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The delightful smoothness of classic Japanese role-playing games


This week, Rowan Kaiser and Kat Bailey have switched roles -- with Rowan taking lead in this week's column focusing on the wonderful world of Japanese role-playing games.

I was only defeated once in Suikoden. Even that was an accident – I thought it was a fight I was supposed to lose. Calling the game "easy" is something of an understatement. With a little bit of planning, you can win virtually every fight in the game, including the final boss battle on auto-pilot using the "Free Will" option in the combat menu. Yet, despite this easiness, Suikoden is one of my favorite Japanese role-playing games. "Easy" isn't the right term for it exactly. Instead, Suikoden is smooth.

"Smoothness" isn't a common criteria used to judge games. If anything, it's the opposite. Getting the difficulty level just right, so that the game seems like a challenge but is completable with practice, seems like it's an ideal. Or, you can use Sid Meier's model of games as "interesting choices" – but if the game isn't challenging, those choices don't seem to matter, right? I think acceptance theories like those are part of the reason that Japanese role-playing games are considered less important than they used to be.

See, during the Golden Age of JRPGs (otherwise known as the 1990s), these games were, well, easy. It may have started with the 1991 release of Final Fantasy II in America, the "Easytype" version of the Japanese Final Fantasy IV. One of the most important changes in Final Fantasy II/IV is that you don't need to spend all your time looking for fights in order to strengthen your characters for the future, in a process known as "grinding." Instead, as a general rule, the number of fights you'd get into while exploring helped build your character just enough to proceed. Moving from one section of the game to the next was, to exhaust use of the word, smooth.

Most of the great games of this era adopted this model. Phantasy Star IV, Shining Force II, Chrono Trigger, and The Secret Of Mana used it in the 16-bit era, while the CD generation included the Suikoden titles as well as Grandia, Chrono Cross, and Xenogears. And of course, the Final Fantasy series embraced it whole-heartedly through Final Fantasy X. Grinding wasn't necessary for success, difficulty was reserved for rare fights, and these classic games went down easy.

But if the average JRPG was smooth and largely challenge-free, then what was the appeal? Why did I like the remarkably easy Suikoden the first time I played it, and the four or five times I've played it since? My best theory: combat, the game mode that ostensibly creates the challenge and "gameplay" of RPGs, is just one part of a larger whole. The game exists to provide a holistic experience, and the best and most interesting parts of that experience may not be sections where your party is in danger.

Those special experiences? Well, sometimes they may be combat, but more likely they're characters, visuals, plot, or music. If I were asked to name the best aspect of Chrono Trigger – probably my favorite JRPG, as clichéd as that is – the combat wouldn't be anywhere near the top. First, there's that music. There's also the overall visual style, from character design to world maps. The story and character interactions are simple but charming, and fit in with the overall feel established. Then there's combat and character progression. Chrono Trigger does a good job of making combat interesting in the now with its use of Square's Active Time Battle, and in the future with its progression and double/triple techs. But it's rarely difficult. The occasional boss fight might take a try or three, sure, but it would be a surprise to die from most of them, or any random fight. You get in a pattern and rarely have to deviate.

What the combat does do, in a smooth game like Chrono Trigger, is give the game a rhythm. Explore, then fight. Talk, then fight. Getting that balance just right is crucial. A game like Skies Of Arcadia took a lot of criticism because its encounter rate was supposedly so high. There wasn't enough exploration to keep the rhythm right. If it gets that moment-to-moment ratio right, then moving through the usually linear game to experience the new, good stuff in the game feels easy.

Of course, not every JRPG is smooth, and that's a good thing. The strategy RPG subgenre is the opposite of smooth. Tactical combat systems are rough, forcing you to pay attention in most every fight. There are also old-fashioned games, like the Dragon Quest series, still built around the grind.

But the trend in the biggest JRPGs has been to move away from this style of gameplay. Even in 2000, a game like Valkyrie Profile grabbed its players' attention with each combat turn, rewarding timing-based combos. The Tales Of and Star Ocean games each have more intricate combat systems as well. However, it's the flagship Japanese role-playing series that's departed from smooth gameplay the most. The two most recent single-player Final Fantasy game in the main series, XII and XIII, were anything but smooth. And I don't think it's a coincidence that these two games are two of the more controversial in the series.

The MMRPG-style of combat found in FFXII forced players to pay attention in a way the series never before expected. Meanwhile, FFXIII encourages the player to view each battle as a unique challenge, by automatically healing characters after each fight and slowly increasing the complexity of its systems over the course of the game. These contemporary Final Fantasy games seem like their systems have been devised to counter criticisms of JRPGs previously. Both of them are like responses to the idea that gameplay of previous Final Fantasy games was too simple. While developers may have done interesting things with the formula, I think the rhythm of the JRPG has been disrupted a little too much to maintain the same appeal it had during the Golden Age.

Persona IV, released in 2008, showed that the classic style of gameplay is still possible. And there are plenty of recent handheld games that maintain a certain level of smoothness, like Radiant Historia or Golden Sun: Dark Dawn. But it's no longer the dominant mode of the biggest games in the genre, and I think this is partially because of a narrow vision of gameplay as something that needs to be complex and difficult. Sure, sometimes that's great, but sometimes you want games to feel smooth.

Rowan Kaiser is a freelance writer currently living the Bay Area, who also writes for The A.V. Club, and has been published at Salon, Gamasutra, Kotaku, and more. He still occasionally finds Ultima VI Moongate maps and mantra notes when he visits his parents' house. Follow him on Twitter @rowankaiser.

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