The JRPG Startup Cost

Introduction

Having grown up with JRPGs, it’s somewhat surprising how rarely I play them these days. That desire for a wondrous epic is still there, but pursuing new titles usually results in a feeling of slogging through manufactured bloat. The introductory segments are often filled with painfully-gated progression, overenthusiastic tutorials, and a juvenile narrative. In the limited instances where the opening is great, the overall game-loop tends to sputter out into protracted tedium. In either case, I quickly lose interest.

This general reaction to modern JPRGs must have a lot to do with growing up and having less free time, a lower tolerance for anime tropes, and no emotional attachment to the new series. But hasn’t the genre improved overall? Weren’t the older games just grind-fests burdened with copious amounts of random battles?

To help answer that question, I thought it would be interesting to quantify some of the less subjectives elements of JRPGs, starting with the 4th generation of consoles.

Methodology

My approach was to replay the first 2 hours of the more renowned JRPGs released in North America and measure the amount of time it took to reach various gameplay-milestones in each one. To avoid the more contentious titles occasionally placed under the JRPG umbrealla, I only included games with multiple controllable party members, a turn-based battle system, and a character-driven narrative.

I’d love to see where this was going, but Romancing SaGa 3 never came out in the West.

Despite having played many of these games in the past, I only had a vague recollection of most and attempted to emulate a first-time, completionist experience. I talked to every NPC, entered every building, brought up every menu, and skipped no cutscenes or dialogue. I did, however, increase text-display and walking speeds wherever possible.

My main goal was to measure two elements, Time to Freedom (TTF), and Time to Comfort (TTC). I define Time to Freedom as the first time the player gets to interact with the game in any way beyond simply advancing cutscenes, and Time to Comfort as the amount of time it takes to experience all applicable gameplay-milestones within a 2 hour limit. These two metrics are meant to show how quickly the player can start experimenting with the game, and how long it takes to experience its main mechanics and gain a certain sense of mastery over them. Additionally, I noted each game’s Freedom to Comfort (FTC), defined as the difference between TTC and TTF.

The common gameplay milestones consisted of the following:

  • Mobility – first time the player gains control over their avatar.
  • Save – first time the player is allowed to save their game. If an auto-save feature with an indicator is included, I will attempt to note its first use.
  • Item – first time the player manually obtains a usable item.
  • Rest – first time the player can manually and repeatedly recover all HP/MP/etc., typically by staying at an inn.
  • Combat – first time the player enters an interactive battle.
  • Travel – first time the player gains access to the overworld map or reaches a hub area that can transition to multiple other nodes.
  • Level-Up – first time a character’s statistic increases, typically through leveling up.
  • Dungeon – first time the player enters a geographically-distinct area that focuses on traversal and combat.
  • Ability – first time a character gains a new spell or ability (meant to be used in or out of combat).
  • Gear – first time the player manually obtains an equipment upgrade.
  • Companion – first time the player encounters a character who joins the party and can participate in battles, level up, etc. (i.e., not a temporary companion).
  • Boss – first time the player encounters a unique and powerful enemy.

A few other elements such as vehicles and minigames were not included as they were either not common enough or typically appeared in the mid to late stages of a game. In addition, I provided a bit of context for each title, highlighting what made it stand out from other JRPGs, and contributed a bit of analysis on the milestone results.

I was quite conflicted over not including Breath of Fire II, but its most unique element — the Shaman-merging mechanic — wasn’t a present until later on in the game.

Finally, I am limiting each console cycle to 10 games and sorting them chronologically by original release date (usually in Japan) in order to give a better idea of the genre’s progression.

Final Fantasy IV – July 19, 1991

My first JRPG and a landmark title in the genre. It injected a bit of dynamism to turn-based combat via the Active Time Battle system, and managed to take a narrative step forward by creating plot-related story arcs for all party members. It’s also known for having a fairly brisk pace, partially credited to lots of content being cut.

Cecil’s Dark Wave ability that damages all enemies at the cost of draining Cecil’s own HP was only available in the Japanese version.

Further cuts were made to the North American release removing various items and characters skills, but even this eroded version was ultimately deemed as too complex by SquareSoft. Consequently this led to the development of the much-maligned Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest in order to introduce JRPGs to the West. Mystic Quest fared even worse, but eventually Final Fantasy IV gained enough popularity to warrant various re-releases, a remake, and even an episodic (albeit not as fondly received) sequel.

I remembered Final Fantasy IV’s intro as rather long, but apparently it didn’t even last 5 minutes. Part of this might be the fact that dialogue popups (unusually located at the top of the screen, not the bottom) appear without any delays, and multiple characters’ lines can be displayed in the box at one time. The TTF is still a bit deceptive as once the mobility milestone is hit, the player has to sit through various cutscenes and expository sequences before being deposited on the overworld map.

FF IV was one of the few games to use third-person narration.

Once the restraints are fully off, FFIV hits an excellent pace in terms of both gameplay and narrative. Random battles are fairly frequent, but running away is always an option — with the additional risk of losing money — and level-grinding is not required. Party members come and go very quickly, and the plot continuously unfolds at each turn.

The only outlier is the first equipment upgrade that comes unusually late as the weapons/armour shop is closed in the first town, and there’s no gear to collect in the first dungeon.

FTC: 32:43

Miscellaneous Points:

  • Hidden paths and out-of-the-way areas on the borders of maps have always been present in JRPGs, but they reached a crescendo in FF IV. They continued to pop up in JRPGs afterwards, but never quite to the same extent.

It always pays off to check behind waterfalls.

  • As with all Final Fantasy games, the battle system is more complex than most other JRPGS: back/front row formations affect damage and defense attributes as well as weapon efficiency (and are flipped when an enemy group surprise-attacks the party), elemental resistances vary all the way to some attacks actually healing instead of damaging, items not only serve as restoratives and a way buff/debuff but also duplicate spell functionality, spells can be toggled to target all enemies/allies instead of single individuals, character classes come with unique abilities such as stealing items from opponents or temporarily summoning giant monsters, unique reactions are coded into certain enemies such as life-reviving items/spells insta-killing undead creatures, etc.
  • There are no random battles on the world-map when riding in a vehicle or on a Chocobo, speeding up some of the exploration and backtracking.

