Back in my day, Console RPGs were simple, and goddammit we loved them!
It’s a dangerous time. Walking outside of your home town means inviting the wilds to test you with vicious competition. You won’t have enough equipment, and your gear is mostly homespun. But your heart is pure. Your mission righteous. You will overcome.
This was the world of the videogame RPG in the mid 1980’s.
Odds are, if you’re reading this you were there. Even if you were real little at the time, the RPG was beginning to attain a foothold in the console crowd. While there had been primitive steps towards playing RPGs on computers prior (MUDs and Text Adventures), this article is going to start in good old 1986 with a little game I think most of us in the thirtysomething crowd can recall, named Dragon Warrior.
When Dragon Warrior hit shelves in America in August, 1989, the side-scrolling platformer reigned as king. Super Mario Brothers had taken off, and a lot of copycats were coming up with new ways to make it work. Ghosts ‘n’ Goblins, Castlevania, and Metroid had the hot hand, and then there was a new take on it with Kid Icarus, where the side-scrolling was turned on it’s side to make it a climbing-scroller. There were also other games pushing the boundaries on what consoles could do. Games like Duck Hunt, and Hogan’s Alley were using light gun technology. Excitebike, Golf, Baseball, and Mike Tyson’s Punch Out!! were proving sports emulation could be done, even if it was limited – it was amazing for its time.
But, without much fanfare, Dragon Warrior made it’s appearance in America, having built up a following in Japan some three years earlier. I don’t remember seeing ads for it, I don’t remember commercials running on TV. But a neighbor had a copy, and from there, word spread among the other kids on the street that there was a weird kind of game we hadn’t seen before. It didn’t take with all of us. But, for Mike, Jeff, and myself, something took root.
I didn’t have an NES. My parents had opted to back Sega’s Master System. But, pretty soon I was greeted by titles like Miracle Warriors and the beloved Phantasy Star series (both being released in North America roughly a year before Dragon Warrior but also with no fanfare since Sega seemed to be stymied on how to market to North America). I started playing both and found that while they couldn’t really compete with tabletop – which I was just learning about in 1989 – they were fun, if a bit on-rails in their presentation of the story. It was a new level of strategy. I didn’t have to depend on my reflexes. I just had to make sure I had enough resources to manage each battle and plan strategies according to what I knew. It was kind of a relief. There was only so many hours one could play Atari Baseball before you got pissed at the kid who knew how to hit a home run every time in an infinite first inning.
And for a time, Dragon Warrior was enough. And for those who wanted more of it, Dragon Warrior II was out in time for Christmas the next year having earned enough in American sales to warrant it. There were a couple other copycats, but something had been brewing in the Land of the Rising Sun. And over there it had already begun to take root, to shape what was to come in North America. In 1991, we got the holy grail of RPG gaming for millions of American fans.
Final Fantasy had arrived.
Depending on who you ask, this game was 8-bit Jesus. It instantly bit, and bit hard. From this point on, if you didn’t have a Nintendo and you wanted to play RPG titles, you were screwed. Phantasy Star hung in there for a bit, but if you were going to be in the game, you needed to be down with curiously-Japanese-yet-also-Italian-plumbers. Nintendo ruled the roost with three Final Fantasy titles in North America (Known in Japan as (Final Fantasy IV, V, and VI). The gameplay became more complex and intensely story driven. It was pushing things into a whole new playing field.
The new consoles were the Super Nintendo Entertainment System and the Sega Genesis. More titles would be released for the Genesis in the nineties (particularly Phantasy Star sequels, though Shadowrun and Shining Force II are worth noting), but Nintendo held the Final Fantasy series by the throat and kept barreling forward. The gameplay itself hadn’t really changed much, but the technology had. The games got complimentary updates to what they could do as consoles moved into the next generations. Even if you were still stocking up on potions, maintaining jobs, re-equipping new gear, it was looking better and better with each title Squaresoft managed to bang out. There wouldn’t be another paradigm shift in the RPG scene until 1997, which was the first time I was ever exposed to the Final Fantasy franchise.
Final Fantasy VII blew everything out of the water.
I was not ready for a game this deep. I had played RPGs for a bit but I personally came to find them wanting as my tabletop RPG experiences grew vastly more rewarding and wider in scope. Despite this, it was everywhere – the gaming magazines (Remember those? They used to be fun when there wasn’t just one from GamePawn) were saying that we simply wouldn’t be able to comprehend what the title would do for the RPG console gamer. And damned if they were not right. I paid my fifty dollars and was whisked away to Midgard.
Oh the adventure! Oh the gameplay! Oh the hours sunk into it when I should have been studying in college and working on my portfolio. And if the primary story and battle weren’t enough for you, it had mini-games. Games within games! You had the ever popular Chocobo Breeding, gambling, and most mini games could even be played on demand in a casino within the game universe such as the motorcycle chase .
But, I digress. Anyone who was there to see the transformation can tell you what it was like. Before we knew it, the RPG market became flooded. No other RPG title had made this big a commercial success, nor had any other title brought in a different demographic apart from the loyal RPG console fan base. You had gamers cramming into the space who had done nothing but play fighters and Madden year after year rubbing elbows with Japanophiles and introverts who didn’t understand why non RPG-gamers were suddenly making it hard to get their games from the store.
