Lessons from the Classics: Rethinking Magic

Most RPGs use “fire-ice-lightning” or “fire-ice-wind-earth” elemental systems of magic, where fire is strong against ice and vice versa, ice spells freeze/slow enemies, etc. Offhand can you think of any RPG where the first offensive spell you learn is NOT “Fireball” or something similar? It’s disturbingly difficult.

In terms of using magic strategically in these systems, it is usually either a simple matter of “use fire magic against ice monster,” or else guess and check (a boss is weak against lightning for no apparent reason and with no indication, etc.).

Of course fire and ice are easy to understand as powerful forces of magic, but when the same system is used so often it starts to lose the sense of excitement and wonder that magic should have. As a powerful supernatural force, magic should also tie in with the foundations of the game’s world. Why is magic divided into fire and ice instead of star and crystal, plastic and metal, or bone and dirt?

There must be more ways to make magic fresh, original, and strategically interesting… Once again, let’s see how games have accomplished this in the past.

COLORS
I know I mentioned Chrono Cross in the last post, but CC does interesting things here, too. Characters and enemies have clearly indicated innate colors, which at first glance seem to be the typical elements of fire (red), ice (blue), air (green) and earth (yellow).

However, green is actually not only wind but everything green including plants and poison, while yellow includes earth, lightning, and the sun. Black mainly involves gravity for some reason, while white involves meteors and outer space.

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Beeba’s are yellow innate

Enemies are also clearly labeled so that you don’t have to guess what their elemental weakness is (or waste time casting a spell to find out- who has time for that?).

The catch is that, as in many other games with binary magic systems, it’s not necessarily helpful to bring a blue character to fight red enemies. Rather than strategically benefiting you, it just raises the stakes by letting you and the enemy do more damage to each other. In Chrono Cross your characters often just get killed really fast in this situation, so oddly enough it is strategic to avoid bringing characters of the opposite color to boss battles.

Speaking of which…

NON-BINARY ELEMENTAL MAGIC
Instead of Fire and Ice (or Earth and Wind, or Dark and Light) being strong against each other, Saiyuki (PSX) uses five elements- Metal, Fire, Water, Earth, and Tree- which work like an expanded version of rock-paper-scissors. Arranged in a circle, each is strong against the element on one side of it, and weak against the element on the other.

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As a water innate character, Sa Gojo is strong against fire magic and weak against earth magic. His tree magic, on the other hand, would be effective against earth innate enemies and less effective against metal enemies.

These relationships allow you to make decisions that actually give you the upper hand in battle. The challenge of course is that enemies always include an assortment of elements, so its not as simple as pitting your fire characters against a horde of metal enemies.

Categories like metal and tree also allow for some unique spells that diverge from the typical “fireball” and “ice blast.”

ORIGINAL ELEMENTAL CATEGORIES

It’s easy to grasp that fire is powerful and destructive, but I like it when a game sets its world apart with a distinct flavor like the monster summons in “Summoner: Goddess Reborn.” Although magic is basically divided into typical categories like Fire, Ice, and Energy, things get really fun with the types of monsters that can be summoned: Blood, Eye, Sand, and Tree.

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The main character Maia transforms into the Blood Summon

Each has its own strengths and weaknesses, and they allow for some original monster designs. Plus, they fit the game’s mythology about trees and sand, with recurring images of eyes and masks. In other words, the unique conceptualization of magic is based upon and develops the game’s worldview.

WEATHER/ENVIRONMENTAL MAGIC
Every now and then an RPG throws in a weather mage or geomancer. In Final Fantasy, most Geomancer spells (including Mog’s dances in FF3) are random and only useful in a handful of situations. Daikaijuu Monogatari II for the SNES, however, has a super effective weather mage who was the star of my party.

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Daikaijuu Monogatari 2’s amazing bow-using weather mage is on the far right.

Weather magic spells usually end up falling into typical categories like lightning and wind, and exist alongside the traditional fire-ice system, but at least they allow for some neat new spells involving nature and animals.