Lunar: The Silver Star – June 26, 1992

I was a little surprised to see the original Lunar appear so early on the list, but in retrospect it makes sense. By 1991, various “multimedia” heavy games such as Cosmic Fantasy were coming out on Japanese PCs and the CD-ROM² System.

Cinematics were often cropped to (presumably) save on space.

Lunar: TSS was the Mega CD’s flagship JRPG, and its North American publisher, Working Designs, created a port known for a fair amount of changes. Extra humour and pop culture references were sprinkled in, and the packaging itself included various extras to position it as a premium title. The Silver Star was successful enough to turn Lunar into a franchise, spawning a sequel, various spinoffs, and multiple ports and remakes.

Despite the multimedia experience being a large selling point, Lunar: TSS started off fairly quickly, mainly due to its voiced and animated intro playing before the title screen. From there, it took very little time to get some items, a few companions, and go out exploring. Menus and dialogues displayed instantly so there were no unnecessary delays, although movement was a bit tricky as the game auto-pathed whenever the party ran into a collidable obstacle. Keeping a direction pressed down made the party hug the wall and keep going, making it at times difficult to properly line up with interactive elements such as NPCs and treasure chests, especially when they were close together.

Portraits were included for all major characters.

Combat included movement and attack animations so it was a bit slower than its contemporaries, but it didn’t drag on with overly involved spell sequences. Random encounters were truly random in terms of frequency, but the overworld was littered with HP/MP restoring statues so I was never in any real danger.

Lunar: TSS’ only outlier was its first boss battle, which came fairly late into the game. It was also quite difficult and required a bit of grinding as the boss was only susceptible to magic and the protagonist unlocked his spell-potential right before the boss’ dungeon. The remakes of the game changed this up quite a bit, adding more boss battles and altering the narrative-driven party composition.

FTC: 1:51:16

Miscellaneous Points:

  • Extra XP is awarded for completing story segments, which is a nice CRPG-like touch that never makes it to any of the sequels/remakes.
  • Another small CRPG-like element is that each character has their own limited inventory, which includes all the equipment items. This means that restoratives need to be placed here in order to use them in combat.

It’s a good idea to bring some MP restoring items into this battle.

  • The AI command in combat usually makes a character attack the closest enemy, and each character has two toggles for whether AI can also include casting magic and using items. However, it needs to be selected for each character individually once per combat round, so it’s not quite an auto-battle toggle.
  • There’s actually a hidden checkpoint system in the game which I discovered upon dying to the first boss. The game didn’t restart me in the battle, or even the boss’ dungeon, but rather in the town above it, so I’m not sure what governs its behaviour. Either way, it was still a nice, forward-thinking element that became much more prevalent in future games.

Phantasy Star IV: The End of the Millennium – December 17, 1993

Phantasy Star was Sega’s main JRPG for their other console, the Mega Drive, and The End of the Millenium was the final entry in the series. Despite not relying on a CD-ROM for storage, it featured lots of animated characters and enemies, and copious amounts of pixel art stills for its manga-esque cinematic sequences.

These panels appeared one at a time as the dialogue progressed.

The high production values and epic scope did a lot to wash away the negative reception of Phantasy Star III, but it wasn’t enough to keep the series going. The Phantasy Star IP was eventually used again, but this time for a series of real-time, squad-based online games rather than a traditional JRPG.

PS IV’s dialogues were printed out one letter at a time in a text box that was only two lines high, its menus popped up one above the other and all closed individually when dismissed, and much of the environment could be investigated for flavour-text that bogged down a completionist playthrough. Despite all these elements, PS IV was the second fastest game to hit all the milestones, and it could’ve easily taken first spot if I had played the games slightly differently.

The intro was brisk and started the player off in a town with an inn, an item shop, and a short dungeon with a boss at the end. Saving could be done anywhere, and another character joined the cast before the first dungeon was entered.

The first hint of a much higher-tech element to the game.

Combat was filled with animations, but there was no need for movement like in Lunar and all attacks played out very quickly. In addition, there was an option to use “macros” in battles, pre-defined actions for each character that played out automatically.

Once the local problems were dealt with, the overworld map became available and a trek to a nearby optional town provided gear upgrades. Random battles seemed more rare on the overworld map than in dungeons, and they never happened in quick succession. Combined with a quick walking speed, PS IV feels like a very rapid JRPG, and my milestone measurements seemed to back that up.

FTC: 18:38

Miscellaneous Points:

  • The main menu has a “mumbl” option that has a party member speak a line or two about the current goals of the party. This sort in-game reminder for what to do next is common these days, but was quite forward-thinking at the time.
  • In addition to spells, dubbed “techniques,” some characters also possess “skills” that don’t rely on a points system but instead can be used a limited amount of times before resting is required to refill them.

Phantasy Star IV’s art style is probably the darkest and least cartoonish of the bunch.

  • Secret combination attacks are executed when using certain skills/techniques in a single combat round, but these rely on a pretty strict action-order that is often outside the player’s control.
  • Movement has some auto-pathing like in Lunar, but unlike that game, it only activates when bumping against the corners of collidable objects.
  • Unusual for top-down JPRGs of the era, entering buildings tends to show a “zoomed-in” version of their surroundings instead of just a black colour fill.

Final Fantasy VI – April 2, 1994

One of most renowned JPRGs of all time, Final Fantasy VI continues to vie for the top spot in the series and the console generation as as whole. Unlike Lunar and Phantasy Star, Final Fantasy continued to avoid combat animations and pixel art stills for its presentation, instead relying on complex backdrops, larger sprites with a fair amount of custom animations, and all sorts of Mode 7 trickery.

