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Why Do We Still Have Random Battles?

Trent Seely

There's a good chance that random encounters are the most criticized element of Japanese role-playing games. These unplanned meetings with monsters have been parodied to death, and are viewed by many as being both outdated and an interruption to gameplay. In fact, many JRPGs have chosen to move away from this mechanic in favor of showing all monsters present in every landscape — many, but not all. So, why do we still have random encounters?

Random encounters in video game JRPGs are a remnant of an era in which game design was limited by technology. The designers of the Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy, and Mother didn't make their enemies invisible as an aesthetic choice so much as the primitive consoles and PCs forced their hands. Today's home consoles, PCs, and handhelds, on the other hand, are powerful enough to simultaneously render individual enemies while also displaying a full environment. We've seen a growth in technology, which usually accompanies a change or improvement to genre design elements. Unfortunately, many modern JRPGs, such as Bravely Default and Pokémon X/Y, have continued to utilize this antiquated approach to enemy encounters. To some this isn't a problem as it adheres to genre staples; however, it also could be seen as a missed opportunity.

It's important that we question elements that might not make sense or could inhibit better gameplay. In this case, and in most cases regarding RPGs, the notion that things don't have to make sense because this game takes place in a fantasy world is somewhat flawed rationale. RPG fantasy worlds are based on our understanding of reality. As such, the world is bound to our preexisting knowledge of physics, human interaction, mortality, and motivating forces. It's not logical to say that certain elements of your fantasy role-playing game should mirror real life, while at the same accepting the fact that you can't see the gigantic magenta dragon that is five steps in front of your character.

Again, technological limitations excuse earlier JRPGs for failing to present enemies on-screen. However, we've come a long way and even 16-bit titles like Chrono Trigger allowed you to see what dangers may lie ahead so that you could better prepare yourself or choose to avoid encounters entirely. I'm all for enemy ambushes and combat in which you may not be completely prepared, but having only random encounters in modern JRPGs is indicative of one of two things: (1) an unwillingness to break from genre sensibilities and try something new, or (2) general laziness.

The missed opportunity really shouldn't be understated. While games like Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy XIII, and Tales of Xillia provide some preparation opportunities with their field-based encounters, they also add a sense of realism and occasionally even tension to gameplay. You can see what's up ahead and it affects the way you approach the game. Wouldn't that be an interesting mechanic to incorporate in the main Pokémon series?

Imagine walking through a forest and actually seeing the insect, rodent, and bird Pokémon interact with each other and you. There could be a concentration of bee Pokémon that defend a hive or some bird Pokémon gathering food for their young or materials for their nest. You would then be able to choose which Pokémon to encounter; making "catching 'em all" less of a time suck and more true to the world of Pokémon. If you wanted, you could still train your Pokémon by going after every opponent in sight, but now you would actually have a choice in the matter. We have the technology to make this happen now, but the series is too adverse to change as many fans won't question the status quo.

I'm not saying that every JRPG should aim for realism. In fact, I like that so many games in this genre are willing to be unique and eccentric. It's just odd that so many modern JRPGs still adhere to a mechanic that was born out of technological necessity. We don't need random encounters anymore, and modern JRPGs could be more strategic and immersive if more effort was poured into this aspect of gameplay. It's never going to happen unless we ask for it, though.

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