ABSTRACT LOGICAL CATEGORIES
Skyrim strips away the fanciful fiction and categorizes magic by what it does (Alteration, Restoration, Destruction, etc.). It’s a blunt, no-nonsense approach, and ended up a bit dry for me. In that sense, you could say it fits Skyrim’s worldview of “extremely complex but ultimately lifeless, mechanical world”- though I did think the Dragon Shouts were a nice touch that nicely tied into the gameworld.

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Skyrim’s Dragon Shout abilities become available later in the game and involve learning “Words of Power.”

Summoner 2’s Summons and Skyrim’s Dragon Shouts tie together mythology and gameplay in original and exciting ways, but both are essentially extra elements on top of a more standard magic system. What if this originality and vision was applied to a game’s entire conceptualization of magic from the ground up?

OTHER WAYS
Of course, typical magic categories can work if they make sense in the game. Take Borderlands, for example. Fire, electricity, and poison are pretty standard categories, but they make perfect sense in this post-apocalyptic world of destruction, technology and mutation.

But, just for fun, let’s imagine what magic might look like without fire and ice…

What if Chrono Cross’ color magic was taken further? What if Red Magic controlled all red objects, from tomatoes to rubies, while Blue Magic controlled the sky, the sea, and blueberries? A red enemy wearing a yellow shirt might be strong against red with minor defense against yellow. And colors’ effectiveness could be determined by a color wheel in a non-binary system like Saiyuki’s.

Really, any categories could be used as types of magic. Take the flavors, for example. There could be spicy, salty, sweet, and bitter magic, in a world where magical power comes from food.

What about the four seasons? This would probably boil down to cold (winter) versus hot (summer), but it could at least lead to some cool new spells. What would an autumn mage look like, and what spells would she use?

Or, what if magic power was derived from the signs of the Zodiac? A character whose astrological sign is Sagitarius could use magic arrow attacks and summon centaur stampedes, while a Cancer would have snappy claw attacks.

Mages could also control different laws of the physical world- one works with gravity, one with time, another with states of matter, etc… (Of course Time Mages exist in Final Fantasy and other games, but they are usually just there to cast support magic alongside typical fire and ice.)

But what if the states of matter themselves were the source of magic- Solid, Liquid, and Gas magic! I guess Solid Magic would be weak in areas with high temperatures, while liquids would freeze and become ineffective in the cold. There could even be a rare and legendary Plasma Mage!

As always, I’d love to hear about the magic system in your games, tips for games with unique implementations, and the random idea that you’ve just been toying with in your head.

Posted in Action, American, Characters, Console, Game Design, Gamecube, Japanese, RPG, SNES, Western | 13 Comments

PS2 Red Alert

I’m afraid I have a fully functioning means of playing PS2 games… Bye bye, spare time. Magna Carta 2 didn’t seem to work, but I think it may just be the copy I have.

So that means I’m taking recommendations of PS2 games to play. I think I have played pretty much every SNES RPG ever made, and the highlights of PS1, so now it is finally time for me to move onto games released after the year 2000… Someday I will play a modern game (Skyrim is the only PS3 game I’ve ever played so far…).

Also, that MP post was fun and got an amazing number of informative replies, so I think I’ll continue with similar posts about alternative magic systems (instead of fire & ice) and leveling systems. Weee, can’t wait!

But first, Playpublik! I will be playing real life games at Playpublik October 3-5 in Krakow, and in Nottingham, UK from October 25-27 at Game City. Wish me luck and join me if you can! :)

Posted in American, Console, Game Design, General, Japanese, Playstation, RPG, Site-related, SNES, Western | 2 Comments

Lessons from the Classics: MP Alternatives

We’ve all played a game or two (or twenty) with this system: each character has a finite amount of MP used for spells, more powerful ones cost more MP, and if your MP runs out you need items (or “rest”) to replenish it.

I find many implementations pretty tedious (buying/using MP restorative items constantly, or saving all magic for the boss), but preferences aside, its just plain boring when so many games do the same thing.

Now I happen to think there’s still a lot to learn from older games, so let’s look back at some alternatives to the typical MP system and imagine exciting future possibilities. (Let’s just define “magic” and “MP” broadly as “special moves” and the “special points required to use them.”)