Final Fantasy VI’s famed intro

The complexity of the narrative and gameplay also increased to levels much beyond its contemporaries, with a large cast of characters, loads of optional content, and numerous cinematic set-pieces.

FF VI continued the new trend of starting off with a short dungeon crawl that covers a variety of gameplay elements without overwhelming the player. The first segment introduced movement, combat, saving, leveling up, items (the first one I got was actually a random drop following a battle), and ended with a relatively easy boss fight.

Once the boss was defeated, the game switched to a different playable character, a motif unique to FF VI as the game deemphasized the singular protagonist. The overall experience was also a lot more scripted than other JRPGs as there wasn’t as hard a line between cutscene and freedom; some of the enemies were present on the map and quickly yelled out before attacking, the camera briefly panned to show forces pursuing the player, party members were given short barks in combat to hint at a tactic against the boss, etc.

An example of a combat-cutscene; a rarity in JRPGs.

A party-splitting minigame was up next with a band of Moogles forming three distinct player-groups. Switching between these could be used to cut off slowly moving enemy parties, while the combat itself previewed various weapon attacks as the Moogles were all equipped with a variery of armaments. This sequence also provided an early gear upgrade as I managed to use the Steal ability to obtain a MithrilKnife.

After the starting characters both joined up, the overworld map opened up (with a handy restorative bucket nearby) and the game-proper began.

Just like in the other Final Fantasies, Chocobos can be ridden to avoid combat on the overworld map.

FTC: 28:26

Miscellaneous Points:

  • The intro has the party storming a snowy town in Steampunk mechs. A neat element of this is that various parts of the town are organically inaccessible to the player due to the bulky frame of the mechs.
  • In addition to surprising the enemy or being attacked from the back, FF VI adds two more battle orientations: having the enemy surrounded, and being pincered attacked where each character alternates which direction they’re facing.
  • An “Optimum” option is present on the equip menu that attempts to suit up the current character with the highest stat-boosting gear currently available. Conveniently, this does not include artefacts with custom behaviour that might not include stat boosts; those are segregated into their own “Relic” menu.

Earthbound – August 27, 1994

Nintendo’s own shot at an in-house JRPG was typically atypical. Instead of a vaguely medieval setting with the occasional firearm or spaceship, Earthbound elected for modern-day quirkiness. The game was like a funhouse mirror version of America steeped in references to Western media that were woefully outdated for its target audience, e.g., the Beatles and Blues Brothers, 50’s sci-fi flicks, the Little Rascals, etc.

Kids in the 90’s were all about a Blues Brothers knock-off, apparently.

The premise was a bit of a hard sale, and the odd marketing campaign didn’t seem to help, but eventually Earthbound gained a fan base that — while not the largest — has to be one of most dedicated out there.

Earthbound was the first and only title on the list not to hit all the gameplay milestones within the 2 hour limit. It started off quite briskly, coming in at or below the median for TTF, item and equipment acquisition, combat, leveling up, and gaining a new ability. However, overall progression had a slower pace than its contemporaries.

Text in Earthbound is printed out in small comic book balloons, and while it was generally fun and charming, there was also quite a bit of it. Combat used a lot of printed descriptions as well, and the higher frequency for missing attacks (both by the player and the enemies) extended the average battle duration. Walking speed was also fairly slow, and combined with large maps filled with NPCs, exploration had a bit of a languid feel to it. It was quite fitting for the happy-go-lucky setting, but it did put the game on the slower side of things.

Earthbound’s towns are large enough to make the map quite useful.

Enemies were visible on the map and could be largely avoided — and they even started running away from me once I reached a high enough level — so replaying the game could go much faster if one simply made a beeline for the next plot point. The only caveat here is that I actually had to do some grinding to defeat the second boss; it wasn’t strictly necessary, but I died on my first attempt and didn’t want to rely on luck to continue.

FTC: NA

Miscellaneous Points:

  • There are lots of funky sound effects for combat, menu navigation, etc., that help to give off a quirky vibe.
  • Part of the game’s unique look is due to its cabinet projection for regular maps and a charming little diorama-esque view for indoor locations.
  • Enemies can be surprised by running into them from behind, and they can get a free combat round as well if they pursue and catch up to the protagonist. When a battle is initiated, other enemies that were visible on-screen can also rush in to join the fight before transitioning to the combat screen.

Psychedelic backgrounds where one combats the elderly: welcome to Earthbound.

  • The rolling-metre system in combat only actualizes damage when the HP counter hits its target value. While the metre scrolls quite quickly. making it at best a minor factor, there was at least once occasion where I managed to defeat an opponent following what should’ve been a lethal blow to the protagonist.
  • Following a fight, the protagonist briefly flashes to indicate invincibility. While in this mode combat cannot be initiated, giving enough time to access the menu and prepare for any subsequent battles.

Lunar: Eternal Blue – December 22, 1994

A rarity amongst JRPGs: a direct sequel that retains the same setting and links to the previous game’s events and characters. Eternal Blue also upped the ante on the multimedia content with more cinematics and voiced content, and much like The Silver Star, received various remake-ports. Despite this, it was the last main entry in the series and only received side-story sequels of dubious quality.

In many ways, Lunar: EB was a preview of the next generation’s JRPGs. There was more text — with NPCs often rambling on for a while, and having different things to say a second time around or when the plot advanced — more cinematics, more voice overs, etc., and a lot of it unskipable.

Part of Lunar EB’s lengthy, Indiana Jones like intro.

The game began with a lengthy intro that was more than twice as long as any other game on the list. Things picked up right after, though, with the ability to save and rest, access to the overworld map, random combat, a gear upgrade, and a new companion. This whole segment would’ve gone even faster if it wasn’t for one relatively big problem: loading times. Every instance of combat, which was already on the slower side, was preceded and followed by a noticeable load time. The unusually low success rate for running away from battles exacerbated this issue.

