the artistry and psychology of gaming

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Battle Effects

Battle Effects

If you haven’t yet, it’d likely be prudent to check out the first article in this series; it provides a proper context for what you’re about to read.  You may also wish to read the previous article

Of course, one of the main criticisms of the genre is also worthy of analysis: the flashy special effects you see in battle.  Non-RPG fans and oldschool RPG fans alike bemoan today’s over-the-top summons that take several minutes to play out.  While I agree that spectacle over substance is the exact wrong way to design a game (you hear me, Mortal Kombat!?), I think a little flare is a good thing.  Given the choice, if it affected nothing else in the game’s development, would you prefer a simple red flash or a blast of actual flames?  Austerity is a wonderful thing, and, to an extent, I live my life by it, but video games are for pleasure, whether on a visceral or artistic level; not everything has to be extravagant, but austerity has not the same effect as it does in life.  Special effects, when done properly, can enhance a game at a higher level than that for which they are given credit.

I’ve mentioned before that Dragon Warrior was my first RPG, and it is very low-tech; spells are just flashes, the attack spells are called Hurt and Hurtmore – there are no elementals – and most of what you see in combat, aside from the enemy and the surrounding area, is just plain text.  When I first saw Final Fantasy, my mind was completely blown.  Text in battle was minimized, and you actually got to see the weapons and spells, along with your characters.  Some of the swords were fairly elaborate in design, and they came in a variety of unique colors; blue, green, purple, red, and even pink among them.  Spells came in four elementals (technically eight, and yes, I’m aware that a programming flaw prevents them from actually doing anything), and a variety of colors; a pink fire spell – in my favorite shade, no less – was just about the coolest thing I could imagine in an RPG.  It is truly incredible how something so simple can make such a difference.  When Final Fantasy 4 came out, the magic and weapons just became that much more mind-blowing.  Instead of a little flame coming from your character’s hands and sparkles hitting the enemy, you get to see actual flames, icicles, or lightning bolts raining down upon your hapless victims.  Fire 3 is a brutal series of explosions that ends in an eruption of fireballs that shower outward from the target; ouch.  That’s to say nothing of Nuke and Meteo, which are known to newer fans of the series as Flare and Meteor respectively; they made a big deal about of them, and for good reason.  I felt that the spells of Final Fantasy 6 to be far less impressive and aesthetically pleasing, which was a slight disappointment to me (I was fairly young, to be fair), but the weapons were more impressive than ever; their elaborate designs were unlike any I’d ever seen.

That’s just what the ninja can do; you should see Rydia or the twins in action

The 3D Final Fantasy games took this even further by having the characters’ weapons out at all times in battle, as opposed to only when they attack.  This led to more elaborate weapon designs, which became more intricate as the series went on.  Eventually, this did lead to some particularly stupid-looking weapons, as the developers were dead set on outdoing themselves, but it was an important step.  Dragon Quest 8 eventually took this one step further, with characters’ weapons visible on their backs or hips outside of battle as well, giving the player more time to admire them.  Level 5 continued this idea in Rogue Galaxy, which had a list of unique weapons that was nothing short of staggering; each of the eight characters has at least ten main weapons and seven subweapons, each of both of which has four different palettes.  Do the math on that; it’s a lot of weapons to design and implement on the characters.  Not only that, but each character has a number of different outfits, each of which has a different benefit.  It’s a little touch, but it’s very cool.

Just a fraction of the incredibly armory you’ll encounter

Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars had some interesting weapons, but not in the way you might imagine.  Some of them are goofy, like the gloves that Bowser uses to throw Mario, but what I liked seeing most was Mario fighting with Koopa shells.  It was very cool to see these things with which we’d been interacting since 1987 turned into RPG weapons.  The spells, as standard as they may seem, used the SNES hardware to make some neat special effects.  Chrono Trigger’s spells used similar special effects, and they were equally impressive.  They use windowing and different layers, imposing images upon them to make things that may not be all that special in the base visual sense, but are quite impressive on a technical level, much like the parallax scrolling in the Platformer, Metal Storm, on the NES.  Don’t get me wrong; the spells in both games were very cool, but I can honestly say that I’m more impressed with them more now that I understand how they’re done than I did when I first played the games in my early teenage years.