USE HP INSTEAD OF MP
You may already know much I love the Paladin’s Quest/Lennus games, where MP doesn’t exist. In these two games, spells cost HP. It’s an exciting twist that changes the dynamics of casting and healing, and I wrote about it in more detail here. Considering it’s the only game I know of to do this, I think there’s still a lot to explore here.

EACH SPELL HAS LIMITED NUMBER OF USES
Rather than bothering with MP, some games just limit the number of times each individual spell can be cast. Final Fantasy 1 and Chrono Cross do this (this was one of the highlights of CC for me, personally).
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Choosing which “element” to use in Chrono Cross- only one shot for each!

In a sense, this goes for any game where items can be used to cast a spell. I always want this to be fun and functional, but for some reason items usually cast weak or “just average” spells and aren’t worth keeping track of. (However, bombs in Dark Chronicle 2 are super useful *wink*).

On this note, I always liked the concept of the “Chemist” class (from Final Fantasy 3/6 and others), who can use items more effectively. That coupled with magic/attack items that actually deal damage would be fun!
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FF’s Chemists can also “Mix” items and get special results.

The Draw system in FF 8 is a weird case where you can infinitely “Draw” the items needed to cast magic. The catch is that you infinitesimally weaken your character each time you use any Magic that is “Junctioned.” I enjoyed this, but nevertheless ending up getting frustrated as I spent hours obsessively trying to Draw Magic. In the end, I think the combination of “limited number of casts” and “infinitely available through cumbersome chore” was not such a good idea.

Fire Emblem KIND of does this… Every physical or magical attack wears down the weapon/spellbook used until it breaks. So, in practice, every attack is a “special” attack (ie limited in number), but at the same time characters generally use the same attacks all the time, so nothing is really “special.” The interesting thing is that “magic” is just another weapon, no different from swords or bows, just with its own pros and cons.
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Battle animations in the SNES and GBA Fire Emblem games are wonderful.

AVAILABLE ON LIMITED OR INFINITE BASIS, BUT IN SPECIAL SITUATIONS ONLY
I’m talking about all the Limit Breaks and Overdrives out there. They become available either when you are low on HP or have filled up a bar by taking enough damage (though Final Fantasy X lets you fill up the bar in various ways, which was neat).

Lufia 2 had an additional interesting twist on this system where the abilities are provided by equipment. That was a really fun additional consideration when equipping armor and weapons.
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When the IP bar (below MP) fills up, you can choose one of the IP techniques of your equipped items.

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The Dagger’s IP Technique!

I loved how in Final Fantasy 9, a certain combination of characters in the party makes some abilities available. I just thought it was so endearing that Steiner could use elemental Magic Swords when Vivi was there! (Unfortunately I never used Steiner…)
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Steiner performs Fire Sword with Vivi’s help.

I think there is a lot more to explore with this “special situation magic”…

What if a character could only use certain spells when their HP was above 90%? Or only when an ally was low on HPーor only when the enemies have over 50% health?! Just imagine!!

GIVE MAGES AN ATTACK THAT DOESN’T USE MP
When it comes to traditional mages, don’t you hate having to choose between a powerful spell that uses up precious MP, or totally worthless physical attacks?

Well, in Romancing Saga 3, mages generally have a relatively effective 1MP attack, but also a -1MP bonus to magic. So you get a free attack that is actually effective.

RESET/REPLENISH AFTER EVERY BATTLE
Now, the only game I know that did this with the “MP” is Romancing Saga: Minstrel Song (though they call it “BP”), where it starts at the same base level and increases throughout each battle. Breath of Fire 4 is similar, in that you start with a minimal base amount of AP that replenishes throughout the battle (but only if the character isn’t being used).

The nice thing about these systems is that you are saved (at least partially) from the tyranny of “Ethers” (cough, Final Fantasy, cough).

Romancing Saga 3 resets HP to the max after every battle, which is a huge relief and allows for consistently challenging enemies. This could be really interesting if also done with MP…

VIA BUTTON COMBINATIONS
It’s standard fare in Action RPGs, obviously, but Final Fantasy 3 also implemented it with Sabin, and Legend of Dragoon used it in a pretty fun way, too.
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You must hit buttons precisely to rack up damage in Legend of Dragoon- but if you succeed, the character yells out the name of the attack with hilarious voice acting!

