Friday, November 18, 2011

He knows WAAAAAAAY too much about Timed Hits, or, How to keep your console RPG combat system interesting: Part One!

This is Part One of a Three-Part series examining innovations in RPG combat. Part Two can be found here, and Part Three, here.

Once upon a time, long before the dystopia we live in now, where every Gun Shoot City or Modern Fightknife is filled to the brim with progress bars, unlockable perks, and precious, precious XP, the role-playing elements in video games were the sole province of the nerdiest of nerds. Unlike other video games, which prized reflexes, or luck, or knowing the rules of sports, all you needed to succeed at the RPGs of yesteryear were patience... and a love of reading.

The major challenge facing your silent, indistinct hero in those classic RPGs (besides eyestrain and your mom's threats to throw the Nintendo in the trash if you didn't let her have the TV back, right now, and no, she does NOT care that you haven't saved in an hour) was combat with the various static pictures of monsters that constantly popped up to assault him.

As you can see, the tactical options open to our hero (named BUTT, in honor of the fact that I was six when I first played Dragon Warrior) are somewhat limited. In fact, it's easy to see this combat as a predecessor to casual Facebook games like Farmville. No, seriously, let's break the gameplay of, say, Dragon Warrior down into its basic gameplay loop.

1)The player has a goal, accomplished by exploring a dungeon.
2)Every dungeon requires a certain number of steps to fully explore, and monsters attack periodically at certain step-intervals.
3)Every combat turn, the player trades some of their health (and sometimes a less-easily replenished but more powerful resource, MP) in exchange for damaging the monster.
4)Bonuses to your stats, gained by increasing your level or buying better equipment, reduce the amount of health that must be paid to defeat any given monster.
5)If the player has sufficient resources to defeat all of the opponents they encounter without spending all of their health by the time they've accomplished the dungeon goal, they win, and begin looking for another dungeon.
6)Repeat until game is finished.

Which isn't to say there isn't tension there - especially since the random number generator being used for the combats can cause the "health paid to defeat monster" cost to vary wildly - but the only player skills required are planning, and the patience to acquire the stats and items needed to execute those (pretty simplistic) plans.

What it translates to, in gameplay terms, is mashing the A button a lot, clicking Fight as fast as you can, and speeding through the combat text. And it's not like this is a problem only afflicting the residents of 1990, either; although Square's Active Time Battle system, in which choices must be made in real-time while the monsters continue to attack, added a bit more pressure to turn-based combat, this basic system is still at the heart of the vast majority of role-playing games.

So, what's an RPG designer to do? How do you liven up this most basic of gameplay loops?

Ask me what my job is, and then ask me the hardest part - Timing

One trick for injecting some extra excitement into your game's battles is to add a timing component. Sick of mashing 'A' constantly? Good news! Now you can mash 'A' selectively instead!

The idea here is that, by adding a small amount of skill-reliant player input into every action your character performs, the player becomes a more active participant in the battle. The question isn't just whether Ignacio Steel XII, Elf Spaceking, has a high enough ATK stat. It's whether Jerry, Dorito Eater, K-Mart Employee, and Gamer, has the skill to input the commands that power up Ignacio's Spacehorsesword, Sparklemune and let him ridestab all his enemies to death.

Why it's good: The added element of risk adds a lot of excitement to a game, especially if the game lets you play with that danger - increasing penalties or making the timing more difficult - in order to enhance the rewards.

Why it's bad: Sometimes it's nice to be able to grind through some random battles without having to watch for the half-second where one of your character's eyes glows slightly redder than normal. And some people, sad to say, suuuuuuuuuck at timing. Poor, Guitar-Hero-loathing weirdos.

Who did it early: Super Mario RPG (1996). This game is so strongly associated with this mechanic that I had to make a supreme act of will not to just put "Timed Hits!" for this whole section and move on. SMRPG used Timed Hits for everything; attacking, defending, special moves, items.

The best use was undoubtedly for the unfortunately named Scan move 'Psychopath." Get the timing right with it, and you'd not only see the enemy's health, but also THEIR VERY THOUGHTS! These could range from the saucy "MAGIC! DEAL with it!," to the heart-wrenching "Don't pity me, Mario!," to the conscientious "Gotta mow the lawn soon!"

They only really had one thing in common: being completely useless to the player. Fun, though!

Who did it best: All of the Mario-based RPGs (of which there have been, if I'm counting right, 6) have some elements of timing, but the handheld games (Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga, Mario & Luigi: Partners in Time, and Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story) push these to the extreme. Of special note is that every attack in these games can be entirely negated with good timing (and most harder battles assume that your relatively fragile plumbers will be dodging everything thrown at them flawlessly). These games, especially the excellent Partners in Time, push the Timed Hits paradigm to the point that every battle becomes a small-scale platforming segment, and they're fantastic, engaging fun.

Honorable Mention: The Shadow Hearts games, which incorporate the timing-based "Judgment Ring" not just into battles, but into winning the lottery, haggling with shopkeepers, even operating a treadmill-powered teleporter to the moon!

