Character Roles vs. Character Customizability

by Howard Kleinman

The words "Old School" are being tossed around a lot between games like Star Ocean: The Second Story and Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete. While I think only the latter is an "Old School" RPG, I think it is important to note what makes a "modern" RPG modern and what makes "Old School" RPGs Old School. I think the answer lays in the character development system.

If I were to pick the first "modern" RPG it would probably Final Fantasy 7, while it was highly linear, it was also the first RPG since the early Wizardry type RPGs that put the characters' statistical development and abilities squarely in the hands of the player. Before FF7, every character had some set abilities, (while FF5 had the Job system, which was heavily customizable, it was never officially released in the US until FF Anthology). While Final Fantasy VI had customizable abilities, there were still "spellcasters" and "fighters." I'm sure that only the most intense customizers would use Zoneseek and Tritoch to turn Sabin or Cyan into master Spellcasters who could use quick to cause 5 ultimas to be cast. Final Fantasy 7 really had very minimal differences between characters, the only character who really was specialized was Aeris, and she would be unavailable by the end of disk one. The idea of character customizability was continued in many other RPGs like Breath of Fire 3 and Star Ocean 2. Modern RPGs also seem to have very linear stories with an insane number of side areas to explore. The main story never dissappears, but it can be effectively ignored for hours on end. Another trend of modern RPGs are the mini-games and puzzle areas. Final Fantasy 7's gold saucer was imitated most obviously in Star Ocean 2's "Fun City." The mini-games like Chocobo Racing, or fishing, or Cooking Master, and the immortal Battle Arena became almost necessary areas for the completion of the games.

I guess the most recently released RPG that would fit into the category of "Old School" would be Lunar: Silver Star Story. Lunar: Silver Star Story is reminscent of Final Fantasy IV and Chrono Trigger. The characters all have very unique abilities and very specific functions within the party. The storyline is the primary focus of the game, and the interactions between characters and NPCs is very important. The primary draw is the fact that you essentially tell the story rather than customize it. Lunar never really falls into bonus areas or character customization. Alex will be a fighter type no matter how you equip him. Mia will always be a spellcaster. The characters stay more true to the nature of their function in the story. The major challenge is dealing with changes in the party and dealing with enemies that have different strengths and weaknesses. If enemies are only weak against magic, then Nash and Mia must be protected, and Alex and Kyle essentially become nearly useless. Losing a certain character in battle can be a major issue. Losing Alex while fighting a Boss can be fatal. Losing Jessica, the healer, at any time can also be deadly. In FF7, any character can cast any spell, and every character has huge attack potential, it's the acquiring of those abilities that becomes the issue, rather than which character has that ability. Once you acquire Master Materia, that ceases to be an issue, FF7 is about collection, Lunar about story telling.

This isn't to say that FF7 or Star Ocean's stories aren't interesting, it is just to say that the story isn't the primary focus. After all, the four fields in Star Ocean do more to build up your characters and to test your abilities with item creation and the skill system more than to be a major part of the story. In Lunar, finding the Dragons is far more frantic and urgent than going through the four fields. Chrono Trigger, which I earlier referred to as Old School, is probably more of a bridging RPG. The non-linear portion of the game is not very old school at all, it is primarily story driven, so the more story you want to uncover, the more optional areas you will explore. However, the characters are undeniably unique and serve their own purpose in the party. No one can deny that Marle will never be a great fighter.

Perhaps it is wrong of both new and old school RPGers to be going against each other in such an angry manner. What really matters is whether or not the game is enjoyable. While I may dislike the futuristic progression of the Final Fantasy series, that doesn't make FF8 a bad game. A good story and good gameplay mean more than whether or not the game is like Final Fantasy IV. But just between you and me, I'm looking forward to Lunar: Eternal Blue Remix a little bit more than I was looking forward to FF8.

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