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You have to memorize Sabin’s combos (what is this, Street Fighter?), but then you can use them to your heart’s content.

For me the memorization of fast-paced buttons to mash kinda clashes with the RPG vibe. I mean when you want action, you want consistent action (not light action spread awkwardly through parts of battle), and when you want RPG, you usually want atmosphere, strategy, planning, and whatnot- not to be suddenly asked to input fast buttons.

OTHER WAYS….?
Now this is a wild fantasy of mine but… what if not only did spells use HP, but HP was shared for the entire party? Different characters contribute different amounts, and their spells use different amounts. They could even KO at different points as it decreases…?!

Or, what if the stage where you fought supplied the MP- a limited amount shared by all characters? Some areas are rich in magic, others barely have a shred!? And what if this “Mana Pool” (still MP, haha) was also shared by ENEMIES?

What if performing special moves involved putting your characters in certain locations relative to enemies in a grid-based fighting game (forming an unbroken “Square of Doom” or “Healing Trapezoid,” for example)? Some kind of Geomancy/Feng Shui-based magic system…??

My fantasies are endless… And you probably have your own, too. I’d love to hear them in the comments section!

Posted in Action, Console, Game Design, Japanese, Lennus, NES, Playstation, RPG, Series, SNES, Western | Tagged , | 14 Comments

From Berlin, With Play〜

Sorry for the lack of posting lately. I moved to Berlin! Now I’m somewhat settled in and am working on the next post, though.

If you are in Europe, I’ll be playing games at Playpublik in Krakow October 3-5. Hope you’ll stop by and play with me!

Also, I completed a game recently- which is rare, ’cause usually I give up around the last dungeon out of not wanting it to end, getting tired of it, or wanting to finish up side quests (or switching computers and losing save files *looks longingly at Breath of Fire IV*)… But some games are so good I just have to finish them. And Romancing SaGa 2 is one. As soon as I finished I actually wanted to replay it with all the knowledge I gained. And there were so many things I missed… like all of the most powerful magic and skills! Whoops!

Coming up next is another experiment with new kinds of posts, looking at a few different games around a theme.

Also starting work on another article (like the “Worldbuilding and Characters” one) but super secret and under wraps for now… heh, heh, heh.

Posted in Console, Game Design, General, Japanese, RPG, Site-related, SNES, Translation | Leave a comment

Ogre Battle/Tactics Series, 1993-2001

There are five games in the “Ogre Battle Saga” series. (Four have been released in English, but there is a mysterious Japan-only fifth that I have never been able to get my hands on…) The main four that I will discuss are “Ogre Battle: March of the Black Queen” (SNES, 1993), “Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together” (SNES, 1995), “Ogre Battle: Person of Lordly Caliber” (N64, 1999), and “Tactics Ogre: The Knight of Lodis” (GBA, 2001).

Each falls into one of two different styles: A) a real-time strategy simulation where groups of characters fight together as units (“Ogre Battle” games), or B) more traditional turn-based combat on a grid where characters act individually (“Tactics Ogre” games).

But they all have a few things in common:
1) Serious tone and themes about “war” and “morality,” with multiple story-lines and endings.
2) A large number of generic characters that evolve over the course of the game based on player’s actions.
3) Strategic combat on large maps where features like terrain, time of day, and weather have an impact.

Worldview: Strategic stewardship of an army in a vast, serious world.
Your actions and decisions feel imbued with moral weight that manifests itself in the your gradually growing and evolving army.

DEAD SERIOUS TONE
The Ogre games feature stories and characters that take themselves very seriously, tackling themes like loyalty and morality with plenty of heavy-handed dialogue. The stories usually focus on characters’ helplessness in the midst of forces beyond their control, and their struggles to do the “right thing” when there is no one right choice. Since most other games have a comic relief character or at least a few jokes here and there, the serious tone in the story and dialogue is somehow refreshing and endearing.

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Dramatic cut-scene with Cybil in “Knights of Lodis”

The serious tone carries over to the realistically-rendered character portraits, which are plain, rarely smiling, and could even be called drab. Again, compared with the colorful and dynamic portraits in most other RPGs, this gives the game a distinct feel of its own.

