the artistry and psychology of gaming


Battle Systems

Battle Systems

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.

To me, gameplay means a great many things in any genre.  It means controls, both in responsiveness and how well they’re laid out; mechanics, such as jump physics; level design (sorry Mr. Sheaffer); puzzles, especially in Action-Adventures, Visual Novels, and RPGs; and many other innumerable things, many of which are hard to quantify.  In an RPG, perhaps moreso than any other genre, it has a great deal of meanings: the battle system, skill & magic building and class systems, the menu layout, the difficulty curve, the pacing (as in how much grinding and how consistently is involved), how balanced the equipment is, amount of, and even how the dungeons are laid out.  It’s not just a virtual storybook; there’s a great deal of depth to gameplay in an RPG, and that can make or break a game with even the greatest or worst of stories.  Sure, you might stick around a dull or even slightly irritating game if it has a really enjoyable story, but what I’m saying is that gameplay is the ice cream of the video game sundae, whereas the story is more like the syrup spread over it.

I don’t think it’s a terribly big stretch to say that Dragon Warrior is the quintessential RPG (remember, we’re excluding Western RPGs because their situation is a bit different); it basically created the RPG in its console form, and has been the solid foundation of everything that came after it, even if Phantasy Star did roughly the same thing, but better, in very close temporal proximity.  Interestingly, the Dragon Warrior series, despite the innovations it has had over the last nine games, remains very close in gameplay to where it started; it is a series about tradition, and it’s a fine tradition to uphold.  It seems quite austere by today’s standards, but it eschews all of the glitz and spectacle that have made the genre a laughingstock to many, and sticks with its roots, remaining the solid game it has been for decades.  Think of it as RPG comfort food; it’s never going to blow your mind, but sometimes, what you need is a big heaping plate of your grandmother’s fried potatoes to make you feel whole again.

Despite my having been a long-time fan of the series, it was only in August of 2012 that I finally finished Dragon Quest 8.  While it left a very bad taste in my mouth, it was the very traditional gameplay, and little more, that kept me playing, sinking 6 months of my life into it.  Battling was the same as ever, but other aspects of the gameplay was tweaked a bit to improve it.  The class system was culled in favor of 5 different skillsets per character that you could develop, which catered to multiple play styles.  It still featured a bit of bloat, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as in Dragon Warrior 7, which featured a whopping twenty standard classes and an additional thirty-four classes that transform you into various monsters, culminating in a staggering fifty-four classes, each with its own skillset; bloat is inevitable.  Back to 8, there was a neat, but simple, item synthesis system that was very satisfying when you got something cool out of it.  The pacing was a bit on the slow side (though not bad for a Dragon Warrior game), but the exploration was absolutely top-notch; the best of any game in the series I’ve played, and, despite my typical dislike of the third dimension, it is Level 5‘s masterful use of it that makes the game’s world so wonderful to explore.  No matter what else happened, I loved the gameplay.  Sure, I was awestruck by some of the visuals, but I hated the story (admittedly never the strong point of the Dragon Warrior series), the characters, the voice acting, the music, and very nearly everything else about the game.  The point is that it was the gameplay, not the typical merits associated with the genre, that kept me around.  Now that we’ve gotten the importance of gameplay out of the way, we can focus on some of the exciting things that have made RPGs a total blast to play over the years.

