Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Learning to love traditional JRPGs - a true Retro Game Challenge

at 5:31 PM
One of my newest video game friends, Retro Game Challenge, has taught me a lesson I didn't expect to learn. This lesson is that maybe I can like traditional turn-based JRPG?
One of my favorite Japanese turn-based RPGs is Star Prince
Challenge is structured as a literary anthology of eight fictional '80s-styled games, each deriving heavily from a real-world classic. See this post for more discussion of the overarching narrative that explains why you're playing them. The games are presented one at a time, each with four challenges that must be completed  before the next game is revealed. Each unlocked game can be revisited at will, as the challenges usually do not include seeing the ending. The eight retro games, in order of play, are:

Cosmic Gate (based on Galaga, ex. challenge: get 200,000 pts)
Robot Ninja Haggleman (based on Ninja JaJaMaru-Kun, ex. challenge: beat level 4 without dying)
Rally King (based on R.C. Pro-Am (I think), ex. challenge: complete course 2 in 5th place or higher)
Star Prince (based on Star Force/Star Soldier, ex. challenge: beat the boss of level 2)
Rally King SP (modified "special edition" of Rally King)
Robot Ninja Haggleman 2 (very similar to RNH, with larger levels and harder enemies)
Guadia Quest (based on Dragon Warrior, ex. challenge: reach level 10 with all characters)
Robot Ninja Haggleman 3 (based on Castlevania II/Ninja Gaiden, ex. challenge: kill 100 enemies)

These capture the most popular genres of NES-era gaming, as well as some of their key evolutions. Star Prince introduces scrolling to shoot-'em-ups, Haggleman 3 adds linear progression (instead of looping) to platforming, and Rally King SP adds nothing at all to Rally King. As I discussed in the previous feature, being forced to play each game for a certain amount of time (long enough to complete the challenges) makes the new games feel like exactly that: new games. Even players coming into Challenge without existing knowledge of what's to come will be primed on the "upcoming" releases by the fake in-game Famitsu/Nintendo Power pastiche, creating a sense of anticipation.

To this end, the game I most avidly awaited was of course the last to be unlocked, Haggleman 3. The first two Hagglemans are too basic for my taste; as arcade-style platformers, they share more in common with Son-Son or Mario Bros. than what we now consider the defining work of the genre, Super Mario Bros. Plus I fucking love adventure platformers like Castlevania II and Wonder Boy III. Unfortunately, what I do not love is traditional turn-based RPGs like Final Fantasy, Dragon Warrior, and Ultima III. I've tried to weather a number of these games and simply don't have the patience for it, nor do I derive much pleasure from incessant turn-based battling. But Retro Game Challenge gave me no choice: if I wanted to play Haggleman 3, I was going to have to stomach at least a few hours of Guadia Quest

What's shocking is that this dangling carrot was all I needed to become engaged in Guadia Quest, to the extent that I didn't even put it down after unlocking Haggleman 3. Up til that point, I had been playing Challenge as a curiosity, not because I particularly needed a refresher on retro gaming - I already play NES games on a near-daily basis. I wasn't expecting to come away with any greater understanding or appreciation of these game-types - after all, I hold games from the '80s in equally high esteem as those from the '10s. So it came as something of a surprise that an archetype I had already felt decided upon would take on new life in this form. But has Guadia Quest really changed my feelings on early JRPGs? Does enjoying this one mean  I'll suddenly be able to plumb new depths of Breath of Fire and Phantasy Star?
One of the coolest parts of Retro Game Challenge is that it includes full manuals for these fictional "classics"
I suppose first we need to ask how much Guadia Quest actually has in common with the classics - how well it would fit were it released in 1988, as Challenge posits it was. I'm not gonna run through the JRPG trope list in detail - let's just quickly summarize. These games feature quests to save the world, over-worlds full of random battles, towns as shelter/restocking/healing/save points, maze-like enemy-filled boss-topped dungeons as levels, turn-based battles, rigid immutable class systems and character growth, and Java+++ scripting language. Guadia Quest happily ticks all those boxes. Fixed-strength encounters communicate to the player what party level they should be at to conquer each location, experience and gold is scaled to battle difficulty such that tougher victories are better rewarded, and there's even a very light monster capturing system. Save-anywhere is a convenient feature NOT found in most of the classics, though save states are so common these days that it doesn't feel unusual to a retro-player in 2013. The difficulty curve is steep, with frequent death leading to multiple replays of each section. The player's party is made up of a warrior-type (high attack, no magic), a paladin (moderate attack and healing/defensive spells), and a black mage (low attack/defense, powerful offsensive spells), which is about the most basic assortment known to man. Implied die rolls decide whether each attack hits, criticals, or misses. 
"A", "B", and "Z". Boy this guy was creative with his character names. Mine were "You", "Womp", and "Yaky"
If Guadia Quest makes significant modifications to the JRPG formula, I don't know the formula well enough to notice. So it's not the gameplay itself that made the difference. It has to be something about the circumstances that led me to like this RPG yet reject Phantasy Star IV - and that's intentionally "like", not "tolerate". I think it's one particular sequence of challenges that changed the way I approached the game. The first is to reach Level 10 with each party member, a simple task of grinding as familiar to a gamer as the neckbeard on their chinny chin chin. This facilitates a sort of aimless, goalless wandering, where it doesn't really matter where you go or what you see, because you're always getting closer to your goal. There is some freedom of choice in that the player can try to survive a handful of high-level encounters or safely power through dozens of easier ones, but the goal remains abstract. It doesn't really matter which way you go.

The following challenge requires the player to obtain 1000 gold. As each battle comes with a monetary reward, this at first seems the exact same as the previous objective. But this treasure-hunt in fact highlights the adventurous nature of the genre, reminding me more of Dark Souls than Final Fantasy V. The need for greater rewards than victory-pennies (I think that was a kenning!) centers the experience around defying immediate danger in order to make it as far as possible on individual expeditions, always trying to make one more step on failing legs rather than giving up your progress by using a town portal. La-Mulana was another adventure that kindled this same spirit; the notion that powering up cannot in and of itself be an end. The difference between this type of play and run-of-the-mill grinding is that each quest for treasure has its own binary metric of success: you either find the gold, or you don't. There's no in-between, no reward for making it halfway. It brings life, purpose, and risk to each step forward. "Can I make it across the room without running into a random battle?" "Is it worth setting myself back 500 gold to get better equipment to survive deeper into the dungeons?" Like Dark Souls, there's a weight to failure - continue to screw up, and you're going to be sinking more and more gold into revival and healing items, which pulls you further and further from your goal. There's also an exhaustibility to rewards - you can't collect the same treasure chest twice, so you have to forge on to new territory.

I'm honestly not sure how well this immediacy will be preserved when I inevitably retry a classic I had previously dismissed (probably gonna be Phantasy Star III). True, it's simply a matter of mindset and didn't involve any real change to gameplay, but I was also being externally motivated to think that way. If I had a blog, you might be able to follow how well this experiment goes. Unfortunately, I don't :(

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