Since the party started off with a fair amount of items, it actually took a while to reach the first dungeon and obtain new ones. Following some more lengthy cinematics and traversal, the first boss appeared leaving only one more milestone on the list: gaining a new ability.

Lucia is not a controllable party member limited by MP, letting her let loose with unique spells each round.

In Lunar: EB, there actually is no automatic unlocking of any new spells. Instead, magic experience points are gained following each battle (which in the North American port are also used to save), and these are used to upgrade individual abilities. I started off by strengthening a few characters’ spells, but refrained from using MXP until I got close to the 2 hour limit. At that point, I focused on upgrading the protagonists abilities, and had just enough points to morph one of the old spells into a new one, and gain a brand new spell as well.

FTC: 1:48:35

Miscellaneous Points:

  • More so than any other JRPG of the era, Lunar: EB’s narrative is character driven. The plot focuses not so much on saving the world as helping out a mysterious character the protagonist encounters while avoiding an NPC that pursues them. The world saving element is still there, but more as a backdrop for the characters’ individual goals.
  • Enemies often assume certain stances in between combat rounds that work as tells for what ability they’ll do when their turn comes up. This adds an extra wrinkle to combat, hinting at which foes should be focused on by the party. e.g., the Sand Sharks do more damage and target an area when their heads are sticking out of the sand, Althena’s Guards block all basic physical damage when their shields are up, etc.

Lunar EB did a much better job of using the platform’s limited palette, particularly with its unusually vertical overworld map.

  • There’s some interesting interactivity between some of enemy groups that add further consideration to combat, e.g., Bandage Boys all perish when their Mummy leader is destroyed, while a pointing Cave Rat will cause all other rats to rush and attack a single character.
  • Unlike the original Lunar, AI is a proper auto-battle toggle that lasts round after round until manually turned off. In addition, the game has three “tactic” slots that work like macros in PS IV and allow the player to assign specific commands to be executed for one round.
  • Party HP/MP appear in a different outline/fill colour based on whether they’re at maximum values, below them, or close to running out.

Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals – February 24, 1995

Neverland is best known for its Rune Factory series, but Lufia II is by far my favourite game from the developer. It also filled a bit of a niche as Dragon Quest titles never made it out to the West during the 4th generation and the two series shared many similarities: the art style, the combat, the almost-episodic nature to the narrative, the gambling minigames, churches being used for saving and curing ailments, the ability to recruit certain monsters into the party, etc.

Recruitable monsters are not obtained via combat but rather found in special locations.

However, Lufia II built on top of those elements with a bit of a kitchen-sink approach, adding a roguelike step-turn system to its Zelda-inspired dungeons, providing equipment that granted unique abilities, and even included an optional but giant randomly-generated maze.

Aside from the last two gameplay milestones, Lufia II was the quickest game to get going. The protagonist walked into a shop, exchanged a few words with a girl, and we were off!

Text was shown in comic book balloons — with characters’ inner thoughts displayed using a different border and notch — but plenty of it could fit in these balloons as the number of lines adjusted to the dialogue itself. The text display speed was also set to fastest by default; the only time I recall ever seeing that in a JRPG. Walking speed was quick as well, and enemies could be seen and often avoided in dungeons (random encounters existed on the overworld map, but didn’t happen too).

The first dungeon was an honest-to-goodness interactive tutorial.

The starting town provided items, equipment, and spells for purchase, as well as an inn. Stepping outside brought me to the overworld map, and an introductory dungeon just to the south granted the first level up. It took a few more towns and dungeons to fight the first boss and gain the first companion, but Lufia II generally progressed at a very fast pace.

FTC: 54:34

Miscellaneous Points:

  • The dungeons are very compartmentalized, and despite a lot of reused mechanics, each room feels like a unique puzzle: drop through the floor in the right place to hit a switch on the floor below, stun an enemy with an arrow to keep it positioned over a trigger that opens the exit, hit the musical chime columns with the right attack to unlock the next room, etc. It’s a lot of complexity, but areas with new mechanics often have notes pinned to the wall that explain the new gameplay.
  • Pressing “X” when highlighting a spell or item brings up a short description along with any special attributes. These sorts of interface niceties are fairly common in Lufia II, e.g., there are options for equipping the strongest gear available removing all items, toggling spell-targeting to all, instantly buying and equipping gear in stores or just purchasing it, etc.
  • Many pieces of equipment provide additional abilities such as elemental attacks and healing. These rely on an IP metre, a third resource for all characters that fills up as they’re damaged.
  • Enemies have a small chance of dropping “rocks,” equipable items that somewhat represent the essence of the creature and provide new IP abilities in addition to significant stat boosts.

Here’s hoping for that Catfish Jewel drop.

  • Recruitable monsters can’t be controlled or healed in combat. However, they do automatically recover after every encounter and level up along with the party. In addition, monsters can be fed items and equipment to “evolve” into a new class, but this takes a long while and filling the evolution metre works best when the monsters is given their requested treat. This changes after most feedings and provides a further use for old weapons and armour (so much so that I rarely had enough gold to purchase all the available spells and gear).

Chrono Trigger – March 11, 1995

SquareSoft and Enix were the two largest JRPG competitors during the 4th generation, so it was quite a boon for SquareSoft to welcome Yuji Horri (Dragon Quest’s creator who was apparently freelancing at the time) and Akira Toriyama (the concept artist for Dragon Quest and creator of Dragon Ball) into the fold. Expectations for the Dream Team‘s project were quite high, but considering Chrono Trigger is often cited as the best JRPG of all time, it’s safe to say they were more than met.

In some ways, Chrono Trigger felt like the streamlined JRPG that FF: Mystic Quest always wanted to be. The party was limited to 3 characters, the overworld map was visually compressed and had no random encounters, equipment was reduced to 4 slots, only restorative and stat-upgrading items were available, and the dungeons tended to be fairly small. Despite this, the game didn’t start railroaded to an excessively linear path.

