By the early 2000s, RPGs had largely fallen off my radar. It’s not that I was deliberately ignoring them, but the consoles I owned at the time didn’t exactly accommodate the genre. Still, I was definitely open to them, and when Skies of Arcadia was released for the Dreamcast near the end of 2000, I didn’t hesitate to snap it up.
Skies of Arcadia was my first true next generation RPG experience. It had full 3D graphics, a lush orchestral soundtrack, a world comprised of floating islands, and an Age of Discovery-inspired setting that was quite refreshing. I particularly appreciated how the story managed to be sweeping and epic without becoming overly dark and melodramatic. I really enjoyed it, and it managed to hold my attention for all the 50-plus hours it took for me to finish it.
However, I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that it was a game I had played before. Random battles, turn-based combat, a rigid, linear story. I figured that a lot of the foundations of RPGs were born out of necessity for the limitations of home consoles, but technology was pretty good by this time, and it seemed to me that that should have freed things up a bit. Yet, aside from the updated graphics and sound, it still felt like an SNES game. I had skipped an entire generation of RPGs; shouldn’t they have progressed a little more than this?
On the other hand, I also considered (somewhat dishearteningly) that these designs and mechanics were simply what defined the genre. After all, I also thought that fighting games were better in 2D, even though technology had allowed them to move into the third dimension. Still, there’s a difference between maintaining what works and clinging to obsolete designs. Could the genre be excused for stagnation?
Although I kept my eyes open for any games that seemed to be worth my time, RPGs took more and more of a backseat. In 2004, I bought Tales of Symphonia on the GameCube nearly on a whim. Like Skies of Arcadia, I really enjoyed my experience with it. The real-time combat was the main element that held my attention for the long haul, but once again, it didn’t really feel like a true advancement for the genre. For all of the new things that RPGs were trying to do, it all felt like fancy dress layered over outdated gameplay. The original idea of a “role-playing game” seemed to have been completely diluted and lost by this time, and the thing that “RPGs” had turned into just wasn’t what I wanted out of the genre. By the time I had finished Tales of Symphonia, I had decided that I was also finished with RPGs.
Perhaps I wasn’t alone. Over the next several years, Japanese RPGs lost a lot of their previous popularity in North America, lacking any true breakout title in the new generation. Western RPGs rose to prominence, but as before, I had little access to them, nor did I really care.
And yet, as I look back, I have to admit that reports of my abandonment of RPGs may have been greatly exaggerated….