For the longest time, I was convinced that RPGs were one of my three favorite video game genres, up there with platformers like Metroid and adventure games like Monkey Island. I must've been delusional. Either that, or I was spoiled by some very, very good RPGs.
I grew up with the kind of roleplaying games that make everyone's Top 10 list, or at least the ones that defined the genre. Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior--the originals--established the groundwork. Chrono Trigger, EarthBound, and Super Mario RPG for the SNES continue to impress people after all these years. Later on, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic brought even more depth and customization to the genre. I was raised on some excellent, significant games.
I started expanding my knowledge of RPGs by sticking to the series I knew: the Game Boy Color remake of Dragon Warrior III, and before that, Final Fantasy II (IV) and Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest. Though these weren't the groundbreaking experiences that the aforementioned games were, I still enjoyed them and dedicated a good amount of time to them over the years. I picked up Knights of the Old Republic II when it came out, and though it fell short of the original KotOR in many ways, it improved upon it enough to be just about as good.
In other words, a sequel was always a safe bet with RPGs.
Or so I thought.
I was ecstatic when I discovered a sequel to Chrono Trigger. I played about ten minutes of Chrono Cross before rejecting it entirely. Who was I? What was I doing? Why should I care? How did this have anything to do with Chrono Trigger? I'll give it a second chance someday, but at the time, there was absolutely nothing you could do to convince me to play any longer.
Then I tried out Final Fantasy VI--some will find this blasphemous, but there were just too many characters and too many quests that were allegedly optional but totally necessary to having a shot at beating the game. Paper Mario lacked virtually everything I loved about Super Mario RPG and replaced it with dull gameplay and and--pardon the expression--flat characters. Dragon Warrior II remains one of the worst RPGs I've ever played, thanks to its poorly balanced combat and the perpetual sensation of being utterly lost.
Things didn't get much better when I branched out to different series. Golden Sun had a nice blend of roleplaying and puzzle-solving, but the plot began to bore me and lose me after a while, and the fact that the entire overworld map is a combination of forests, clearings, water, and mountains didn't do much to rejuvenate my interest.
Still, the game had enough promise to warrant trying out the sequel, Golden Sun: The Lost Age. I liked that the puzzle element was stronger than ever, but the battles seemed like a last-minute addition when the development team was reminded that they were making an RPG and not a straight-up puzzler--approximately three battles in the entire game required any effort whatsoever. Astoundingly, the last quarter of the game almost made up for having to suffer through the duller parts of two consecutive games, but I can't say I'm a big fan of the series if only really like 1/8 of it.
Breath of Fire for the Game Boy Advance fared far worse. I appreciated the simpler plot that didn't require remembering as many names and events as Golden Sun, but neither the story nor the characters caught my interest. Worse yet was the combat system: ATTACK. ATTACK. ATTACK. HEAL. ATTACK. ATTACK. Et cetera. Winning battles had little to do with strategy and almost everything to do with how many hit points and healing items you had. If I'm not playing it for the gameplay or the story, then why am I playing it?
Breath of Fire II was something of a lateral shift: The increased complexity meant there was more to keep things interesting, but also more little things I would definitely miss without a walkthrough (and I really detest leaving a game incomplete due to ignorance). The game world was even less compelling to me than before. If it weren't for the fact that the young man I was babysitting at the time was also playing Breath of Fire II and needed some pointers from time to time, I probably wouldn't remember that much about it.
Okay, so maybe branching out to new series wasn't the best idea. Even my favorite video game series haven't had perfect track records--a few Mega Man games immediately spring to mind--so perhaps I'd have better luck returning to a series I knew.
The GBA remake of Final Fantasy V ended up being Breath of Fire all over again. A derivative plot, repetitive combat, a cookie-cutter villain ("Ha ha ha! Look at how evil I am!"), and characters that didn't matter to me...why, again, was I playing this game? As I mentioned in my review of the game, the alliterative ability to customize the characters through continual class changes helped to make the game worth playing, but it was still only acceptable entertainment. Perhaps there was a reason a few Final Fantasy games weren't originally released in the US; perhaps I should stick with more mainstream ones, like Final Fantasy VIII.
