The Modern RPG and the Perils of Customization

Imagine this scenario: It's been a grueling battle with Zeromus. Cecil has been hitting Zemus' evil embodiment with the Crystal Sword for what seems like forever. Rydia has used up all of her MP with an array of summons. Rosa's life is dwindling with every turn that Zeromus takes. Edge is hitting the last boss with his katanas after exhausting all elixirs, cure potions, and ethers. The party is down to their final hit points. All hope is lost. One more hit from Zeromus and the party will be wiped out for good. All of a sudden: it's Dragoon Kain's turn. What will he do? Should he jump and try and be in the air so Zeromus can't hit him with a deadly attack? Should he try and quickly hit him with his lance to end it? Instead, he does the unthinkable: Cure 4! Bada Bing! (My best attempt at onomatopoeia). All of the party is restored, Zeromus is dead, and the game is over. Sound impossible? Back then it was...who'd ever heard of a Dragoon with curative abilities? Alas...welcome to the modern RPG.

I'm not going to apologize for my upbringing as an old-school RPG fan. My first experience with the genre was New Year's Eve, 1989. I was eight years old, and my older brother's friend John brought over a game I had never heard of for the brand spanking new Sega Genesis. It was Phantasy Star II: an amalgam of science fiction, turn-based fighting, brilliant graphics, a compelling storyline, and most of all, traditional RPG elements. While the narrative is set in a futuristic era, it never attempts to move away from its distinct characters and their defining attributes. I was introduced to Rolf, the main character, who fights with a sword and is silent through much of the game; Nei, a claw-wielding fighter whose fate ends with dramatic vigor; Rudo, the large gun-carrying mountain of a man who should always be hitting the enemy with all of his might; and Amy who is a doctor and who, you guessed it, is there to cure wounds. We didn't get far enough into the game to meet the other characters who would follow, but even as the ball dropped (and my brother lay asleep), John introduced me to the wonderful world of RPGs.

I began picking up all the RPGs I could. There was Phantasy Star, with its amazingly difficult gameplay, forcing me to stop by my local drugstore and pick up graph paper to map the dungeons. And Final Fantasy I–nothing screams old school like a few character classes to choose from! Of course, there's also the Dragon Warrior series: again, the crucial part of the game lies in the selection of the party as much as the party itself. I loved the genre I had stumbled upon; it was one that would dictate my whole gaming life, and one that has shaped your lives as well.

My love of the genre didn't end with the first generation systems. I adored what followed: Final Fantasy II (IV), Breath of Fire, Lunar, Chrono Trigger, Lufia–while not all of these games kept every element of the old school (Chrono added combination attacks, BoF allowed you turn into a dragon), these series kept pushing the envelope, while maintaining the elements of what made RPGs special to me. Somewhere along the way, and we can argue for different watershed moments of which I'll propose in a second, the formula changed. Parties were no longer limited to a certain amount of magic users, or warriors–everyone could be a powerful hybrid. This leads to some dangerous consequences to storyline, gameplay, and ultimately, to the possible alienation of some of its core audience. I'm not going to ignore a possible bias–after all, this is an editorial–but I am going to point out some of the flaws of the current genre.

I can locate the shift (in America) of the over-customization of characters to a few different games. The first logical place to start is with Final Fantasy III (VI). I'm not going to vilify Squaresoft for its title (in stark contrast, I think VI is one of the best of the series), but it did introduce many characterization issues to the gamer. First, or course, is the use of relics. Instead of having a heavy shield, which only your warrior could equip, or bow and arrow that your archer can use, relics are items, easily swappable to every character. Want to make Locke even quicker? Give him a relic. Want to make Cyan more powerful at magic resistance? Give him a relic. Is Gau just not strong enough? You know the answer. While good in concept, the relic system does have some consequences to it.

Final Fantasy III (VI) does not stop there. For the first time, the Magicite/Esper system was also introduced to the gamer. After a certain moment in the game, each character can equip various magicites (fossilized versions of espers) that grant them spells after fighting battles with them equipped. There are no restrictions to the magicite. Any character (ranging from Setzer to Terra) can learn the most powerful spells in the game. The only real distinction that remains between any character is his or her unique skills: for example, Sabin's Blitz, Celes' Runic, Locke's steal.

