Talking about RPGs because I don’t know!!

Monday, October 19, 2020 at 9:59 pm Comments Off on Talking about RPGs because I don’t know!!

I dread being asked what my favourite anything is. I’ve a whole lotta favourites! Literal stacks of favourites that I shuffle between depending on the mood or time of day! It’s like asking what my favourite pair of socks is — I cycle them! You can’t ask me to rank one pair of socks above the other! They’re all the same colour! And it’s at that point the analogy begins to fall apart. Not unlike my socks, actually.

This stinks because I sure would like to engage with folks on Twitter a bit more often, but unless it’s a multi-tweet thread about a topic that’s of interest only to myself and no one else living or dead, then I typically don’t wanna do it. I do appreciate folks daring to tag me in tweets, but it invariably results in a week of hand-wringing whether I’ll respond or not… and then not responding anyway because to reply after waiting a week just feels rude. Rest assured I read all emails, DMs and correspondence, and I appreciate it and give them a lot of thought, and then rarely actually put those thoughts into a reply. I don’t think that’s very reassuring, actually. My apologies.

Whatever point I was trying to make, I assume it applies to when pal herrDoktorat tagged me in naming iconic RPGs I’ve played in my life. There’s maybe a dozen I’ve played long enough for me to say with confidence I have played them, but RPGs aren’t really my strong suit…! To name off three game titles without context doesn’t gel with my brand of being needlessly fucking verbose, so let’s just rattle off all the RPGs I’ve played enough to have a tangible opinion on. I never said they’d be good opinions, so I’m throwing myself on the mercy of the court! You’re talking to a man who associates Mario with RPGs more than flippin’ Dragon Quest…!

Final Fantasy VII

My introduction to RPGs! A friend of my dad’s just gave the game to us for whatever reason, and it was unlike anything we’d played before. I, as a dumb youngster, was put off by the fact you couldn’t jump. Why have all these detailed 3D environments if you can’t jump!? But watching my brother play it was fascinating, seeing the story play out through text and many varied setpieces and environments. When Shadows of the Empire on Nintendo 64 was as cinematic as a console game had gotten in our experience, this was a whole other kettle of fish.

Because Europe missed out on so many iconic JRPGs, this was probably how most folks were introduced to the genre? Without Chrono Trigger or the like, the only alternatives were obscure Game Boy titles or flippin’ Rings of Power on Mega Drive, I don’t know. Even in America it seems like the first RPG to take on mainstream success, thanks to its big-budget advertising campaign.
As such, it’s kind of resulted in a lot of people reading the game the wrong way; for your first RPG to tackle a complex narrative and themes of unreliable narrators and withheld memories is going to cause some complexities, even before you factor in its iffy translation. I should be the last person to judge people for reading a story the wrong way, (Dok will attest to my lousy reading comprehension), but it’d be nice if people got their personalities right once in a while. Aeris is meant to be spunky!

I think I played the game once on my own yeeeeears ago, but never got far past the introduction. Maybe someday! I think watching my brother play RPGs was my ideal way of experiencing them, honestly. I watched him play Final Fantasy VIII and Shadow Madness, which were a treat to passively observe but looked too complex for me to try myself. I later bought Final Fantasy IX with my own money… and then somehow lost the first disc after playing it for less than an hour. It showed up again like a decade later, when my brother finally got to try it for himself, but for me the moment had passed…!

Pokémon Blue

I proably addressed my short-lived fandom for Pokémon in ONM Remembered (remember that?), and this was easily the RPG that got me into them, at least for all of two and a half years. The humble setting and kid protagonist made it easier to project myself into, and having 150 monsters to collect only aided and abetted the disgusting obsessive in me. Also you could find toys of these things! If you wanted a Chocobo toy you were shit out of luck if you lived outside of Japan.

The battle system is simple and kind of my bar for most RPGs  how simple yet nuanced is it? Limiting each monster to only 4 moves is nifty, even if it only taught me to never debuff, ever — why waste a slot? Unfortunately, this and the general stiffness of combat kind of means I had little incentive to understand it better beyond type weaknesses. That Tumblr post about “I play RPGs for strategy, and that strategy is attacking endlessly and being 20 levels higher than the opponent” is 100% me.