Final Fantasy VIII dragged on quite painfully. The only character I really liked couldn't stay in my party for more than five seconds, the overworld map was excessively huge, and there were just too many things to do, and too few ways to do them both thoroughly and in a reasonable amount of time. I've talked about this game before, but it's worth mentioning again because it was the turning point where I decided that I really don't like RPGs that much; I just like a select few RPGs that I grew up with.
Still, I'd already played through a decent number of Final Fantasy games. If I couldn't have bragging rights from having completed 100% of the optional material in FFVIII, I could at least claim that I've played through every single Final Fantasy game. Except, y'know, all those spinoffs and sequels for the systems I don't own. That's why I picked up Final Fantasy I & II: Dawn of Souls for the GBA. I was curious to see what FFI would look like, but I was more curious to see the official FFII for the first time.
As they say about the Internet, there are some things you can't unsee. Final Fantasy II is one of them. A relentlessly linear plot, a perpetually unstable party lineup, an inexcusably barren overworld map, staggeringly useless townsfolk, and unacceptably overpowered monsters around every other corner. Just as the job system helped to save FFV, the game mechanic where you use something over and over to level it up helped to save this game, but it just wasn't enough. Curiosity gradually turned into drudgery.
On the subject of drudgery, my girlfriend and I just completed hour 70 of Tales of Symphonia for the GameCube. What started out as a creative co-op RPG with a real-time battle system has devolved into That Game That's Keeping Us From Playing LEGO Batman. I don't do well with complex video game plots, and I just can't keep up with this one, nor can I tolerate the Golden Sun aesthetic of forest, clearing, ocean, mountain any longer. We've even forsaken all uncompleted sidequests, and still the game will not end.
Maybe I make these games out to be worse than they really are, but I've been searching for an RPG, new or old, that even comes close to the level of quality and enjoyment I found in the games I grew up with. If nothing else, I'd like to find a game that'll hold my attention for longer than the first half, even if it's got some bumps along the way.
I've got a few RPGs in my backlog that will either confirm that I don't really like the RPG genre or prove that I've just been playing the wrong games this whole time: Dragon Warrior IV for the NES, Mega Man X: Command Mission for the GameCube, Lufia: The Legend Returns for the Game Boy Color, and a translation of Mother 3 (I.e. EarthBound 2) available on an emulator. And that's to say nothing of Return to Krondor and Neverwinter Nights: Diamond Edition for the PC, which I started to play once upon a time and then got distracted by something else.
After playing through a string of RPGs ranging from unpleasant to fairly decent, I think I've determined what an RPG needs to offer for me to truly enjoy it:
1.) Likeable characters. People I'd want to hang out with. I don't need troubled pasts and emo M.O.s unless there's a positive or unusual spin on them. Strong character traits or a few interesting secrets can't hurt.
2.) Meaningful dialogue. If I wanted to hear people talk for an hour, I'd watch a movie. I play games to play games, and you can say a lot more with concise dialogue than I think most developers realize. If you don't have anything plot-worthy for the characters to say, then make it quirky. Virtually every character in EarthBound is worth talking to, and most of them say nothing of value. But, if you have to string multiple paragraphs together, at least let the characters move around the room, or wave their arms, or something.
3.) Meaningful battles. A variety of enemies. Real strategy required for most fights, if not every fight. Battles shouldn't just be filler to superficially extend the length of the game or hold you up from reaching the next plot point; the battles and the story should be integrated seamlessly into the game experience so that it never feels like suddenly shifting gears--oh, we're fighting monsters now; oh, it's time for a cutscene.
4.) Reasonable bonus material. I don't want a 1/1000 chance of a rare enemy dropping an item that will allow me to complete a sidequest. I don't want challenges that are completely and utterly unrelated to the core gameplay unless they're pure fluff. I don't want to do something wrong with no indication that I'm doing it wrong and then be unable to complete a sidequest because I can't go back and undo my mistake. I don't want to train forever to beat a boss who's harder than the final boss and who gives me a powerful weapon that, at this point, is meaningless because I've already defeated the strongest thing in the game. And I expressly don't want to spend more time on the optional material than the actual game.
There, is that so much to ask? I've by no means given up on RPGs, but I have serious doubts about whether I'll ever find anything that can stand up to Chrono Trigger, KotOR, and the others. I'm not claiming those games are the best RPGs ever; they're merely the best RPGs I've ever played. They'll always have a place in my heart, but if I can find a game that's even better than my absolute favorites, then isn't this whole process worthwhile?