Another logical place to start would be perhaps the most famous game of the series (and, perhaps the RPG genre as a whole), Final Fantasy VII. At the height of popularity of the PlayStation, I vividly remember the day I got my hands on Final Fantasy VII (and boy, I wish I bought a few to keep in the plastic to sell on eBay now). The game is famous for many things: the genre's transition from 2-D to 3-D, its amazing (and shocking) storyline, its score, and perhaps, most importantly, its mainstreaming of the genre. There were TV commercials, t-shirts, and I had cousins, who had no idea what an RPG was, rushing to the store to buy the game. Quite simply, Final Fantasy VII (and Square's exclusivity contract with Sony) was so important that it might have been responsible for the success of the PlayStation and the commercial failure of the N64/GameCube in the United States.

While Final Fantasy VII maintained some of the traditional elements of the RPG (turn-based attacks, leveling up, magic points), it pushed the envelope on eliminating even more of the beloved old-school flair. The entire skill set system of VII was built around the use of materia, which ultimately meant that characters were more malleable than ever before. Even characters like Red XIII, who would never be looked upon as a powerful magic user, but mainly as a beastly fighter (think of Frog in Chrono Trigger as a possible analogy) could be responsible for healing, attacking with magic, or even summoning. This move by Squaresoft completely changed the genre and its direction.

A final possibility to talk about is Final Fantasy X. With the PlayStation 2 becoming the dominant console in the world, the first flagship title of the Final Fantasy series would have impact for all successors to it. This entry, which eliminated the world map (further taking out the old school elements) also introduced us to the sphere grid. This innovation was a way for players to choose how to build their characters from scratch. With every level, characters could choose: raise HP, learn a spell, raise strength, etc. Yes, Square Enix did do some things to limit complete characterization like starting people off on different parts of the grid or having a direct path to follow. But, ultimately, an obsessed gamer could acquire almost any skill/attribute they wanted. Without question, Final Fantasy X reified the most popular series' strangehold on the further removal of the old school in RPG.

That brings us to today. Final Fantasy XII has been released, the License Board makes my point even stronger (apparently, not even weapons or armor are safe), and the genre continues to evolve. Before you start flooding my box with email, let me take some time to answer some of your burning questions. I don't hate Square (Square Enix); quite the contrary, in fact, they have produced most of my favorite games of all time. I have singled them out in the same way Morgan Spurlock went after McDonald's in Super-Size Me. Because they (and Final Fantasy in particular) have brought the RPG to the mainstream, they are also most responsible for sales and dictating the future of the genre. Many of their games have gone on to critical success and therefore have indirectly told other game makers, "if you want to be big and famous, make games like us." RPGs have become full of cut scenes, narrative complexity, and customization as a result.

It's also important to note that not every Final Fantasy has been this way after VI. Final Fantasy IX, one of the least celebrated of the franchise, did not ignore some of its core audience. Vivi was a paragon of a black mage, Dagger was the white mage and responsible for all of the curing, while Eiko was the only character who could learn Esuna. Interestingly that title has faded into obscurity. Why? Because even though the game received very positive reviews, the sales of it paled in comparison to Final Fantasy VII or even VIII. Because of this, Square Enix had fulfilled its own prophecy: a return to nostalgia does not translate into sales.

With that said, other titles have responded in positive ways and become large commercial successes. Dragon Quest VIII, for example, was a brilliant return to the first and second generation days. The world map returned in all of its glory and the game allowed Yangus to do the fighting and Jessica to use her magic. Suffice it to say, Dragon Quest VIII is my favorite RPG in at least the last five years.

So what does this all mean and why should I care so much? Because ultimately, the character's attributes are fundamental to the narrative and character development. How odd would it seem if Robo (from Chrono Trigger), a technological object with no spirit, was all of a sudden a more powerful magic-user than Magus? How strange would Nash (from Lunar) be carrying an axe but then casting spells? And, to bring us back to the beginning of my piece, how can a story arc exist if Dragoon Kain, who mostly fought with the dark knights, is responsible for the white magic that cures the party in the climatic battle in Final Fantasy IV?

I'm not going to apologize for my reverence for the old. I'm merely hoping that game makers consider that I'm not alone. If for every Final Fantasy XII, a Dragon Quest VIII could exist, then I would be happy. Until then, come find me on the Wii's Virtual Console.

- John P. Hussey


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