Too Hip to be Square - A look at non-Square RPGs
Posted by Kelvin Green
Square is well known as a giant of the console role-playing game scene, with hugely popular titles like the Final Fantasy and Mana series, Chrono Trigger, and others just highlights from an impressive back catalogue. The SNES' reputation as the gaming machine of choice for rpg fans was largely down to Square's efforts. But the company's statement of support for the Virtual Console has been rather vague. Will we see these classics on the Wii? Will games unavailable in certain regions (Chrono Trigger again) be made available to all? And, with enhanced remakes on other systems, including Nintendo's own DS, do we want to see the originals on the Wii at all?
These questions have already been the subject of many a debate among Wii enthusiasts, but what has perhaps been forgotten is that the console rpg genre did not begin and end with Square. So here is a brief selection of some of the best rpgs available for the Virtual Console's emulated systems, that weren't produced by Square (or Enix, since they're the same thing nowadays).
Dungeons & Dragons: Warriors of the Eternal Sun (MD/Gen)
Dungeons & Dragons is the grand-daddy of the rpg genre. It's where it all began, and pretty much every console based rpg can trace its roots back to the original pen-and-paper D&D game. So it comes as no surprise that there have been numerous attempts to adapt D&D itself to an electronic format, some more successful than others. In the feature on games we hope never come to the Virtual Console, we looked at one of the worst, Heroes of the Lance, but Warriors of the Eternal Sun is one of the better efforts.
The game is immediately off to a good start with its fascinating premise. Instead of the usual 'defeat the dark lord' plot, the game's story is more about exploration and survival, as the player is dumped in an alien and unfamiliar land and is tasked with finding allies, and ultimately, a way home. It's a clever twist on familiar rpg tropes, and it immediately sets the game apart from its peers. Less interesting, but still worthy of mention is the gameplay, which sees a fairly close approximation of the pen-and-paper D&D rules mixed with a smooth action-oriented interface. Not only that, but venture into a dungeon, and the game reinvents itself as a claustrophobic real-time first-person crawler that forces the player to develop a whole new set of tactics. These different modes of play mean that the game does feel slightly bitty, as if it's three games bolted together, but on the whole it works well, and it's certainly different. And that's Warriors' key strength; it's a break from the norm. It's notable for its unusual plot, and for being a rare entry by D&D into the console market, a field dominated by Japanese style rpgs, but it shouldn't be forgotten that it's a good game in its own right.
This one is a legend. If you've got any interest in console rpgs at all, you've heard of this one, even if you've not played it. Part of its fame comes from its scarcity; this game was never released in Europe, and had a limited release in the US, coming out as it did in the pre-Final Fantasy VII days when Japanese gaming companies underestimated the audience for the rpg genre outside their homeland. It's also famous because the Earthbound series did away with so many of the features of the genre that even back then had started to become formulaic; the game is set in something resembling the modern day (albeit filtered through a 50's B-Movie sensibility), the protagonist is a young boy who wields a baseball bat rather than a broadsword, and enemies can be seen, and avoided, on the world map, years before Final Fantasy XII 'pioneered' the feature. That said, the basic mechanics of the game make it clear that Earthbound is an rpg at heart; battles are command-based, hit points and levels are present and correct, and towns are places to heal and shop for items. Earthbound's great success is in its originality; there's nothing quite like it, and moreover, the developers have really thought about how to make the game unique, rather than merely tack on some superficial differences. But Earthbound is also a strong game in its own right, with a compelling plot and a likeable cast; we can only hope that it appears on the Virtual Console one day.
