I suppose I have a somewhat precarious relationship with role-playing games in that I’m simultaneously fascinated by them and a little bit put-off by them. I like the concept behind the genre, that of going on an adventure while growing as a character. The implementation, on the other hand, is a little tricky to get right, balancing complexity with simplicity, linearity with freedom, and telling a story while letting the player create his own.
There was a time when I was really into RPGs, but in recent years, I’ve been keeping a bit of a distance. Yet, I still enjoy reading about them or hearing what others have to say about them. In fact, I’ve been inching closer to getting back into the genre more regularly. I suppose it’s strange to be interested in a certain type of game, and yet also be a little apprehensive about them. That’s why I’ve decided to retrace my steps and explore my thoughts on RPGs in this multi-part series.
The first RPG I ever played was Dragon Warrior (aka Dragon Quest) on the NES. As you might have already guessed, I got my copy free with a subscription to Nintendo Power magazine (not a bad deal for $15). It was really unlike anything I had played before. It wasn’t an action game, and there were no reflexes to be tested. But I easily understood the menu-based structure of it, and was really intrigued by the seemingly open-ended nature of it. In fact, this will sound funny, but I was really blown away by the inclusion of a “talk” command. It obviously wasn’t the first time you could interact with non-player characters in a home console game, but among the other commands, it just felt really sophisticated. (And I was eleven-years-old and easily impressed.)
I was also really intrigued by the battle system. By today’s standards, it’s exceptionally simple and shallow, but at the time, I thought of it like a game of poker. What commands would I choose from my assortment of options? How would my opponent respond? How would random elements like “excellent moves” and missed attacks affect the outcome? While a lot of it was repetitive, there were still those occasional moments, just like in poker, where things got really interesting.
I spent a lot of time playing Dragon Warrior back then, and I eventually beat it, but it’s not a game I could ever really go back to. The fresh concept combined with my youth, having more patience and a lot more time, made the game fun. But when all was said and done, underneath it was a rather shallow, repetitive, tedious, and clunky game. I like to think I have much better ways to spend my time these days other than walking around in circles, and fighting the same enemies over and over just to make my character a tad bit stronger.
Not that I disrespect Dragon Warrior. It set the gold standard for console RPGs for years to come. Many games not only built off of its foundations, but vastly improved on them. Yet, despite my initial positive experience, I wasn’t quite hooked on the genre just yet. I definitely noticed when the sequels came out, but I didn’t jump on them. In fact, I only rented Dragon Warrior II a couple of times. It wasn’t until the SNES era that I really found myself being absorbed into RPGs. Once again, it was the influence of Nintendo Power, and a game that appeared on the cover called Final Fantasy II….