Instead of entering whole towns, each building has a unique trigger point on the overworld map.

Chrono Trigger’s short opening let the player instantly visit two different towns, rest & save, purchase items and equipment, visit a small forest to fight enemies and level up, and partake in various minigames. To move the plot forward, a new companion was met at the fair, and one optional boss battle later all the gameplay milestones were hit in just under 20 minutes; perhaps the streamlining of the game also helped to remove a lot of common filler?

FTC: 18:28

Miscellaneous Points:

  • Holding the “cancel” button causes the character to run, something that became a common convention for JRPGs.
  • Enemies are not only visible on maps, but also fought there instead of transitioning to a separate screen. Like in Lunar, abilities also include certain specifications for which enemies or party members they can target, but there’s still no manual movement in combat so it plays out at a quick pace.
  • Enemies don’t just stand or randomly wander around the environment: some can be caught sleeping, others hide in bushes and won’t appear unless their sanctuary is investigated, while others still are busy playing games or patrolling a specific area.

The two Blue Imps will happily ignore you and continue kicking around the Roly unless you get too close.

  • Items are can be hidden in pots or other environmental objects, but these are usually accompanied by a sparkle effect that makes their presence quite obvious.
  • Text boxes are not modal so it’s possible to simply walk away from talking NPCs instead of clicking through their whole speech. The text box can also be toggled on the fly to either appear at the top or bottom of the screen.

One of the various perspective-backdrops that helped to set the stage for unique plot sequences.

  • Special combination attacks are selected from the menu when all the necessary characters are able to act. This removes the guessing work in discovering them like in PS IV, and prevents them from not working due to timing issues.
  • Chrono Trigger dubbed the concept of a New Game+ which was required to obtain all of the game’s various endings.

Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars – March 9, 1996

Despite the Mother series’ relative success, Nintendo reached out to SquareSoft to make a JRPG starring their flagship mascot (perhaps wanting to avoid further conflict with Miyamoto who scoffed at using CG graphics following Donkey Kong Country’s success). The relationship between the two companies soon soured, but Super Mario RPG itself was both a critical and commercial hit, and managed to morph into two individual sub-series for Nintendo.

Just like FF VI, Super Mario RPG started off with a short, railroaded dungeon that set up the main premise of the game while letting the player get comfortable with basic combat and exploration. A few tutorials then followed introducing resting, saving, items, and overworld exploration; further milestones were a bit more spread out.

Princess Peach provides a helpful hint during the first boss battle.

Perhaps wanting to avoid overwhelming newcomers to the genre, all numerics in Super Mario RPG were on the smaller side. This included max character levels, which were restricted to 30 rather than the more typical 99. This meant that leveling up, and by extension gaining new abilities, was a bit more spread out. Despite this, Super Mario RPG still hit all its milestones in well under 45 minutes.

FTC: 38:52

Miscellaneous Points:

  • There’s a lot of charm and humour in the game, including Mario being the silent protagonist who pantomimes events via custom animations and temporary transformations into enemies to get his point across.
  • The isometric maps require some rudimentary platforming and make good use of interactive elements common to Mario platformers.
  • Enemies are visible on maps and there’s a lot of scripted behaviour to them: Goombas rush from behind bushes to ambush the player, Koopa Paratroopas fly around with a kidnapped Toad, K-9s swarm the screen for easy dispatching when a Super Star is collected, etc.

Leveling up actually lets player choose an extra bonus to one of three categories: physical prowess, magical prowess, or max HP.

  • The party shares a Flower Points pool for all ability use.
  • Timed button presses allow the player to power up attacks and abilities, and reduce incoming damage. The timing for these isn’t always obvious, but all ability descriptions provide a hint as to when the appropriate button should be pressed.
  • Combat menus are mapped to the four face buttons, creating a slightly more reactive experience when choosing to attack, use abilities, use items, or defend/run away.
  • Enemies typically drop coins when defeated, but occasionally they’ll relinquish an HP-restoring item or provide the attacking character with an extra turn.

One of Super Mario RPG’s many minigames.

Pokémon Yellow – September 12, 1998

Despite its humble roots, Pokémon went on to become the most successful JRPG series of all time. In fact, a whole separate company was spun out to manage the IP, and it’s still hailed as the highest grossing media franchise in the world beating out such juggernauts as Star Wars, Mickey Mouse, Harry Potter, and the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. A trend with the series has always been to split each entry into two slightly different titles, and eventually put out a combined version. That’s what I decided to cover here: Pokémon Yellow, the merging of the original Red/Green releases.

Pokémon started off very quickly, coming in at or below the median for mobility, resting & saving, obtaining an item, combat, traveling, leveling up, gaining a new ability, and having a companion join the party. However, Pokémon didn’t map onto all these milestones as directly as other JPRGs.

Stand by Me was a fairly mature movie to be referencing in a kids’ game!

I considered the first companion to be the first Pokémon I was given. These pocket-monsters can be swapped in and out at will and can’t be equipped with any gear, so they don’t function quite like your typical party member. The protagonist has no equipment either, so I waited until the first stat-boosting badge was obtained before toggling that milestone. The game also lacked typical bosses, so in this category I substituted in the first encounter with a Pokémon Trainer who had multiple creatures to dispatch. However, because their minions are not completely unique and there are so many Pokémon Trainers in the game, it might be more accurate to describe them as minibosses.

It could also be argued that the wilderness areas between towns all constitute individual dungeons. They’re certainly deliberate from a level design point of view, and contain their own groups of Pokémon, Pokémon Trainers, and treasures. The main reason I didn’t count them as dungeons, though, was that much like Super Mario RPG, they served as common transitions between distinct locations rather than being unique destinations in and of themselves.

This proved so addictive that some school boards debated banning all things Pokemon.