I’d first like to talk about battle systems.  Over the genre’s evolution, there have been many different approaches to what is essentially the bread and butter of an RPG’s gameplay.  If you don’t like the battle system, you’re going to hate the game; you don’t have to love it, but you have to, at the very least, not hate it. It’s that simple; go read a book.  Dragon Warrior started out with its simple turn-based battle system; when it’s your turn, you input a command, then your enemy goes; repeat until one of you is dead.  Archaic though it may be, it’s beautiful in its simplicity; it’s easy to understand, and you can build on it to make very challenging, strategic, and engaging combat.  The introduction of multiple party members made this tricky, though, since all commands were input at the beginning of each round, so speed had to be implemented in order to determine who goes first.  Developers also hadn’t figured out how to make a character attacking an already dead enemy automatically retarget to something still living.  This, thankfully, was remedied by the time Final Fantasy 3 came along.  Every RPG used that system for quite some time, at least until Final Fantasy 4 came up with the Active Time Battle system, where your character’s input came up when it was his or her turn, and everything was happening in relatively real time, despite retaining its menu-based nature; you still didn’t need quick reflexes, but you needed to be able to think and make decisions quickly.  It was nothing revolutionary, but many games widely considered the greatest RPGs of all time (hint: both Final Fantasy 7 and Chrono Trigger both use Active-Time) use one of these two systems.  There have, however, been countless twists on these formulas, as well as brand new ones that turned the genre on its head.

Some of the tweaks were just little intricacies that didn’t really change the formula, so much as change the way you think about combat.  Final Fantasy Mystic Quest, while widely regarded as a joke, has the best feedback system I’ve ever seen in an RPG.  When anyone on either side uses an attack, you get to see what it’s called; if the target has a weakness or resistance to it, it tells you when it hits.  You might think that’s just for beginners, but take a look at Final Fantasy 4; you have false elementals, such as spells of wind, earth, water, and a few others that appear to have some sort of elemental attached to them, but in reality are just non-elemental spells, some with special parameters, like being unable to hurt flying enemies.  There’s nothing newbish about feedback; it helps you develop strategies with greater understanding of what’s actually going on.

This is actually a non-elemental attack

Speaking of feedback, less of it can sometimes make a battle system obtuse.  It was one of many problems with Phantasy Star 2, in which the game doesn’t make much of an effort even to tell you how much damage you’ve taken or dealt.  Along with automatic auto-battle that makes using any sort of strategy an absolute chore, and a relative inability to target the enemy you want, Phantasy Star 2’s effort to streamline the standard battle system took the series back a giant leap.  I was fine with the grinding, enjoyed the visuals and endearing charm of the ’90s synthesizer soundtrack, but this battle system made it the absolute nadir of the series; more obtuse and clunky than its predecessor on the Sega Master System, which, again, happens to be one of the first console RPGs ever made.  Phantasy Star 3: Generations of Doom took the same battle system and improved with various tweaks and attempts to keep it streamlined, but by Phantasy Star 4: End of the Millennium, they just gave up and went with something closer to a Dragon Warrior game; they knew they’d screwed up.  Not all innovations are beneficial.

Some just changed the way you think about your inventory.  While spells being hidden within weapons and armor is nothing new, and dates back to the Dragon Warrior 2 at the very least, Sweet Home, an RPG that doubles as a prototypical Survival Horror game, forces the player to think more about what he or she is carrying.  Sure, you can defeat bats with just your weapons, but in order to beat them without spending hours upon unnecessary hours of grinding, you can simply use your camera on them for incredible damage.  It’s subtleties like this (especially in a game that lets you carry only 4 items, including both your weapon and one you can never drop) that bring outside elements into a battle system, making you think always of what may lie ahead and whom to bring with you.

The Lennus series (the first released Stateside as Paladin’s Quest) was also interesting in this way.  You could attack your enemy with anything you were wearing, whether it’s striking with your weapon, bashing the enemy with your shield, kicking with your shoes, or… however you attack someone with your body armor.  I’ve thrown a pair of pajama pants I’d been wearing at my cat one time, but I don’t think that works well with plate mail.  Some of these, of course, would cast spells, but the vast majority of them would act like regular attacks.  It made an even more interesting situation when compounded with the fact that it was your HP (you had no MP) that you consumed to cast spells, making spell-casting equipment far more useful.  Needless to say, there are no healing spells, which also forced you to focus a lot more on healing items.  We’ll get more into the Lennus series a bit later.

How did you hit him with your clothes without removing them?

