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What Happened To Magic?

Chris Snyder

Magic. Since the inception of the RPG, it has arguably represented one of the most instrumental gameplay mechanisms for the genre. It’s burned, frozen, exploded, crushed, blasted, and stampeded with sheep our characters’ enemies more than a few times. Magic has performed as both a subtle aspect of gameplay and as an integral component to a game’s story line. However, magic has too often been unintentionally relegated as a power of second-class strength in the battles provided by RPGs. The strength of sword slashes, shuriken throws, and even tosses of turtle shells have too often outstripped the might of lightning bolts, flames, blizzards, earthquakes, torrential downpours, bursts of holy light, even the summoning of beings from alternate universes.

For the purpose of this editorial, let’s use a broad interpretation of the word “magic” as it is used in RPGs. Be they called techniques, skills, magic, etc., “magic” as it’s used in this editorial will mean any ability a player can utilize that has a finite number of uses absent the use of restorative items/events to temporarily increase said number of uses. That being said, one might imagine that, given that the number of times one can use magic in a game before healing is limited, magic would be a more powerful alternative to attacking enemies than is the “normal attack” that has unlimited uses. Is this not a fair assumption? If scarcity determines the value of resources; then limited magic should be valued much more than the unlimited “attack” script.

In order for magic to be truly worth more than the normal attack for the player of an RPG, however, magic has to consistently inflict more damage than the normal attack. The use of magic thus becomes a privilege that is not to be wasted frivolously. However, attacking abilities are too frequently established as stronger than magic in this regard. I’ll never forget how in Super Mario RPG, Mario’s kicking of an oversized turtle shell was more powerful than Mallow’s summoning of a giant honking star coming down and stomping on enemies. Even in Final Fantasy VI, where magic was such an integral part of the game’s story line, regular attacks were disproportionately stronger than magical ones. And it’s not that magic trumps regular attacks in that it can attack entire groups of enemies while unlimited attacks cannot; the very same games offer similar unlimited methods with which players can attack their enemies. Final Fantasy VI had Sabin’s Blitzes, Edgar’s Tools, and multiple accessories that would allow attacking the enemies multiple times in a single turn. And don’t think that this trend is characteristic only of “old-school” RPGs; Xenosaga Episode 1 is particularly guilty of underpowering magical attacks, as is Tactics Ogre: The Knights of Lodis and Final Fantasy X. The result is displeasing; magic loses its mysticism and allure by becoming a trite, weak force.

To their credit, it does seem as if game creators have attempted to compensate for this. Both Final Fantasy VIII and X’s most powerful summons did obscene amounts of damage, and other ridiculously strong but limited abilities have been offered to the player. However, this offers no better solution; it’s a gigantic step in the opposite direction that only reshapes the original problem. Instead of using the same attack over and over again, now players are using the same spell over and over again. Some sort of middle ground must be found, one that will at least allow for the frequency of use of magic to be the same as that of the use of attacks.

I’m sick of only using curative magics. It’s high time that developers increased the amount of diversity in strategy required of the player to progress through a game. The weakness of magic in RPG belies the mystical connotations the force is supposed to have. However, while attacking magics with limited uses should generally be stronger than the attack script that has unlimited uses, there should still be instances in which regular attacks trump magics to allow for gameplay diversity. As it stands now, however, the opposite is true; attacking magics are rarely used because of their weaknesses relative to the resources they deplete, so attacks are chosen over attacking magics as the primary battle strategy the overwhelming majority of the time.

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