Monday, January 30, 2012

Game 1: Phantasy Star (SMS) - Introduction

This is a game that needs no introduction, but I'll give one anyway. Possibly first console RPG released in the US (I can't find an accurate date for this or Miracle Warriors) and definitely the first to have a sci-fi theme, Phantasy Star kicks off an epic adventure that spans four games in the main series. With strong influences from Ultima (evident by the overhead view for towns and the world map, and first-person for dungeons), Phantasy Star sets itself apart by telling a story with characters that show personality and are deeply involved in the events. Alis watches as her brother is killed; swearing revenge, she sets out to vanquish the one responsible for his death.

I had never heard of this game as a kid. Our family was a Nintendo home (at least until Nintendo 64, but that's another story). So I heard little of the Genesis, and much less of the Sega Master System. However, even if I had heard of this game, I probably couldn't talk my parents into paying $200 for the console and this game. A few years back I was fortunate to have found GameTap, and played this through there for about 5 hours. Being on a time limit I was trying as many games as I could and jumped from game to game to get a feel for them. I remember getting a cat, and finding a statue of a man in a dungeon. Beyond that it's a little hazy, and I probably didn't get much further than that. I'm looking forward to getting into this tomorrow night.

Seeing as how I'm still without a Sega Master System, I'll play through this on the Xbox 360 version included on Sonic's Ultimate Genesis Collection. I've planned ahead and already unlocked the game, which required playing a 2-player game of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (yes, it needed to be a 2-player game); it seemed odd for unlocking a 1-player RPG, but I've learned that the same person programmed both, so I guess that's connection enough. It's unfortunate there aren't digital copies of the manuals for the games included on this compilation, but I was able to find one online that I'll read through tonight. Tomorrow, I'll play.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Making Maps Better: Part 1

I don't know about anyone else, but a favorite part of playing these old CRPGs is map making. A stack of handy graph paper sits on my table that would probably last me a good 30 - 40 games if I used both sides. However, with the number of games I have on this list, I'm exploring a more digital solution.

There's nothing quite like a clean graph paper map.
My hope is to reproduce maps like the above using a handy tool. I'm making one of my own, and I'll post it for everyone else once I've been able to solidify a design and make it presentable enough for others to use. Before that happens, it needs to have more features than it currently has such as saving maps, naming them, loading them, exporting them as a bmp or png, etc. I have a lot of ideas for the app, but since this is my first time programming in ActionScript 3 (or any Flash based programming), it'll take some time to get familiar with the language and its capabilities before I have something up.

Honestly, I was hoping to have something up this weekend, but I overestimated how different AS3 is from my previous programming. Right now I have something workable for myself, but hardly anything to be proud of or useful to anyone else. It only supports one map at a time at a fixed 30 x 30 without any resizing, moving, or expanding of the map. As an end goal for this, I'm hoping to make something useable as a tool to create an archive that others can submit maps to for storage, load to edit, and submit revisions. I really don't know how to do all that, but it's nice to dream. First step in any case, complete this phase and get something up so that others can take a look, play with it, and find what's missing.

Left: original version; Upper: current version; Lower: alternative version
For those interested: the idea here is to create a program using the arrow keys for adding walls, doors, pathways, and markers. Currently, moving the cursor is done with arrow keys, walls are added by holding Ctrl and pressing a direction, doors (not implemented yet) are similar, pathways currently are like walls except holing Ctrl + Shift, and markers are placed with Enter (erased with space bar). This is mostly a prototype to get an idea for what it'd look like, there's still a long way to go to reach a stable program, but I see hope for it. Eventually, markers will have descriptions and unique icons, walls will have doors and special types, and the map itself will have coordinates and transform options.

Thinking on it, this application doesn't need to be limited to grid based maps; it could incorporate tile graphics, and rooms for adventure games. They're all pretty similar when you break down a room or square into a list of walls and exits. I'm setting a goal of the end of next month to have a working alpha that a few here can take a stab at if anyone is interested.

