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The Highs and Lows of the RPG Golden Era in North America

by Michael Henninger

It was a long time in coming, but they have finally made it. With the advent of the Sony/Squaresoft marketing blitz fueling the 1997 release of the revolutionary Final Fantasy VII, console-based RPGs carved out a healthy niche in the North American market, and what began as a solely Japanese pop-culture phenomenon is fast gaining global acceptance. Final Fantasy VII's soaring domestic sales proved what other minor commercial successes like Chrono Trigger, Suikoden and Wild Arms only hinted: RPGs could hang with the big boys of the sports, fighting and adventure genres while garnering the more liberal fan base needed to pay the bills. Finally RPG enthusiasts were ushered out of the dark ages of the 8-16 Bit console generations into a Playstation-driven Golden Era marked by unprecedented numbers of localizations and flourishing mainstream support.

But great change always breeds conflict, and the North American RPG explosion was no exception to that wisdom. Post-SNES Final Fantasy installments, whose evolution, for the purposes of this article, presents the most convenient mode for cross-console comparison until present, are commercial juggernauts generally well regarded by most within the industry; however, they have received mixed reviews from fans and critics alike. Many argue that Square simply utilized the elevated processing and storage capabilities of the Playstation to create a more palatable and expressive brand of Final Fantasy. And it can be easily maintained that 3-D protagonists like Cloud and Squall are much more realistic and human than their super deformed, pixilated counterparts--that no matter how effectively 2-D characters like Kain the dragoon or Locke the treasure hunter capture our imaginations, they simply cannot suspend disbelief like the motion-captured cast of FFVIII can.

On the other side, purists or old-schoolers will argue that recent offerings demonstrate an emphasis of presentation over substance. To them, recent RPG design trends are more concerned with glitzy full-motion video sequences and pre-rendered/polygonal environs than storyline and character development, and Final Fantasy leads the way with a multimillion-dollar budget that yet again exemplifies the dumbing down of a culture enthralled with images. The most radical detractors feel betrayed that Square would violate an almost folk-like, fantasy storytelling tradition and sellout longtime fans to the masses of the so-called MTV generation. After the release of FFVII some even cried foul when it was revealed that Square had hired programmers from third-party giants Enix and Namco to complete their colossal project. Some seemed to question their business ethics, as if a Squaresoft Secret Service was yanking stray programmers off the streets of Tokyo into unmarked limousines. Others saw it as indicative of a domineering company more concerned with turning profits than providing the well-rounded, role-playing experiences that had made them successful in the first place. Squaresoft was all grown up and things just weren't the same.

Do the purists make valid points or are they simply seeing the past through rose-colored glasses? Both sides raise provocative questions, but current debate between the Internet marks on message boards and chat rooms is often emotionally charged and shortsighted. Achieving a more cohesive and meaningful sense of where RPGs have been and where they may be headed requires a more objective analysis of the potential highs and lows of the RPG Golden Era in North America.

It's the Story, Stupid

Most will agree that a good storyline is the life-blood of any console RPG. From the 32-Bit generation consoles onward, vastly bolstered storage capabilities have made it possible for developers to tell more thematically rich, mature stories. Squaresoft, still the most prolific force behind the console RPG industry in Japan, is best known for its thematic narratives of human triumph in the face of extreme diversity. Since 1987, the Final Fantasy series has told its apocalyptic tales while delving into the deeper meanings of love, identity, sacrifice and the very essence of life itself. They are still viewed by many as the apex of what the video game medium can achieve in terms of story quality.

But there are many other games worth mentioning. Xenogears, with its complex, interweaving mythos and powerful theological, philosophical and psychological implications left many fans spellbound. The storyline is an amazing example of how a more advanced system can facilitate more mature and rewarding storytelling. Fans and critics laud Game Arts' Lunar and Grandia RPGs for their more traditional focus on story and character development. They may not innovate the genre in terms of visual presentation, but they exude the charm that many old-schoolers yearn for. It seems that that there is plenty to go around for every RPG fan these days.