The Suikoden games on Playstation also had a greater focus on items, due to their fairly limited magic systems, but one of the most noteworthy things about them was the massive party size; you could bring a staggering six members into each battle in the main battle system.  There were two other battle systems – a one-on-one, rock-paper-scissors style duel, and a rock-paper-scissors style massive army on massive army battle – but they only occurred as special events, though they were interesting and fun little bits of variety.  Out of a cast of one hundred eight characters (many of whom were playable), it provides a lot of variety, especially when you take into account the fact that certain characters could go together to perform combo attacks.  Some of these were very powerful, while others hit multiple targets, and it added a greater depth to your strategy.  While far from the first RPG to add combos, it was one of the few earlier ones to try it that actually got it right.  Chrono Trigger, of course, did it right, and a bit earlier, too, but with parties of three out of a total seven playable characters, it wasn’t nearly on the same scale.

The combo system wasn’t Chrono Trigger’s only interesting aspect in the battle department; it was also one of the first RPGs I remember that had special attacks with targeting other than single, group, and all.  There were circle-shaped attacks, attacks that went in a straight line, and several others.  Unfortunately, it is certainly a limited principle within the context of the game; you cannot control the movement of your characters to line up your attacks more efficiently, and the game forgets about them when you get far enough in, at which point, it becomes the typical single or all target paradigm, since the interesting ones are now obsolete.  The game to succeed a bit more with this concept is SaGa Frontier.  In SaGa Frontier, you have more patterns, more patterned attacks that are sufficiently powerful, and neither the enemies nor the characters move around much, if at all.  It takes movement out of the equation, both to your benefit and disadvantage, but at least it’s fair.  This idea isn’t the only thing it shares with Chrono Trigger, though; it also has a combo system, and so it seems we’ve come full circle.

Note the fan shape of the red target area.

Unlike Chrono Trigger’s combo system, SaGa Frontier uses a system that’s based upon which attacks are being used, which are not character specific; any character can learn any attack possible for his or her species, with a few exceptions.  The moves combine in a theoretically logical way.  For instance, an attack that hurls an enemy into the air can combine well with one that sends them down into the pavement.  The problem is that sometimes, the logic is less like that of a tight algorithm and more like something you’d see in a King’s Quest game.  The other problem is that it takes a huge step back in that the combos don’t snap together; it’s up to agility, and a certain degree of chance, as to whether or not the right characters will perform their actions in the right order, or whether or not they’ll be interrupted by an enemy.  Sometimes, the combos just fail to engage for no apparent reason.  This makes a combo system that flows well only on a theoretical level, and lacks consistency, especially since the enemy encounters change as you become stronger.  Breath of Fire 4 has a similar combo system, but with more logical connections, smaller party sizes, and enemies that do not grow or change as you level up.  So, while combo systems can work very well if done properly, having a looser system often removes strategy in favor of chance.

Some were tweaks on existing systems.  Chrono Trigger’s system used location in respect to your characters and enemies, but gave you no control over either.  Grandia expanded upon this system, but it didn’t work out very well.  Grandia, while having a system with an absolutely wonderful level of feedback, was just a train wreck.  Your party and the enemies have little icons that move along a gauge.  When your characters reach the appropriate point on said gauge, you get to input that character’s command.  You have two physical attacks: combo and critical.  Combo hits twice and does more damage, retargeting the second hit if the first kills the enemy, and critical hits once, but if executed right before an enemy attacks, it will knock said enemy back down on the gauge, stopping them outright if it is about to execute a special attack, as indicated by the enemy sparkling orange.  Precise timing is required, but that becomes a huge problem.  Once you input your command, your character has to go the rest of the way along the gauge before he or she even starts doing anything, and after that, he or she needs to actually run up to it before actually attacking, even with a ranged weapon; any ability to accurately calculate timing goes right out the window at this point.  On top of that, sometimes a character or enemy will attack out of turn or frameskip out of the way of an attack, seemingly at random.  Innovation is the mother of wonderful new things, but not all of her kids are superstars.

