[Holy God this is a long post. To any of you who read it all, I appreciate it.]
We all know them, and some of us love them. The distinctly Japanese RPGs, with characters standing in lines opposing each other in way resembling colonial-era warfare, stepping forward one at a time to perform some kind of action and then gallantly (or foolishly) allowing the next in line to do so.
These games used to enthrall me. When I was younger, I consumed FFIV-IX, Xenogears, Chrono Cross, Legend of Legaia, et al.
Now, though, they frustrate me and bore me to tears. As a genre, I find the gameplay to be extremely antiquated. I was excited to hear that FFXII had tinkered with the combat formula into something of a hybrid between realtime and turnbased, that there were no random encounters, and that the hamfisted romance/apocalypse plot had been dropped in favor of a more subtle, smaller-scale political plot.
I played it, and it wholly turned me off. Yes, there were some good things. I never got far enough to comment upon the plot. I enjoyed the logic paths you can program your AI teammates with. I kind of liked the grid system. I liked being able to see my enemies- though you usually can't avoid them in any way. I liked the chain system. I liked being able to move where I want, but it almost never made a difference; enemies were guaranteed to hit no matter how far away you are, so long as they were originally in range when they began their attack. I found that it was much like playing an MMORPG by yourself. I found myself trekking through nearly-identical environments (Sewer tunnel, tram shaft, crystal mines...) and being forced to fight every enemy I came across. It was wholly monotonous. I would perform an action and then wait, watching as my enemies and allies did this and that, and I milled about while my action bar refilled. It was boring and repetitive, and I felt as if my skill had no bearing on how the game played out.
But time and time again I am drawn to this genre, perhaps by the lure of epic-scale gameplay, orchestral soundtrack, large variety in items, etc.
Sifting through my GBA games, I found Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga. It was a game I'd played four years ago but never finished, and I remembered it as another JRPG that I never had the willpower to finish. For whatever reason, I turned it on and entered a battle. And by God, it was fun! This got me to thinking, what made it so different? All that was really new was a few button presses. But the smaller touches began to stand out to me. I started thinking about updating the way RPGs work as a whole.
1.) "We stand apart as a team, united individually!" In the standard RPG, your heroes stand in a line. They share an enemy. Apart from that, they're strangers. Sure, you get a healer character. But that's just her (it's almost always a she) role. Maybe you have a character that has the ability to shield others, but it's a gimmick. There is little to no interaction between your allies, they simply fight at the same time. Their strategies are independent of one another.
Mario and Luigi nod to one another as they begin battle. Mario handles the enemies that are weak to fire, and Luigi handles those that are weak to lightning. Mario picks up Luigi by the ankles and begins to spin him around, tossing him as a projectile at the enemy. Luigi is hit, and Mario tosses him a mushroom. Mario falls. Rather than letting him lie there, Luigi hefts his brother onto his back. It slows him down, but he won't let them attack the helpless Mario. Luigi then stoops down, opens his brother's mouth, and makes him swallow a 1-up.
These are small touches, but they come together to add a lot to the sense that these two are a team. It really looks like they're working together (which is aided by animation that adds character without being long or repetitive) and I get a sense that their strategies require one another. (And so they do- without one or the other, certain moves are unavailable, it becomes harder to dodge attacks, and one must rely upon himself for items).
This is one thing I realized from playing Superstar Saga. Put in practice, it's comical. But it doesn't have to be that way. It all depends upon the animation, the art style, and the moves used. Combo attacks can be performed in all manner of ways, and it's something of a heroic image to have one character carrying a wounded ally with him or her. Stooping to apply first aid adds a sense of teamwork.
2) "Casting Poison is kind of my thing. Why? I don't know, I was born that way." Class "restrictions" are just that. Traditional stat leveling is static, and in this way it makes the game static. The more damage I shirk off, the higher my defense should grow over time. The more damage I take, the more HP I get. Equipment proficiencies grow through equipment use. Do I cast a lot of healing spells? Then my magic power grows, and I get more healing spells. Through dynamic growth, I become a healer archetype. But I can always change, given enough time. This mimics the more "Western" RPG style. It also allows for character variation. You think Fighter, Mage, Thief, Healer. Think of your surprise when you get close to a mage and he/she cracks a vial of acid over your head, or that Fighter grabs your purse.
3) "Are you crazy, man? Get back in line!" This is the worst offender when it comes to making the game seem static. Characters, on their turn, are suddenly filled with life (the contrast to this is that every other character is not a living entity) and spring forward, doing their charge with a flash and a boom, and then sink back and fall still again.
The way I envision it, a character should move, act, and end their turn. This sounds like it's nearing SRPG, but it's actually closer to D&D. A character with a higher speed moves further in a turn. You can choose to give up an action to move further. With a balanced team, this won't become a shuffling game of cat and mouse. Is an enemy faster than you? Time to draw your bows and rifles, and charge your spells. This makes ranged attacks unique from melee attacks, whereas in traditional RPGs they are exactly the same. Also, it makes you think about which enemy is safe to engage- if you get close to them and attack, you're right by them for the next round. Suddenly, large enemies are more formidable than small ones. Strategies arise like flanking bonuses (again, teamwork) and staying together for defensive bonuses, combo attacks, and aiding allies with items. Skirmish formation will make area attacks less effective. Hiding weaker characters behind a front rank protects them. Characters with spears gain unique abilities (set defense!) and the like.
4)"Stand still so I can hit you!" What the Hell? This is bad. Bad. It is not fun to watch your enemy leap around and damage you. It makes the game boring, and it makes you feel helpless, removing your sense of involvement from the game.
In Superstar Saga, you can jump over enemy attacks and even counterattack. (Your enemy can sometimes do the same.) This makes the battles fun. It also adds the player's actual skill into the way the battle plays out, rather than a decision making/number crunching scenario.
Imagine a swordsman running to another, who has a choice- guard himself and hopefully reduce damage (defense dependent- and does he/she have a shield?) or try to parry (Dependent on agility and equipment. Harder to do, but gives a chance for counterattack. Good luck doing this with a bow, however.) Careful button timing determines success or failure, but stats and other variables change how long of a time you're alloted or how successful you are.
5) "You want to be a wizard? Well, can you throw a brick?" Magic in JRPG's is usually treated the same as any other move. This removes the wonder and exoticness of magic. Spice it up. Maybe a character learns spells from studying tomes. Maybe they need a turn (or a number of turns, depending on spell strength) of uninterrupted concentration to complete the invocation. Suddenly, the fighter must hang back and protect the wizard. Maybe spells take material components. Perhaps two wizards can collaborate and strengthen or even mix spells. If you want to go really wild, maybe the effectiveness of a spell is based on a brief rythym segment.
6) "Sneak attack!" No more random encounters. It adds nothing to the game but a sense of frustration. A handful of JRPG's let you see your enemy beforehand, but some of these make the enemies charge at you (this is okay with enemy soldiers, bad with benign slimes) headfirst. Let me sneak around or even outrun enemies. If I attack an enemy's back, I should get first attack and more damage. (Earthbound applies here.)