The bottom line remains that good storytelling has less to do with megabytes than it does with how writers craft their narratives in more conventional terms of plot/scenario, character, motivation and setting. After all, it is how these aspects are melded into the finished product that have always determined to what degree a story works or doesn't work. If anything, more advanced technological mediums such as the Playstation 2 and GameCube give story/scenario writers more room to tell their tales.

Storage restrictions were once the primary concern of RPG developers who were forced to allocate graphic, story and audio elements more judiciously. Rumors swirled in 95' that Chrono Trigger, one of the largest cartridge RPGs of the 16-Bit era, was forced to jettison a side quest that involved righting the tragic exile of Magus's sister, Schala. A more extreme, concrete example is the watering down of Japan's hard type edition of Final Fantasy IV for the SNES. Due to the more expansive nature of the English language, its North American release suffered from drastically abbreviated text and the elimination of side quests, equipment and character abilities. Space limitations ultimately made for a more artificial role-playing experience by reminding players that their journey to save the day was only as long and thorough as their game cartridge would allow.

That being said, many feel that the storylines and characters featured in the SNES FF's, for example, were crafted with more time, love and care than their Playstation successors. Many hail FFVI, with its large cast of heartfelt characters and classic, storybook-like progression, as the greatest RPG of all time until blue in the face. So has Squaresoft for one become a little careless in the story department in order to rush game releases and please shareholders?

Maybe.

FFVII's conceptual genius notwithstanding, it can be argued that the post-modern epic is flawed in its execution. For all of its plot twists, compelling characters, and beautiful visuals, the greater part of the scenario is spent tailing the elusive Sephiroth, while barebones dialogue and confusing back-story cloud one's motivation for progressing (though, in fairness, the muddled narrative is a desired effect to some extent). The game's Byzantine ending, though a bold and fascinating conversation piece in its own right, is left wanting in the pay-offs and feel-good clarity most fans expected from the series (while gun-toting, transmutating Vincent, and scrappy, mischievous Yuffie are altogether absent, thus feeling like afterthoughts--living, breathing easter eggs that effectively augment the story, but ultimately are never allowed to gravitate from its murky fringes).

Conversely, an RPG like Sega's Skies of Arcadia features a storyline that is more simple and archetypical in premise, but gets played out in wonderfully creative and vibrant ways. Complexity is always welcome, but only if handled properly. A story like FFVII's requires a more effective and mature use of language to tell itself. If anything, perhaps this is proof that the localization process needs be handled with extreme care, especially in light of the lively and emotive--even if occasionally juvenile--FFVI and Chrono Trigger translations achieved by Ted Woolsey in the early to mid-90s.

Death of the Dungeon Crawler?

One can't help but feel that exploration in recent RPGs has in some instances been dummied down. It's true that the dungeons in popular titles like Chrono Cross and the post-SNES Final Fantasy games often play more like interactive paintings than more classic dungeons requiring careful treasure scouting and a well-stocked inventory for successful navigation. In many cases, the days of wondering what lurks around the next corner are gone, and "completing" a dungeon feels less like an achievement. Gamers are now more likely to lose their characters in numbingly detailed 3-D images than wander astray in the catacombs.

That's not to say that Ultimecia's Castle is not an impressive feat of game design void of any challenge or interactivity. The sorceress's cross-dimensional headquarters is grandiose in scale and full of formidable foes and secrets; characterizing FFVIII's final dungeon to the contrary would be unfair. Still, any gamer who has painstakingly mapped their way through Sega's classic RPG standard, Phantasy Star, may feel inclined to scoff at modern dungeon designs. No one will argue their aesthetic appeal and raw, immersive power, but more challenging dungeons have a sort of psychological, survive if you can type of allure sometimes lacking in many of today's overly simple designs. But need we be so polarizing? Can gamers have their cake and eat it too? In some cases, yes...