Some put an incredible emphasis on elementals.  I know you’re thinking Pokémon right now, but the true honor goes to the Megami Tensei series.  Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne has the Press Turn Icon system, which gives you one icon for each member of your party, up to four (or five, if you’re playing a New Game Plus and have met some special parameters) each round, and attacking uses one icon.  If you skip your turn, land a critical, or hit an enemy with its weakness, rather than disappearing, the icon will start flashing, allowing you to use it again; think of it as using half of an icon.  Of course, if all of your icons are flashing, it just uses one.  If you hit the enemy with something to which it is immune, not only does it deal no damage, you will consume two icons.  If you hit an enemy with an elemental that it will absorb or reflect, your icons will all disappear, and your turn is over.  The enemies’ icons will then show up and it will be their turn, and the same rules apply to them.  It really makes you think about elementals; if you do well, you do very well, but if you slip up, you totally blow it.

Chrono Cross tackles a lot of probems quite well with its battle system.  Your characters’ turns come up individually, and they are given four choices for their method of attack.  Three of these are just physical attacks of varying strength and accuracy; the stronger ones are less likely to hit, but deal more damage.  The stronger the attack, the more energy it builds up, as well, and that lights up your element grid, which is your fourth option.  Your element grid is your spell menu that you configure outside of battle; spells snap into the slots and can be used in battle when your energy reaches their level.  While each spell can only be used once per battle, you don’t have magic points, which means that you will not have the problem of reaching the boss at bottom of a dungeon with no magic left.  This also makes encounters with weaker enemies quite expedient; just build up enough energy for a spell that hits everyone and wipe them out in no time.

It gets a little more complicated than that, though; the spells you use have an effect on the field.  In the upper-lefthand corner, you will see an indicator that shows the last three element colors that have been used.  There are six elements, and each has an opposite.  They affect each other in a tug-of-war sort of way; if there are two blacks and one yellow, then red elemental attacks will receive a little boost and black elemental attacks will receive a larger one.  Conversely, blue elemental attacks will be slightly diminished, while white elemental attacks will receive more of a penalty.  You cannot avoid this simply by foregoing magic, either; every character and enemy in the game has his or her own elemental base, so their physical attacks and their defense will be affected by the field, as well.  If you manage to sweep the field all one color, then that color’s two summons become available for use, if you’ve equipped them.  It all wraps up into a very strategic and engaging system, which is very streamlined for New Game +.

Some added convenient features, such as Skies of Arcadia.  Just think of how often you’ve come up against a tough enemy with an elemental weakness, but you were out of magic or didn’t have the right spell.  In Skies of Arcadia, you can change the elemental of your weapon to any you’ve earned before every attack.  It’s an idea that I think should’ve been implemented a long time ago, especially for someone who doesn’t like to play as a mage.  You can run out of MP, but you can never run out of punches to the face (yes, I’m aware that the SaGa games, released in North America as Final Fantasy Legend had weapons that could only be used a few times), so you’ll always be adequately equipped to efficiently handle whatever comes your way.  The other neat addition is a set of special attacks separate from magic, which consume a special bar that fills with each round of combat, allowing you to quickly end battles against weak enemies without consuming something that doesn’t regenerate on its own; it streamlines trips back to previous regions of the world.