Please do let me know if I'm reinventing the wheel though. I couldn't find anything like this in any of my searching all week for a simple tool that has these features, so I've started this. Thoughts, and suggestions now before I waste anymore time on this are always welcome.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Making the Cut - Part 1 (Deadly Towers 1987)

If you remember (or go back to read) my previous post on determining a CRPG, then you'll find this rubric familiar. Feel free to skip to the bottom where I use it to show why I'm not playing Deadly Towers, and I include Phantasy Star for comparison. To start, I broke down the elements most commonly found in CRPGs here:

  1. Character Advancement: practice/experience based advancement, stat or level increases, multiple classes or characters, customize characters
  2. Combat: character stats used for combat, additional combat options, turn based
  3. Items and Equipment: store to buy and sell, equipment decisions, item decisions
  4. Story: main story at the forefront; world full of lore; descriptions for objects, people, and places
  5. Exploration: open world from the beginning, visited locations remain open
  6. Quests and Puzzles: side quests not related to the main quest, puzzles and riddles to solve

    Now, I've put it into practice on a number of games; so far it's stood up to my intuition. This is how I use it: each aspect is worth 1 point except the first item in character, combat, and items, which are worth 2 points (max is 20). If a game has 10 points or more, then I'll consider it a CRPG. I'm sure this isn't perfect, so let me know where improvements are needed.

    I condensed my thoughts as much as I could in the above while trying to maintain intuitive meanings; however, in case my intention isn't clear here's a more detailed explanation for each point:

    Character Advancement
    • Practice/experience based advancement - This covers skills getting better through use or experience points gained from repeated actions (e.g. combat, tasks, exploration, or quests). This doesn't include levels or experience gained at set points in the game (i.e. get to dungeon level 2, become character level 2).
    • Stat or level increases - Why is this separate? Well, to give the games that don't cover the item above a chance. Some games I'd still consider CRPGs even if they have set levels.
    • Multiple classes or characters - Character choices feels more like role-playing.
    • Customize characters - Customization beyond a character's class. Choosing stats, skills, and appearance are examples of this. Again, increased options for role-playing and creating a character to suit the player's wants are a good thing.
    • Character stats used for combat - If the game isn't using character stats, then why does my character matter? Static damage based on equipment, buffs from items, weapon range, and collision based hitting are all examples where this isn't the case. If it doesn't matter what character I'm playing, then it isn't role-playing.
    • Additional combat options - Something beyond attacking, defending, and healing. This includes magic, sub-weapons, evasive techniques, or something that makes fighting more interesting than button mashing.
    • Turn-based - Turn-based combat just feels more strategic, more RPG-like. I'll accept some real-time aspects, but turn-based mechanics should underlie the actions.
    Items and Equipment
    • Store to buy and sell - I'm warming up to the idea that CRPGs need an economy that matters. What's the purpose of collecting all these swords if I can't sell the ones I don't use anymore? Note that buying and selling are necessary to count this one.
    • Equipment decisions - Interesting equipment decisions. (i.e. higher armor, or lesser armor with elemental bonuses; trident or spear?) If everything is just an upgrade, then it's not a decision, there's nothing to weigh or consider.
    • Item decisions - Same goes here, there needs to be interesting considerations for items. (i.e. When should I use the protective shield? Should I save the flying boots for pits or use it to avoid attacks?) I don't include healing items. Also, the distinction between items and equipment in my mind is items are consumable (or one or more uses, but limited) and equipment are not.
    • Main story at the forefront - The story is mentioned more than in the manual, at the beginning of the game, and at the end. It's the main goal of the game, and it should matter throughout the game.
    • World full of lore - Whether from NPCs, signs, old computers, audio messages, etc. the world should present a complete picture. Information regarding ancient empires or even messages scrawled on the walls, the purpose here is to get background on the game world.
    • Descriptions for objects, people, and places - This is mainly for items and equipment. Knowing which weapons are better, what additional use they have, or the usefulness of items is vital to the story and enjoyment of the game. People and places are included as possibilities in games without items and equipment. (Are there any?) I dislike situations where I'm given a choice between two swords, and there's no indication of which is better.
    • Open world from the beginning - Go anywhere! Well, nearly anywhere. This is more loosely defined than it sounds, and I give concessions for things like hidden towns or dungeons, possibly the occasional 'locked gate'. A feeling of being dragged in one direction is the issue I'm trying to avoid by including this point. Any alteration from "finish level 1, level 2 unlocked, finish level 2, level 3 unlocked..." should qualify.
    • Visited locations remain open - This seems very similar to the one above, but it addresses cutting off backtracking. Arbitrary restrictions on traveling to previously visited locations are bad in my book. Sure, if the game says the evil empire took over the town you were just in, then maybe I could believe that, but why can't I walk left in Super Mario Bros.? (Okay, not an RPG, but you get the point.)
    Quests and Puzzles
    • Side quests - Any quest left uncompleted without preventing completion of the main quest is considered a side quest. These activities should add to the game world.
    • Puzzles and riddles - I like puzzles that fit inside the world and story, or riddles solved by knowing about the history, lore, or current events in the game. Anything that doesn't fit the game doesn't fit here.

