So, what’s in a name?
Now that we’re at the third part of the article let’s cover that shall we?
Platformers, for those who need a strict definition, is a game in which the player navigates the hero through a relatively set path toward a certain goal. There is little room to wander from the path, and navigating through it usually involves jumping from platform to platform to complete the route through the game (hence the name). Platformers can branch out by the addition of other elements, but the above is the core element. The early platformers were typically simplistic, using only a few buttons to do a few basic commands (run, jump, fire), though as they aged they branched out into other types of gameplay (life bars, multiple weapons, puzzles) while remaining true to their core.
RPGs, short for Roleplaying Games, developed out of the tabletop roleplaying game genre. The earliest RPGs were defined by an interface in which there were many routes that could be taken toward a goal, there was more than one controllable character – leading to a ‘party’ structure – and there was a relatively complex system running behind the graphics that determined success or failure. The controls were more complex than other genre titles and allowed for more diverse strategy to overcome obstacles.
While these are far from the only two genres, we’ll stop definitions there – this is about RPGs and Platformers after all. Maybe we hit other genres later.
Here’s the part where I point out that this is an editorial. Naturally there will be disagreements with statements from here on out. Feel free to take or leave my experiences. If you disagree, savage the comments section if you like.
The Case For Platformers
So why play a game archetype that’s as old as Pitfall? I can sum that up in a single word: Simplicity.
For those readers who were around in the eighties to experience Super Mario Bros. when it was new, remember how awe inspiring that was? How many hours did you spend per day moving little plumbers through Worlds one through eight? You knew where all of the warp zones were. C’mon, admit it. You don’t even know what Worlds two or three look like.
Now look back at yourself holding that little grey wedge of plastic. How many buttons did you use? Three at best? Select didn’t even have a function in SMB, and Start only got pressed when mom wanted you to haul laundry downstairs.
Two buttons and a d-pad were, in essence, all you needed. And in that lies a certain kind of power. Humans are simple creatures. We like things to be challenging, but not overburdening when it comes to games in general. Especially when we’re young. We don’t like flipping through menus and agonizing over strategy if you can defeat the guy in front of you by jumping on his head.
Tying into simplicity is its other half, complexity. Paradox, neh? Hear me out, it makes sense. Let’s go back to another golden oldie of the NES: Mega Man 2. Sure, I could use Mega Man’s original title, but I’ll be honest, I never played it. So you get Mega Man 2. Which is better I’m told anyhow.
Capcom’s little blue money maker was one of the best and earliest examples of platformer complexity. Megaman started out with a single weapon: the X-Buster. But, as you defeated Dr. Wily’s evil robots, you gained their powers. Once you beat Metal Man, you could throw Buzzsaws in multiple directions. Once you beat Wood Man you gained a Leaf Shield that deflected incoming attacks for a time. You switched through these options via the Select button (show the select button some love!), and if that wasn’t enough, the select screen also stored extra energy and other utilities you could pick up in the game. And, even more incredibly, you didn’t have to play the game through from start to finish, MM2 actually let you get a password to come back to where you stopped later!
Yet, despite the complexity, it was still a platformer by definition above. You could select your levels in any order you wanted – but you still had to complete all of them. There were no side quests per se (though there were items you could maddeningly try to get that seemed forever beyond your reach) and once you were in those levels, there was typically one way though them (forked paths eventually brought you to the same place).
The Case For RPGs
Now let’s have a look at the virtues of RPGs. The big one here is fairly obvious: epic stories. SMB was about a guy looking to get a little something-something from a princess in a castle. Final Fantasy games were about a lot more than that. The RPG’s tendency toward telling stories led to the aspect of immersion. You didn’t just kick Koopa shells and stomp Goombahs. You were working toward things on a grand scale. Kingdoms rose and fell depending on what you did.
Sure, one could make the argument that RPGs were no different from platormers in the sense of arriving at the same point. But that changed once the technology got better. Different outcomes could result based on what you did, separating it from the vast majority of platformers.
This was something RPGs came to be really good at where platformers fell flat (or down an instant-kill pit). Take Phantasy Star III from my earlier entry. At the end of each generation of doom you chose a party member to marry. Depending on what choice you made, you got not only one of four different endings, you also got four possible quest lines that gave you different abilities and equipment to fight with. There were also games like Infinite Labyrinth that literally changed every time you played.