Speaking of cutting down on travel time, Earthbound was absolutely revolutionary in that regard.  Random encounters were not so random, as you could see each encounter walking around towns or dungeons.  Theoretically, you could walk around them, avoiding combat.  Not satisfied with just that, Earthbound decided also to implement an encounter advantage system.  If the two of you meet head on, it’s an even fight; if you get attacked from behind, the enemy gets a free round; if you attack from behind, you get a free round.  You might be wondering how this streamlines anything, but if you’re powerful enough to take out the entire enemy group before they’re able to attack (based upon your attack power and agility), you win the battle without it ever even happening; there’s a bright flash, and a loud, satisfying splat, and you get the experience, gold, and treasure you’d have gotten from fighting without wasting time, HP, or MP (PP in this case).  Attacking the enemy from behind, of course, tips the scales greatly in favor of this happening, because you get an entire free round during which you’ve impunity.  Better yet, if you’re super powerful compared to the enemies around, they’ll all run from you, making it incredibly easy to get the jump on them.  The innovations continue once you’ve gotten into battle.  The battle system itself is fairly traditional, except for one thing: the rolling HP counter.  When you take damage, the counter starts rolling down to its target number, but you don’t actually die until it reaches zero.  This gives you a chance to quickly heal a theoretically dead character before he or she actually dies.  It adds a bit of quick action to the battle system, an innovation that today’s RPG fans enjoy on a much greater scale.

A normal encounter.

Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars was a highly anticipated game for one main reason: on the Super Nintendo, RPGs and Mario games were king and queen.  So, the brilliant minds at Nintendo decided to work together with the biggest RPG company at the time: Squaresoft.  The result was a game that was revolutionary on many levels.  While neither rendered graphics nor an isometric perspective were new things at the time, they weren’t exactly common, and I can’t think of a single RPG that used either before that.  Despite how dated those old techniques may be, the game is still visually attractive today, having a sort of timeless aesthetic with some very unique locales.  We all drooled over the preproduction screenshots, fantasizing about two of our favorite things coming together in what had to be the game of the century; it just had to be.  Well, I don’t know if I’d say that it was, but one thing that took us completely by surprise was the level of action.  Outside of battle, you were running, jumping, climbing vines, and the like.  It would have almost stood on its own as an isometric Platformer, and as such, is one of the first true Action-RPGs ever made; it was both Action and RPG, unlike most falsely associated with the genre, which are either one or the other, usually Action.  The battle system was action packed for its time, too; it wasn’t just “input your commands when it’s your turn”, but rather had little extra things you could do to defend yourself from attacks or boost the damage of your own.  Some required you to hit a button just as the attack landed, some required holding the button to charge a spell, and others still had you putting your arm into a controlled seizure to try to shoot as many fireballs as possible.  It took me longer than I’d like to admit to get used to the system (and a few retries until I figured out it even existed), but once I did, it made battle so much more engaging.  I still like a traditional turn-based battle system, but this new style was a blast.  Future Mario RPGs, such as Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga expanded upon this by adding different actions to perform or adding dodging into the mix, and some unrelated RPGs developed it in a different direction.

Why would they ever take this out!?

Mother 3, sequel to Earthbound, took this in a very interesting direction.  The battle system is identical to that of Earthbound, except for one detail: the actual attacks.  You press the button during the attack to chain hits together, as many as 16, but there’s a twist: you tap the button in time to the battle music.  Some songs are easier than others, and some songs sound like others, but are variations with tempos that jump up and down or even pause at times, just to screw you up.  Out of over 200 songs, it definitely keeps you alert.  I must say, though, that it is quite satisfying to master a song, and when you hear it out of context, you just might start to jam out and bang your hands on whatever solid object is closest (sorry, Freya).  This Dragon WarriorDance Dance Revolution hybrid is single-handedly responsible for my having any rhythm.  Now, I just need to work on my dance moves; I think the guy checking me out at the club was more interested in my Saran Wrap shirt than my spastic flailing.

Stop banging on me or I’ll light you on fire!

Legend of Dragoon, the game for which I wrote my very first walkthrough (which eventually led me to become a founding member of GamingSymmetry) did such a thing.  Instead of just pressing the attack button, you set your attacks to things called Additions.  Additions were multi-hit techniques that required you to press the X button at the right time to get the next hit until you screwed up or pulled it off.  Some were stronger, while some more quickly filled special bar that let you transform into a Dragoon, which is a flying warrior with winged draconic armor and magic.  Additions could also be countered, so sometimes, you’d get a flash, giving you a warning to press O instead, lest you be thrown (quite comically) across the screen.  This system gave several levels of strategy, between choosing greater strength or quicker transformations; when to use said transformations, which would only last a few rounds, and were the only time you could use magic; and even selecting from the Additions that couldn’t be countered, depending upon your skill level.  It’s easily one of the best action-hybrid battle systems I’ve ever encountered.