The “Gotta catch ’em all!” slogan of Pokémon also led to an interesting dynamic when it came to grinding. An experienced player can easily capture and upgrade the Pokémon most suited for exploiting the weaknesses of the upcoming enemies and bosses. However, a new player or a completionist will spend vast amounts of time trying to encounter, capture, and level up all the available creatures, slowing down overall progression quite a bit.

FTC: 1:53:09

Miscellaneous Points:

  • Despite not being as action oriented as Super Mario RPG, general traversal is still more interesting than in a typical JRPG. One-way ledges make backtracking easier, random battles can be avoided by limited exposure to tall grasses, and careful navigation can skip past Pokémon Trainers who rush forward to fight if the player walks in front of them.
  • Pokémon don’t use MP for their abilities, instead relying on Power Points that work similarly to skills in PS IV. Each ability costs one PP to use, but unlike PS IV, these are usually quite numerous, e.g., 30-40 uses.
  • Each Pokémon is limited to 4 abilities, but can learn many more. When a Pokémon obtains a fifth ability via leveling up or using a TM item, the player can decide to not learn it or replace one of the old abilities with the new one.

I always found the series insistence that I not capture other trainers’ Pokémon quite amusing.

  • At certain level ups — or through the use of special items or trading — Pokémon can evolve into new forms, complete with a new spriteset and a different progression path for statistics and abilities.
  • The Pokémon themselves are well integrated into the game world, often appearing in people’s houses and generally being intertwined with the setting rather than being a standalone element within it.

Conclusion

10 games make for an extremely small sample size, but timing these titles still proved quite eye-opening. I generally suspected that combat, items, and equipment milestones would come first, followed by overworld travel, resting, and saving. Once this initial loop was established — giving the player freedom to upgrade and recover as needed — I figured the next steps would involve delving into a dungeon and fighting the first boss. Some plot exposition would then follow, a new companion would join the group, and the old character(s) would learn a few new tricks in combat.

Things didn’t quite go that way.

Resting & Saving was already an early-game staple, while most titles either began in a dungeon where a boss awaited, or took a long way to build up to those encounters. Acquisition of equipment was something I just flat out got wrong; getting new gear was a lengthy process, often coming in after new abilities were obtained.

This went by surprisingly quickly.

The most shocking aspect of the timing, though, was the TTF itself. I thought that some openings would last up to 30 minutes, but the longest one wasn’t even half of that. In fact, 9 games started off in under 5 minutes, with most only taking a minute or so to get going. Part of the reason for this was an interesting trend to play an opening cinematic before the title screen, or via an attract-mode. These would often set up the setting itself, leaving only character introductions once the game itself began.

7th Saga alleviated the issue of random encounters by providing a minimap radar that could be used to avoid them.

Grinding proved to be mostly a non-issue, at least in the first 2 hours of each game. Even more surprisingly, random encounters themselves were already being diminished. Not only was combat not as obnoxiously frequent as I had feared, many games were either showing enemies on the maps or experimenting with the approach, e.g., the Pokémon Trainers in Pokémon Yellow and the guards aboard Leo’s ship in Lunar: Eternal Blue.

Another unexpected element was the proliferation of minigames. I thought these mostly started appearing 5th generation, but they often popped up in this one as well, e.g., the slots in Lufia II, the carnival games in Chrono Trigger, the collection-races of Super Mario RPG, etc.

An ominous minigame at the Millennial Fair.

Considering combat wasn’t quite as unavoidable as some might think, I expect things to slow down a bit in the next console generation. There will be more cinematics, more voice overs, and more text; as odd as it might sound, a game’s script was one of the many things limited by cartridge size. I already have a rough list of which JRPGs to cover next, but feel free to let me know if you have any suggestions!

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10 Ways in Which Sonic the Hedgehog Wasn’t About Speed

When Sonic the Hedgehog was first released, the game was marketed as a speedy anti-Mario. Instead of slowly plodding through small, geometric levels, Sonic blazed up and down rolling hills in large, open areas.

Even the title screen stuck around for only a few seconds — perfectly timed to fade out as the music ended — as if telling the player to get on with it.

Speed wasn’t just a shallow thrill either as the game did a great job of encouraging players to move forward:

The horizontal spring provides an instant speed boost to rocket up the ramp and onto a floating platform with some rings and powerup monitors.

Building up velocity and pressing down allows Sonic to roll up into a destructive ball and bust through a wall with various rewards on the other side.

Jumping onto certain islands floating in lava causes them to dip and catch on fire on the left side, forcing the player to keep moving forward.

The upcoming Sonic Mania seems to be embracing this speed element, even adding a new move to Sonic’s repertoire: the drop-dash. It might prove fairly useful too — the old Sonic always had a bit of a slow acceleration curve — but I hope the back-to-roots approach also pays homage to the original’s precision traversal, improvisational maneuvering, and optional exploration.

In other words, the slower-paced elements of Sonic.

I’m not sure if pinball was a big influence on the inaugural title (beyond the bumper-themed Spring Yard Zone), but it’s an apt comparison. Sonic’s gameplay mimicked both the thrilling momentum of rocketing around a board’s playfield, and the precise, nail-biting navigation through its clustered obstacles.

In an interview with Game Developer magazine, Hirokazu Yasuhara, the chief level designer for Sonic the Hedgehog, elucidated on his design philosophy. What struck me in particular was his description of creating smaller-scale challenges:

…A more short-distance goal, meanwhile, would be if you’re in a baseball game; your goal is to get on base, and there are any number of simple, linear ways to achieve that goal. An example of a middle-distance goal would be if you run into a bridge in the forest that you can’t gain access to — something I do a lot in games. Maybe you have to do a sequence of jumps to reach it, but it’s visible, at least…

These sorts of short and medium distance goals are a constant source of interruptions to the player, but they also create gameplay variety and change up the overall pace. The original Sonic the Hedgehog is largely remembered for its speed and attitude, but it also contained numerous elements designed to slow down the player and create these mini-challenges.