I dedicated so much time to Pokémon Blue that by the time I got Silver, I realised I’d gotten everything I wanted out of it. To keep up was to only realise I’d become one of those sourpusses who complains about every new monster. A bird shaped like Santa Claus? Come the fuck on.
I later picked up Sapphire on Game Boy Advance as a shot in the dark to see if I still had the patience for it, and it turned out I hadn’t. Oh well…! The new games look nice and I’m glad folks are enjoying them, but I think Pokémon Rumble is my jam. Sorry. I’m a philistine now.

Guardian Crusade

One of many PlayStation games I bought on a foolish whim and made no meaningful impression on me. It’s a cute RPG for a younger audience, with twee graphics and a cutesy monster you’re entrusted with safeguarding, but I legit can’t remember any meaningful events after the intro. I get the impression it might’ve been imported in the wake of the Pokémon craze, what with the various Living Toys you acquired to aid you in battle, though that’s a stretch. The game’s a blur is what I’m getting at!
I apparently played the game back in 2009 according to a blog post back before I discovered paragraph breaks, and I don’t even recall the guff I describe in it. All I remember is the game being tremendously blah. Pity, the art design looked cute in the promo art!

Paper Mario

I don’t know if I addressed it in ONM Remembered, but you tended to see games stuck in the previews section for so long that you never expected them to come out. Super Mario RPG 2 (as it was then billed) was a constant in the “coming soon” columns for what felt like years, that to suddenly see it on store shelves as the N64 was drawing to a close was amazing. My brother managed to drag me out before I bought it on the spot… because one of us was canny enough to remember we’d preordered it years ago and it was waiting for us back home in the letter box. Hurf.

I like Paper Mario! Since Europe missed out on SMRPG it was our first experience with Mario in a turn-based setting. I’m eternally smitten with this game’s world, how it presents familiar locales like Peach’s castle and Yoshi’s island, but also makes homes for all the other staples, like the humble Koopa Village or the lone Goomba abode. The papercraft aesthetic is beyond adorable, and the game’s writing rides a fine line between cute and sincere.
It balances its original content while still feeling steeped in Mario flavour; some of the other attempts veered a bit too far into original characters, occasionally mean-spirited humour, or strangely dark or depressing plot turns. It’s perhaps a bit humdrum compared to other Mario RPGs, but I like its comparatively safe and sweet tone.

On top of the charm, the battle system is what makes it. Something as simple as timed commands to perform extra damage or mitigate enemy attacks had me instantly more invested, especially when strategy is at a minimum. When RPGs emphasise doing things that aren’t attacking I tend to snooze, so giving me control over what numbers are doled out to either party dupes me into thinking there’s more strategy than there is!

Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga

It’s a Mario RPG on the go! Paper Mario but different! Whatever contrived way you want to spin it!
The new setting in the Beanbean Kingdom is an odd choice, but results in lots of expressive new foes and colourful new locales, as well as a cast that still has their diehard fans (and diehard shippers — cacklebean 4 lyfe). The music’s fun and jaunty, the story’s quirky and starts off strong, the graphics are terrific and oozing with personality, unlike any we’d see in future games… there’s a lot to like, and that’s all just aesthetic!

The battle system feels much more action-packed by virtue of its Bros Attacks, where special commands require multiple precise button presses to pull off successfully, with damage and BP bonuses for removing the helpful indicators and slow-motion. It’s a slick and dynamic approach to combat, and learning new moves along the way spices things up. Even being able to jump freely during enemy turns is so intuitive, used to avoid damage or even counterattack if timed correctly. It’s a formula that works so well!

I’m inclined to say this is my favourite Mario RPG on account of how many times I’ve replayed it, but like most games I replay to death, I struggle to pick it up again. I played it briefly last year and found myself asking, when does the game get good again…?
Stardust Fields is just tutorial busywork, I always get lost in Hoohoo Village for the stupidest reasons, then going to Castle Beanbean seems like the plot’s moving forward, but you’re instead dumped in a dungeon, then a derelict university… there is good stuff here, right? (yes, there’s fun characters, fun setpieces and fun plot twists… i wouldn’t like the game without a valid reason, i hope!)

That’s probably just a personal beef with most RPGs — by virtue of being a linear story with no level select, you become way more acquainted with the early-game stuff than anything later on, and that’s the stuff you wanna revisit the most. I have very fond memories of the game and have always enjoyed my prior playthroughs, so it stunk not sticking with it long enough to refresh those feelings. Even so, I’d still consider it my favourite of the Mario RPGs, and still some of my favourite Mario spritework. Those pixels are expressive!

Tales of Symphonia

Okay, so, everyone’s gonna laugh at me for this one.