Of course, this is all just a tickle compared to RPGs that have a full-out, action-based battle system.  The oldest RPG I’ve played that has something like this is Kouryuu Densetsu Vilgust Gaiden, which is based upon an anime about which I know nothing.  Its battle system puts one of your party members against an enemy in a side scrolling death match, something like a Mega Man boss battle.  Each character’s weapon works a little differently (I think it‘s safe to assume a boomerang to be used differently from a spear), but it’s otherwise straight action.  For such an early game based on a license to have something so progressive is incredible.  I can liken it to Zelda 2: Adventure of Link or the Gargoyle’s Quest games on Game Boy and the NES, but it’s less an Action-Adventure, and much more an RPG; you’d have to play it to see what I mean.  It has one huge gameplay flaw that totally ruins the game, though, and that is that after ever dungeon, you have to speak to each and every single person in the nearest town in order to progress.  I mean that literally, and most, if not all, of them will tell you the same exact thing they told you 5 dungeons ago, so there’s no real reason for this.

Vilgust was relatively forgotten, though (even when another Vilgust game came out on the SNES, which had a traditional battle system), and action-based battle systems disappeared and had to evolve and come into being all over again.  Among the earlier titles during this second birth phase was Star Ocean.  Star Ocean had your guys running around, and you issue commands to them as everything moves in real time.  It was a great concept with an incredibly flawed and disorganized execution.  Not only was it difficult to follow the command menu that was flying back and forth with your character, who was running all over the place as though his/her hair was on fire, but it was frustrating to get your party members (all doing the “AAAAAAAAAAA! FIRE!” dance simultaneously in different directions) to work together and form some sort of cohesive strategy.  Now, Tri-Ace is well known for their beloved action-based battle systems, and they didn’t give up after this broken mess of a battle system.

A future attempt by Tri-Ace, Valkyrie Profile, which is one of the few games I’d legitimately call an Action-RPG.  It’s most definitely an RPG, but the dungeons are action-packed (for an RPG, anyway) sidescrolling labyrinths, not unlike Majou Densetsu 2: Daimashikyou Galious, if you’ll pardon the obscure reference.  You get the jump on enemies by slashing them with your sword out of battle, freeze them to avoid them, and use your Platforming skills to make your way through these stages, often solving puzzles as you go.  The battle system assigns each of your 4 party members to a button, and they’ll attack when you press their button.  If you coordinate your attacks together properly, you can get experience bonuses, recover your cool down time after a big attack (which you can chain together), and even get enemies to drop items; random drops are not random in this game.  You also fill a gauge with each attack, and when it reaches its top, you can unleash a powerful attack with the character of your choice.  If that attack fills the gauge, you can pick another, chaining all four of them together if done properly.  It’s a fairly complicated system, but learning it, mastering it, and borking it to destroy your enemies is incredibly satisfying.

A soul engraving in process.

It’s just a shame that all of that was thrown to the wind in the sequel: Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria.  Another classic example of a bad game with an interesting story, it adds movement to the equation, and brings everything into the third dimension.  As awesome as it may sound, your characters still move stiffly, and it’s almost impossible to attack an enemy without getting pummeled first, unless you waste some of the party’s collective stamina on a leaping dash to get past the field in which your party gets locked to the ground and beaten mercilessly.  It added the ability to break parts from your enemies, getting you items, but not only is it difficult to target said parts consistently, you only get the items sometimes, and there doesn’t seem to be a pattern to it.  Breaking an enemy’s parts can also get you into Break Mode, which allows you to wail away upon it mercilessly for a short time while your stamina remains infinite.  Again, it’s satisfying, but inconsistent; it seems to happen at random.  There’s a way to make a 3D action-based battle system, and a way not to do it.  When making such a system, do not just have some half-assed, choppy, clunky, glued up mechanics and use the old “it’s an RPG” excuse; if you’re going to put in something action-based, make sure you don’t suck at making action games.

