Next Big Article…

Hey, so the regular posts might go on break for a minute while I’m busy… but this is NOT a death knell for the blog! Because what I am busy with is a big article along the lines of the sekaikan one.

I don’t wanna give anything away, but let’s just say I’ve been conducted some exciting Skype interviews with 15 or so people all over the world. Heh, heh, heh.

Also, I wanted to congratulate myself on the 1.5 / 2 year anniversary of the blog – I’ve kept up the post-a-month schedule and scored a cool 10,000 views.

I started out with the “Worldview Analysis” (sekaikan) posts, and then tried the “Lessons From the Classics” posts where I look at how older games deal with on-going RPG issues (leveling, magic, and MP). Those posts seemed really popular (the main source of the 10,000 views), and I’ve run out of good sekaikan games to analyze (except for Harvest Moon 64, my dearest treasure that I’ve been holding off on), so expect more in the future!

There was also a third type of most, kind of like a mix of both, where I look at a single mechanic in a game and why it works. Only one of these so far, about “Support” in Fire Emblem…but that was fun and I’d like to do more.

As always, please recommend any games you think I’d like or that you just like a lot! Thanks for reading.

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Five Fantastic Unknown RPGs

If you like underrated, flawed-yet-classic, diamond-in-the-rough, hidden treasure RPGS then I’ve got some sweet, sweet news for you. I’m always scouring the playfield for imaginative and inventive gems, and these are a few you should know about.

1. Magic PenGel (PSX)
Imagine thisーyou can draw any creature or any THING and it comes to life with unique abilities based on the color, shape, and size of its parts!

If you have an active imagination, like drawing, or are remotely silly, you are sure to have a blast! You gain more colors as you progress so you can gradually make bigger and more elaborate beasts. The catch is that the battle system boils down to a kinda flawed, kinda random rock-paper-scissors deal…but seeing your creatures fight never ceases to delight!
And Magic PenGel does a pretty amazing job of rendering 2D drawings into 3D and then animating them, with lots of options for different types of parts (hard, wiggly, used for walking, etc.).

I can only fantasize about a sequel on a system with even better drawing controls. (Modeling them out of “clay” by hand with a motion sensor system, anyone!?) …WAIT I just found out there IS a sequel! If you have a PS2 please play it for me:

2. Opoona (Wii)
What a cute, awkward and delightful name, perfect for the cute, awkward and delightful main character!

Opoona has a fresh and vibrant world, full of alien landscapes like the blue desert and populated by freaky smiling people reminiscent of Earthbound.
Most impressively, as one Gamefaqs reviewer describes, Opoona incredibly creates its own history of art with different movements and actual art objects that would make amazing art installations in REAL LIFE! All you installation artists out there should play this game NOW!

The battle system is scary and sometimes frustrating, but the characters, enemies, and locales are so cute I didn’t even mind. I did mind the incredibly confusing layouts of towns though, which turned the most minor tasks into mind-boggling chores. But…just look at cute little Opoona, he can’t help it! Neither can his sister Poleena or his brother Copoona!


3. Baiten Katos (Gamecube)
Speaking of flawed battle systems in unique environments with imaginative enemies, try Baiten Katos for Gamecube!

Only this game throws in the most outrageous, laugh-out-loud voice acting I have ever encountered (even more so than Romancing SaGa: Minstrel Song!). The catch is that they speak the same lines every time an action is performed in battle, so if you use three bananas consecutively to heal someone (which is possible and necessary), the same poorly acted line is shouted three times in a row! Seems like a massive oversight, but the game is still a wonderful blast from a world of fantasy.

The character concept art is beautiful and they look awesome in-game, especially when performing cute dances in battle and flying all over with their wings.

4. Paladin’s Quest / Lennus (SNES)
If you have ever read my blog I dare say you already know about this series, but I hereby declare once and for all that everyone must play it! These two games for the SNES have more imagination, freshness, wild color schemes, and freaky deeky worldview than you can shake a GlowBow at (sorry, in-game weapon reference!)!

Many people dislike the first game’s art style, but if detail is your thing, try the second one which pushes SNES graphics to their limits (and now has an English translation). Read more here and here.

5. Fearless Fantasy (PC)
Now, this one is cheating, as I myself haven’t played it, but I am positive from the video and reviews that I would love it. It’s surreal, mysteriously heartwarming, and popular with womenーie a complete shoo-in. I don’t wanna give anything awayーjust watch the video on Steam for yourself!

If you have a PC, please check it out and let me know how it is! I wanna buy a copy just to support the developers even though I can’t play it on my Mac.

If you already know all of these games then you own the keys to my heart and I will wine and dine you next time you’re in Berlin. But for now share your own favorite unknown gems in the comments section below!