Some bozo in the days of online games discussion/journalism circa 2003 described this as like an RPG with a battle system that played like Super Smash Bros. It’s very possible they went on to describe the differences separating it from Smash Bros., in which there are so many it’d be easier to just not make the comparison at all…
… but the comparison was made, and I sought out the game on those foolish pretences. A fast-paced, hands-on action battle system in an RPG, and I can play it with up to three friends!? Bring it on! We needed more games to play than just Melee, Mario Party and Bomberman ad nauseum!

So, uh, that wasn’t the case. You fight on a single flat plane, you can jump and you can hit things and bring up a menu for spells and items… but it didn’t quite fit the image in my head. That, and I lugged my brother along hoping we could partake in battles together, only for us to sit through a story neither of us were terribly invested in, and then the party got separated so I had to play solo hoping desperately for a chance for him to join in. It was very embarrassing, but bless him, he didn’t hold it against me. Compared to making him play Crash Bash, not playing at all must have been a step up.
That’s my Tales of Symphonia story! I did play it far enough to recruit all the characters, but it made shockingly little impression on me, outside of that one scene of grandma turning into a monster. It’s possible if I were to return based on its own merits I’d have a better time… but until I do see an RPG with a proper Smash Bros.-esque battle system, I’m only going to be thinking of that instead. I don’t know if it’d even be any good, I just wanna scratch that itch…!

Final Fantasy

The first Final Fantasy should absolutely be up my alley. No contrived characters you either love or hate — you just build the party yourself from chosen classes! No confusing story to get turned off by, you might as well be walking from odd job to odd job! And the sprites are adorable!

But every time I’ve played the game has been a harsh reminder of difficulty balancing in RPGs. I first played the Dawn of Souls port on Game Boy Advance, which dialled the difficulty way down with no alternative, meaning I quickly overpowered all the bosses by virtue of never running from fights.
Then I played the NES one, which had a more interesting difficulty by virtue of its limited-cast magic spells, forcing you to use inns to replenish them… but the wonky, unrefined battle menus just rubbed me the wrong way. The last time I played was the Mod of Balance patch, which upscaled the GBA’s difficulty and EXP to better match the NES original… but for whatever reason I just fell off it.

There’s a lot to love about FF1. The graphics have an adorable charm to them, an uncanny contrast to the magical, ethereal Yoshitaka Amano concept art. Exploring the world with extremely little impetus has its charms, and I would so love to see it in full, to fully appreciate the late game plot twist.
But I think the oldschool JRPG dungeon design just does nothing for me. When I have to use maps to make sure I don’t accidentally over-level myself to a state where none of the bosses can scratch me… that’s a turnoff. It’s almost assuredly a flaw introduced in the remakes more than anything, but darn it, I’ve run into it more often than I’d prefer!

Mega Man X: Command Mission

This was basically what every 2000s-fandom-era Mega Man nerd was asking for, right? Let’s explore the X series universe in an explorative RPG! Learn the lore of the Maverick Hunters, of their coexistence with humans, all that bleak miserable fun stuff! Instead the game literally drops everyone we know bar the three main characters and presents what might as well as a gaiden or AU story. Hrm.

The battle system is cute, taking a leaf out of Paper Mario with its timed input volleys, as well as a constant display of what turns are coming up next, allowing you to prioritise who to take down to buy yourself more time. Reducing a foe to low HP gives you a free turn to just dog on them with everyone blasting them to smithereens, which is admittedly a completely pointless mechanic but gosh darn if it ain’t cathartic.
The game looks nice with its cel-shaded aesthetic, and the new cast are charming enough, Massimo and Marino in particular, but what killed me was how boring exploration is. Everything takes place inside cramped, dingy tech-dungeons, and figuring your way around across multiple floors gets confusing real fast… and boring too. Being able to dash takes the edge off a little, but navigating the worlds just never felt satisfying, and the constant random battles, although a breath of fresh air, weren’t enough to stave off the long tedium between plot beats. It might be asking too much for a GameCube RPGs to reinvent itself for Mega Man the way Super Mario RPG tailored its formula for the Italian plumber.

It’s one of those games I feel like I want to see in full sometime, but I think I just wish it were refined in some way. Better art design? Less shitty dungeons? Just play a fanmade RPG instead…?