A good example is Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Raidou Kuzunoha vs. the Soulless Army.  They took Devil May Cry and threw it into an RPG.  Battles are fought in little, square “arenas” that resemble the surrounding area.  You can have one or more enemies attacking you at a time, and you can also have one demon out to help you fight.  You’re armed with a sword and a pistol; the former does the heavy damage and the latter stuns enemies, exploits weaknesses, and inflicts status ailments, depending upon the type of bullets in the chamber.  You don’t have super hardcore action controls, but you do run around, block, slash, and shoot, and while it is admittedly a little stiff, there’s a rhythm to it all that makes it work.  Hitting an enemy with a weakness causes it to freeze up (in the non-literal sense) for a moment, so that you can attempt to capture it in a test tube.  Sound familiar?  Yes, following the long line of Megami Tensei game before it, which did the Pokémon thing at least a decade before Pokémon did it, you’re essentially playing a cross between the aforementioned monster collect-a-thon and Devil May Cry, and that’s a very cool thing.  While it is true that Pokémon has changed a great deal from what it used to be, I still enjoy Red, Blue, and Yellow as much as I ever did, and I’m pushing 30 years of age.  We’ll get more into Pokémon later, but for now, I want to tell you about the undisputed monarch of action-based battle systems.

Get it? Because he always says hee ho? Oh, Raiho, you’re such a card.

Rogue Galaxy is the only game to ever have claimed over 400 hours of my life in a single play through and left me wanting more.  Remember how I likened Devil Summoner to Devil May Cry, but with slightly stiffer controls?  Well, this game is missing only the diversity of combos from its analogy.  Outside of battle, you’re running, jumping, climbing trees, and in battle, you’re doing much the same; the controls are identical in both modes of play, and the mechanics are solid.  There are areas where you’ll have to do some Platforming, and you’ll never be frustrated by bad controls; it’s like they had people good at making Action games program the Action part of the game.  Imagine that!  On top of that, you have special attacks that are not unlike Legend of Dragoon’s Additions, except that they use all 4 main buttons.  The only real problem with combat is that sometimes, your party members are stupid and get themselves killed.  They’ll say something to let you know they’re low on health, but only if you have the voices turned on, and if you ever plan on spending more than 5 minutes grinding in the game (hint: you will), you won’t want them on because when you’re walking around, they never shut the hell up, spewing the same “helpful” lines about your next plot point over and over again, like Fi from Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword if her breath were made of acid and iodine, spewing burning agony into the hamburger that was once your face with every word.  That said, this is another classic example of a game with an unimpressive story (Sailor Moon called, it wants its plot back) but gameplay so excellent, I played and loved it for a very long time.  Again, reread this paragraph’s first sentence to see how long.

Combat at its very finest.

Simply put, a good battle system can make an RPG fun to play, even if it has little else of merit.  Likewise, a bad battle system can take an otherwise perfect RPG and make it unplayable.  It’s not the only aspect that matters, nor is it the only gameplay aspect that matters, but it is among the most important.  If you’re going to be getting into countless battles every time you explore the world or a dungeon, and will have to engage in combat in order to defeat the final boss and finish the game, it’s very important that the method of those conflicts be enjoyable; whether that means just passable or dynamic and exciting depends upon the game’s other merits.


