When it comes to video games, every gamer I’ve ever met has at least one genre that rubs them the wrong way. Some hate the mind-numbing grind of hack-and-slash action games, some hate the point-and-click adventure games of old, due to the seemingly great leaps in logic when it comes to solving the puzzles found within them. From racing to fighting to puzzle games, every genre has their detractors. For me, it’s simulation sports, real-time strategy (RTS) and most controversial of all, the turn-based RPG. Honestly, it confuses even me: I like turn-based strategy games, so-called “action RPGs” and strategy RPGs, but something about “JRPGs” (flawed title in my opinion, but what can you do? It stuck.) alternately bores me and drives me up a wall with aggravation. It’s not to say that I’ve hated every single one I’ve played: take for example, the upcoming indie PC game Undertale, I played the demo for it and I loved it. The point is that the genre at large bugs me, and I’m gonna tell you why.
The first major problem I have with the genre stems from the very concept of it. From the beginning, RPGs with turn-based combat have simply relied on random number generators in order to determine the consequences of actions take by the player. Now I am totally aware that this is a proper simulation of the battle systems seen in traditional pen-and-paper role-playing games of old, but I still find the idea that character stats and random number generation are literally the only aspects that matter in gameplay. Skill literally means nothing in your typical turn-based RPG. If you reach a sufficiently high level, you literally can just charge headlong into battle without any strategy. Likewise, if you happen to be “underleveled”, frankly, you’re pretty much boned.
Well, unless you decide to suck it up and buckle down for problem the second: grinding. Ah yes, grinding: the magical formula that can turn a pretty good four-hour game into a 100+-hour nightmare. Because why bother actually putting effort into extending game time when you can just use absurdly strong enemies as a roadblock preventing the player from making any progress? Of course, experience is probably the least aggravating thing you’ll have to grind in your typical RPG. Sometimes you’ve got to grind for money too. But worst of all, grinding for items. Oh man, seriously, fuck that noise. Especially when it’s linked to some ridiculous fetchquest side mission that you need to complete in order to continue on. Seriously, that kind of thing is unforgivable. Fortunately, modern games don’t appear to force you grind as much as the games of old.
And then there’s my last major problem with the genre. It doesn’t really appear so much these days, but it was so pervasive for so much longer than it should’ve been and frankly, on the rare occasion that it shows up in modern games, I literally start seeing red. I am, of course, speaking of the dreaded “random battle”, the gameplay design choice where you randomly encounter enemies on the battlefield with no rhyme or reason. At best, it’s merely an annoyance. But at its worst, it makes RPGs into an infuriating mess. Oh man, seriously, excuse my language, but fuck random battles in the ear with a rusty spork. I mean, during the NES era, it was understandable. The system was honestly too weak to do anything but random battles, but from that point on, there was no excuse for having it in console JRPGs. No excuse whatsoever. And yet, it was still so very common for so very long.
Of course, there are a few other trends that annoy me as well, but they’re really pretty minor things. Like how pretty much every single turn-based RPG either relies on medieval fantasy or futuristic sci-fi settings. Seriously guys, it’s so bad, I’d even consider something as generic as steampunk western a massive change of pace. Speaking of cliches, there’s also a really common plot point that bothers me. Now I’ve been told the way that I summarized it in the past was technically incorrect, but I think I’ve got the jist of it now. It feels like at least half of the JRPGs on the market today revolve around a bunch of whiny teenagers covered in zippers joining together in order to kill a tyrant who is either trying to or has already become God. There, that’s way more accurate than my earlier complaint about how said teenagers team up to kill God.
And then there’s the fact that the demand of turn-based RPGs have left me a bit shortchanged when it comes to specific publishers and developers regarding games in genres I actually like. For a long time, Game Freak made pretty much nothing but Pokemon games and at one point, Atlus actually made Shin Megami Tensei and other RPGS IN ADDITION to games in other genres like the classic fighter Power Instinct, rather than INSTEAD OF. The worst offender when it comes to this kind of thing is obviously Square Enix. Squaresoft and Enix used to be able to make awesome games in all kinds of genres, like Einhander, the Tobal series, Bust-A-Groove, E.V.O., Actraiser, Brave Fencer Musashi and many more. Nowadays, it’s nothing but Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts spinoffs, with the occasional Dragon Quest to break up the monotomy.