    If I were to change anything, I might get rid of puzzles and riddles and combine exploration into one calling it quests and exploration, but 20 is nice round number. This is a work in progress, and will remain so throughout this blog I expect.

    So, on to the games (finally). The first game up is Miracle Warriors: Seal of the Dark Lord. I don't have a Sega Master System, so that will have to wait. From what I can tell, the game qualifies, but I haven't seen enough to judge it on this scale. So, on to the next game (and first game to be cut), Deadly Towers.
    Not as pretty a screen as The Legend of Zelda, but it has scrolling text detailing the story.
    I haven't played Deadly Towers much, but from what I've seen of the game it doesn't qualify for this project.

    (NES) Deadly Towers
    1. (1) - Character advancement: stat or level increases
    2. (0) - Combat: none
    3. (1) - Items and equipment: item decisions
    4. (1) - Story: main story at the forefront
    5. (2) - Exploration: visited locations remain open, open world from the beginning
    6. (0) - Quests and Puzzles: none
    Final Rating [5]

    Why is this called a role-playing game? My best guess is that this was such an early game that no one had anything else to compare it to except for role-playing games. Even the back of the box mentions, "Arcade action with role-playing game depth." I'll give it credit for trying.

    It has many things going for it, including an open world to explore (well an open dungeon is more like it), a store to purchase items (I don't believe you can sell), health and equipment upgrades, and a main story with short-term goals that show progress. However, even with all of this, at its core, it's an action game. This type of game would come to be known as action-adventures instead of action-RPGs, and have more in common with The Legend of Zelda than Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.
    I'm dying to know what that Japanese text says; probably developer names so I know who to curse.
    To give the CRPG rating system a good workout, and as a comparison to the above, here's the first game I plan to play:

    (SMS) Phantasy Star
    1) 4 - Character advancement: practice/experience based advancement, stat or level increases, multiple classes or characters
    2) 4 - Combat: character stats used for combat, additional combat options, turn based
    3) 4 - Items and equipment: store to buy and sell, equipment decisions, item decisions
    4) 2 - Story: main story at the forefront; world full of hints and lore
    5) 2 - Exploration: open world from the beginning, visited locations remain open
    6) 1 - Quests and Puzzles: side quests not related to the main quest
    Final Rating [17]

    Definitely looking forward to this one. I plan one more post before playing Tuesday night, showing off a mapping tool to be used for 2D maps.

    Tuesday, January 24, 2012

    Rules and Ratings

    First let's get through the rules. These are here to keep me honest, and inform you the readers what limitations I've placed on myself. Much of this is based on CRPG Addict's rules; I owe him for his example.

    1) Console games: I've always considered myself a console gamer. I don't exclude PC games outright in my playing decisions, but as a kid whose dad took up the computer most of the time, I learned to get by with console games. Stability is the number one reason I enjoy consoles now; crashes aggravate me to no end. Also, the CRPG Addict has PC games covered.

    2) CRPG inclusion: I have a list. It can be added to, but nothing is taken off it. I'll mark games on the list: yes it is or no it is not a CRPG. I'll post per release year discussing those games that don't meet my requirements. I may play a game if there's a strong call from the comments to include it.

    3) US released games: I'm in the US, so it's just easier this way. There are many Japanese or European exclusive games that interest me, and I may play through some, but all NTSC-U is the goal here. The games are in chronological order based on original US release.