Who did it... not so best: Loath as I am to speak ill of the cult favorite Mother/Earthbound series, the third game (never released in the US, but a translated version is not at all difficult to find online, if your conscience will let you play it) features an ill-conceived "rhythm element" that adds needless annoyance and frustration to battles. By tapping along to the beat of the music (which can be near-impossible to discern), the player can combo their attacks, increasing damage. While the feature is almost entirely optional, the game mentions it often enough to make players feel like they're missing something by not taking advantage of this obtuse enhancement.

Which Final Fantasty game used it: Not only was Final Fantasy VIII's Gunblade the coolest gun-sword-chainsaw hybrid my 15-year-old eyes had ever seen, it also gave the player unprecedented control over the flow of battle by... letting you hit R1 at the right time to do a little extra damage. FF8 also countered complaints that the previous games' summon animations were too long and boring by adding a rapid-tapping "Boost" system to the game's Guardian Forces. Meaning that instead of being bored during the animation, you were frustrated, your thumb hurt... and you were bored.

"Wow, we're a lot more mobile here than we are on the map screen..." - Action Instances

One of the biggest problems with the standard turn-based battle system is that it almost entirely divorces the player's experience from the character's. You click "Fight," he leaps twenty feat into the air and rends an eldritch abomination in twain. You press "Cast Gravity," she marshals her mystical might to manipulate the fundamental forces of the universe. If the goal of gaming is to let players do things they otherwise couldn't, this isn't particularly effective as a simulation.

Some games get around this by giving the player significantly more control over the character during battle than at any other point. Usually this involves switching from the standard moving-around-the-map environment to a highly detailed battlefield, and putting the player in direct control of one member of the party.

(I'm distinguishing, for largely arbitrary reasons, this style from games like Secret of Mana or Dark Cloud, where combat occurs in the same world/viewpoint/screen as normal gameplay. For some reason, I've always viewed those games less as RPGs and more like Zelda-with-stats (although, more on that further down)).

Sometimes this battlefield will be a 2D plane; more recent games using this model (the later Star Ocean and Tales games, for instance), use pseudo-3D or real 3D battlefields.

Why it's great: First and foremost, it's just a lot more exciting to physically guide your character's moves. At the same time, a good system won't sacrifice your access to advanced techniques, or to controlling your other party members. It can give you the sense of being both a powerful warrior and a general, truly, viscerally responsible for your party's success in battle.

Why it's bad:
I'll let the Penny Arcade guys cover this one:

Which is to say: Most RPGs feature multiple-character parties. A system that forces you to control only one of those party members, leaving the others to the tender ministrations of the AI, can lead to some... unsavory... scenarios.

Who did it early: Oddly enough, given my earlier comments, Zelda. Specifically, 1988's Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link. Zelda 2 gets mentioned all the time for being an odd game out (in a series with a LOT of strange outliers), and one of the ways it deviates most strongly from the Zelda pattern is in being an RPG, complete with random encounters. Walk off the path on the overworld and you'll quickly start seeing monster icons. Bump into one, or enter a dungeon, and you'll switch from a top-down map view to a side-scrolling battle.

Zelda 2's clunky controls (and often confusing translation) stop it from being as well-regarded as its brethren, but it's interesting to note that this system isn't that different from the ones seen in SNES games like Tales of Phantasia and Star Ocean.

Who did it best: The people at Namco have spent a LOT of time refining the combat in their Tales games. My favorite of the lot is Tales of Symphonia (2004), easily the best of the Nintendo Gamecube's not-particularly-crowded pack of RPGs. Symphonia's combat is fast and challenging, without sacrificing control over your overall party. Plus, I'm a sucker for any game where combat performance is graded and rewarded (as it is with ToS's GRADE system, which trades battlefield performance for bonuses in a second playthrough).

Honorable Mentions: Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria, developed by Star Ocean creators Tri-Ace, had a battle system utilizing the conceit that in-game time on the 3D battlefield only flowed when the player was moving, allowing for increased time for planning and executing strategies.

The Summon Night: Swordcraft Story series on the GBA has an in-depth crafting mode and a fun battle system reminiscent of the 2D Tales games. The interesting added quirk here is the ability to break a boss's weapon in combat, earning the recipe to craft it yourself.

Who did it... not so best: I never played much of Star Ocean: Till the End of Time, the game referenced in the above Penny Arcade cartoon, but what I played of it seemed to bear out Gabe and Tycho's accusations.

Still, though, this is a hard "genre" for me to criticize. It's just... FUN to run around the battlefield, executing simplistic combos on your foes. As long as the character I'm controlling moves fluidly, and the game isn't viciously punishing me for my lack of attention to my other characters, I'm going to enjoy myself.

Which Final Fantasy game used it: Well, by disqualifying games where exploration and combat happen on the same map, I can't use Final Fantasy XII, by far the most "action-y" game in the main series. So, with a biiiiiit of a stretch, I'm going to point to the PSP side-game, Final Fantasy: Dissidia, which has an extremely simplistic, tile-based overworld that quickly segues into elaborate 3D battles.

Phew! Close one!

Next time: Intense refinement, and intense weirdness!


  1. I really like Partners in Time. Glad to see it mentioned, for some stupid reason.

  2. All three are great games (although Bowser's Inside Story puts a little too much focus on various mini-games).

  3. Was hoping to see Legend of Dragoon get a mention. The progression through the "Addition" combos was amazing to my 13 year old self. Just the existence of the "Addition" combos made Legend of Dragoon the best RPG ever, in my eyes.