1). Teases & Secrets

As the quote above alludes to, one of the best ways to make the player stop and consider their surroundings is to tease them with things just outside of their reach. Sonic’s levels are quite big and their intertwining paths linked by speed-ramps, automatically moving platforms, vertical springs, and all sorts of other gadgets that facilitate traversal. Changing “lanes” in Sonic is fairly common, whether on purpose or just by going with the flow, and this teaches players that there are extras to collect if they don’t just run directly to the end of the level.

Simply dashing through the maps showcases plenty of alternative routes and difficult-to-reach locations.

Some of these extras are also fairly tricky to reach, especially the ones that require exploratory platforming or moving through hidden paths.

When I originally discovered hidden paths in the game, I obsessively checked all the walls to see if they were collidable or if they’d lead me to secret goodies.

The incentive for extra collectibles is fairly consistent throughout the game. The more rings the player possesses, the easier it is to absorb a hit, and extra shields and temporary invincibility powerups provide further protection. Collecting enough rings also grants extra lives, and a chance to enter the special stage.

2). Special Stages

In these minigames, Sonic is always in his ball mode and the stage slowly rotates around him. It’s a constant fight against the tide as Sonic’s mobility is severely diminished, and getting to the Chaos Emerald involves patiently navigating to its cage.

A full map of the special stage courtesy of soniczone0.com.

Once discovered, Sonic must press against the individual diamonds that surround the Emerald in order to gradually change their colours. In Breakout fashion, once the all the colours are cycled down, the diamonds disappear and open a path to the prize inside. Obtaining all the Chaos Emeralds actually alters the game’s ending, so there’s a concrete incentive for collecting them throughout the game.

Special stages also allow the player to collect extra rings and points in order to gain additional lives and continues.

3). Unique Enemies

Most of the enemies in the game die after a single jump/spin attack, and the collision never slows Sonic down. However, a few of them contain unique properties seemingly designed to make the player pause, or even backtrack to a safer spot.

The Orbinaut, often found in tight corridors, is surrounded by four spiked balls that make it difficult to hit without also harming Sonic. However, the enemy’s main attack is to slowly lob its protective spheres straight ahead, gradually leaving it more and more exposed.

Bombs can’t be hit themselves, but they initiate a self-destruct sequence whenever Sonic gets close. If clustered together, Sonic’s safest bet is to trigger them and retreat until the bombs clear themselves out.

4). Timed Hazards

Unlike enemies, hazards can never be defeated and their timing isn’t always synced up with a straightforward run-through of a level.

While it’s possible to hastily maneuver past various hazards, some will inevitably require careful navigation in order to overcome them.

Much to the chagrin of speedrunners, parkouring through these obstacles is not always an option. Sonic has a limited moveset, lacking wall-jumps, dashes, gliding, etc., so often the only way to get through unscathed is to simply wait for the right opening.

5). Momentum Modifiers

In addition to obstacles that are dangerous to touch, the game also contains various elements that slow down, stop, or even invert Sonic’s momentum.

Bumpers send Sonic careening away, water slows down all movement, automated fans can completely cancel out Sonic’s velocity, and conveyors make navigation that much trickier.

6). Traversal Objects

The most common traversal objects are automatically moving platforms that allow Sonic to get to an area he otherwise wouldn’t be able to reach. These are essentially “always on,” but their scripted nature means that when the player gets to them, the object might be somewhere else, or in an inactive state, requiring a short wait for it to become available. In addition, the actual process of using these objects is usually slower than Sonic’s regular running and jumping speed.

Certain doors and bridges also follow an automated schedule.

Player-activated objects exist as well, requiring various types of actions to manually initiate.

Rickety bridges lower when hit from underneath, while seesaws can catapult Sonic high up if he properly uses the weightof the spiked balls.

7). Switches

Not all traversal objects are automatic or activated directly, which is where switches come in. Located on the floors of various zones, these allow Sonic to lower bridges, open doorways, and generally create new traversal paths. Switches rarely affect anything off-screen so they don’t cause much confusion or backtracking, but they do require the player to slow down and execute an extra step before moving on.

Hitting this switch reverses the direction of the rotating cylinder, allowing Sonic to enter it and be deposited on the right path instead of being dropped down into the gauntlet below.

8). Movable Blocks

Exclusive to Marble Zone, blocks are unique in that they’re the only objects that can be slowly maneuvered around the map by Sonic. This results in a variety block-based gameplay that’s mandatory to completing the zone.

While individual blocks exist in other zones, only in this area is the player required to move them to keep switches pressed down, use them as platforms to ride lave drifts, or push them aside to open up a new path.

9). Destructibles

The majority of destructible elements in Sonic the Hedgehog come in the form of crumbling platforms that encourage forward movement rather than slowing it. However, there are a few specific exceptions to this.

Unlike the occasional destructible walls that hide secrets, these blocks must be destroyed one at a time in order to proceed.

Once again these objects are only found in Marble Zone, and while they slow Sonic down by providing extra individual barriers, busting through them is also a fun mechanic that’s a bit different from the rest of the game.

10). Boss Arenas

Perhaps the most blunt-force way of preventing Sonic from building up speed is limiting his available real estate. All boss encounters — aside from the one in Labyrinth Zone, which is just a race against the tide — do this by forcing the encounter to take place on a single, non-scrolling screen.

Each boss has a unique attack pattern that needs to be studied and exploited in order to defeat the vile Dr. Robotnik.


While it’s easy to assume that the series evolved past these speed-bumps, the original’s sequels — largely the most beloved Sonic titles — contained them as well. The games were streamlined, providing shorter pauses and more opportunities for building up speed, but they were still filled with crazy gadgets that facilitated movement and exploration, interesting enemies with unique abilities and properties, and lots of secrets that helped the player progress and unlock the ultimate ending(s).

Short and medium distance goals were clearly a guiding element in the design of Sonic the Hedgehog as exemplified by its early concept art.