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No smiling allowed in Zetegenia!

BIG MAPS THAT MATTER
Whether an “Ogre Battle” or “Tactics Ogre” game, the combat system involves large maps where terrain type, element, time of day, and even weather affect the battle.

Characters’ class affects how they move and which type of terrain they are most effective on, while time of day and weather affect which characters and actions are most effective. Items (as well as towns in the case of Ogre Battle) are hidden around every stage, encouraging exploration and making mobility an important factor.

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When units get near each other they have to “fight it out”!

With all the factors involved, every stage is different in terms of how each character will fare. Generally you’ll need a variety: flying characters for quick movement, characters that can move quickly on mountain terrain to reach remote locations, and water-type characters to reach islands. (Though I do feel that the water classes rarely get much of a chance to shine in any of the games… sadness).

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I love octopi, but oceans and lakes aren’t always easy to come by…

Generally you can’t just throw out the same powerful characters in every situation, and sometimes you can really get caught in a pickle by environmental factors. In “March of the Black Queen,” a lot of this is offset by a limited supply of tarot cards that can massively change the course of battle in case of emergency.

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In the unique tarot card system of March of the Black Queen, you receive a card every time you liberate a city and can use it for devastating effects in battle

STEWARDSHIP OF AN ARMY
What many fans undoubtedly enjoy most is managing the characters and units in their army. For the most part you manage generic characters that can be recruited throughout the game, and early on you will have a lot of the same starting classes (“soldier” for males, and “amazon” for female). But, due to the large number of classes they can change into, in the end you usually have only have one or two characters of the same class, so they still end up feeling one-of-a-kind and special.

New classes can be added to your army in a number of ways throughout the game, and a large part of the joy of the series is in trying to obtain a specific class through a side quest, waiting to see what a lowly soldier will become, or stumbling upon a new creature and trying to recruit it. The games even allow you to recruit enemies in the middle of battle by “persuading” them, with success dependent on the class, alignment (how good/lawful or evil/chaotic they are), and other factors of each character.

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That feeling when you persuade the enemy…

The various classes also affect each other in a number of ways. For example, all the games feature a “beast tamer” class that boosts the power of gryphons, octopi, and other beast-type allies nearby, the same being true for dragon tamers and dragons. Similarly, characters’ element, alignment and class affects the damage dealt to and chance to persuade enemies.

Actually, the way you use characters in battle alters their alignment. Attacking evil or higher level units raises a character’s alignment, while relying on high level characters to kill enemies slowly turns them evil.

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Killing ghosts and other evil characters raises your alignment

This character system makes your army feel connected to and affected by the epic battle going on around you. Your actions and playing style determine the make-up of your army, and as it develops you’ll need to assemble characters into effective groups where they can best use their unique skills. This is the joy of stewardship that has earned such a following for the Ogre Battle Saga series.

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So many units, so little rare items!

Of course, individually equipping and keeping track of 20+ units can border on tedious micro-management, but the games are generally playable with minimal attention to classes and equipment. If you want to fine-tune your army there is plenty of depth and complexity, but taking things as they come generally works fine (except in “Let Us Cling Together”…). Also, most of the games’ systems are not only complex but also somewhat hidden in that you’ll need a FAQ to really see all that the game has to offer.

SUMMARY
Though varying greatly between two gameplay systems and various consoles, the Ogre Battle Saga games focus on the joy of taking stewardship over a large army, which at the same time feels small in the vast and epic worlds and stories that the games create.

On a game-by-game breakdown, I’d say that:

“Ogre Battle: March of the Black Queen” is the roughest around the edges (it’s also the first in the series). A lot of things go unexplained, and the equipment system is bare bones. Still, it has some of my favorite in-battle sprites, I love the tarot card system, and, maybe it’s because it was the first Ogre game for me, or maybe it’s because the bare-bones minimalism is strangely appealing, but March of the Black Queen is probably my favorite Ogre game.

I think “Knights of Lodis” is the stronger Tactics game, but if you like grid-based strategy games you really can’t go wrong with either one. Be warned that “Let Us Cling Together” is incredibly punishing with its perma-death system and tough enemies.

