RPG Reflections, Part IV: But… the Future Refused to Change

Part I: A Slime Draws Near!
Part II: Falling Into the Niche
Part III: Culture Clash
Part IV: But… the Future Refused to Change
Part V: …Dear Friends, Once More

RPG Reflections

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
Skies of Arcadia (2000)

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?

Tales of Symphonia
Tales of Symphonia (2004)

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….

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5 thoughts on “RPG Reflections, Part IV: But… the Future Refused to Change

  1. Pingback: Nester’s RPG Reflections, Part IV: But… the Future Refused to Change « LVLs. – Gain Experience!

  2. Apologies were not required, my friend – everyone reacts their own way. 🙂

    Part of the JRPG pull I suppose is those guidelines. Skies of Arcadia was very bold in some ways, with a huge world to explore and a cast of characters that did not mope or whine all of the time, but it was shackled to a random battle/turn-based combat engine that turned some people completely off of its charms. While I’m glad you managed to enjoy the game and see it through, I don’t think your complaints are unsubstantiated. Tales of Symphonia as well took a unique approach with its combat engine, but its story and characters are fairly traditional.

    I think that’s one reason I’m so stoked about Xenoblade Chronicles and The Last Story – both are taking some major risks and have been receiving accolades for those choices, but they also adhere to some of the genre staples to not completely alienate the fanbase. We’ll see for ourselves, won’t we? 🙂

    I’ve been enjoying these a lot, Nester – will there be another chapter?

    1. Nester-Lvl

      Yeah, I didn’t mean to sound like I was slagging on Arcadia and Symphonia; they’re both wonderful games. 🙂

      And yes, there will be one more part to this series.

  3. Jason X

    I think a lot of people get hung up on the “role-playing” part of the term “role-playing game”. FFIV and VI didn’t feature role-playing any more than FFX and XII have, and yet scores of people swear that those earlier releases are head and shoulders above their descendants.

    This might just be my own interpretation, but I’ve always seen the genre as a method for experiencing big stories. That’s it. Some people want more freedom to go along with that, but I don’t see it as a requirement. Just provide me with some good plotlines and interesting characters, and I can forgive the archaic mechanics.

    Having said that, I still have yet to finish Skies of Arcadia.

    1. Nester-Lvl

      I think I’ve since come to terms with the idea that a JRPG is more-or-less an interactive novel. But it was a lot easier for me to be impressed by that back when it was first done with FF4 & 6, and I found myself a little bit disappointed when it didn’t progress past that.

      But linear or not, I think the main issue with me is that I would rather feel like I’m the one driving the story rather than being dragged along by it.

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