An excessive focus on speed was probably a major reason for the decline of the Sonic-platformer (at least in terms of gameplay), but the issue was also a bit more nuanced. The problem wasn’t just how much of a backseat other gameplay took to speed, but also how the speed elements themselves were implemented.

Not a Sonic map, but rather a level from Uniracers courtesy of vgmaps.com. It’s what always pops into my head when I try to recall my experience playing Sonic Rush.

In recent Sonic games building velocity was no longer an organic part of a level, but rather its main feature. Maps turned into one-way obstacle courses, lacking in interesting challenges while forcibly rocketing Sonic ahead. The thrill of the speed became routine, and it turned the experience into a somewhat passive and boring rollercoaster ride. While that sort of design methodology can work in some genres — it certainly did with the the lane-runner Sonic Dash — it just doesn’t make for very good platformers, 2D or 3D.

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Trudy’s Website

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Here’s a little teaser we made to accompany the launch of our official Trudy’s Mechanicals website!

And here’s a couple new screenshots and concepts:

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If you think it looks interesting, please sign up for our mailing list!

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From Innsmouth, With Love

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Call of the Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth took a long time to develop. When it was finally released, its insanity mechanic and physics engine were no longer novelties, its visuals looked dated, and its feeble gunplay and frustrating stealth left FPS fans largely dissatisfied. The adventuring elements stood out among the genre, though, and the game did a fantastic job of implementing the Mythos’ bestiary.

The Call of the Cthulhu setting is very much about the unimaginable terrors of the cosmos. Humankind is fairly insignificant against this backdrop, and the notable races and entities range tremendously in motives and capabilities. Although Dark Corners of the Earth has its fair share of grunt enemies, trying to distill all of the Mythos into common FPS foes with movement speeds, line-of-sight ranges, HP values, weapon weaknesses, etc., wouldn’t have been true to the source material.

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The Lost City of Pnakotus is teased from the very beginning.

Thankfully Headfirst Productions didn’t go that route, instead focusing on how to best implement the iconic monstrosities as they appeared in the original stories and Chaosium’s Pen & Paper campaigns. Here are my three favourite examples:

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A Night With the Devil

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Introduction

Diablo is one of the most critically and commercially acclaimed videogame franchises of all time. It has spawned numerous “clones,” and its gameplay conventions have been adapted across multiple genres. The latest entry in the series, Diablo III, boasts the honour of being the fastest selling PC game of all time and the best selling PC game of all time.

So what makes the series so special? Almost to a fault, Diablo games are described as being incredibly addictive. That’s a fairly vague assertion, though, so I figured it’d be interesting to take a closer look at the original game and get a little closer to nailing down its je ne sais quois.

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The one that started it all.

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Trudy is Coming!

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Set in a rich Steampunk universe, Trudy’s Mechanicals is our upcoming turn-based tactics game in development for the PC.

Follow the plight of industrialized warriors as they fight for a spot aboard the floating airship nicknamed Trudy.

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Mistranslated Worlds

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Loose threads and general vagueness are often poor crutches in storytelling. These aspects tend to be weird for the sake of being weird, or serve as token springboards for potential sequels, or — worse yet — are indicative of the creator(s)’s lack of a narrative plan, e.g., Lost.

Mystery is inherently alluring, though, and it can also have a fulfilling payoff. The Souls games are a good example of that.

Each title begins with a seemingly disconnected CG intro, and proceeds to thrust the player into a crumbling world with barely an explanation. There are no lengthy expositions, conquests retold over animated world maps, extensive flashback sequences, etc. Instead, whatever pieces of narrative the player puts together are entirely optional and widely scattered about.

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Who is this Artorias? Probably just some throwaway text to go along with that big wolf boss…

A tib-bit mentioned in passing by an NPC foreshadows a gruesome battlefield encountered later in the game. Flavour text accompanying an item hints at a long-standing dynasty and its wealth. Parts of defaced statues allude to an outcast regal heir.

 

There’s not much of a plot to the player-controlled protagonist, but there’s an incredible sense of depth and history to the setting itself. It’s all very cohesive and consistent, and delivered with understated elegance.

 

That’s something incredibly rare for a brand new series, but the Souls games actually have something of a 20+ year development history.

From Software’s other games such as Eternal Ring, Shadow Tower, Evergrace, Otogi, and King’s Field contain bits of gameplay and ambiance present in the Souls titles: stamina-draining melee attacks, stat-boosting equipment, sporadically dispersed NPCs, non-linear exploration, item durability and crafting, fog-of-war/dynamic lighting, loading screen and item flavour text, highly destructible environments, “soul”-harvesting progression, etc.

All of these previous games experimented with and revised what’s so confidently delivered in Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls, but the series itself also follows in the footsteps of another older title: Wizardry.

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Somewhat famously, the Souls games also seem to borrow a few aesthetics from the Berserk manga.

Wizardry’s arrival and subsequent popularity in Japan is fairly well documented, and King’s Field, From Software’s inaugural release, is said to have been closely inspired by the Western CRPG. The interesting part is that Wizardry’s success seems to have come in part due to a shoddy localization. The only clear example of this I can find is a Wikipedia entry that mentions Blade Cusinart — a silly nod to Cuisinart food processors — evoking an aura of alien mythology.

I assume the results were similar with subsequent Wizardry titles, which contained even more pop culture references, but it’s hard to find any concrete evidence of how these were interpreted in Japan. Perhaps someone else could shine a light on the subject?

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It’s feeding time for Ostrava!

Regardless, it’s still fascinating to think about how a simple misconception could be taken to an extreme. Many of From Software’s titles found a niche audience and followed their own paths instead of borrowing the homogeneous conventions of their peers; what else could we have seen if a misunderstood production memo or marketing bullet-point was left to evolve in a bubble?

In the end the significance of Wizardy’s Japanese localization might be a bit overstated, but its heritage is certainly evident in the Souls games. They’re positively brimming with relics steeped in a strange, foreign history, and greatly contribute to the series’ unique style.

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