Mario & Luigi: Partners in Time

More stories of salt: I traded in Super Mario 64 DS for this, expecting it to be equivalent value. I was then asked for £30. It was only after paying for it and walking away did I realise… what did I actually save by trading in? Did I just give a game away for nothing? I swear I try not to hold that against either game, but man, that’s one way to become instantly disenfranchised by trade-in policies. But I digress!

Partners in Time adds baby versions of the heroes to the mix, with their inputs assigned to the DS’ new X and Y buttons. Again, this results in some challenging but rewarding Bros Attacks, where two, three or all four of the plumbers get involved in ridiculous team-up moves. It’s a natural evolution, but one that quickly hits a wall of tolerance as I found myself tuning out during fights, struggling to keep up with the button presses, the enemies’ patterns, or even the occasional need to watch the top screen for aerial attacks.

The game’s a decent showcase for the DS upgraded graphics capabilities, with bigger sprites and lush, textured backgrounds, many of them prerendered with no tiles involved… but the art design kind of suffered for it, personally. I don’t recall the same level of personality in animations or enemy designs as in Superstar Saga, and the time travelling plot just didn’t compel me as much. It doesn’t help the babies’ involvement often stops the action so they can cry, and then for Luigi to cry, and finally some comic pratfall that cheers them up again. The mute pantomime schtick’s got way less material than the last game!

Based on fandom consensus I get the impression the series picked up again after this instalment, which was an unexpected low point. It’s perfectly fine based on what I recall, but after the highs of Superstar Saga it just failed to make the same splash. That, and I’m such a sucker for sprites that trading it in for painterly backdrops and a comparatively dodgy-looking Peach is enough to rank me lower. They knocked it out of the park in the first game, why mess with success?! Don’t make me start ranking the 10 best and worst Mario sprites for every character. I’ll do it. It’s exactly the kind of zero-audience endeavour I’d jump at the chance to invest myself in.

Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door

I was a little late to the party on this one and I can’t remember if it was for lack of trying or just plain ignorance. The game’s good, though! The battle system feels that bit more fleshed out, with your partners treated like proper party members, a new counter mechanic, and a gimmick revolving around pandering to the crowd to fill up your star power gauge, granting access to special moves. I can’t say I wrapped my head around all of it, but there’s more toys to play with against more complex foes, with a reasonable amount of button inputs to determine their success, so that’s me onboard.

The story’s definitely a swerve for Mario, stepping farther away from the typical Bowser stuff and more into mystical JRPG bollocks, with a shockingly candid approach to death and morbidity. The game starts in a grimy pirate town with all kinds of hallmarks of murder and debauchery in plain sight… it’s a strange way to kick off the game. I do appreciate how every chapter has a different approach to progression, from the Glitz Pit’s wrestling tournament to the survival drama on the island. Like a lot of RPGs, though, it’s the sort of thing that’s fun to look back on, but in the moment I’m thinking, for god’s sake, get on with it already.

This is perhaps most evident as you reach the snow land, and are forced to backtrack throughout the entire world in search of the one man who can aid you in your quest… and it turns out he’d been three steps from your starting position the entire time. The game loves yanking the player’s chain, and outright wasting your time seems to be one of its favourite pastimes. I’ve seen some entertaining thinkpieces on this behaviour, particularly regarding Super Paper Mario, how it’s a deconstruction or a commentary or what-have-you on games as a storytelling medium, or something… but in the moment I’m just begging for the game to get a fucking move on.

I don’t think I ever finished the game, saving right before the final boss and losing an afternoon to the Pit of 1000 Trials before putting it away forever. I enjoyed The Thousand Year Door, despite many instances of wanting to dropkick it out a window, though I don’t know how inclined I’d be to replaying it. Fun memories though!

Super Mario RPG

I played this years after the fact, natch, because it never flippin’ came to Europe until late in the Wii Virtual Console’s lifespan! An unexpected collab with Square, it basically set the standard for all successors after it, from its platforming overworlds to its humorous tone, and its battle system in particular. The various commands, the timed inputs, it’s all there and it’s all… serviceable.
Navigating with the face-buttons is quirky but clunky, and timing your strikes is kind of a crapshoot when there’s very little ‘connect’ between the animation and the target you’re attacking. Try as they might to interact, they’re still just animating on top of empty space like ye olde Final Fantasies…!