    4) Official releases ideal: No emulators; however, allowances made for Wii Virtual Console, re-releases on other consoles, etc. Emulation is unstable for later games, and the roms are illegal currently. This means I may not have the next game, but I'll revisit those I've skipped as soon as I can. Any help to get games is appreciated. While this is all still true, and the preferred method is playing the original, I've altered my stance. If there's no current way to purchase a game that benefits the rights holder, then I'll make allowances for emulating the game in order to keep things moving. If ever a game becomes available to purchase legitimately, please let me know as I do believe in rewarding the creators of these works. I don't see how paying anyone else benefits the creation of these games. Emulated titles are denoted with a asterisk (*).

    5) No cheating: No cheat codes, walkthroughs, or player-made maps. The only documentation that I'll allow myself is what originally came with the game or a port. I'd like to keep hints from readers and viewers kept to a minimum; use your best judgment on that. After I finish, I'll read a walkthrough or two to make sure I cover everything in the review.

    6) Roll credits: I will play each game to the very end. Looking at the CRPG Addict's efforts, I wonder how sane this is, but I'm convinced it's the way to go. I want to give the game every chance to redeem itself. This also means the game needs to end or show an ending sequence. And, to be honest, we all know console games are easier, right? ;)

    7) Minimal saving/loading: I'm not going to save at every other step nor after every risky encounter. Once per save point, per level, per dungeon, or in town only: whatever makes sense for the current game. I'll only reload a game if I get a game over.

    Rating System
    If you read the last post, then you can probably guess the categories of my rating system. I took the persona types and described them by a title. Taking a[nother] page from the CRPG Addict and the Adventure Gamer, I've come up with my own acronym to accompany my rating system. Here's a quick rundown of CAPICE:

    Combatant - Stomping bad guys and overcoming the odds:
     - Balanced combat that remains challenging.
     - Interesting options and strategies during combat.
     - Enemies are unique, interesting, and fit well with the game world.
     - Fighting is heavily influenced by stats rather than a player's dexterity.
     - Satisfying and balanced rewards for defeating encounters.

    Admirer - It's all about the 'my guys':
     - Abilities advance based on practiced or repeated actions.
     - Skills and magic are customizable.
     - Appearance is adjustable and changes based on items equipped.
     - Advancement options are available with equally viable options.
     - Control of the characters is intuitive, smooth, and satisfying.

    Puzzler - For those less inclined to combat, these are the other obstacles to overcome:
     - Main quest or the next goal is clearly defined.
     - Side quests are available and interesting.
     - Puzzles and mini-games are challenging without being frustrating.
     - All the above mesh with the setting and the rewards are fitting.
     - Multiple solutions exist and lead to different outcomes.

    Instigator - What would a CRPG be without a story to drive it?
     - Main narrative draws the player into the world as an active participant.
     - NPCs offer dialogue options and help with quests and puzzles.
     - Descriptions are provided for locations, items, enemies, NPCs, and characters.
     - Immersion is enhanced by all story elements.
     - Player decisions influence the story and the consequences are obvious.

    Collector - Get stuff, sell stuff, get better stuff:
     - A variety of items exists in the game world to find.
     - Game world economy exists, and does not become irrelevant.
     - If party inventory is limited, a place exists to store equipment and items.
     - Relative strength and value of items is available in the game.
     - Achievements are tracked, and completion is obvious.

    Explorer - A whole new world to find:
     - Graphics, music, and sound effects are not distracting from enjoyment.
     - World and environments are interesting, rewarding discovery.
     - Atmosphere is inviting and consistent.
     - Points of interest, unique features, and Easter eggs exist; they fit in the game world.
     - Exploration is open, and characters are not arbitrarily (invisible walls) cut off from places.

    Each category has a max of 10 with 100% max total score being a perfect 60. Much like CRPG Addict, I'll be grading each game based on my enjoyment at the time I play it; historical significance is not reflected in this rating.

    I think that about covers all the logistics. I appreciate comments on any area.

    Sorry for the all text post, but I wanted to get these two topics out of the way now. In case you skipped over all the above (or your eyes just glazed over until this last bit), don't worry, relax, and enjoy the ride. On to the games!

    Sunday, January 22, 2012

    Determining a CRPG

    I'm new to blogging, and reading blogs. No research, no deep thought on blogs, no clear path for this project, it's no wonder why I never gained any followers and quickly lost interest last year. I recently had the urge to start this up again, this time with a plan. While researching RPGs, I discovered the CRPG Addict's blog, and it opened my eyes to what blogs could achieve. If you haven't read it, I strongly suggest you do; I can't speak highly enough about it (although he's on indefinite hiatus at the moment). From his example I believe I need a list of games, a way to determine if a game is a CRPG, rules to follow, a rating system, and great writing skills. I'm hoping the last will improve over the course of this project.

