Some years back, with a renewal of my Nintendo Power subscription came a Super Mario World game guide. Towards the beginning of it were some interviews with members of the development team. While I can’t quote from it verbatim, it likely being in a box somewhere in the annals of my attic, I distinctly remember a part of it, paraphrased here: We always wanted to have Mario ride a dinosaur, but the technology to do it wasn’t feasibly there until the Super Nintendo.
So where am I going with this? I think that quite a few RPG developers never really intended to have an explorable world map as it appeared in, say, Dragon Quest, or Final Fantasy. Rather, these world maps were sorts of placeholders until console technology received some boosts. What was intended is more along the lines of what appears in the later iterations of the franchises: Final Fantasy X’s actual routes from location to location, or Dragon Quest VIII’s evolving of the out-of-proportion world map into something more realistically proportioned but still explorable.
There are also situations, like those in the Shadow Hearts series, which don’t lend themselves well to these forms of map. Contrary to some people’s complaints, I do feel a location-selection system is appropriate to certain types of game. Travel between continents is generally unwieldy in more realistic systems, and that realism would be damaged by a more friendly mis-proportioned, travelable world map. Similarly, in games with more of a focus on specific, ‘hot-spots,’ like the tactical or strategic sub-genres, a location-selection system would be appropriate.
The important thing is that the map type fit the style of game and serves its gameplay, while still maintaining convenience for the player. A game such as Final Fantasy X is able to provide more consistent artistic style with its routes, while still being able to provide secret areas through visual cues and small puzzles. Its quick travel system is relatively convenient for the player, albeit not implemented in the most sensible manner. In contrast, Tales of Symphonia is able to utilize the older style of world map to good effect. Skies of Arcadia virtually requires its more realistic exploration, while Shadow Hearts, as mentioned, would likely have its setting hurt by a system like either Skies or Symphonia.
No one technique, engine, or system will be a good fit for every type of game. While we may be tempted to complain when the latest game in our favorite series, or the new game we just picked up uses a world map system—or any other system—of which we’re not particularly fond. It may just be that when you think about it, or how the game would actually be with your preferred system, or realize that your problems with it are actually bad decisions by the design team and not really relative of that general system, you’ll end up liking the game—and its map system—a bit more.