The revolution had come. And the results would spawn series like Grandia, Chrono Cross, Star Ocean, and a slew of others. By the time the millennium came and went, the grounds were fertile for advancement – and the genre truly started to change in unexpected ways.
The genre was starting to leak into other titles. The first time I recall this happening was in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Alucard is not a static side-scrolling hero, but an item-equipping, hit-point having, level-gaining hero. It was a perfect fusion as I have ever seen – possibly why it is one of my favorite games of all time. And it wouldn’t be the last moving into the next century.
The console wars were heating up again with rumors flying about new systems on all fronts. Sony’s PS2 became the first of the next-gen consoles to hit North America, and Project Dolphin was being whispered on the lips of Nintendo fans (what would later become the Game Cube) in the works. There was even a new player in Microsoft, who would release their debut system, the X-Box, into the arena in 2001 to duke it out with its Japanese competitors. All of these consoles would take their hand at releasing RPGs on their respective platforms, some with more success than others.
Arguably, the best platform for RPG gaming was the Playstation. Sony had achieved it’s finest moment by most gamer’s estimates. They were well out ahead in terms of eating Nintendo’s and Sega’s lunches alike as their rivals’ systems (the N64 and Dreamcast lagged behind for various reasons). They hosted Final Fantasy X when Square was ready to release their newest title and the sales went beyond Sony’s wildest dreams, making an even larger opening for more competing titles in the playing field. RPG titles were now as big a release as this year’s NBA and Call of Duty titles. There was money to be made and boundaries to be pushed. And pushed they were.
In 2000, a game called Shadow Hearts was released for the PS2. And I remember the game as the first visible fracture into what RPGs would eventually become. The people who were getting into the genre because of the wild success of games like Final Fantasy VII were quickly becoming bored. While the die hard fans had over the long term not been looking for anything too genre breaking, the new blood was looking for ways to differentiate on both sides – gamers and developers. Shadow Hearts had a way to do this. They were the first game I recall that had an action dial. It was simple. You can be mediocre, or you can take a shot at exceptional success, and your degree of success (or outright failure) depended on being able to manipulate the action dial (a circle with a rotating sword that spun from the center needing to be stopped within a certain segment of the circle in succession) as precisely as possible. There was also a kind of homo-erotic accupuncturist in play, but, surprisingly, this drew less attention.
It added another level of interactivity, and other games picked up on it too. The.hack franchise in 2002 went for a full on game inside a game, with not only a character that lived and breather in our world, but also contained a world inside of that world where most of the action took place. We got the abomination that was Final Fantasy X-2: Barbie Dress Up Edition in which your wardrobe changes became a pivotal strategy element that came to define the game. Xenosaga seemed to be a six hour long movie that occasionally let you have control for a brief moment.
And then you started seeing newer takes. Action titles like Mass Effect and Fallout began to horn in on the stat driven gameplay elements with a vengeance. You began to see scenarios in which fighting could be avoided if you chose the right dialog choices and had the capacity to wield your words effectively via related skills like intimidation, seduction, or charisma.
And then, as suddenly as it had all happened, it seemed that RPGs were on the wane again. The AAA titles had seen the writing on the wall – they could incorporate a lot of the RPG elements without actually having to make role-playing games. They could create behind the scenes number crunching and level gain without any ability to go off track. Borderlands came out in 2009 and incorporated level gaining and MMORPG elements by utilizing skill trees – not uncommon in platformers, but the mix smacked of traditional RPGs roots applied to an old school style shooter. The age of the hybrid had come.
It’s a different time now. Long gone are the days of simple equipment. Long gone is the Materia slot and summons. You have crazy shit out there – even crazier than some of the stuff that came out in the old days.
In a genre where it used to be very straight forward slay-the-dragon-save-the-princess, there is a myriad of new possibility. You may have read one of the many quotes from fellow HPP blogger, Jay Petrequin, there’s a game called Conception which seems to literally be about a eugenics project based around sexy celestial beings. I can’t even keep up anymore. My time, the golden age of the nineties and aughts, is over, and new stuff is coming all the time. We’re to the point where we get Japan’s craziest of RPGs, not just the stuff they figure are done deals. The established titles like Final Fantasy are starting to become so weird as to be unrecognizable. I cannot describe to you the feeling of disappointment Final Fantasy XIII left me with. It would seem that Square|Enix and I have finally, after a seventeen-year abusive relationship, finally broken up for really reals – though I shouldn’t have taken them back after VIII, but IX and X were so good! They almost had me with the guy who had a Chocobo hiding out in his enormous afro – but alas, it was not to be.
Then there’s the epic action RPGs we’ve come to see from the Elder Scrolls and Dark Souls. These games are quite possibly the biggest and baddest of what the shooter plus RPG market has to offer, seemingly combining the best of both worlds to her the kids talking. It seems it could be where the future is going. And yet, here I am, still itching for the same fix I got in 1997 when I first poped FF VII into Ye Olde Playstatione Primme (old english misspellings optional). I am finally getting to the nostalgia part where all I want is for games to be simpler again. But time marches on. It’s a new era. There’s new people picking up the reins to make their destinies. And god bless them.
In some ways, my strange, long trip through RPG history has led me to where I stand now. Confused, hyper, and unsure where to jump to next. But, I’m sure I’ll think of something.