    I have a list of US released CRPGs compiled from Wikipedia, MobyGames, and RPGamer. Looking it over I discovered something. There is a lot of confusion about what a CRPG is and how to define one. A simple definition eludes me along with every other site I've looked to, most requiring a list of attritbutes a CRPG could contain. If a majority of those qualities exists, then we can call it a CRPG. Everyone expects and takes something different from the genre, so there will never be a simple definition. Some will like the story, while others enjoy the combat, the treasure, the exploration, or the characters to varying degrees.
    With all the talk of computer RPGs, I feel like I'm missing out sticking to console games.
    The first book I came across that discussed CRPGs in detail was Swords & Circuitry. It discusses a group of personalities it terms 'the usual suspects': Fragmaster, Problem Solver, Treasure Hound, Story Chaser, Navel Gazer, and Tourist. These types largely influenced my rating system (next post I swear). The author(s) suggest that these six personalities encompass different aspects that players of CRPGs seek out in these games. So, I'll use these same persona's as a starting place to define CRPGs.

    Based on the roles above and CRPG Addict's definition, GIMLET (his rating system), and evaluation method here's my list of characteristics that make up a CRPG in order of importance:

    1) Character advancement based on repeated (practiced) action. This is accomplished most often through experience points or stat increases based on use. This is to separate stat and level increase solely based on the collection of items.

    2) Combat based on character stats. The other end of the spectrum is combat based completely on equipment and player skill. Relatedly, turn-based combat will outweigh real-time combat.

    3) Exploring an open environment. By open I mean previous areas aren't cut off by arbitrary invisible barriers. Also, if the game allows open exploration forward that's even better.

    4) Engaging narrative and NPCs. A fleshed out world with interactive elements and activities aside from the main quest all contribute to this. In opposition to this is a story that only exists in the beginning and end of the game.

    5) Spoils of war. Weapons, armor, potions, random useless trinkets, trophies, and anything else discovered from treasure chests, quests, or loot from fallen enemies. The more the better, and places to store it if character/party inventory is limited.

    6) Quests, riddles, and puzzles. In addition to a main quest, side quests exist to enhance immersion in the game world. Obstacles and challenges exist outside combat, and use the game world as a reference instead of the real world.

    There are of course other aspects that enhance the experience, but this list should allow me to focus on games the majority would not dispute as a CRPG. This is in order of importance, so if a game is missing #1 it'll be hard pressed to make my play list. The weight of each can vary, but an approximation for max score is 4, 3, 3, 2, 2, 2 respectively. At a guess, I'd say a score of 10 should mean it's a CRPG. We'll see how this holds up over the first few games.
    OK, ready to judge!
    I'm only going to add to the game list, never remove anything, marking what I consider not a CRPG. Consistency is the goal here, and I hope it will encourage people to defend a favorite CRPG that I've dismissed. If enough convincing arguments are made, I'll play through the game and give a more detailed review. So, if you can't find a game, please suggest it as I've obviously missed it; especially if it's an older game.

    Later this week I'll make a post to address the few I've already ruled out, including Deadly Towers (released before Phantasy Star). These posts will cover yearly groups of games.

    Other Resources:
    Armchair Arcade

    Friday, January 20, 2012

    CRPG Beginnings

    For those that find history interesting and those not familiar with the difference between computer and console RPGs, here's my understanding of CRPGs. Feel free to skip this if you're not into it and come back next post.

    There are computer RPGs and console RPGs. One may wonder, why the distinction though? A console is just a factory made computer after all. But, the distinction (sometimes made as Western RPGs and Japanese RPGs respectively) stems from what drives these two types of games.

    CRPG or CRPG, not confusing at all, eh?

    It all started with pen & paper role-playing games, which got their start from table top war games. RPGs have a history of openness, exploration, and discovery. Choose to play the way you want to, this is the offering of pen and paper RPGs. Early CRPGs did the best they could to mimic this experience by presenting scenarios similar to D&D. Many emphasized exploration and discovery, minimizing choice and openness to fit the programmable nature of computers. Calculations and statistics are a computer's bread and butter, so it's understandable that early CRPGs would expose and highlight these as a driving force behind the initial offerings while focusing on a singular storyline.

