My Problem with JRPG Combat

“Four Black Mages? That’ll never work.”

Hi there. I write about old-ass 2D games more than anything else these days, don’t I? Before I get to what this blogpost’s title claims is the topic, I will say a few things about a different genre of video games. One that some don’t even consider to be video games.

Call me “shounen” again, I dare you.

Visual novels. 99% of the time, interaction with these is all about reading, which arguably doesn’t count as gameplay. However, when reading an eroge, once in a while, you will encounter an opportunity to make a choice. You get to pick an option from a menu and what you do will influence the events further down the storyline. CHOICE – that is the simplest, most basic form of gameplay. A binary “yes or no” kind of choice, or a higher number of options – the more the merrier, richer and more interesting. It might be primitive, but that’s what the medium that is VNs does. All of you “if I wanted to read a book, I’d read a book” bros should shut up already.

Now on to the core of the issue. This blogpost will be about what I call “first generation JRPGs”. What I mean by that is games from early 90s where battles are menu-based affairs, ones where combat revolves around four words that appear on the screen at the beginning of every turn: FIGHT MAGIC ITEMS ESCAPE. Ever played Lufia? Lunar? Or, last but not least, Final Fantasy I? You see, I recently got the GBA incarnation of FF1, took it for a spin, and decided that time is ripe for me to write about one of the observations I made when playing this game and many others. By the way, “second generation JRPGs” is what happened when game creators started adding stuff to the robust, but kinda boring foundation that is Final Fantasy I and its clones. All those titles I mentioned are pretty much the same game, after all.

press a press a press a

So, you screw around aimlessly on the Overworld and whish, a random battle happens. You land on the battle screen, and the first, default course of action you can take is FIGHT (or “Attack”, I guess). You press A. You pick one of the enemy monsters and press A again. Repeat this times the number of members in your party. Two turns later, the battle ends in your victory. Dunno about you, but that victory doesn’t feel good to me. Why? Close your eyes and just press A regularly. That’s all you need to be doing. Ever played Golden Sun for the GBA? Remember all that pretty 2.5D that pushed Gameboy Advance to its limits mere weeks after the console’s launch? You must then also remember that game is so easy you don’t need to do any grinding. As long as you don’t escape battles and just keep pressing that A button, you can beat it after 20 hours, I guarantee it. Every random battle can be won just by using the FIGHT command. A big percentage of boss battles, too. Save those summons and Psynergy for the last boss, I guess. I’m sorry but that’s several steps even below visual novels on the ladder labeled “quality of gameplay”.

The sword-loving Warrior can only FIGHT, but what about his buddy, Black Mage? Let’s try the second option then. MAGIC. Press A. Whoa! Suddenly, CHOICE! You get to pick a spell to cast from a long list. No more pressing one button like a gamepad-holding zombie. The spells are varied – they can be divided into several kinds, have different firepowers and attributes… In FF1, offensive black magic can be sorted into a whopping number of *three* elements though. After a discovery like that, who would use FIGHT any longer? …Or so one would think. There is a good reason not to use MAGIC, and I don’t only mean laziness. Casting spells, unlike using a physical weapon, has a price. Every time you use magic, you use up MP (also known as mana), which is a finite resource. If you completely ignore the option to FIGHT wanting some more meaningful gameplay, you will soon find yourself out of MP and in need of restoring your magic points, preferably by staying at an inn. Using magic is an *investment*. You choose to spend MP instead of going with the costless FIGHT option to achieve better results – the dose of damage dealt with a weapon will never be a high as the mayhem caused by a magically invoked thunderbolt or whatever.

We could just accept this state of things and keep pressing A like the game’s creators want us to. Or we could insist on wanting CHOICE. Imagine being able to throw the FIGHT option completely out of the game. Or fusing FIGHT and MAGIC into a battle system with meaning. What about mana then? How about we throw mana out too? That’s probably not a good idea. That way we would get rid of one way for the spells to differentiate themselves from the crowd. Why would I use that measly fireball if I can cast the roaring pillar of lava for the exact same price – zero em pee. You might want to throw in a high number of mutually-related elements to make the complete list of spells in the game denser. Also, getting rid of costless physical combat would eliminate weapons from the game, which would have some further implications. I’m sure this can be solved somehow though. Do spells absolutely need to have a cost? What if you consider the turn spent on casting a spell the price that you pay? One party member gets only one move per turn – you’d better value that one precious move. Imagine. What if you made all four of the Warriors of Light in Final Fantasy I into Black Mages at the beginning of the game…?

A sizeable flaw in this well-working (or so you’d think at a glance) engine – I got to it through nothing more but thinking, but… I definitely wasn’t the first one to do it. Doesn’t the description of the game one paragraph above remind you of something? A certain existing game? An RPG with a rich, irregular net of elements and relations (weaknesses and strengths) between them. Battles without any default options, a system forcing you to memorize, recall and think all the time during combat and while raising your characters.

Pocket Monsters - Crystal Version (Japan)
My Jumpluff from a recent playthrough. #proud

I don’t think any deciding evidence exists to support this claim, but… Seems like the creators of the first generation of Pokemon games, especially Tajiri Satoshi, credited under “game design”, got to the same ideas I did when playing JRPGs in the early 1990s. Surprise, this blogpost was actually about Pokemon! And about one of many ways in which Pokemon were clearly the work of a world-class genius. Not the only way, though – I might write some more posts on the matter someday. When was the last time *you* played Pokemon G/S/C, eh?

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1 Response to My Problem with JRPG Combat

  1. terry309 says:

    The worst kind are the old school turn based system where you had to select every freaking character’s choice all at once…then the ATB system came and fixed it… as well as Turn based allowing you to pull off an attack immediately after selecting a command as opposed to having to select commands for everyone.

    This bugged me so much in Lost Odyssey and Bravely Default which brought this awful system back.

    Another game that’s a big offender of this is Legend Of Dragoon, all you have is Attack, Defend, Item and the dragoon form… thats it.So most of the game you do nothing but attack since it builds up SP to enter dragoon form which you’ll only use in boss fights… fun.

    I will say though that Final Fantasy IV averts all this by being brutally difficult. You can’t just mash x to win in that game, if you do you’ll end up dead very quickly since random encounters can ko you in seconds.

    I tend to play Action RPG’s these days mainly because I like an exercise in dexterity these days. Those games were even worse back in the 90’s, Secret Of Mana and it’s sword % gauge… my god. I mean the 80’s had YS where you ran into enemies from behind to kill them.

    So it’s pretty amazing how games have evolved since those days. If you look back at some games, you start to wonder what game developers were smoking. Dynasty Warriors 3 where archers are godlike due to constantly staggering you with perfectly aimed arrows… with a high fire rate. What were they thinking!?

    Some games just aged badly… that’s all there is to it but our love for rewarding elements kept us hooked back in the day.

    Shame how despite so many improvements, Publishers are now running the gaming industry into the ground. 2003 – 2007 will always be the pinnacle of gaming if you ask me.

    Liked by 1 person

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