The story and aesthetic is strangely charming though. As the first Mario RPG, it’s in that fuzzy line between building a world out of familiar Mario staples, and also just making up whatever guff it wants, like the kingdom of frog cloud people or all the weapon-shaped bastards you fight.
At times it feels very earnest about its characters and setpieces, with Mallow making a strong impression early on, and then there’s stuff that just kind of washed over me without any reaction. There’s exactly one artist who convinced me Geno is a charming character worthy of affection, and it wasn’t Square, and it certainly wasn’t the rabid crowd clamouring for him to get into Smash.
Its use of 3D prerendered graphics are incredibly charming, and it feels like an honest to goodness isometric platformer at times, with tricky jumping challenges and long vertical passages to explore. It’s more than just an RPG! To build that on top of what could easily have been an re-skin of Final Fantasy V is really impressive, a sign of how Square were truly shooting for the stars at the time.

I’m glad to have experienced the game, but for all the people wishing for a Thousand Year Door remake, this is the one I’d prefer to see get a do-over. With decades of successors in its wake, its mechanics tend to feel stiff and awkward, and to see its chunky pixellated world redone in something more hi-def, doing justice to its chunky, blobby promotional art, would be really sweet.
Honestly, I’ve wondered if the game were just an action RPG or outright brawler, skipping the formulas of menus and turn-based combat, would that be doing its setpieces more justice. Chasing after the Axem Rangers or fighting through Bowser’s castles are the kinds of scenes I could imagine playing out really well in a twist on 3D World gameplay, with weapons and items and who knows what else. Stop me now before I bang on the doors of fangame devs to make it happen.

Undertale / Deltarune

I’ve said a lot about the game. I played Undertale in 2015. I played Deltarune in 2018. I shoehorned segues relating to them in completely irrelevant game reviews. I have contrived more reasons to talk about the game than a person should, and I am sincerely sorry if you’re sick of hearing about it.

Long story short, by condensing an RPG to the stuff that makes the most impression — compelling battles, memorable setpieces, endearing characters, fun dialogue, some degree of input on the world… well, it made an impression! By minimising or maximising the downtime, however way you spin it, it made for an experience that had me engaged and felt perfectly paced, enough that replaying it never felt like a chore… most of the time. Replaying an RPG immediately after I’m done is usually the last thing on my mind. Being only six hours long is a boon, wouldn’t you know!

Like Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga, however, they’re games I’ve replayed to death so much that I don’t know how much fresh entertainment I can mine out of them. Still love ’em! Just less inclined to replay them unless I can foist them upon someone else in the process…!

Persona 3: FES

Hey, it’s something I played this year! And just beat a few days ago, actually! Despite just talking about Undertale mere seconds ago, I’m mostly a disreputable hipster whose reaction to masses of people liking something is usually “so it’s not for me, then.” Pal Dok encouraged me to check it out, and it only took five months and a hundred hours of my life to see it through, but I’m glad I did.

I just updated Some games I played in 2020 with way too many words about it, and recapping it all again sounds a trifle exhausting. To sum it up: engaging battles. Nifty character-centric storytelling. Not without its pacing quirks and occasional droughts of meaningful interactions, but I enjoyed it. The first RPG in years to make me like RPGs, without having to pretend it’s not an RPG. Getting me to consume role-playing games is not unlike making aeroplane noises while shoving baby food in my mouth. Maybe after this I can chew with my mouth closed. I’m losing track of my analogies again.

Anyway, how does any of this answer what was in the tweet?

First RPG: Technically Final Fantasy VII based on holding the controller once, but really Pokémon if we count actually engaging with the game.

Favorite RPG: Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga. I’ve forgotten if it’s as good as I think it is, but nostalgia wins out, sorry! Plus I can comfortably call it an RPG without starting a fight, unlike Undertale.

RPG that made you love RPGs: … possibly Persona 3…? It remains to be seen how long the feeling lasts, mind — playing the after-story The Answer sure is putting a dent in my enthusiasm! — but its balance of nifty battle mechanics and character-driven storytelling boiled it down to the essentials, with as few roadblocks in the way of my enjoyment as possible. Would still like a refund on at least a dozen of the hours I put into it, mind, but that’s the price you pay for playing ’em, I guess. Still, nice to be invested in a JRPG after so long, and to feel legitimately compelled to see it through!

Anyway, that’s a four-thousand word response to a 200-character tweet. Maybe next time I’ll write a similarly bloated blog post about the two “favourite games of all-time” posts I got tagged in, I say like a jest, but in actuality have already begun drafting. Buddy, there’s no responsibilities to stop me. If the world wants me to stop writing bullshit, it’s gonna need to take direct action.

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