have to follow to the end, but the best ones, like Phantasy Star, also had little side-missions or hidden dungeons in obscure areas of the world that were only there to test you and give you special items if you made it out alive. Or, they even made finding something you need to complete the game very challenging — it wasn’t laid out for you; the only caveat is that you had to think a little bit and decipher the clues along the way. This differs from the ‘movie type’ games where there is one path to follow and one path only — the pleasure in the game is getting wrapped up in the story. I liked both these types of early games because they were all rooted in a classical-fantasy tradition; most of the characters were either knights, elves, mages or dwarves, and you were invariably fighting dragons and goblins and wights. Even the games that were different, like the Lunar series where you play a group of teenagers, had a certain look to them that was reminiscent of Tolkien (or, at least, Ian Livingstone); the clothing of the characters, the architecture of the castles and towns, the weapons etc.

Final Fantasy VII

Then along came Final Fantasy VII and changed everything. Released in North America in the autumn of 1997, it revolutionized the way RPGs were to be made going-forward, and is arguably the most popular RPG of all time. A few things before I continue — I don’t like Final Fantasy VII, and I didn’t finish it. The reason for this could be that I didn’t play it when it first came out — almost ten years ago now — when it would have been awe-inspiring; I only came to it about two years ago, and it seemed stale and dated. Plus, almost everything I liked about RPGs seemed to be either absent or ‘manga-ized;’ the characters weren’t noble knights or excitable kids looking for adventure — they were mercenaries and Akira-style biker-gang wannabes. The acquisition of secret characters and items seemed to happen more through dumb-luck than purposeful inquisitiveness, and the side-missions or secret areas you would explore in older titles in FFVII have been replaced by a giant casino where you play chintzy arcade games. Plus, I found the story boring and the dialogue ridiculous (Barrett is the most annoying video game character ever). But, despite my complaints, the kids seemed to like it because it became a phenomenon that is still popular today, churning out sequel games and even a movie. And it forever changed the look of role-playing games; whereas before games were either drawn or animated in an early anime-style, everything became computer rendered and polygonal. The problem with this is that, beginning with FFVII and the first generation of polygon-based games (think the era of the first Playstation and Nintendo 64), a lot of the detail that makes these games so great was lost. The backgrounds and cinematics always looked nice, but during gameplay the characters were basically walking concoctions of cubes and cylinders. They looked awful.

The current crop of games, like the recent Final Fantasys and the Suikoden series, have passed through the growing pains of computer animation and look absolutely amazing; but something happened to the overall style and gameplay of RPGs in the last few years. They are no longer based on the classical-fantasy tradition — now it seems to be almost solely on Japanese myths and folk-tales, or a mixture of this with cyberpunk. And the games are almost all ‘movie-type;’ it’s as if it takes so much time and space on the disc to make them look so good that there’s not enough room left for extended gameplay. My roommate and I finished Radiata Stories in only 30 hours — hardly even worth it. The thing that bothers me the most though is character design — I’m not sure why all the Japanese designers are doing this, but invariably the main male characters in most of the recent games either look like surfers or are highly androgynous — or both — and the women look like underage pornstars (which is not really new but it seems more ridiculous lately). Here are some examples (click to enlarge):

Tidus - Final Fantasy X Jack Russell - Radiata StoriesLazlo - Suikoden IVTrush - MS Saga (yes, this is supposed to be a boy)

Screenshot from Final Fantasy X-2 Screenshot from Suikoden IVScreenshot from Dragon Quest VIII

One recent game I do really like is MS Saga (despite the problems with ‘Trush’ as highlighted above — although we’ve renamed him ‘Jonas,’ and every time he says “My name is Jonas” we sing the Weezer song). It hearkens back to the old-style, ‘D&D type’ games in that once you reach a certain point in the story you’re free to explore the entire world map and do whatever you want; there are many secret dungeons and extra bosses, and even a coliseum where you fight gladiatorial bouts for prizes and money. Plus, while the plot is fairly basic — megalomaniac wants to take over the world etc. — there have been some surprises, and it’s been hard; another problem with ‘movie-style’ games is that they tend to be fairly easy — you can get through an entire game, like Radiata, only dying once or twice (we even beat the final boss in one shot). Perhaps tellingly, this has apparently been the worst-selling game in the whole Gundam series; I guess the kids just don’t like this sort of thing anymore.

This makes me consider something else. I was a kid when I played those early games; is the reason they don’t seem simplisitc or patronizing when I look back on them because I was twelve and they were targeted for twelve year-olds? When I find something too-cute or obvious now, would a sixteen year-old love it?

Hard to say. I think there is a quality to the early games that we’re never going to see again, where the game is more about adventure and discovery than simply preventing world-domination, where the characters are naïve but not silly or dumb or one-dimensional, and where character development involves more than simply becoming ‘steeled to the world.’03971semaj

Oh well. It’s true you can never go back. But I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for Alex and Luna.

Alex & Luna

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Sunday, July 30, 2006 2:46 pm

    I agree with you about a lot of modern RPG’s, most are sorely wanting. However, I am surprised you didn’t mention any of the Zelda games. Are you not into Nintendo? The Zelda series is always really good. Oh, and Tales of Symphonia for the Gamecube is a great RPG. One of the best, in my humble opinion. It has a nice variety of side quests and extra bosses. Plus the characters are all quite deep and interesting. The Golden Sun series for the Gameboy SP is reminiscent of the old style RPG’s as well. So, if you’re interested you could check them out.

  2. Thursday, August 10, 2006 11:45 pm

    I just started Final Fantasy X the other day, and I have to say it’s the most gorgeous game I’ve ever seen.

    But — there barely exists any gameplay at all. There are so many cut-scenes you spend more time watching the game than playing it.

    I’ll give you an update as I get further in.

  3. James17930 permalink
    Friday, August 17, 2007 10:09 pm

    Found this video on YouTube that somebody made as a tribute to Hiro and Lucia from Lunar: Eternal Blue.

    Yes, it’s saccharine, but I don’t care. I like it.

  4. Friday, December 21, 2007 12:48 am

    Actually, all of the Phantasy Star games can be played independently of each other, and IV is often the favorite because of its good graphics and low difficulty level.

  5. James17930 permalink
    Friday, December 21, 2007 2:18 am

    Yeah, but I don’t like the games that are too easy and lead you through them by the hand. I prefer a challenge.

  6. Friday, April 9, 2010 3:10 am

    I recently bought a PS3 and picked up Dragon Age: Origins. This is one of, if not the, greatest RPGs I have ever played, and I’m only 10% finished it. It’s the way RPGs were meant to be, where your decisions and choices actually change the outcome of the story — not like stupid Final Fantasy where it’s like holding someone’s hand through a cartoony movie.

    It doesn’t surprise me it tool them around 4 – 5 years to develop it. But it sure did pay off. Wow.

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