    Wizardry in all its 8-bit glory.

    During this time American game consoles were being flooded with games, bad games. There was no control over what games could be made and released for the systems, and this led to a crash in the console market here; however, the Japanese home video game market was thriving during this same time. America was introduced to the Nintendo Entertainment System shortly before all hope is lost to console video games.

    See robot? Gun? It is a toy...

    Marketed as a toy or "entertainment system" the NES avoided the moniker of home video game console, which had a poor reputation currently in America. Soon after, the last remaining American video game consoles slowly gave way to the quality games released for the NES. Seeing the opportunity to compete with Nintendo in a new market, Sega released their Mark III dubbing it the Sega Master System. So, the console market becomes driven forward by Japanese companies, and this remains the case until Microsoft joins in with its Xbox console.

    Why create new games based on the originals, when you can just port them?

    Now while D&D was a huge influence in America for CRPGs, American computer RPGs themselves were what influenced many Japanese RPGs. Most influential in these early days were Ultima and Wizardry. Also a new genre of books emerged around this time: Replay. A replay book consists of compiled logs from a role-playing session, creating a single narrative. Given these two influences it's easy to see how console RPGs became about telling a single story instead of creating a world to explore. The four most popular console RPGs set the stage for all others that followed: Phantasy Star, Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy, and Megami Tensei (in order of release). Only the first three had ports to the US though. (Most likely due to Nintendo of America's policy to censor any religious symbols or references; a game all about recruiting and summoning demons was deemed too racy and this series wouldn't see a release stateside until the PlayStation game Persona.)

    Megami Tensei: imagine Pokémon, except with demons instead of cutesy animals.

    All this back story is to support a point (it has a point?): CRPGs made in America hold the ideal of creating pen & paper RPGs on computer; in Japan the ideal is to improve on past CRPGs. The difference is slight given where CRPGs came from, but has become very obvious over the years that followed these early days. Choice and exploration is the focus for CRPGs made in America, standing in contrast to storytelling and character personalities for CRPGs made in Japan. Obviously there are outliers, but this fits those games I'm familiar with. So, a game considered a console RPG isn't a game spawned from D&D, but a cousin... twice removed.

    Next post to discuss my idea of what elements and mechanics are essential for a CRPG will be up this weekend.

    Wednesday, January 18, 2012


    If you're just joining us, then don't worry, I'm starting this from the beginning. First game (Phantasy Star) to begin January 31!

    I found myself languishing when I first started last year, wondering, "what game should I play next?" Without a clear focus I've been jumping erratically from game to game with the sole purpose of seeing the ending, and not experiencing all the game has to offer. Taking many a cue from The CRPG Addict and consequently The Adventure Gamer, I'll be following (as close as possible) a chronological flow of console RPGs, and I'll create a rating system for the games (more on this in a future post, but it's mostly done).

    The real reason we all play our games in chronological order.

    I had considered exhausting a single console in date order before moving on, and summarily dismissed it as too isolating. Hopefully it's more interesting to have each CRPG played in relation to the release of each game. Yet, with the self imposed limitation of official releases, I may not have a game readily available. Rather than wait to find a game and afford it, I'll continue forward with the next game available to me.

    I compiled a list using MobyGames, Wikipedia, and RPGamer. From this I did my best to weed out foreign only releases and release dates. Remember that I'm approaching this from a US release date perspective, not the original release unless they are the same.

    This list should include all console RPGs released in the US with the earliest release date, although its completeness is not assured. Any suggestions are welcomed and additions especially encouraged. Consequently, the list contains many games that are listed as RPGs on these sites that would only fall into that classification with the broadest of definitions, so I'll be filtering the list in yearly chunks and any help in doing so is appreciated.

    So, what is a CRPG to me?
    Coming up with a definition I can settle on is the first step, and there are many definitions to go off of. The first I came across is MobyGames' as the original source for creating my list. However, this simple definition creates too broad a field, and says nothing to how a game plays, resulting in games like Mario Golf being called RPGs. I'll post what I come up with after reading through Wikipedia and compare it to the CRPG Addict's method for evaluating CRPGness.