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The Menu-Based RPG. Iconic for the games that come under it, the way
it changed perspectives on game design, and the impact it had on gaming
culture. It's also a genre that's fallen almost entirely out of favour
with the present gaming scene; all due to two common design features.
The first is grinding, a concept
that - if you're reading this - is most likely known to you. The process
of doing a task over and over until you're in the condition to
progress. It could appear in subtle fashions, but because grinding can
lengthen a 10 hour game into 20 hours, the games of old used it to make
the title worth the high sale price, and the games of today use it to
keep you firmly glued to your screen.
The second is something I call 'Stats as Progression'. It's something
also familiar to RPG players, but it's less commonly discussed. Since
the classic definition of the RPG is based around concepts of pen and
paper games like Dungeons & Dragons, RPG characters have
their abilities quantified. I'm talking about Health Points, Defence,
Agility... Let's just call them your 'Numbers'. As a shorthand for your
character growing stronger, these Numbers increase as you fight and win
battles. The player can feel as though progress is being made, but in
games without an action element, they can remove 'agency' from the
player a little. It's frustrating to have an attack miss, just because a
hidden calculation dictates so.
Combine these two ideas in one game, and you have a system where
progression through the game is dictated by how high your Numbers are.
And to get your Numbers to a level where progression is possible, you
need to grind – most likely through killing enemies. But if this was
just a flat proportion of Numbers Required to Time Playing, the game
wouldn't feel like it's increasing in difficulty. So to combat this, the
time grinding to get to the target Numbers gets progressively longer.
Does this sound like a game you've played before? I'm sure you can
name a few. The thing is, when that's all that there is to a game's
progression, the only aspect of a player that's being challenged is
their patience. In an action-oriented game, to progress requires a
steady increase in skill. Here, the player's skill need never improve.
Honestly, it's the number one reason why I, personally, will stop
playing a game. Grinding is not fun by itself, and if the process isn't
made engaging, or the reward doesn't feel worth the effort, then it's
time to move on to greener pastures.
To avoid a game where winning is simply a matter of having the
biggest Numbers, game designers need to look at what exactly their
barriers to progress are, and how they can give the players more agency.
It's almost like... a puzzle.
Puzzling Punch-Ups Performed on Paper
Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door is my favourite title on
the GameCube. Its aesthetics were top-notch and would be enough for me
to love the game alone, but it was the gameplay that sold me. PM:TTYD
turned combat into a performance, figuratively and literally. To defeat
enemies by just selecting your strongest attack was inefficient, and in
some cases outright impossible – success came to those who mastered the
infamous 'timed hits'.
And it wasn't just about attack execution – many enemies were
designed with a puzzle-solving element. Beyond Mario's skill-set of
stomps and hammers, he gets an entourage of partners who each have their
own special skills. Koops the Koopa Troopa is immune to damage from
spikes. Vivian the Shadow Siren can pull Mario into the ground, avoiding
attacks that would otherwise be unblockable. As your partners are
introduced to you, the fights get more demanding, requiring you to use
your new abilities effectively.
To have battles be 'perfect' puzzles, the abilities of the player
have to be known at all times. This can be a hard thing to incorporate
into the normal RPG style. While this works for Zelda games, where access to every weapon is carefully timed with what dungeons and bosses you'll be fighting; imagine if Pokémon limited the monsters available to you for Gym battles! It would definitely be more challenging, but a lot more restrictive.
Examples off the Beaten Path
titles get around this by making the method of combat puzzle-like,
rather than detailed strategies to defeat specific enemies. Puzzle Quest
immediately comes to mind (though I find it a bad example, as the
computer tends to cheat), but if you take a dip into the esoteric there
are some good examples.
The 2009 DS title Radiant Historia was, in many respects,
generic. The setting, characters and writing were entirely uninteresting
(at times painfully so). However, it had a fascinating battle system.
Enemies you fight hang out on a 3x3 grid, and can be repositioned by
your party's attacks. Consecutive attacks will chain together, so with
some careful planning you can force all foes onto the same panel, taking
heavy damage with every attack.
Baten Kaitos was a beautifully weird GameCube game that
featured cards as your means of attack. While each card had its own
ability, they also came marked with a number; creating 'chains' of cards
with incrementing numbers was vital to dealing good damage. As such,
building your deck of attacks was a very involved and careful process.
Final Fantasy XIII
(forgive me for not using a Nintendo example) was heavily criticised
for being linear, but that meant the game ensured that each fight would
be a worthy challenge – and its battle system (which revolved around
changing team tactics on the fly to keep up with fast and vicious enemy
strategies) made for some of the most intense fights I've played in a
main-series Final Fantasy.
The Paper Mario of the Present
With the release of Paper Mario Sticker Star, fans everywhere fiercely compared it to the lofty heights of Thousand Year Door. Unsurprisingly it doesn't hold up, but not because it's inherently bad... just different.
With the sticker gimmick that Sticker Star is based around,
it takes the idea of battles being puzzles to extremes. The puzzles
outside of battle have direct impact on your progress in battle, and
vice-versa. For those who aren't familiar with the game, Mario's
abilities are taken from an inventory of stickers. Solving puzzles in
the field and attacking in battle uses the same resource, and stickers
This turns Sticker Star
into a giant resource-management puzzle. Every battle forces you to
decide between using your best skills now or later – but hoarding
stickers results in dead weight. Running out will cost you time and
money to replenish your stocks (so failure isn't crippling), but you're
gently encouraged to collect any stickers you find – even if they appear
This is all well and good on paper (har har), but for those expecting
a more tried-and-true RPG experience, the different approach to battles
has proven a little off-putting. Still, this shouldn't dissuade any Paper Mario
sequels – or the Menu-Based RPG genre as a whole – from getting wild
and experimental with their enemy slaying. 'Solving' a battle brings out
a sense of satisfaction wholly different from sweeping digital vistas
or satisfyingly chunky gun feedback.
In a gaming climate where the big-name RPGs are action-oriented, open
world affairs; the Menu-Based RPG is slowly being forgotten. While no
one will be too sad to see rigid, grind-heavy affairs fall by the
wayside, there have been innovative puzzle-like experiences through the
console generations. Who knows, maybe the next big RPG title of 2013
will challenge our minds in unforeseen ways.
A Professor Layton RPG, maybe? Hmm.