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Let Us Cling Together was remade for the PSP with beautiful character portraits

“Ogre Battle: Person of Lordly Caliber” is the weakest link for me. The battle system is super unbalanced and the graphics are not my cup of tea. Still, I played all the way through and mostly enjoyed it (the game doesn’t totally fly off the rails until the end).

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Painful graphics (IMHO) in Person of Lordly Caliber

I wish I could speak for the elusive “Prince of Zenobia: Let Us Walk on Together So As Not to Lose Our Way” for Neo Geo Pocket- let me know if you have played it! There have also been rumors of another entry in the series for awhile now… Let’s hope they come true someday.

SIDE NOTE: Apparently the title “March of the Black Queen” and other names in the series are references to songs by the British band Queen. Who knew!

Posted in Game Boy Advance, Game Design, Japanese, N64, RPG, Series, SNES | Leave a comment

Romancing SaGa Character Design

Well, well, well, I’m delighted to see how many people liked the Romancing SaGa post. The Gamasutra edition got a lot of retweets and my pageviews suddenly skyrocketed. Seems like coverage of underrated gems and analysis of what makes them fun is a popular topic. So I’m thinking I’ll do a similar post for the Ogre Series (Ogre Battle/Tactics), or Harvest Moon (possibly most prolific series ever??).

Also, I forgot to share the wonderful concept art and character design for Romancing SaGa done by Tomomi Kobayashi.

Here’s my favorites from Romancing SaGa 2, where you play as multiple generations of emperors and choose the class of your emperor as each new generation begins. So any character class you come across could later become your “main character,” the emperor, or just be recruited as one of five party members at any time. Really original and fun (but has never been fully translated into English).

Windy

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Shigen

Some of her drawings are a little too airy and whimsical for me, but I enjoyed these. Check out her work from the other SaGas if you did, too!

Posted in Characters, Console, Game Design, General, Japanese, NES, RPG, Series, Site-related, SNES | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Romancing SaGa Series, 1989-2012

Romancing SaGa is a unique series of Japanese RPGs spanning from 1989 all the way to 2012. It focuses in on the core elements of what makes RPGs fun: exploration and discovery as a world gradually unfolds before you.

(I haven’t completed every SaGa game and am focusing on the ones I know best: Romancing SaGA 1-3 (SNES), Minstrel Song (PS2), and Unlimited Saga (PS2))

These classic “SaGa” elements appear in most of the games:

① Characters learn special moves randomly* in the middle of battle.
② There are no experience points (characters’ abilities improve randomly* after each battle).
③ HP is fully replenished after every battle, but characters have Life Points (LP) that determine how many times they can get KO’d before they are permanently dead.
④ Enemies change to match your level throughout the game.
⑤ Large number of recruitable characters (including a choice of main characters), and a loose story with minimal dialogue.
⑥ Order of events and quests mostly left up to player.

*Not literally random, but a lot of chance is involved.

In short, every battle is new and surprising since enemies match your level and there’s always a chance characters might grow stronger somehow. The game is open-ended enough to feel like you are exploring, but provides enough structure and juicy tidbits to stimulate your imagination and bring the world to life.

LIGHTBULBS & SURPRISE IN EVERY BATTLE
A few key elements make the battle system delightful, setting it apart from the basic JRPG turn-based model.

One is the lightbulbs. Sometimes, especially when facing a difficult enemy, a lightbulb flashes over a characters head and, instead of doing what you instructed them to do, the character learns a new move and performs it on the spot. In early games, characters yell the name of the move in a speech bubble, which, coupled with the rough translations of the 90s, was really endearing. I fell for Romancing SaGa 3 the moment my character suddenly yelled “Big Logs Chop!” and wailed on the enemy with an axe.

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Julius learned “Sweep Down,” a long sword technique! (RS3)

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It’s in Japanese, but he’s casting “Light Ball” (RS2)

The lightbulb flash gives you a burst of adrenaline each time (or dopamine? I don’t know my psychological chemicals. Probably both.) and keeps even random battles fresh and exciting, since, although it happens most often in boss fights or against tough enemies, it can happen at any time. This eases the issue of grinding that plagues many RPGs.