Xenogears' 3-D rotating, polygon-based dungeon fields may not sparkle like FF's pre-rendered mosaics, but there is a greater sense of perspective and exploration--players feel like they exist inside the environment as opposed to looking at a detached photograph of the scene. Skies of Arcadia brings the player back into the action with some dramatic camera work, and its puzzle-laden dungeons are a welcome return amidst the many no brainers out there. And there are still a few games like Konami's acclaimed Suikoden series that, hitherto, have made use of more traditional, 2-D overhead dungeons. Currently, however, the brunt of new 2-D RPGs have been relegated to Nintendo's Game Boy Advance, which is pleasantly becoming a contemporary stronghold of the old-school RPG. Notwithstanding the success of this powerful, albeit pocket-sized system, one can't help but feel that pixel artistry in the mainstream will continue to go the way of the dodo as newer consoles strive for faster, polygon-crunching speeds.

So What Else Has Actually Changed?

For all the hoopla over recent design trends, surprisingly little has changed. Barring the obvious visual and audio improvements making mouthwatering full-motion videos and booming orchestrations possible, the gameplay offered by the latest crop of console RPGs has been, more often than not, standard fare. FF's real-time battle mechanics, though streamlined, have functioned relatively the same as they have since the SNES editions, that is of course, until the arrival of the immaculate Final Fantasy X, which eschews real-time battles for a less frenetic, but more assured and strategic system. Some critics snubbed the PSone's FF trilogy for what they consider a lack of gameplay and interactivity, but such arguments really don't hold water. Yes, perhaps more should be expected from 32-Bit, flagship RPGs, but to somehow suggest that the series has fallen from grace in terms of player interaction is unfounded criticism. One can easily argue that recent proliferations of minigames and real-time action sequences (e.g. FFVII's motorcycle chase scene, Triple Triad, FFX's blitzball, etc…) alone have heightened the overall level of interaction over previous installments.

Chrono Cross and Xenogears offer refreshing innovations to their respective battle systems, but still nothing earth shattering. The PS2's Kessen uses the DVD-ROM medium to bring an authentic piece of Oriental history to life with its real-time strategy battles and documentary-like production values. The final product is enjoyable enough, but there's nothing in there to dramatically impact the way developers work their magic.

Surprisingly few developers have tried experimenting with mixed modes of play. Why not create an RPG that blends the strategy-based warfare of a Shining Force or Tactics Ogre game with more traditional, turn-based monster encounters? Some have dabbled with such formulas, but most prefer to try and do one thing as well as possible, and it is understandable why applying myriad game engines is repellent to developers. But the possibility for new and exciting gameplay schemas are almost endless, and it is surprising how little has been done to expand this frontier. And for all the quantity-over-quality criticism Square has received in recent years, it seems they (and perhaps Sega) are one of the few mainstream developers who dare push the envelope.

To Cyberspace

With Squaresoft revving up its PlayOnline server and the moderate success of Sega's Phantasy Star Online, console RPGs may have a new and exciting brand of adventuring in store. Again, some purists may consider this yet another threat to RPG fundamentals, but the hallmarks of console RPGs need not be compromised. As long as the focus remains on a strong, central plot/scenario, network gaming has the potential to expand upon the tenets of quality, story driven role-playing through the synergy of online collaboration. Pleasing everyone will remain a delicate balancing act, and developers should resist the temptation of making too many side-quests and easter eggs available to online players alone. It also remains to be seen whether console developers can garner the online following that the PC market has achieved (both cost factors and cross-console compatibility issues remain mysteries in some cases), but nevertheless, a new world of exciting and frightfully addictive possibilities is there.

Only now, having taken a deeper glimpse into the Golden Era of the console RPG in North America, can we see why there is so much room for debate: Both sides are right to some extent, and if you've read this far there probably exists in you a little of the old-schooler and the bright-eyed progressive that fight it out from time to time. The most important thing gamers need remember is that no less than six years ago there was little to argue about. Developers have always produced software of varying quality, but nowadays gamers have relative freedom to choose their favorites rather than desperately lapping down whatever the corporate suits deem lucrative enough to hit western shores. And maybe we can all afford to be a little less objective from time to time. RPGs are a celebration of the imagination--an escape from the drollery of life's patterned institutions and rigid mores--and when we stop indulging our inner childs and become raving super-cynics, much of the magic is lost. There should be enough worlds of adventure to please everyone these days, but only if you give the magic a fighting chance.

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