Other games have spell libraries that are impressive on a technical level as well.  Rudra no Hihou is especially mind-blowing if you think about the how the spell system works, and take into account the fact that almost every possible combination of roots, prefixes, and suffixes has a different visual effect; that’s several hundred very elaborate magical effects to create and program.  The effort that went into something like that, even despite the copy/pasting involved commands a great deal of respect; the programmers could easily have just cheaped out and used only a few different effects, but they put in the extra effort.  Earthbound’s spells are neat because their visual effects are not easy to break down in algorithmically to figure out how they are created.  They are all geometric patterns, which makes them abstract, but that fits the battle backgrounds quite well.  I really like the spells, and was glad to see that they kept a similar convention for the sequel, Mother 3.

It’s even crazier and more colorful in motion

The Breath of Fire series also has some great-looking spells that look powerful, but what really makes them special are the transformations.  In each game, your main character can transform into a number of different dragons.  In the first game, they weren’t very detailed; in the second, they were, but they were only single-use spells as opposed to full-blown transformations, so their screen time is fleeting.  Breath of Fire 3 did it best; it is my favorite game in the series for many reasons, the greatest of which is the dragon system.  You acquire different genes throughout your adventure, and you use them together to create different kinds of dragons.  Most have a total of six different palettes, depending upon the elemental you assign to the transformation.  You can do some fairly clever things when creating your particular form, and you can save the ones you like to a special menu.  Almost all of them look very cool, too, which is why the relatively low number of different dragons in 4 made it absolutely pale in comparison, at least in this regard.  Besides, having a dragon in your party is just about the coolest thing that can happen in an RPG, at least to me.

Tiamat’s Doom Breath is a very efficient method of cooking foes

Now, for the real spectacle, and it should be no surprise that I’ll be mentioning the Final Fantasy games on the Playstation.  The spells themselves are appropriate, but some of the summons are just ridiculous.  Knights of the Round is the greatest offender in 7, but Sephiroth’s Super Nova goes through a painstakingly long animation in which he summons some big blast of magic that travels through the entire solar system, destroying some planets as it goes, which then causes the sun to go nova, destroying Mercury and Venus, then touching your party for a surprisingly small amount of damage; apparently, Cloud and company are more durable than some of the planets that orbit the sun.  I know, I know; it’s a video game, and it’s just doing it for effect (or attention), but to watch such a long cutscene every single time he uses that attack gets old after a while.  The summons in 8 seem to be even longer, and as such, each one has an ability called Boost, for which you tap the X button repeatedly at certain times to give you something to do while you’re waiting, though the game would have you believe that its primary function is to increase the damage it deals.  Final Fantasy 9 tones it down significantly, especially since most of the time, you watch a shortened version of the summon, but Ark’s full summon is absolutely ridiculous in length.  Again, it’s always cool to watch these things the first time, but after that, it just becomes unnecessarily drawn-out.

Astrological Forecast: Interplanetary alignment with a 90% chance of YOU’RE TOTALLY SCREWED

Valkyrie Profile handles this problem a bit more intelligently.  As I’ve explained when I was talking about battle systems, each character has a finisher; for the magicians, it is not unique, but based upon the spell set to be cast by default.  There are twelve attack spells in the game; two for each elemental, one of which is single-target and the other, multi-target.  With most staves, the finisher is just a triple-cast of the spell in question, but with a select few, a super-powerful spell is cast.  These spells are shown by a small cutscene; everything is impressively rendered (for the time), but the scenes are mercifully short.  Each big spell is flashy enough to look appropriately scathing, but not something you dread seeing as you attempt to spam the crap out of them against some of the harder bosses.

