Let’s talk about RPG battle systems.
The most basic battle system from electronic gaming we know is from Hydlide and Ys series; ramming to your opponents. I can’t think of any simpler system than that; the computer does all the hacking and slashing and players does naught. Yet there’s nothing more gratifying than running against your opponents until either one of you is dead. In Hydlide your character’s attack stat is the thing that makes the difference with your defense stat, and you can change from attacking stance to defending stance, though you won’t win any fights with defence. Most of the game’s beginning really depends on whether you die first or your enemy, until you level up enough to kill enemies without damaging yourself. Ys follows similar pattern, but this time ramming your opponents with half of your character doesn’t damage you, only your opponent. If you hit your enemies with head-on, you’ll just die and deliver zero damage. So, attacking in an angle is your best bet in the later games, while older games really forces you to attack with pixel perfect accuracy if you want to avoid damage. Ys has abandoned this kind of play style in newer games, as you need to push a button to attack, and string those attacks together. The basics are still the same; run towards your opponents and attack.
RPGs that use this kind of battle system are usually called Action Role Playing Games, where the player takes immediate control of the character rather controlling them around a system.
The second battle system most widely used in RPGs is the Turn Based Combat, or TBC. First clear example was used in Enix’s Dragon Quest it pretty much defined the genre for Eastern developers. (Ultima series will always stay up there above all else with D&D.) People still believe console RPGs are determined by this battle system and its variants and derivatives. Basically, upon enemy contact (random or not) you decide what action should your character/party do. The selection commonly is catered as Fight/Attack, Magic, Item and Run. These are the four basics that have been used and modified since Dragon Quest. Skill, Summon, you’re all familiar with all of this.
People tend to say that all RPGs are story and similar battle system to Dragon Quest. I disagree.
TBC was and is the standard of RPG. As seen in the video above, pretty much every move and instant has some sort of textual representation. The phrasing “A Slime attacks! What thou do?” was standard and was pretty damn important part of the game, until even those were dropped only to follow visual representation. There was sort of vast storytelling with every action. This is mostly how Final Fantasies do this; an enemy appears, but the only noting thing is whether they Ambushed you or is it Pre-emptive strike. There is no “Lizardosaurus attacked!” text, there’s nothing to note that this fight is an important fight. It’s just a “fight.” Dragon Quest made every fight seem important, because without grinding your characters are on brink of death. However, in FF none of the battles have text outside menu parameters or indication of Critical strike. Are these battles less important than those random encounters in DQ? Sometimes there’s speech in scripted points, but nothing more. The basics of older RPG gaming, the story telling, is left on the player’s mind, a step away from Dungeons & Dragons. Final Fantasy streamlined the BTC and made its own variation (and multiple derivatives) based on the Dragon Quest mould, thus basically eradicating the Storyteller, the Dungeon Master, from their games. It can be debated whether or not this is a good things, as Square seemed to move away from textual representation to make Final Fantasy films with added game play here and there.
Somehow I find it sad that because of Dragon Quest’s and Final Fantasies over bulking popularity and impact on general RPG genre has caused a split in game community to see western made RPGs in their own light.
What these “WPRGs” use is some kind of mix of the last two. Most of the time you’re in control of every of your character’s movements, but still the battles are fought inside a menu system. This system was developed mostly for PC, as most of fights can be simplified to “click your opponents to death.” TBC runs down to “buttonmash your opponents to death,” especially when you don’t need to use magic or summons. The main difference between BTC and this ‘other’ system (let’s call it Integrated Combat System, or ICS.) The difference between BTC and ICS is that ICS rarely has same kind of random encounters as BTC. BTC opens completely new window of gameplay for combat, whereas ICS is there all the time. The fighting system is completely integrated into the menus at hand.
However, these battle systems mentioned haven’t really evolved a bit since their first iterations. They are the most basic template that is used in pretty every damn RPG game. There isn’t a game with a battle system that is completely new or isn’t a derivative from the mentioned. Are these two Battle Systems the only ones that can be realized within games?
However, there is a game that derives from the TBC, but makes it pretty damn… well, I can’t really say, it makes it fun, but doesn’t forget that this is a game based in Role Playing.
Enter Mother 3.
Mother series is the child of Shigesato Itoi, who happens to be pretty famous author in Japan. In the 80’s he happened to be in a hospital that had Dragon Quest. While he was sick he played it. Back in the day it was somewhat uncommon to see kanji in a Famicom game’s text, and Itoi had to read aloud every line in the game, like an actor, to understand what the game was saying. Without kanji the text is hard to understand, but when read aloud it forms some sort of coherent message when given context.
Itoi was an actor in an epic.
Itoi liked the idea and somehow got to work on Nintendo’s RPG, which he named “Mother.” There’s a lot of allusions in the game to the title, as Itoi himself basically has created the characters, plots, world and everything in the game. The game’s heart is vast and filled with details.
Mother 3’s battle system is unique as its music. It’s basics lies in the BTC, but it has more to it. You deliver more damage to your opponents when you press button in rhythm with the battle music. My love to this game partially stems from the fact that there exists more than two or three battle themes, but I didn’t really know that the musics had far larger meaning.
Mother 3 delivers so much in its battle system that it’s not funny. I have no qualification to start opening it up, so see links section down under. During the past thirty years of RPGs I haven’t seen one more unique and engaging battle system.
There are few games from Monolithsoft which derive from the TBC but mix things up similarly to Mother 3’s Sound battle system. In Super Robot Wars OG Saga Endless Frontier the battle mechanics are based on tuned based juggling. Every character in a battle waits for their turn and then attack an enemy, or enemies depending what you choose. However, once a normal attack is initiated the chosen character attacks as many times his/her gauge allows, or when push of a button misses. Every juggle is initiated by the player, and every enemy has slightly different point of juggle. You could say that some enemies are heavier, and that they don’t rise as high, thus requiring character specific attack pattern to juggle them successfully. While the juggling may seem easy, it takes some time to get down to how and when to initiate attack in specific enemy. It is true that there are copy enemies with different colour, but there’s a healthy amount of unique battles that are more or less pin-point challenge in accuracy. Unlike in Mother 3 which is based on music and rhythm, Endless Frontier’s system is based on timing of on-screen actions. Players with no real rhythm sense may find Endless Frontier easier game. I have no music ear whatsoever, and I did need some Internet help to find Mother 3’s beat points… it doesn’t really need music ear per se, only to the extend that you can feel the beat. Nevertheless, Endless Frontier is something different. It’s battle system is a bit rare and most RPG fanatics most likely put it off as some experimental item, but it’s really a fleshed out battle system. It actually creates a bit more illusion of acting within a game as the character, even thou it’s really a series of button presses when compared to the standard fares of Final Fantasies or Dragon Quest.
Nothing has changed since the 80’s, and probably won’t change in the next ten years or so, when it comes to RPG’s battles. The genre will continue to use these unbroken and tempered systems and add new things or change a bit how it works. The systems still have the same core, and if something isn’t done we won’t be getting the next -insert your favourite RPG- for a long time. They might make it fun, but it’s still the same. Whether it’s for good or not, you decide it yourself.
But change would be nice to have once in a while.
Few articles about Mother 3’s Rhythmic Turn Based Battle system.