Ogre Battle 64: Person of Lordly Caliber (N64)
For some reason, while the SNES was swimming in rpgs, the N64 barely had any (and no, Ocarina of Time doesn't count). Of those that were available, Ogre Battle 64: Person of Lordly Caliber is about the best, and we probably wouldn't even count it if there was a wider field available, as it's more of a wargame than an rpg, even more so than titles like Shining Force. Still, there is a plot of sorts, and the characters do develop in a believable and sympathetic manner, but this game is all about the fighting... and the fighting is fantastic! With such a focus on combat, the developers really needed to get things spot on, and while not quite there, the team behind OB64 did get very close indeed. There's a lot of tactical depth in the game, and individual skills and weapon statistics are very well balanced; you really have to think about your forces and their abilities in this game, and if you don't plan ahead, you'll find yourself over-extended and vulnerable. The battles look great, with sumptuous environments and well-animated characters, and the stuff in-between the fights looks good too, a huge improvement over the SNES original with its 8-bit-style world map screens. What the SNES game lacked in visuals, it made up for in tunage, and that's carried through here, with a set of rousing themes only slightly marred by their relatively short length (should have gone for the CD drive, Nintendo!). All in all, Ogre Battle 64 is a very strong game, and easily the N64's best rpg, only it's not much of an rpg at all...
(and yes, technically publisher Quest is now part of the Square empire, but it wasn't when this first came out!)
Phantasy Star IV (MD/Gen)
The Phantasy Star series is arguably the biggest rpg franchise outside of the Square/Enix umbrella, largely due to the hugely successful online editions of recent years. However, the franchise began on Sega's 8-and-16-bit home consoles with a sequence of cracking rpgs that should not be overlooked simply because they're not as swishy as their online descendants. Our particular favourite is the first game, the Master System's killer app, and probably the finest 8-bit console RPG ever produced.
That first game is rivalled in quality by its 16-bit sequel Phantasy Star IV, which is often considered to be the best of the entire series. The game benefits from superb graphics and sound, so good in fact that you'll barely believe that the game's running on a Mega Drive; in-game visuals are detailed and polished, creating an effective sense of a lived-in world rather than merely a game setting, and there are some very nifty manga-style cut-scenes scattered throughout the plot. Battles are wonderfully animated, and the sprites used for both the player characters and their opponents are bursting with lifelike detail. The gameplay also shows the signs of this close attention to detail, as well-designed environments abound, and the battle system is a masterpiece of simple design yet complex depth. In terms of plot, the scale is suitably epic, and yet the individual characters are never forgotten; by the end of the game, you'll be left with an astonishingly well-developed cast of believable personalities. It's all very well put together, but it's also very hard; random combat syndrome is very prevalent in the Phantasy Star series, and each game has a very steep learning curve. IV is no exception, and those used to the more mellow difficulty ratings of the Final Fantasy series may be in for a rude awakening. Even so, this is one of the best console rpgs ever made, and it'd be a crime if it doesn't appear on VC.
The astute will note that there are no NES or PC Engine/Turbografx titles in this list. There are a number of reasons for that. The PCE was well known for its shoot-em-ups and coin-op conversions, but like the N64, it didn't get many rpg titles, certainly not in the West. The Ys series found a home on the system, but with its arcade style gameplay (there are platforming elements, and battles are more about reaction and positioning than stats), the series can't really be counted. The big rpgs on the NES came mostly from the Square and Enix stables; Japan got the Megami Tensei series of modern-day horror rpgs, which would be very welcome on the Virtual Console, but we're not holding our breath. The NES was also one of the only consoles (alongside Sega's underrated Master System) to see entries from the venerable Ultima series; a huge franchise on home computers, Ultima never really dented the console market, despite solid releases of both Ultima III and IV. The NES versions of both games had graphics and sound modified to be more similar to Japanese rpgs of the time, but the core gameplay is still there; Ultima pioneered the framework that console rpgs continue to follow to this day, including stuff like the split between overland travel and tactical battle screens, so while the early games aren't much to look at, they're certainly interesting from a historical perspective.
So there you have it; a brief look at worlds of adventure beyond the realms of Square. We'd be overjoyed to see the likes of Square's Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy IV and Seiken Densetsu 3 arrive on the Virtual Console, but it would also be great if the Wii's retro gaming service would allow some of these less famous titles the opportunity to step out of the shadow of that most monolithic of console roleplaying publishers.