Seems like a sour note to end on, so I’m going to throw in a little ray of sunshine. Like I said before, I’m not willing to write off the entire genre as a waste. Truth be told, I can think of quite a few turn-based RPGs I’ve liked. Mainly because, for the most part, they deviated from those criticisms I lobbed at the genre itself. Kind of funny how that works right? The only games in the genre I actually liked don’t do the things that make me hate the genre. What a concept. Anyway, moving on.
The first turn-based RPGs I can say with certainty that I truly enjoyed were the two Lunar games released on the original PlayStation. I managed to track down Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete used at a Gamestop, as the game had gone out of print by the time I decided to pick it up. But the used copy I found was completely intact, including most, if not all, of the bonus items that came with the game originally. The game itself was amazing, it was the first time I’d ever even seen a JRPG without random battles. Another aspect of the game I liked what that the battle system had a mild semblance of strategy in it, due to the ability to set your party member’s location on the battlefield. I’ve since been informed that this wasn’t exactly unique to the Lunar PS1 remakes, but considering the fact that party members near the front of the battlefield gained improved accuracy and speed, while the ones in back had greater defense and were more likely to dodge enemy attacks, it had a greater impact on the gameplay overall. And frankly, for how cliched and corny the story was, it was my first actual JRPG. The sequel, Lunar 2: Eternal Blue Complete was another favorite of mine and I even managed to pick that one up brand-new.
Perhaps the least popular entry on the list, Evolution: The World of Sacred Device for the Dreamcast was another favorite of mine, despite the fact that it’s considered an extremely generic dungeon-crawler. The battle system was interesting though, as if you were able to strategize properly, you could modify the attack order of your characters and enemies, getting “extra turns”, rather than the standard “everyone attacks, then we start over” system seen in most turn-based RPGs. The customizable Cyframes were also pretty interesting, as you could swap out parts allowing for different types of attacks. I never got to finish the Dreamcast version, but I did manage to play through the entirety of the Gamecube remake Evolution Worlds, which contained both the original and its sequel’s storylines in it. A bit short, but frankly, that was perfectly alright with me.
Technically the oldest example on this list is also the one I played most recently. I was recently dared to beat Earthbound for the SNES in under a month, I managed to do it with time to spare, but frankly I had some fun with it. Again, no random battles (sensing a pattern?), and while the battle system is fairly simple, there was one unique quirk I instantly fell in love with: the damage meters. Basically, when you take damage, your health cycles down slowly, so if you manage to get KOed by a random critical hit or something, you can manage to save your character if you manage to defeat all of your opponents or escape before your HP hits zero. I mean, that’s brilliant. I also liked the game’s quirky storyline and while I can’t really comment on the rest of the series, but Mother 3 looks like fun. And despite my newfound appreciation for the game, I’m still sad that I can no longer mock the fanbase anymore, due to the recent Virtual Console release of EB on the Wii U.
Speaking of quirky storylines, another of my favorite turn-based RPGs was Double Fine’s Costume Quest. I mean, what other RPG has you saving your sibling from a group of evil goblins trying to take over the world by using magical Halloween costumes that transform you into whatever you’re dressed up as, be it a giant robot, a knight, the Statue of Liberty or even a Unicorn? Each costume has its own unique attacks and abilities and some of them are even needed to solve puzzles on the overworld.
And of course, last but certainly not least, the Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi series. These games are the total package: quirky stories, no random battles, an interesting battle system with actual in-game interaction, epic boss fights and awesome music. Ironically enough, it was Super Paper Mario that got me interested in these series, and that one wasn’t even an actual RPG. Honestly, I can’t wait for Mario and Luigi: Dream Team to come out next month.
In the end, I guess those games prove that there are some turn-based RPGs that even I like, despite my prejudice towards them. The common thread behind all of them appears to be that they manage to evade at least some of the problems I have with the genre at large and make at least some attempt to deviate from those bothersome conventions of the genre. But the damage has already been done when it comes to my acceptance of the genre as a whole.
(P.S. Seriously, Square Enix, at least re-release Einhander or Brave Fencer Musashi on PS1 Classics or something.)