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Love on the Battlefield: Fire Emblem’s “Support” System

Fire Emblem is a series of grid-based, turn-based SRPGs, spanning more than 10 titles from NES to Nintendo 3DS. Each has a lot of playable characters, and, as in many games with large casts like Chrono Cross and Romancing Saga, some characters cease to have any involvement in the story after their initial recruitment and end up just being stand-ins during battle. This can be a sad waste of good characters if the player develops an attachment to one that doesn’t get much screen time.

Fire Emblem uses a unique “Support” system to deal with this. It keeps the players engaged with characters of their choosing while also being an important strategic element of the battle system.

If characters spend enough time fighting together, they gain a new battle command to “Support” each other. This initiates a conversation between them that builds their relationship and confers stat bonuses. (In Path of Radiance, the conversations happen back at the “base” between stages, which was nice but lacked the pleasant punch of a cute little chat occurring in the middle of a heated battle.)

These two characters are ready for a Support conversation!

Characters can only support certain other characters, and each pairing has three potential conversations before it is maxed out at “A” Level. Since each character can only have five conversations total, they will only be able to reach the maximum Support level with one other character.

Screen Shot 2014-12-28 at 4.35.34 PM
Characters reach “A” Level after three support conversations together.

The Support system develops characters in a way that is optional and unobtrusive, and for people who love characters is a real treat. You can invest time and attention in your favorite characters to give them the extra screen time they deserve.

Unexpected backstory often comes up in Support conversations.

At the same, building character Support is a matter of strategyーcharacters need to spend a certain amount of time together in battle in order to build up support levels, so you have to consider when and where to deploy them (they must be in adjacent spaces for a certain number of turns in most games, or simply be deployed in the same battle in others).

Support also benefits from Fire Emblem’s characteristic writing style. It is cartoonish and playful with lots of comical metaphors, made-up words, and vocabulary you haven’t seen since Language Arts class in middle school. Sinister enemies declare that you can’t escape them in your “leafy playpen” (ie. the woods), and characters use insults like “Dastard!” and “Dog breath!” It’s especially funny when characters suddenly have a picnic or discuss a painting through Support in the middle of an otherwise dire battle situation.

If I recall correctly from 8th grade, “mien” is your appearance.

Also, many of the conversations are at least vaguely romantic, making it one of the first and only series I’ve played that allows massively same-sex match-matching (each pairing even gets a unique ending script about their lives together in Blazing Sword for GBA). One exception is Geneology of the Holy War (SNES), where characters can only be paired with the opposite sexーbut then you get to play as their children in the next generation, which is pretty neat.

What’s makes Support so effective is that character development takes place in the field where all the strategic action occurs rather than in a separate world of cutscenes between stages. Furthermore, different characters provide different types of Support stat boosts, so there’s plenty to consider with the match-making. This combination of strategy and story makes characters and their relationships feel real and meaningful within the world of the game.

Screen Shot 2014-12-28 at 4.37.21 PM

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Banner Saga and More On Leveling

Thanks to a suggestion in response to the last post, I bought and played Banner Saga, and it was a blast. It lets you lose battles and still keep playing, so each battle is able to be a real toss-up. The only punishment is that characters might permanently die (OK that’s kind of a major punishment…) and you gain less “Reknown.” (“Renkown” is used both to buy new items and to upgrade characters in a delightful twist on currency).

And, if you lose too many battles along the way the final battle might be nearly impossible (took many attempts before finally winning by the skin of my teeth). Speaking of battles, they are limited in number, so level grinding is impossible (and once you reach the last battle there are no more opportunities to get stronger, which throws salt on its wounding difficulty).

Now that may not sound like a glowing recommendation, but I played through the whole game in two sittings because it was so fun. I thought it nailed the worldview of “struggling to survive in a harsh, cold climate.” Winning some battles, losing some, suddenly losing a character, and struggling onward no matter what, hoping you can survive the punishing finale… It’s like a brutal, majestic, orchestral version of Oregon Trail.

Feeling tiny in a big cold world in Banner Saga

Also, I forgot to mention an important game in the leveling post- Chrono Trigger! The revolutionary thing it did was make all characters receive experience whether they are in the active party or not. In other RPGs, I don’t like having to worry about which characters are in the group, lest they get too far ahead or behind and then I have to grind to catch old characters up to speed (another source of grinding that I forgot to mention).

Anyway, thanks for all the feedback and sharing of the last post. I feel so viral *blush and swoon*.

In the comments here, on Gamasutra, and on Reddit, many people mentioned that it can actually be fun to grind, and also that they enjoy static enemy levels (as opposed to the level matching approach I described). I guess it goes to show that there are all kinds of play styles and preferences out there.