Another big change that worked in RPG games’ favor was customization. This could range from one of many things including the character’s name right up to the minutiae of the gear you chose to equip. Need something to battle that fire lizard blocking the cave? Try equipping your frozen sword to take advantage of the elemental damage it offers against fire. Need to beat feet quickly, be sure you have your coward’s boots strapped on to guarantee a swift exit. You could play the game you chose to play. Sure, the strategy guides tell you what to do for optimal effect, but if you found a better way that worked for you, who was Nintendo Power to be telling you that you’d been doing it wrong? So long as you saved the world with Cid, you made out okay.
Like any other genre of games, platformers were not perfect. Let’s face it, copies of SMB ended up in the used game bin ubiquitously for a reason: low-replay value. Hooray, Mario saved the princess! He has absconded with her to knock plumber boots with her back at Mushroom Castle. Who wants to play Ninja Gaiden now?
The sad truth about platformers is that they’re a letdown for replay. Once you’ve saved the princess, there really isn’t much else to do. Admittedly with the advent of achievement systems in platforms like XBLA and PSN you can go back to try to trick out the game for the maximum gamerscore or trophies, but more often than not the achievements are easy to get or you have to be an autistic kid who will grow up to professionally play StarCraft in South Korea.
Platformers also, by and large, don’t have a lot of depth, proving simplicity is really a double-sided blade. Go back and play just about any platform game from childhood and tell me it’s as hard as you remember (notable exceptions being Mega Man, Battletoads and Castlevania). These games were meant for real little kids at first. We’ve made strides since the 80’s, but not as much as one would hope for.
A further letdown is that more often than not, when you go to the next platformer, you’re going to find out quickly that this is just like the last one. It may have a different look or feel, but the game play did not change all that much. Every so often you get Braid. But more often than not you’re playing Contra, Super Mario Bros. or Sonic into infinity. Sure, Ryu throws a shiruken and has a sword, Bill R. has a cool gun that shoots in a forty-five degree arc, and Sonic spin dashes his foes until bunnies come out, but I’m still moving between platforms and trying to avoid cheap death at the hands of the system.
And there’s the real killer. Cheap deaths. I don’t think I could find one person on earth of my age that couldn’t tell you how absolutely maddening playing games like Mega Man were (or still are if you care to try your hand at the most recent Mega Man titles).
RPGs are not without flaw either. Because for many games of this genre, you’re catering to a hyper-obsessive fan base. Of all genres, I have never seen one sub-type of gamer so devoted to keeping things exactly the way they are. I am no different. I wish, deep down in my heart of hearts, that every Final Fantasy game would just go back to the Materia system. It was complex and elegant, but not overly so as to make me not want to go after it (unlike blitzball which I still hate). But somewhere out there, the Blitzball Nazi would decry that statement, wishing all games had Blitzball.
To expand on this, these games easily fall into the formula trap as well. The hero is a silent, rugged type, who then goes out and finds his trusty friend (who is never quite as powerful as the hero) and lucks into a beautiful young maiden who has magical healing powers and can’t fight to save her life. Round it out with a badass who runs out of tech points too quickly and an Amazonian battle bitch and pow! RPG classic! So many RPG titles use this party formula, and eventually you can’t remember the difference between Aeris and Yuna. Or the rest of the hyper-cute maidens who just wish to live out the wounded soldier fantasy with the plucky male protagonist.
That’s another aspect of RPG flaws: snobbery. Ever watched two RPG fans sit down in a room and talk about their favorite games? If you left a knife in the room with both of them, even with doors ajar so they could leave at any time, one otaku might kill off the other when one of them admitted that deep down, Caith Sith was their favorite FF VII character.
However, the biggest buzzkill about RPGs that I have is grinding. Goddamn grinding. How many times have you played an RPG title and have swiftly progressed through the story to the point where you come up to one of the game’s signature villains only to find out you’re not powerful enough? So you venture back out to the world map to fight. And fight. And fight. And fight. And… what was I doing again? How’d I get into this part of the map? How do I get back to what I was doing? Why do I need this goddamned battle anyway – shouldn’t the villain have carried out his plot while I was out here killing orcs? RPG villains are the most polite in the world. They can wait for hours, days, weeks of game time. That meteor in FF VII hung in the skies for months while I tried to grind my way into being able to take out Sephiroth.
Can’t We All Just Get Along?
Fortunately, we don’t have to be mutually exclusive. As stated before, I love both and thus rise above the snobbery, though these days I lean towards time-killers that I can play and drop, simply due to not having the time I used to invest in playing RPG video games (mostly on account of playing in tabletop ones). So at this point I leave you to your own conclusions and hope you’ll consider mine a pleasant diversion if nothing else. Ultimately, I don’t care which one you love – so long as there’s a controller in those hands, you’re part of the family of video game enthusiasts.
Get your game on!
Earlier article here.