Works Cited:

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

Breath of Fire 4. Capcom, Sony Playstation, 04/27/2000.
Chrono Trigger. Squaresoft, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 03/11/1995.
Chrono Cross. Squaresoft, Sony Playstation, 11/18/1999.
Devil May Cry. Capcom, Sony Playstation 2, 08/23/2001.
Dragon Warrior (Dragon Quest; Japan). ChunSoft, Nintendo Entertainment System, 05/27/1986.
Dragon Warrior 2 (Dragon Quest 2: Akuryou no Kamigami; Japan). ChunSoft, Nintendo Entertainment System, 01/26/1987.
Dragon Warrior 7 Dragon Quest 7: Eden no Senshi-tachi; Japan). Heart Beat, Sony Playstation, 8/26/2000.
Final Fantasy 3. Squaresoft, Nintendo Entertainment System, 04/27/1990.
Final Fantasy 4. Squaresoft, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 07/19/1991.
Final Fantasy Mystic Quest (Final Fantasy USA; Japan). Squaresoft, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 10/05/1992.
Grandia. Game Arts, Sega Saturn, 12/18/1997.
Kouryuu Densetsu Vilgust Gaiden. TOSE, Nintendo Entertainment System, 07/30/1993.
Paladin’s Quest (Lennus: Kodai Kikai no Kioku; Japan). Copya Systems, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 11/13/1992.
Lennus 2: Fuuin no Shito. Copya Systems, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 07/26/1996.
Legend of Dragoon. SCEI, Sony Playstation, 12/02/1999.
Zelda 2: Adventure of Link (The Legend of Zelda 2: Link no Bouken; Japan). Nintendo, Nintendo Entertainment System, 02/21/1986.
Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga (Mario & Luigi RPG; Japan). Alphadream Corporation, Nintendo Game Boy Advance, 11/17/2003.
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.
Paper Mario (Mario Story; Japan). Intelligent Systems, Nintendo 64, 08/11/2000.
Phantasy Star 2 (Phantasy Star 2: Kaerazaru Toki no Owari ni; Japan). Sega, Sega Genesis, 3/21/1989.
Phantasy Star 3: Generations of Doom (Toki no Keishousha: Phantasy Star 3; Japan). Sega, Sega Genesis, 04/20/1990.
Phantasy Star 4: End of the Millennium (Phantasy Star: Sennenki no Owari ni; Japan). Sega, Sega Genesis, 12/17/1993.
Pocket Monsters Midori. Game Freak, Nintendo Super Game Boy, 02/27/1996.
Pokémon Red Version (Pocket Monsters Aka; Japan). Game Freak, Nintendo Super Game Boy, 02/27/1996.
Pokémon Blue Version (Pocket Monsters Ao; Japan). Game Freak, Nintendo Super Game Boy, 10/15/1996.
Rogue Galaxy. Level 5, Sony Playstation 2, 12/08/2005.
SaGa Frontier. Squaresoft, Sony Playstation, 07/11/1997.
Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Raidou Kuzunoha vs. the Soulless Army (Devil Summoner: Kuzunoha Raidou tai Chouriki Heidan; Japan). Atlus, Sony Playstation 2, 03/02/2006.
Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne (Shin Megami Tensei 3: Nocturne; Japan). Atlus, Sony Playstation 2, 02/20/2003.
Skies of Arcadia (Eternal Arcadia; Japan). Overworks, Sega Dreamcast, 10/05/2000.
Star Ocean. Tri-Ace, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 07/19/1996.
Suikoden (Genso Suikoden). Konami, Sony Playstation, 12/15/1995.
Suikoden 2 (Genso Suikoden 2). Konami, Sony Playstation, 12/17/1998.
Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars. Squaresoft, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 03/09/1996.
Sweet Home. Capcom, Nintendo Entertainment System, 12/15/1989.
Valkyrie Profile. Tri-Ace, Sony Playstation, 12/22/1999.
Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria. Tri-Ace, Sony Playstation 2, 06/22/2006.


  1. Great stuff MK (or should I say, AK).

    Seeing you mention that PS2 did more to innovate RPGs than FF on the top 10 board, made me want to read this; had no idea it was THAT important!

    • Thanks! I’m honored that you would learn something from me about a Sega game. I really feel that the Phantasy Star series deserves a lot more credit than it gets; a lot of people need a history lesson.

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