All we can really do is respect and appreciate all the different kinds of fun, instead of declaring that one play style is the “real” or “best” way. More than anything I hope my posts help people to imagine and explore other ways to playーand hopefully discover something new that they find really fun!

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Quit the Grind: Other Ways to “Level”

In many RPGs you reach a point when battles are neither novel nor challenging, when you’re just going through the motions for gold or experienceーalso known as grinding. It can kill any momentum the game had going, and it turns play into work.

The problem is that grinding is hard to avoid in the standard RPG formula where each battle pushes you closer to the big “level up.” You’re inherently rewarded for grinding, and sometimes forced to by sudden jumps in difficulty.

Many classic RPGs have explored alternatives here, tooーlet’s see how they handled “leveling up.”

This is the most simple solution- you can’t grind if there aren’t any more enemies!

This is used by many Strategy RPGs (Fire Emblem, Front Mission, etc.) that they are divided into stages with a set numbers of enemies. This of course requires careful planning by developers to make sure the player doesn’t get stuck somewhere at a low level. Many offset this danger by making experience gains relativeーkilling a lower level enemy might get you only one experience point, while a powerful enemy sends your EXP skyrocketing. This keeps characters around an average level throughout the game.

Battle in Front Mission for SNES. Great character portraits by Yoshitaka Amano and gritty atmosphere.

This way the player can keeps pushing forward without the distraction of grinding, which has always been one of my favorite things about SRPGs compared to RPGs. You never “forget where you were,” so the story is easier to follow and enjoy.

Sometimes you have to grind just to survive sudden jumps in difficulty, which goes against what I think RPGs are all about: exploration and discovery. Let’s say you reach an exciting new cavern to explore, but instead of going in you have to first grind through some easy battles in the woods for 30 minutes with the same old monsters you’ve seen before. Not very bold or adventurous.

So it’s nice that there’s no such thing as Game Over in SNES games like Metal Max 2, Gokinjo Boukentai, and Romancing SaGa 2. If you die, you simply start back in town and can try again. This enables you to actually explore new areas, even if you’re not sure you can survive.

In little-known-but-super-cool Metal Max 2, a mad scientist finds your corpse, drags it back to town and brings you back from the dead without penalty, which somehow suits the wild and crazy, post-apocalyptic world of the game.

metal max 2
Metal Max 2: the SNES RPG version of Borderlands (an English version was also recently released… 😉 )

In Gokinjo Boukentai (“Neighborhood Adventure Troop,” another virtually unknown gem), each time your party dies you actually get a stat boost, making the dungeon easier next go round. Although this basically rewards the player for dying, the game is pretty easy to start with so its not worth dying just for a minimal stat boost.

Gokinjo Boukentai’s graphics are hyper-cute and sometimes disturbing, somehow reminiscent of Earthbound.

Romancing SaGa 2 is set up so that you play as multiple generations of emperors. If your party ever dies, you simply choose a successor and start again from the throne room. You actually benefit from playing as a variety of emperors, so it’s worth it to accept your death and move on. There are some super tough boss battles that I don’t think you’re expected to win at first, and its fun to encounter them later in a new generation. An Emperor dies in an epic battle with one of the Seven Heroes, but his successor comes back decades years later to avenge his death… It makes for an epic tale!

A new Empress is born in Romancing Saga 2.

The only game I know to do this is Chrono Cross (someday I’ll write a post that doesn’t bring up CC, I promise). Stat growth comes (almost) only from beating bosses and mini-bosses in the main story-line.

This keeps the story moving since there’s not much to be gained from fighting random battles. In fact, after getting the few small gains possible between bosses, I usually avoided enemies altogether and ran from any fights I accidentally engaged. Thankfully, CC is one of the few games where running away actually works 100% of the time. (“Running Away” deserves a whole post of its own, come to think of it…) Fleeing is also nice since CC’s battle song will drive you literally insane and make you want to imprison the composer.

Chrono Cross characters get semi-random bonuses at each new star (ie after each boss battle).

I could go on, but let’s just say Chrono Cross’ star system is original, interesting, frustrating and confusingーlike the game itself.

The only games I know of to do this are the Romancing SaGa series (sorry for also bringing RS up constantly, but hey, it and CC are super innovative, I can’t help it!). Enemies are divided into basic categories like undead, beast, and fish, which you can see from their sprite in a dungeon, but the enemies that appear in battle vary depending on how strong you are.

This makes true open-ended world exploration possible. The exact order of quests doesn’t matter because enemies will always be at a challenging level. Even some bosses changeーthe Seven Heroes of RS2 have drastically different “forms” depending on which “generation” you face them in (…which is awesome).

