Graphics of the Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
Too many old-school RPGs tried to emulate a realistic character or mirror a drawing from anime. But Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past embraced the 16-bit world and created a rich environment despite the limitations of the platform. Granted, the character's facial expressions couldn't be seen because of the top-down angle of the camera, but the sprites had enough life that you knew exactly what was going on.
On top of the character design and animation, A Link to the Past also had a very lively and expressive world. Of course, even the "dark" world wasn't as dark as, say, another game we will mention next, but if the world is clouded too much in grit, then you lose the dynamics of the game. Other RPGs on this platform tended to stretch 16-bit too far, but the art design of A Link to the Past seemed to fit a nice niche of letting the player forget that he was playing at such a low resolution.
Character development of Chrono Trigger
Before there was StarWars: The Old Republic, before there was Baldur's Gate, and even before there was BioWare, there was Chrono Trigger. If the recent trend of story-based MMOs and RPGs isn't directly influenced by Square's foray into character-driven RPGs, then the games were at least influenced by Chrono Trigger.
The setting of Chrono Trigger was less than ideal for me at the time it was released. Believe it or not, I prefered a more traditional fantasy RPG. However, the storytelling and especially the character choices in the game really set it apart. I won't give anything away because I want people to play this game, but I will let you know that there are 15 possible endings to this game. And if you get it on the Nintendo DS, I'm told there is at least one additional ending.
Vast world of Final Fantasy
I mentioned that I like the art of A Link to the Past, but the world of Hyrule in that game didn't seem all that big, especially for a game that would ultimately house hundreds of thousands of people. By contrast, Final Fantasy on the original NES has a huge world. If you consider when this game was released, you'll agree how incredible, vast, and diverse the landscape was. The best thing I can do to give you an idea of its scope is to give you a map.
Not only did the zones vary quite a bit, but the people did, too. Although the characters in the player's party were a bit static -- red mage, black mage, etc. -- the people in the world were quite entertaining to talk to as well. I remember actually wanting to do their quests because I wanted to know how the conversation would continue.
Combat of Ultima IV: Quest for the Avatar
I don't know when this convention of creating a separated battle map started, but I think it's great! And the best old-school RPG to do this was Ultima IV: Quest for the Avatar. Yeah, I don't think it's possible to build an MMORPG without paying some homage to Richard Garriott. And I loved the combat in this Ultima game.
Other 8-bit RPGs like Final Fantasy and Cthulhu Saves the World drop you into a battle instance when combat starts, but Ultima's method was different. When the fight started, your position on the minimap would be determined by where you were and who attacked first. And if for whatever reason you needed to run away from an enemy, you had to literally move your character away. Melee attackers had to move to the square next to the enemy to hit it, but casters could attack from range. Of course, if we translated this into an MMO, we would have to give our melee classes some gap-closers for PvP, but it would be so much fun -- almost like chess!
Puzzles from the original Legend of Zelda
The Legend of Zelda on the original NES isn't exactly an RPG; it's more of an adventure-puzzle game. I plop it in the RPG category because there are puzzle elements in some of my favorite MMORPGs, like the datacron hunts in SWTOR and the jump puzzles in Guild Wars 2 or even mining in Free Realms (which is awesome, by the way, if you haven't tried it yet).
Every good RPG needs dungeon puzzles, especially MMORPGs. I think the Legend of Zelda defined dungeon puzzles for me. Truthfully, the whole game was just a huge, top-down dungeon crawler anyway. Even when you were in the surface world, you had to figure out puzzles to find the last three dungeons! If that doesn't define puzzles, I don't know what does.
Housing of Ultima Online
I like sandbox-y MMOs, traditionally, although my main staple right now is a themepark. The greatest appeal for me has always been owning my own house, owning a little spot of virtual property for myself. I also thought it was cool for players to have a specific location for their houses, like it was some sort status symbol. You could proudly say, "Look at me! My house is located in Magincia." Ultima Online really defined for me what player housing should be like. And if you played Ultima when it first came out and thought the housing was kind of blah, you should see what can be done now with all the customization. All MMOs need something like what Ultima has, not just the 16-bit game we're building now.
There you have it: my 16-bit old-school MMO. Now find me a developer that wants to make it and maybe a Kickstarter program to help fund it!
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