13. Dragon Quest III, a.k.a. Dragon
The earlier Dragon Quest games
usually had a section where players were left to their own ends.
This one had the most substantial example.
Developed by Enix
Designed by Yuuji Horii
Platform: Famicom, NES
Length: Very long
Until this game, and unlike the series
inspiration Wizardry, the Dragon Quest games gave the player
pre-made characters (DQII), or at least those with randomized
stats (DQ). This was the first game to use a Wizardry-like
system of letting the player actually create his teammates in a
simple creation process, giving them names and classes and even
letting him swap them in and out of his party at will. The result
was a game with greater longevity than many Japanese console RPGs.
Players can play with a party with the basic Soldier, Pilgrim and
Wizard, or experiment with other unusual configurations like three
Merchants or Jesters.
Up until Dragon Quest III, the
venerable series did have some non-linear aspects. Most of the
original game is not really blocked in any way other than by being
infested with monsters that can instantly kill an unprepared player.
The second and third games have a substantial portion of them taken
up in a search for important items scattered throughout their worlds.
One interesting thing that separates
these Dragon Quest games from many others is the role bridges play in
them. Bridges tend to signify a major change in the difficulty of
monsters the player encounters. If the player is still struggling
with the monsters he's fighting and sees a bridge, he'll know not to
traipse across it. There are exceptions to this rule, and sometimes
monsters improve upon crossing invisible boundaries, but the use of
some element of the scenery to indicate to the player that difficulty
is going up is an idea that far more RPGs could stand to borrow.
While most games use "hard"
barriers to prevent player access to later areas, Dragon Quest is
more likely to use "soft" barriers, where the player can go
where he wants, maybe after an early section that's more linear, but
it might be unwise to do so because of the strength of the monsters.
In an action game player skill can make up for undue numeric
difficulty, but in a turn-based combat RPG the numbers and flags that
define a monster's abilities are the challenge, and there's
only so much the player can do to get around them.
If you think about it, this poses
unique problems when designing a non-linear RPG. To a player with 40
maximum hit points, going from an area where the monsters do 12 hit
points of damage to an area where they do 20 is an almost unbearable
increase in danger. If the quest path is mostly straight and
one-way, then the monster spawn zones can be placed to match.
But if the game isn't linear, then the
designer has no idea where the player will be going next. The player
might stray into areas intended for far hardier characters than he's
had the chance to build, and could get wiped out quickly, causing
frustration. I think some frustration isn't necessarily bad in a
game, but no one wants to challenge the gods unprepared. But on the
other hand, if all the areas have monsters that are a good challenge
for characters from the moment they are able to enter them, then
growth will be rapid at first and soon the player will cruse through
the rest of the game.
The Dragon Quest games, to my
eyes, solve the problem by taking advantage of an interesting aspect
of RPG character growth, the fact that the effective rate of
character growth actually decelerates over time.
Take 1st and 2nd edition Advanced
Dungeons & Dragons level growth as an example. Back in
those days, a character's starting hit points were determined by the
role of a single die. Upon reaching each additional level, players
got to roll another die and add that to their total. The result was,
at first level the player's hit points could be as low as one,
but with each additional level gained the law of averages caused HP
to trend towards average, making them more generally survivable
against foes of equal level. However, the amount of hit points
gained with each level remains constant, even though the player is
accumulating more and more of them. A first level mage in 2nd
Edition AD&D had an average of 2.5 hit points. Gaining an
additional level approximately doubles that figure. But a tenth
level mage has about 25 hit points, and gaining level 11 still adds
on just 2.5 more. The gain relative to what he already has becomes
less and less as the character grows.
More recent versions of D&D even
out the randomness a bit more by giving characters maximum hit points
at first level, and JRPGs like Dragon Quest work around this by
giving characters some extra HP at the start, by subtly increasing
growth rate at higher levels, and sometimes by even starting players
at higher levels, but the overall principle still applies. As the
player's party gains levels, they may grow linearly, or even in a
steadily accelerating rate, but the effective benefit from those
Dragon Quest games never start the
player, from first level, in a wholly non-linear part of the game;
that bit only kicks in once he's gotten some levels under his belt.
The result is, that large area with monsters all of about the same
level, if made just a little harder than usual, can suffice to
provide good challenge for quite some time. A level 21 player may
struggle a bit when facing level 26 monsters, but he won't be wiped
out as a level 1 player would be fighting level 6 foes.
