If any modern system can lay claim to the JRPG throne, it’s the 3DS. In the six-or-so years since Nintendo’s little handheld hit the market, aficionados have been treated to all sorts of adventures new and old, from Dragon Quests and Bravely games to Shin Megami Tenseis galore. That sort of library encourages serious RPG literacy, and that means 3DS players are uniquely positioned to get the most out of a tool that lets you create your own RPGs. Enter RPG Maker Fes

The latest in a long line of popular game-making suites — mostly confined to PCs and import PlayStations — RPG Maker Fes was released in Japan last year before being brought Westward by NIS America. While it has its limitations, RPG Maker Fes is an incredibly impressive toolkit, and its massive potential, relative ease of use, and stellar sharing features — any 3DS owner can play the games you make without owning the editor — make this a fantastic way to tell a turn-based tale.

When you jump into RPG Maker Fes, you’ll be greeted with a basic menu that lays out the three main components of game creation: Maps, Events, and the Database. There’s no tutorial or real guidance given at this stage — we’ll come back to that — but diving in, it’s relatively easy to get a feel for how each piece works in concert: maps are where you’ll create the geography of your game, events are the tools you’ll use to tell the story, control behaviours, and ‘program’ set pieces, and the Database holds all of the information that gets called on to make your game unique — characters, monsters, weapons, and so on. 

We started our initial tour of RPG Maker in the Maps section, and that felt like a good choice. Here you’ll be able to create up to 99 different areas, and eventually link them together to tell your tale. Maps come in four basic types: world maps, cities, dungeons, and interiors. There are preset samples in each category — which helps enormously in getting off the ground — but you can also start from scratch. Either way, map-making is relatively straightforward: you pick graphical elements from a palette, and then ‘paint’ them onto the canvas using the stylus, or buttons if you prefer. Options like an area fill, move tool, and copy/paste streamline the cartographic creation process a bit, and you can jump in and test play the area at any time to get a feel for how it will work on the ground.

Once we’d made a few maps, we tried our hand at stringing them together, which involved our first foray into the world of RPG Maker’s ‘Events’ system. These are the visual, relatively intuitive pieces of programming you’ll use to turn your collection of maps, characters, and dialogue into a coherent game. They can get complex, but at a basic level they’re very easy to get to grips with. When we wanted to link up our world map to the first town in our game, for instance, we created a ‘Move Location’ event, specified that we wanted the party to change location to the first town when this event became active, and then placed its trigger over the town icon on the world map. Then, when our still-unnamed heroine bumped into that icon from the opening overworld view, she was transported inside the gates of the town.

That’s a simple example of the kind of logic behind events, but they can do so much more than teleport a character from one map to another. You can use events to display messages, emotes, or branching-path dialogue trees; you can start or stop timers, change the weather, or shake the screen; you can increase or decrease gold, HP, or EXP, remove characters from a party, or cue in a sound effect. There’s even a handy selection of pre-rolled ‘Easy Events’, so you can set down frequent features like save points, inns, and shops without having to work out the nitty-gritty details.

The possibilities are pretty endless, and really start to expand when you add in the ability to make conditional event triggers with ‘pages’. These let you set up more than one outcome (‘page’) for a given event, and then specify what conditions lead to each page being put into motion. That means you could create a villager NPC who greets you pleasantly if you’re wearing a certain piece of armour, but coldly if you’re wearing a different one; a town where you can only enter buildings if you’ve read a certain sign; or a barkeep that will serve you for free if you have an attractive party member alongside you.

Those are all examples of binary triggers — things that are either true or false — but you can also create variables for your game to track and use in triggering events, and with those, you can get into some truly creative territory. You could set up a ‘charisma’ meter, for instance, which raises on visits to hot springs or when you drink certain beverages, and then have NPCs react differently if your score is at or above certain levels. You could leave Korok-style hidden objects around your game’s world, and give rewards when players have found 10, 25, or 50 of them. Or you could use variables to add in dating sim elements to your game, keeping track of ‘affection points’ for multiple love interests and triggering different romance events depending on the player’s actions.

RPG Maker Fes gives you a ton of freedom in how to structure the adventures you create, then, and in the Database area you also have a decent amount of control over what it looks and feels like, too. Here you can change names, appearances, sprites, and descriptions for main characters and NPCs, names and behaviours of enemies, and stats, names, and description of weapons, armor, items, spells, and even character classes (‘Professions’), all of which can have a big impact on the classic turn-based combat the engine offers. There’s a massive amount of customization you can get into here, but the Database also exemplifies the biggest weakness with RPG Maker Fes on the 3DS: the inability to create your own assets.