Visual effects are to battles what personality is to character development; moderation is the key.  You want to dazzle, sparkle, flare, create awe in the player, but putting too much into it just makes it unbearably pretentious.  It’s the reason that Sonic the Hedgehog was a beloved character in the ’90s, whereas countless imitators, such as the dreadful Awesome Possum, were, and still are, absolutely reviled.  Sonic had a little attitude (’tude to those of us back in the day) that was subtly expressed through body language at times, whereas the other the game of the other aforementioned anthropomorph sports the tagline: “Does he ever shut-up?”  Now, does that sound like a game you’d want to play?  It’s like fashion; a little color or shimmer can be elegant and tasteful, but too much just looks gaudy.

The visuals in any game tell a lot about the game itself, and help to create its overall presentation.  If you see something gritty, you assume something Western in structure, and if you see something pixilated in this day and age, you assume an artsy indie project.  No matter what people say, humans are a species that rely very heavily upon their eyes, which makes what you see in a game very important on a deeper level than just, “look at the pretty/gritty colors.”  The right environment, enemies, or even outfit for a particular character can help to set the mood, sometimes better than text can.  The old maxim, “A picture is worth a thousand words” certainly applies here, and seeing something is far more subtle and strong than coming right out and saying it.

Next up is a little something that I like to call scenario.  What I mean by scenario is the story, character development, and even the overall style of the game; things that are hard to classify any other way.  It is often considered to be the RPG’s greatest merit as a genre, and there are quite a few gamers who play RPGs only for these things, often praising titles with terrible gameplay because of a good story or characters.  I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to break this aspect down into its base components and analyze every little bit; I have quite a lot to say.

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Works Cited:

Format: Game Title (Alternate title: Region). Developer, Original system of release, Original Release Date.

Awesome Possum. Tengen, Sega Genesis, 1993.
Breath of Fire (Breath of Fire: Ryuu no Senshi; Japan). Capcom, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 04/03/1993.
Breath of Fire 2 (Breath of Fire 2: Shimei no Ko; Japan). Capcom, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 12/2/1994.
Breath of Fire 3. Capcom, Sony Playstation, 09/11/1997.
Breath of Fire 4. Capcom, Sony Playstation, 04/27/2000.
Chrono Trigger. Squaresoft, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 03/11/1995.
Dragon Warrior (Dragon Quest; Japan). ChunSoft, Nintendo Entertainment System, 05/27/1986.
Dragon Quest 8: Journey of the Cursed King (Dragon Quest 8: Sora to Umi to Daichi to Norowareshi Himegimi; Japan). Level 5, Sony Playstation 2, 11/27/2004.
Final Fantasy. Squaresoft, Nintendo Entertainment System, 12/18/1987.
Final Fantasy 4. Squaresoft, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 07/19/1991.
Final Fantasy 6. Squaresoft, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 04/02/1994.
Final Fantasy 7. Squaresoft, Sony Playstation, 01/31/1997.
Final Fantasy 8. Squaresoft, Sony Playstation, 02/11/1999.
Final Fantasy 9. Squaresoft, Sony Playstation, 07/07/2000.
Final Fantasy 10. Squaresoft, Sony Playstation 2, 07/19/2001.
Metal Storm (Juuryoku Soukou Metal Storm; Japan). Tamtex, Nintendo Entertainment System, 02/1991.
Mortal Kombat. Midway, Arcade, 10/08/1992.
Earthbound (Mother 2: Gyiyg no Gyakushuu; Japan). Ape Studios, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 08/27/1994.
Mother 3. Brownie Brown, Nintendo Game Boy Advance, 04/20/2006.
Rogue Galaxy. Level 5, Sony Playstation 2, 12/08/2005.
Rudra no Hihou. Squaresoft, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 04/05/1996.
Sonic the Hedgehog. Sonic Team, Sega Genesis, 06/23/1991.
Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars. Squaresoft, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 03/09/1996.
Valkyrie Profile. Tri-Ace, Sony Playstation, 12/22/1999.

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