Additionally, when the battle is over, characters may gain a level in their weapon or magic, or gain HP, TP or MP (the games use separate Points for magical and non-magical attacks, which means that all characters have an array of special moves and Points to manage whether they are a fighter or mage).

When a character improves their abilities at the end of battle, he or she also does a little jig (spinning and kicking in the SNES versions, or a character specific victory move in Minstrel Song). This spinning kick of the SNES games was a really nice touch. It’s kind of a random (spin, kick, and freeze in mid-air), but really makes you feel awesome when they yell “HP UP!” Also, each character has their own “kick” sprite (which is actually true for every sprite- no two characters punch or kick alike!). Since every character can technically equip any weapon or magic and perform any skill, their unique set of sprites gives otherwise interchangeable battle skills some personal flair.

EVERY BATTLE IS IMPORTANT IN THE DUNGEON-LONG STRATEGY
The unique take on LP, HP, BP/TP, and MP (I know, its a lot of Ps!) also serves to increase the strategy of battles and the entire dungeon.

Battles can be quite tough, so you generally need some characters need to use special abilities to survive. Simply mashing “Attack, Attack, Attack” won’t work. At the same time, the fact that HP is fully restored in between battles let’s you ignore healing (a pet peeve as you may have guessed from previous posts), and you can begin each battle and its strategy from the same state.

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Fairy has learned two bow techniques (the bow itself is called “Enhanced”) (RS3)

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All of Barbara’s sword abilities (Minstrel Song)

Romancing SaGa games are also the only games I have ever played were KOs don’t require special “Life” magic. The usual healing spell brings characters back, which makes being KO’d strangely inconsequential. As long as a character has LP left it doesn’t matter- they’ll be alive again after the battle, HP and status fully recovered. (Though they do lose LP upon each hit while KO’d, which makes you feel really bad…)

Balancing the use of MP and TP with your remaining LP thus becomes the main focus. Nothing like making it to the boss with just a few LP left and hoping you can spark (ie lightbulb flash) some big new techs to survive! In worst case scenario, enemies can be avoided since they are visible onscreen and only have to be fought if you come in contact with them.

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Beautiful character and monster design of Unlimited Saga… Those tree guys are hard on the LP, though

STORY & WORLD
I love the “SaGa” approach here, which falls somewhere between linear and open-ended. The way it works is that, you can go to any location that you have heard about through the story or dialogue. For example, maybe someone in that first town mentions a neighboring city, while another talks about a mine that has been infested with monsters. These two locations can now be selected on the world-map, while the rest is completely blank.

Depending on what order you do quests and where you decide to go, your path through the world will be quite different. This works because enemies in each dungeon match your level- their sprite tells you the enemy type (demon, blob, undead, etc.), but your level determines whether you face a measly lone zombie, a gang of zombies, or a terrifying lich king.

Each location and quest offers tidbits of story that, pieced together, give you a sense of a larger story and world. Since available quests, recruitable characters, and other features vary by main character, playing through as different characters gives you a different experience of the world.

Dialogue appears in balloons over characters heads, which are quite small in the SNES editions and contain little more than a short sentence. You could call it super minimalist. For me, though, these mysterious tidbits drew me into the world and got my good old Belief Engine going.

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Good old translations (RS3)

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Love the giants (Minstrel Song)

IN A NUTSHELL
SaGa has been praised as open-ended, but it is in fact quite structured. It is a far cry from games like the Elder Scrolls series, where you can literally go anywhere at anytime from the get-go. I always found that pretty lethal to story and fun, since I could just walk away from any person or quest and nothing seemed to matter, while at the same time if I went to the wrong place I would be instantly killed by overpowered enemies.

The SaGa series provides something more like a guided journey that can be completed out of order, continually offering both challenge and discovery.

That is what excites me about the series. Considering that exploring a new world is a key part of what makes RPGs attractive, the SaGa offers some interesting models and approaches to be inspired by.

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Side note: “Romancing SaGa: Minstrel Song” (PS2) has one of the best intro videos, with music by Masayoshi Yamazaki.
AND “Harid’s Theme” from RS3 is one of the most relaxing and wonderful video game tunes I know.

Posted in Game Design, Japanese, RPG, Series, SNES | Leave a comment