by Daniel Lopez

Though it may be a stretch to say that in a traditional, turn-based, random-encounter-based console RPG, enemies are met every fifteen seconds, it isn't too hard to imagine. One of the RPG conventions that has stayed with the genre for years is the system of meeting and fighting enemies, that being of randomly "finding" enemies while walking around(minding your own business), and fighting via a menu in a separate combat screen. This aspect, though it has seen a number of deviants, has remained one of the most unchanged in the history of the console RPG, and if early Dreamcast RPG's are any indication, this aspect will not be changing any time soon.

As any RPG player knows, however, random enemy encounters are annoying. They are irritating. More than anything else, though, if the player has been playing RPG's since at least the SNES' heyday, they know that it doesn't have to be. There are different ways to get around the dated idea of walking around a dungeon map and encountering unseen enemies, and on the way to 128-bit systems with Digital Versatile Disc capacity storage, it would do well for the developers of today's RPG's to remember this.

One way to subvert this bane of RPG players' existence was used in Enix's forgotten SNES RPG, The Seventh Saga. In The Seventh Saga, the developers instated a crystal ball detector--in effect, a radar device. While enemies were still invisible on-screen, they did appear as white "blips" on the radar's screen. With the player's character as a blip in the center of the radar, players could, effectively, "see" his or her enemies, and thus avoid them if the player didn't wish to fight at that time. The system, while innovative and certainly smooth, was not without its faults. When in a dungeon, the player was restricted to the narrow corridors and long walls inside its confines. Enemies, unfortunately, were not. Defying all logic, or perhaps using their supernatural powers, enemies would pass through solid walls, cross bottomless pits and even walk through people--if their location, according to the radar--was correct. This flaw in an otherwise flawless enemy detection system, however, was far from enough to drag it down to the point that it was useless. When in one of those claustrophobic dungeons, part of what gave the game its fun was outmaneuvering the blips according to the map, while navigating the halls of the dungeon. A bit of cat and mouse, it made for some hairy dungeon crawls, and added an element of spontaneity to an otherwise predictable game.

Perhaps meant to keep in theme with the title of the game, in Squaresoft's Chrono Trigger, the enemy encounter system was based upon "triggers". Though the game did not call them that, and few of its fans do, either, there are few better terms to describe how a player meets his or her enemies in the game. While walking around a dungeon map, enemies are visible. If the player wishes to initiate a fight, he or she simply makes contact with the enemy, and a fight breaks out--right there on the spot. In situations like this, it is the contact with the enemy that is the "trigger" or point of encounter that starts the fight. In other situations, an encounter may be triggered by the player's actions--if a door needs opening, and there are two switches by the door, two things are guaranteed: One of the switches opens the door, and at least one of the switches will start a fight. Other times, running over a particular spot(as opposed to walking) can trigger an encounter, along with a number of other activities, all attributed to the player's actions. This system was one of the most admirable, because, not only were enemies visible, they could be avoided at will. Unfortunately, the game's designers had lapses in their application of the system. In certain areas, an enemy may stand exactly where the player needs to go to progress to the next screen. While this is fine for boss encounters, it becomes tedious to fight the same monster in the same spot every time the player wishes to explore a particular part of the game's area. Also, there are areas in the game where enemies are not visible--and no matter where the player steps, he or she is guaranteed a fight. Still, even with its flaws, Chrono Trigger's system of meeting enemies is far beyond most anything seen since.

Beyond most anything seen since, save for another of Square's own titles, Super Mario RPG. This game was notable for a number of reasons, not the least of which was its enemy encounter system. In Super Mario RPG, like Chrono Trigger, enemies are encountered by making contact with them. But Unlike Chrono Trigger, where enemies primarily patrolled certain areas(defending the point of encounter), the player can run, jump, hide, bait and sneak away from his or her enemies. More due to the isometric(and thus, three-dimensional) aspect of Super Mario RPG, it was possible to do all of these things in the game before an actual battle would occur. An admirable innovation on the part of the designers, its own ingenuity was part of the downside to it. When a battle did occur, if the player decided to run, when he or she returned to the regular exploration screen, the player would likely run smack-dab into the very enemy he or she had just run from, and have to suffer the fight again. While the developers had considered this occurrence, the allowance made for it was not quite sufficient. After running, the enemy the player faced would flicker on the exploration screen for a second or two, allowing the player to escape. If the player had been caught between the enemy and a wall, or a corner, or some other area that was difficult to maneuver, though, it would be nearly impossible to escape the enemy before its "intangibility" phase wore off. Although escaping combat proved a daunting task, Super Mario RPG's entire exploration/enemy encounter system stands as one of, if not the best, to date.

Although there have been few examples of RPG's in the age of the CD RPG that have had any kind of system other than that of the random enemy encounter, two PlayStation RPG's have broken from the mold of how enemies are met. The first is Guardian's Crusade. This game actually has a number of innovations that would please a connoisseur of RPG novelties, but its battle system was its most outstanding contribution. All enemies appeared on the map as tadpole(or sperm...)-looking creatures that "swam" around their area. Enemies stronger than the player's character appeared as large, menacing tadpoles, while enemies weaker than the player appeared as timid, cowering tadpoles. According to their strength, the tadpoles would act accordingly upon sight of the player: Large tadpoles would give chase, while smaller ones would run for their lives. If the player ran from a fight, the tadpole would be nowhere to be found when the regular play map reappeared. In fact, the only flaw with this system was the fact that the large tadpoles were much faster than the player's character--but that made outrunning them that much more satisfying.

The other PlayStation RPG that stretched the boundaries of how enemies could be encountered also pushed the definition of how an RPG should play in just about every direction imaginable. The player would enter a tower comprised of one hundred floors, each randomly generated. On those maps, enemies were also randomly selected and placed--but they moved in time with the player. Going back to the "step" system used in much older RPG's, the player could only move one step at a time, without the freedom of movement in a Final Fantasy VII or a Xenogears. As the player took his or her steps, enemies would also move, one block at a time as well. This system was more deliberate than any of the others, and turned the game into more of a chess match than another crawl around a dungeon. The pitfall of this system was the same as its strength; if the player played without considering the enemies' actions, those enemies would be upon him or her in no time, and unless the player was particularly good at fighting, escape was all but a dream.

With all of these systems of the past showing how relatively easy it is to forego the easy path of random enemy encounters, it remains a mystery as to why more developers RPG's don't want to invoke one or more of these systems to try and allay gamers' grievances with the current standards. Perhaps they are too busy working on innovative fighting systems to bother wondering about how the player wants to initiate those fights. Maybe they've already spent the research and development budget on a new way to cast magic, and can't spend any more resources looking into how to keep the player from having to fight every three steps. Or...they may just be too damned proud of the new junctioning system they've come up with. If the technology running the games is going to advance, so too should the ideas driving the games--and if they can't come up with any new ones on their own, developers need only look to the past for inspiration.

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