Yearning for the golden days of RPGs

Beautiful sprites and simple 3d in BOFIV

Let me talk today, a bit off topic from board games, about the heyday of JRPGs and how limited technology drove innovative game design choices. In 1997 Final Fantasy VII launched. It had a sexy razzle dazzle commercial that made the video game look like a movie. And people took the bait, hook, line and sinker. Millions of people bought a game in a genre that was previously only reserved for the most niche weebs like myself. So many people bought FFVII that other publishers thought it might be good to jump in the pool and bring over games that were previously left to languish untranslated in the Japanese market. Similar to how everyone had to copy Super Mario Bros on the Nintendo, everyone who was anyone had to have at least one RPG series, if not two, for good measure. It was truly the golden age of the genre.

I wax poetic about all of this, because despite loving games to this day and admiring how far we’ve come in terms of graphics and gameplay and even virtual reality, I am still living in the golden age through my nostalgia glasses. Firing up a PS1 game, and hearing that iconic Sony logo noise brings me right back to being in high school, in my basement, buried in the latest RPG release.

While cutting edge at the time FFVII has aged poorly.

Some of these have aged… poorly. The PS1 was not a powerful system, and Final Fantasy VII looks downright archaic by modern standards. But other examples in the genre stand the test of time and still hold up today if played in the right format. I recently fired up Breath of Fire IV and was amazed at how charming the game was 20+ years after the fact. Ironically games like these that weren’t necessarily pushing the limits of the processing power of the system are the ones that hold up the best. 

Broadly speaking developers took 3 to trying to make an RPG on the system. The first is 3d models with pre-rendered backgrounds. This is your classic PS1 final fantasy title where the art of the backgrounds is the best that current technology could render and the camera angle is fixed while you wander these paintings of a sort with a crude 3d model. Other examples are Chrono Cross and Legend of Dragoon. These often age the most poorly because the pre-rendered backgrounds were created for a certain resolution and the 3d at the time couldn’t really push enough polygons to make the characters terribly readable or realistic. Another approach was to just double down on 2d and create beautiful painterly games like Legend of Mana or Valkyrie Profile. At the time folks were not always excited about this because 2d games were not the latest and greatest technology. But these games hold up relatively ok because they were not relying on the underpowered polygonal graphics of the early 3d system. The third type of approach is by far my favorite, and is the system Breath of Fire IV and others use. 

Sticking to 2d worked well for Legend of Mana

Here the world itself is 3d, oftentimes with sprites mapped unto the 3d to give it more dimension, and the characters are traditional 2d sprites. To my mind this is the best of both worlds. You have these incredibly expressive animated characters paired with a somewhat rudimentary but immersive 3d world. Unlike the previous two examples, the three dimensions actually matter in that you need a camera system in order to rotate around your characters and navigate the world. Other games that use this style are Breath of Fire III, Xenogears, and the amazing Grandia. The design was created out of the limitation of the technology. Consequently when the ps2 and future systems came along and more mature 3d graphics were possible developers got away from this type of design. They literally don’t make games like this anymore, in part because those limitations are gone. 

In recent times there is some energy being put towards trying to recapture the spirit of this generation of games, with mixed success. Square Enix, one of the most prolific creators during the heyday put together a studio that was unironically called RPG Factory. And  just like a factory it rapidly produced three games in relatively short order that aped classic games like Chrono Trigger. But something of the soul was lost here, and it’s hard to define exactly what.

RPG Factory produces games aping this style

I have some guesses as to what might have happened however. For one thing, the Playstation 1 RPGs commanded the top talent of that era to work on these games that were then cutting edge. Some of those same names are still working in games, but are more likely working on current cutting edge vs throwback like titles. For another, imitation while the highest form of flattery is not necessarily enough to stand on its own. Trying to ape old titles feels more like a sort of pantomime than something truly inspired. Kind of like how a cover band is a good imitation but is always missing a certain something. Other modern games that aim for a classic feel or look are Octopath Traveler, that looks something like if you’re super Nintendo copy of Final Fantasy got put through some amazing Instagram filters, and Bravely Default II that has an almost twee aesthetic harkening back to earlier titles. And both of these are good and capture some of that classic feel in their own way, but they are not the A-team bringing all that they’ve got.

Octopath Traveler is certainly beautiful

I am fully aware that a lot of this is nostalgia on my part. A time and a place where I had a lot of free time to explore and fall in love with the genre. A player revisiting these games now without any context might wonder what the big deal is. But I would hope that some of the charm and ingenuity of these games would still come through 20 years later. It is striking to me how much technology defines video games and movies where it is hardly a factor at all in the board game world. Granted the manufacturing techniques of games have gotten remarkably advanced and you see more and more grandiose productions on kickstarter every week. But on the whole the hobby is much more timeless; there is not a certain style of board game produced in a 5 year span of the 90s like the games I am talking about. There are trends and fads like the hundreds of roll & write games produced in the last two years, and the me-too deckbuilders of the early 2010s, but these are also not driven by limitation, but imitation.

There is also the tragedy of how on earth to play these games in modern times even if you wanted to fight through their somewhat archaic nature. Sony has not proven to be the best curators of their old systems, so no modern system can play these right out of the box. Instead they can be played on PSP or PS Vita or a PS3 if you still have one kicking around. Original disc copies of Breath of Fire go for roughly $100 on ebay so that avenue is pretty price prohibitive, not to mention that PS1 games look terrible on modern TVs without a lot of tweaks. More obscure board games go out of print but if you do manage to track down a copy there’s never a question of how to play it. There are more illicit ways to play PS1 games out there of course, and people often seek out these methods because it is often the easiest in addition to being the cheapest. 

During these strange covid times it is nice to escape into nostalgia once in a while. With that said, I think there is a weekend of Breath of Fire IV ahead of me, and maybe my non-high school self will not get stuck on a tough boss battle halfway through. What is your favorite nostalgia escape and in what media?