My childhood memories of gaming are punctuated with some of the best RPGs of the ‘90s, games like Vagrant Story, Vandal Hearts and many other titles whose names begin with a ‘V’. To me and many other old farts like me, the console RPG is typified by the concept of turn-based combat and the idea that when the fighting begins, you’ll be transported to a battle map upon which your dudes will take it in turns slapping the enemies until they expire, at which point an upbeat jingle will play and then you’ll get your XP. Many games took this idea in interesting directions. Shining Force II, for example, had you maneuver your guys around on a battle map before engaging them in combat. Suikoden mixed the formula up by giving you a potential 108 party members to choose from, but they all followed this fundamental design idea.
Yep, those RPGs sure were awesome. So where the hell have they all gone? Persona 5 had a pretty stylish turn-based system and Dragon Quest XI was fairly traditional as well, but beyond that, almost every modern RPG has ditched the old way in favor of seamless exploration and combat in an open-world setting. In many ways this smacks of the lasting influence that MMORPGs have had on the gaming landscape. When an entire generation of gamers grew up in the massive shadow of World of Warcraft, anything that requires you to wait a few seconds for your fight to begin seems kinda clunky, and I can respect that. But myself and many others like me still feel that turn-based combat has value and potential.
From my perspective the last truly classic JRPG was Lost Odyssey, developed by Mistwalker Studio with former Final Fantasy legends like Hironobu Sakaguchi and Nobuo Uematsu at the helm. It had all the hallmarks of that classic ‘80s and ‘90s RPG awesomeness, including turn-based combat, frontline and backline positioning during fights à la Final Fantasy VI and it was even spread across four whole disks! Back then, if a game came on multiple disks you knew it was gonna be something special. After all, what publisher is going to pay four times the printing costs for a pile of hot garbage? It also had a gorgeous soundtrack that was capable of taking you from the depths of despair to the height of adrenaline-fueled excitement at a moment's notice. These kinds of games always seemed to have stellar soundtracks, perhaps because they were required to help your imagination fill in the gaps. After all, it was turn-based so there was a lot of standing around.
You’re probably thinking to yourself that you’ve just read three paragraphs of a fanboy gushing about how awesome it was ‘back in the day’ and you’d be right. Just like everyone else I’m susceptible to the old rose-tinted goggles of nostalgia. I know Final Fantasy 7 now looks like a toddler’s play-doh nightmare, animated in the best 3D graphics 1997 had to offer. I also understand why so many younger gamers snub turn-based combat. It’s slow, it breaks the flow of action and it can feel inorganic. But the truth is, that’s why it’s so great. The slowing down of everything so that you can methodically and deliberately determine your best course of action. The chance to stop and think about how to approach the puzzle of each fight. Tinkering with your characters’ loadouts and deciding where to put them and how to use them. This is what an RPG is to me. I suppose it all comes down to my tabletop gaming roots with RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons and Call of Cthulhu. In those kinds of games there’s a clear distinction between combat and role-playing. There’s a time for meeting characters, enjoying the story and taking in the scenery, and then there’s a time for mechanics and fighting and really concentrating on what you’re doing. This gameplay loop, the ebb and flow of relaxing stuff into intense stuff, is what I find attractive about this genre and it’s what I always feel is lost in a game like Final Fantasy XV, where you’re always moving around at a speedy pace. The foot (quite literally in this case) is never off the gas.
I think it’s time to address the elephant in the room; random battles. I get why so many people hate these, especially in games like the recent indie-RPG Battle Chasers: Nightwar, where the world map is quite literally infested with pointless, low-level-trash battles. They can be annoying, especially when you just want to exit a dungeon but you keep getting pulled aside every ten seconds for another fight with a low-level bat or something. But when they’re done well they can turn an otherwise dull mechanic into something awesome. For example, Final Fantasy IX’s loveable, ever-hungry Quina has an ability that lets him learn spells and abilities from the creatures the party encounters in random battles. Suddenly, this mechanic that was previously a necessity for progression becomes a cool way to get creative and customise your party. The slot-machine of random creatures that make up each encounter can greatly affect your strategy down the line and I’ll never forget when I learned roulette from a zombie and suddenly had the ability to randomly KO an enemy during fights. It was a total game-changer.
It’s a shame that we hardly see any of these old-school RPGs anymore, but I get why. Much like point-and-click adventures, they’re a product of their time (and the limitations of that time’s hardware), but I sure do miss casting haste and seeing my party get two turns in a row. Long live the classic JRPG!