The non-linear sections of the early
Dragon Quest games (IV does not apply!) allow the
player some freedom in his exploration, but have to be carefully
handled to continue to give the player a sense of danger. But it
isn't all that bad if the player's party gets a little strong
compared to the opposition during the tail end of these sections. If
an RPG couples monster difficulty too closely to PC advancement, then
the player never gets the feeling that his wards are really
improving. The worst games in this regard are those that multiply by
scaling values to directly tie monster difficulty to player level.
Final Fantasy Tactics and Final Fantasy VIII are two
notable games that do this. Oblivion does it too. If
monsters are always slightly stronger than the player, then what on
Alefgard/Ivalice/Tamriel are experience levels for?
14. Ufouria, a.k.a. Hebereke
It's like Metroid meets Hello Kitty,
true, but it's actually rather a cool little game.
Developed by Sunsoft.
Directed by "Chow-Mu-Sow" and
Designed by "Ucchi"
Platform: Famicom, NES (European,
This is a rather quirky open world game
that, despite being the subject of an infamous Nintendo Power
spread, never made it to the United States. The reasons are possibly
related to Sunsoft's continued disappointment over Blaster Master.
It's actually fairly rare in any territory, and is regarded as a
By the way, if you decide to hunt this
game up and play it, you should probably be made aware of the primary
means of attack. Early in the game, before weapon items have been
found, the only way to harm enemies is to jump on them with the
down direction held on the control pad. If you jump on them
Mario style you'll just get hurt, but holding down causes the
characters to present their feet in order to give the monster a good
stomp. Once killed, the enemy usually leaves behind a weird blue
face that can be used as a weapon against other monsters.
The game's map is found early, but is
more like the one from Goonies II than Super Metroid,
showing the general location of the areas and sometimes it shows the
location of objects, but not exits or any detail, and other things
only if special detectors are found.
This is another game that starts the
player out with only very basic maneuvers and makes him find 90% of
the abilities he can eventually have. In this case, some of those
abilities come in the form of alternate characters he can control.
Unlike Legacy of the Wizard (see below), the player can switch
between these guys at any time, which is kind of a weird decision
from a design standpoint. Only one character walk on ice and float
on water, yet another can sink in water, one can climb walls (once
the appropriate item is found), one can destroy bombable walls
(again, with the right item)... and another has floaty jumps that let
him cover long distances.
There is really no good reason all of
these abilities can't be given to one character, especially
since they otherwise have similar abilities and share the same damage
meter. But on the other hand, a lot of the game's charm comes from
its animations, and there'd be a lot less of that to see if the
player only had one guy to play.
As far as game structure, there are
some rather fiendish secret routes in this one, like doors found on
platforms surrounded on all sides by air, and which must be sort of
lucked onto from above. There's another place where the ghost
character has to jump from cloud to cloud to make it to an important
area, but there's a gap between two clouds that looks too far to
jump. It is too far, but if the player tries it, a cloud
shoots up from below, just as the player passes it.
While the game's character graphics
show an undeniable Sanrio influence, the backgrounds seem a lot more
detailed than they have to be. Have a look at the water for example,
those animated waves look a lot more realistic than they have any
right being in a game like this.
One thing about Ufouria that
could possibly be regarded as a negative in how it takes after
Metroid is its health system. Both games start the player
with a pitiful amount of health, far less than maximum, and when
starting a new life they go back to that minimal energy level. In
Ufouria the player can eventually get up to 250 health, but every
time a life begins, he's back to 10. At least in Metroid enemies
drop health rather frequently! Maybe one in eight kills in Ufouria
drop a health ball, and those are only worth 2 energy each!
The only realistic way to refill health
is to find Medicine or Water of Life somewhere in the game, which
refill 50 and all health respectively, but each can only be found
once per life, and neither can the player carry more than one of
either at a time.
While I think we can all agree that
this is going too far, there is something to be said for the spirit
it adds to a game. It means that the player can't ever just bludgeon
his way through any areas. Any time he's going somewhere to fight a
boss, even if he's going through the areas at the very start of the
game, he can't just rush through and take the hits. Whether the
damage taken at any point leading up to a boss, or facing the boss
himself, it counts the same. The player must pay attention if
he's going to survive, and classic gamers tend to appreciate that.
Archive (I'm as surprised as you are)