The 16- and 32-bit eras were often hailed as the “glory days” of role-playing games. (NOTE: We’re going to focus on US releases. The Japanese market for RPGs shits all over the US one, but I’m going to stick to stuff that was available stateside for clarity’s sake.) During the SNES and Genesis/Sega CD days, classic tales such as Lunar, Shadowrun, Chrono Trigger, and Final Fantasy IV were crafted, captivating gamers with rich storylines and tight gameplay to match. Believe it or not, Square made good games back then. Well before 3D graphics were feasible, hand-drawn sprites were the coin of the realm, and summon spells were designed for effectiveness, not prettiness.
At first, the Playstation era for RPGs got a little ridiculous, with developers focusing on 3D graphics and other flash more than anything. Final Fantasy VII is a perfect example of this; although many fanboys consider it “teh gratest rpg EVAR!!!1!11!”, FFVII‘s story was essentially the same as that of Final Fantasy VI, albeit with less characters and development. It’s primary selling point was fancy 3D graphics, that weren’t even used in a true 3D fashion. FFVII could easily have been done in 2D, since all the characters and movement was carried out in a 2D fashion anyways. Yeah, I said. Quit your bitching…if you actually think about it for a few minutes instead of sucking Square’s dick, you know I’m right. At any rate, the whole situation where a 3D game could be done in 2D applies to many games from the beginnings of the 3D generation to the present, so don’t think that FFVII is the only target of my rage. Even one of my favorite recent RPGs, Xenosaga Episode I, falls into that trap sometimes.
Towards the end of the PS’ spotlight, we got a whole slew of amazing RPGs and action-RPGs, like Valkyrie Profile, Threads of Fate, Xenogears, Tales of Destiny 2, Star Ocean: Second Story…the list goes on and on. Many of them kept the hand-drawn sprite look, and with the Playstation’s enhanced resolution, these games contained some of the most beautiful artwork ever seen in gaming. Plus, we actually had deep and involving stories again, not always involving the clichéd swords-and-sorcery, save-the-world-from-bad-guy plots.
But enough ranting. On to the current era of TV consoles. Pickings here are few and far between, which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, considering that RPGs were really hitting their stride towards the end of the PS era. Towards the beginning, we had the lackluster Final Fantasy X and . The stories were boring as paste, and the gameplay was nothing we hadn’t seen before; either that, or it just didn’t work well with the design of the game. Later on, RPGs began gathering steam, with Suikoden III, Xenosaga, and Kingdom Hearts. Even still, these weren’t close to the classic RPGs of the past…the new stuff may be entertaining, but they get boring in retrospect. Only in the past year or so have very high quality titles been released, such as Dark Cloud 2 and Disgaea: Hour of Darkness. Yes, I know the latter is more of a strategy title, but the story and gameplay design is what makes it stand out.
So where do we turn for loads of RPG goodness right NOW, instead of waiting? My vote goes with the GBA. There’s a stack of great RPG and strategy titles available, like Golden Sun, Fire Emblem, Tactics Ogre: The Knight of Lodis, Pokémon Ruby/Sapphire, Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga, a Lunar port, and the excellent Mega Man Battle Network series (kudos to Capcom for much-needed originality!). More keep coming out all the time, so there’s never a stretch of “dead time” between releases.
The future of RPG gaming remains to be seen. With the Playstation Portable (PSP) and Nintendo’s new handheld system (the DS) both featuring 3D graphics, 2D RPG goodness may soon die. Graphical flash will almost always take precedence over gameplay, but as long as there’s a few diamonds in the rough, RPG fans should be able to hang on.