The Rise of the FPS
As we learned from Deadpixel’s Doom Retrospective a week or so back, Doom came onto the scene with a vengeance in 1993. While not the first 3D game with a first person viewpoint, it certainly was the most prolific in addition to being playable in the home. Copycats could not start fast enough, and with the popularity of the game, the envelope was pushed. Soon, Mac users had Marathon (which grew up eventually into Halo), and then it was everywhere. It was mostly a PC phenomenon as consoles frequently had trouble working in the FPS category, but there were small, cult favorites, like the game Zero Tolerance on the Sega Genesis which provided for an FPS experience.
And for a while, it seemed like the heyday was over for Platformers and RPGs. The First Person Shooter, the new kid in school, had taken the stage. And really, how could you blame us for forgetting our old friends, the platformer and the RPG?
The Lean Years
During the mid nineties, Platformers and RPGs took a backseat to flashier first person games – provided you had a PC. Computer labs and home machines found copies of Id Software’s 3D hits. Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, Doom II, Quake, Heretic and Hexen. The limelight quickly began to shift to these titles, though the console RPGs and Platformers still endured, marking the beginnings of PC versus console snobbery which endures into the present.
While the PC game industry began to take off, SNES and Genesis platformers took a focus on reinventing the wheel in both Platformer ad RPG genres. Platformers however, began to adapt a little, or at least to get more gimmicky so as to keep their audiences paying attention. Sonic the Hedgehog pushed boundaries in its own game line until we got to games like Comix Zone, Earthworm Jim and Vectorman. Sonic’s ultimate gimmick came in the form of Sonic and Knuckles – a game that you could plug previous Sonic games into (a la Game Genie) to use Knuckles in these titles.
RPGs didn’t really have to change. The Final Fantasy and Phantasy Star games spawned more sequels, and most other competitors simply copied. The industry also didn’t work very hard to promote RPG gaming since platformers could arguably be touted as more popular. The RPG was, at that point, very much a cult favorite, with more people interested in playing Mario titles and Sonic speedfests.
But, new technology, as it always does, changed the game again.
Who Cares About Bit Count Anyway (Nintendo Cared)
In 1994 the Saturn made a surprise early launch in May, and in 1995, a year after the Saturn’s Japanese release, Sony introduced the Playstation to the American market. The following year, the Nintendo 64 was released, and soon the console wars were at it again. While in the past console systems had touted x-bit systems (and the N64 still did), the Playstation and the Saturn were different. Using distributed processors and other ground breaking technologies of the time, video games advanced to change the way console gaming affected the lives of their players.
The platformer got a big boost initially with the advent of better 3D console graphics, particularly in the Nintendo 64 and Playstation. Lots of games took the route of an early PS1 game, Pandemonium. The principle was simple: there was still a set route that could not be diverged from, but the moveable camera (a mind blowing concept at the time) was behind the protagonist, which gave the platformer a sense of depth that previous platformers lacked.
Eventually, this model would be broken as the platform finally changed its definition and made itself into something new. Soon, we got games like Mario-64, Banjo Kazooie, Spyro the Dragon, and a host of others. We didn’t know it at the time, but the Platformer had laid the foundation for the next step that would grow a new gaming sub-genre: the Sandbox. These games were pivotal and still exist in a major way (Jak and Daxter, Ratchet and Clank anyone?), continuing to entertain us.
But in 1997, RPGs had their day.
My Playstation was still new, and I was in my first year of college when I first set eyes on Final Fantasy VII. It was unbelievably immersive and deep, and it proved itself to be like nothing the world had seen to date. It could not be played on a single disc; it was so huge, in fact, that it had to be distributed through four discs. It took root and spread like wildfire, even into the hands of the other genres’ die-hard fans. The tale of Cloud Strife (or Sephiroth depending on who you asked) defined a generation of gamers, myself included. The combination of amazing graphics, the complex but intuitive Materia system, Limit Breaks and addicting storylines led to a gaming experience that gave the RPG industry a much needed boost.
SquareSoft took off and spawned several Final Fantasy sequels as well as other RPG titles like Xenogears, but other companies like Sega, Atlus and Enix all got the green light to make other RPGs in order to get their slice of the pie. These games all went their own ways, and there was a lot of innovation that resulted from it. The RPG genre found itself creating systems that were unbelievably strange, integrating cooking, timers, or even dating sims, as game components that drove the game or the games’ special abilities.
Crossing the Boundaries
Around the time RPGs were getting big, the traditional 2D side-scroller was feeling its death throes. No one wanted to play them unless you were an emulation fan, a die-hard retro gamer; with all of the new tech, who wanted ‘old and busted?’
Konami however did something that at the time seemed off the wall. They released a game that, as of this writing, is still a leader on the XBLA Games Marketplace and that has shaped the gaming landscape into what we know today. That sidescroller was Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.
Two words could describe it: Holy. Crap.
Konami came up with the perfect blend of side-scrolling action and RPG trappings, creating a game not only in which you traversed a 2D environment, hacking and slashing through level after level of monsters, but did so in a way that allowed you to pick up an exhaustive inventory and gain levels in order to perform better. To date, I still play it. I might even go as far as to say it’s my favorite game. In my experience, I’ve seen few games which even attempt to aspire to this level of game craftsmanship, though there have been a few recent players to try their hand at it (Castle Crashers, Shadow Complex). The titles that mix these aspects are very rare, but they are out there for the savvy gamer.
And this largely brings us to the state of affairs today. I could go on through the systems further, but once you hit the playstation generation of consoles, things blur quickly. But, the games remain. Both genres are still here today, but which one is winning? The answer is simple:
Cop out answer, huh? Well, sometimes life disappoints you. But, it’s true. Since FF VII, RPGs haven’t really done much to define themselves further beyond becoming more and more beautiful looking. When every game has its own gimmicky system and same duration of play they all kind of start blending. I can’t remember an RPG game I’ve managed to finish since Final Fantasy X.
While you’ll find side-scrolling gameplay on the XBLA or PSN, chances are you’re not seeing much that’s new there either. Sure, there’s games like Braid or Limbo – but are they really all that different from the innovations we came up with in the mid-nineties? In this writer’s opinion, no. They just have a lot more polish to them and additional gimmicks.
There was a time I’d tell you that RPG based games were where it was all at, where it was all heading. These days, I’d have to say otherwise. Platformers have made an admirable jump back into my heart just based on simplicity. Simple is better sometimes. Just play Final Fantasy XIII if you don’t believe me.
But, for those of you who’d like a point-by-point breakdown for the sake of comparison, stay tuned. Next installment will try to break down the defining qualities of each genre and then, well… we’re all adults. We can come to our own conclusions…
Continued in Part Three…
Earlier article here.