By default, RPG Maker Fes only comes with a ‘Fantasy’-themed asset pack — more have been promised as DLC, including a sci-fi pack, but none were available at the time of writing — so you’ll be working within the realm of mages, castles, dragons and elves, alongside a few curveballs like clowns (!). What’s here is relatively high-quality — it reminded us of a slightly nicer take on the style found in Kemco’s eShop RPGs — and there is quite a bit of variety within the pack, but at the end of the day it still means that games created in RPG Maker Fes will tend to look quite similar, even if they’re wildly different in terms of themes, writing, and tone. And while we haven’t managed to run out of unique character art in the smaller projects we’ve been working on, we can imagine by the midway point of creating a decently-sized RPG you’d be pining for new NPC portraits.

Our other issue with RPG Maker Fes is that, in order to make it to the midway point of creating a decently-sized RPG, you’ll need a solid handle on the editor’s systems and quirks, and that’s not something that it seems especially interested in making sure you have. Individual pieces of RPG Maker are relatively straightforward — it’s easy enough to create a map, to tweak a character profile, or to make a simple event — but putting it all together can be confusing, and this is the kind of title that could really benefit from an interactive tutorial to help get you up and running. Barring that, even having a pre-loaded, editable adventure to poke around in would be a huge help — as it stands, you’re thrown in at the deep end, and it can be a bit overwhelming at the outset.

Once you get the hang of the workflow, however, the interface is nice and clean, and there are some thoughtful quality-of-life touches that make spending a few dozen hours in the editor a much more pleasant prospect. The touchscreen keyboard includes extensive predictive input, for instance, and helpful button shortcuts to snap back and forth between the input field (‘L’) and the autofill options (‘R’). A convenient combination of button and stylus inputs make map-making relatively painless as well, though we do wish there was a button (rather than only a touch panel) earmarked for ‘Undo’.

Along with the snappy interface, another thing RPG Maker Fes does extremely well is perhaps the most important point of all: sharing. Once you’ve finished crafting your adventure (or at least reached a point where you’d like to let people play it), making it available to others is as easy as an upload to the servers. The real revelation here is that people don’t need to own RPG Maker to play your game; anyone with a 3DS and access to the internet can download the free eShop app ‘RPG Maker Fes Player’ and play any projects created in the full release. It’s a fantastic feature, and turns RPG Maker Fes from a walled garden playground into a real game-making tool; the fact that friends and family can download and play through your creations without having any intention of making their own (or spending any money!) is a serious selling point. 

We tested out the free companion app, and found it easy to search for games by name as well as browse recent and highly-rated creations. The only issue we ran into relates to DLC (or lack thereof) — a few games we downloaded to try apparently made use of content packs not yet released in North America, and we were unable to either play the games or download the extra data they needed to run. Hopefully this is a temporary issue, but at the very least it would be nice to know that a given game requires DLC (even if it is free) before downloading it.

We had a ton of fun playing around with RPG Maker FES, and even though it has its share of weaknesses and limitations, it still feels pretty incredible to be able to curl up on the couch and have so much game-making potential on our plucky little 3DS. On that note, while aspiring designers with epic tales waiting to be told and writers with scripts at the ready will likely get the most out of that power, we were surprised at just how satisfying it was to mess around and make much smaller projects with the tools on offer. Even if you have no intention of penning the next Chrono Trigger, if you’re a big fan of JRPGs and even a little bit creatively inclined, RPG Maker Fes is worth a look. While full-sized adventures are one potential outcome, we couldn’t help but think of all the little things that could be made in the format; interactive marriage proposals and save-the-dates, mnemonic devices and study aids, short stories, message encoders, a playable recipe book — if you can imagine it as an RPG, you can pretty much make it happen here.

Conclusion

RPG Maker Fes is quite an achievement; it’s a powerful, relatively easy to use set of tools that can turn your story ideas into full blown games, playable by anyone with a 3DS and an internet connection. That alone is impressive — but beyond a simple toolkit, this is a real celebration of JRPGs. Just as Super Mario Maker’s appeal extends beyond budding level designers to platformer fans in general, RPG Maker Fes is well worth a look for anyone whose 3DS cartridge slot has happily turned into an RPG warmer over the years. We do wish there were a tutorial (or at least more extensive documentation), and either a larger library of assets or the ability to design your own, but what’s here is still worth its weight in gold. If you have a story to tell, this is a fantastically fun way to tell it.