I find this a lot more fun than games like Skyrim and Borderlands (though I love Borderlands), where quests become laughably easy if you don’t tackle them early enough, or you stumble into an area that is way over your head.

The Romancing SaGa series further limits grinding by making stat gains random and incremental. You can’t just “reach the next level” and get big boosts. Instead, you get a little HP here and another skill level with axes there, gradually becoming stronger. These incremental gains are also more likely to happen when facing bosses or otherwise dire situations, so easy-peasy random battles won’t help you much.

Romancing Saga 3 44
Someone’s been using her axe in battle!

It’s hard to think of approaches to “leveling” that don’t boil down to grinding for some kind of currency, whether it is experience, gold or items. But combinations and tweaks of the above approaches could lead to some fun new experiences.

For example, in the games that let the player die, death is still a bit of a setback since you lose your physical progress. But what if you could continue on afterwards? If you were not expected to win every single battle (as you are in most RPGs), the difficulty and strategy of each fight could be considerably higher. Losing might simply bring in less experience or bonuses, but not halt your journey through the dungeon.

Another possibility is for equipment to have a much greater impact on abilities than character level. If equipment were also super rare, than finding a new equipment would be a major event and potential game changer. This would focus the player on the joy of discovery as they push the story along in search of better equipment.

If you think about it, taken to the extreme, no grinding means no gains from random battles, which means random battles become pointless to a degree, which means that the solution might require doing away with random battles altogether.

On that note, what if the limited number of enemies approach of SRPGs was used in a traditional open-world RPG. What if you could actually eliminate those monsters bothering the villagers one by one, and they stay gone. You would probably feel like you actually had an impact on the world and that each battle was actually meaningful… What a wild idea!

I think this is an opportunity to be creative and liberate players from the ongoing horrors of grinding. How do YOU see it happening?

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Digital Games & More: Playing at Playpublik

October 3-5 I got to play some games at Playpublik with other game designers from around the world. Playpublik is one of the many new festivals of urban games/street games/digital games/play that have popped up all over the world in the past few years (especially in Europe). Playpublik is organized by a group of German game designers called Invisible Playground, who also organize “72 Hour Interactions,” an event where groups of designers have 72 hours to construct a game along with the actual physical structure/playground it takes place on. This year Playpublik took place in Krakow, Poland.

Personally I love video games, and that’s where my background is, but Playpublik was even more broad and included all kinds of games with varying degrees of technology involved- really, it was more about playing than games.

Tron-like hand blaster for game where you shoot things on a screen with a friend

Something with a huge ball? Didn’t get to play this one…

Every game designer had a different space in Krakow for a “site-specific” game. One game, for example, was a life simulation in an old courtyard where people yelled down from balconies and had us perform various mini-games in different stages of life all over the courtyard in an attempt to earn the most pretend money.

Another took place in a office room, where we were led in and seated in office chairs, and it was explained to us in a business-like manner that we would be creating a new world together. It was basically a card game, but with delightful visuals mixed in between rounds via a projector.

Others were less “game,” and more just playing around. One involved walking around the city with a smart phone app that played a simple beat that you and other players could manipulate based on your location.

Another game also used the GPS to let players gradually unlock a story by visiting different parts of Krakow and logging in. (I got to draw some illustrations for this one, including a bunch of creepy cute monsters, i.e. my specialty and favorite thing to draw ♡).

Most used a mix of “real” and digital elements and spaces to create fun and playful experiences. Actually, one used technology that I didn’t even know existed. They had one player on a team wear a headset that measures concentration, and in times of emergency that player had to concentrate in order to save their teammates. I got to be the concentrator and it was awesome! I concentrated hard and totally nailed it for my team!

Others involved dancing, hopscotch, bikes, and much, much more!

The general vibe was actually really similar to when I attended Indiecade last year in Los Angeles- people walking around in good spirits looking for fun, with a laid back and playful atmosphere. In other words, I loved it.

There are a lot of festivals popping up like this all over the world. Sometimes they are centered around video games, like Indiecade, but sometimes it is just about play in general, like Playpublik. There is “Playful Arts Festival” in Holland, “Come Out and Play” in New York and San Francisco, and Game City in England (which I’m leaving for tomorrow to play more games!), among many others (huge list here).

It seems like the indie video game movement, the street/urban games movement, and art/academic games are all merging into one mass of play that takes over entire cities. It’s exciting, and I’m looking forward to attending more of these events and seeing where it all leads!

About the blog, it will be back to the regularly scheduled program in November when I’m back from Game City, with a post about alternatives to level grinding in RPGs.

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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.

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.

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…

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.

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.”


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?

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 | Tagged , , , , , | 18 Comments