I’ve been reading quite a lot about nostalgia in regards to older RPG games. The thing about nostalgia is that it’s quite often seen with rose colored glasses. See any recent MMO launch being compared to WoW at launch for a great example.
Still, there is something to be said about older games. XCOM is still one of the best games (if not the best) I have ever played and I played it again a couple years ago with the same dread turning corners. FF6 (or 3 here) is my absolute favorite Final Fantasy. I played that for hundreds of hours over the years. Chrono Trigger and Secret of Mana are right next to it, with the former on my DS and iPhone. Look at today’s RPGs though and most are forgettable. In an age where MMOs rule the RPG market, the single player versions feel like they need to sell games to everyone, when they actually disappoint everyone.
Dragon Age: Origins, Bioware’s first 3D foray into the D&D realm, was met with great reviews, a lot of sales and happy fans. Sure, there were pacing issues but on the whole, the system worked rather well. Dragon Age 2, taking a more action-oriented approach, alienated critics and fans and sold poorly (compared to the first). It was a dumbed down approach, rushed out the gate and made to appeal to a wider audience. Which it didn’t.
FFXII was a drastic break from X. It was practically an MMO in terms of mechanics and that threw a lot of people off. It was a dance rather than a strategy. FFXIII was a joke of “press A to win” with pure MMO roles. The days of everyone attacking, using the proper abilities at the right time seem to be gone. Either you’re a tank (literally taunting the enemy), a healer or some other niche role. There’s no strategy there, the game is cake.
When I look back to the classics very few western games make the cut. Ultima is one, though only the middle of the pack. It was less about numbers and more about choices, which in the end, is exactly what an RPG should be about. Fallout is another one, where the balance between combat and dialogue was perfect. Baldur’s Gate is another example but that’s 100% D&D, not a true IP.
Japanese games though, wow. Grinding comes out of that country but something happened during the 90s to smooth the curve. If I compare The Dark Spire’s encounter rate (1/5 steps) and the need to grind to move on next to Chrono Cross’ open-ended, easy play style there’s a huge difference. Then again, the Dark Spire (or Dragon Quest I guess) is less about the story and more about the fights. The Chrono series has always had a great balance between what’s happening outside and inside of combat. Pacing of it all just seems to make the experience enjoyable. Your choices matter. You had a vested interest in your characters, who all had multiple dimensions of depth.
If you’ve played FF6, try and explain Terra’s character and progression. Then, compare that to Lightning in FF13. Heck, Robo in Chrono Trigger has more exposition than Balthier in FF12 – all without voice overs or cutscenes.
Today’s RPGs are RPGs in title only. In the end, there’s not much difference between the latest Batman game and World of Warcraft – mechanically. You learn a dance, repeat that dance, win the game. Except Batman has a decent story, defined success criteria and a reward for completing something other than yet another mountain to climb.
There’s something to be said for the simple mechanics of older games. I didn’t need a 30 second cutscene to show me how powerful my characters were. Beating a boss 6 times your size, just scraping by, learning a new methods of combat was super rewarding. If I was to play only that I can see how I would get bored at some point, which explains the MMO fatigue to a degree.
The classics are classics for a reason – they are good if not great games. They make you want to come back time and again. The things they have in common are magic and when you find it, you remember it and cherish it. Maybe we have to go through more rocks today to find those diamonds but when we do, boy does it put a smile on my face.