I’m going to try something different this year to try and keep the blog updated more frequently. Typically I wait until I’ve completed a game to write about it, or find some bit of industry news to comment on, or on rare occasion discuss a recently released film. While these are all fine, I can still have weeks where the blog remains empty.
So I decided to instead look to the past for inspiration. Find games that were somehow significant to me at different points in my life. As I began writing this piece during the Christmas season, I decided to start with one of my favorite Christmas gifts.
Chrono Trigger was not only one such present, but one of the final Super Nintendo games to come into my possession. My brother and I got to borrow it from a friend before the holidays, but we only managed to make it as far as the initial arrival to the Future timeline. I don’t believe we even reached the reveal of Lavos, villain of the game. The game had made a mark, however. Not just in gameplay, but in style.
I had recently discovered shows such as Ronin Warriors and Sailor Moon, and had been introduced to Robotech years earlier. When I first booted our friends’ copy of the game up and saw the save screen, each file looked to be episode titles. It gave this sense of playing through an anime or television show. Something about each story segment having an “episode title” gave it this serialized atmosphere that somehow brought a sense of legitimacy. That this wasn’t “just” a game, but a real story.
I won’t be discussing the tone and atmosphere created by simple elements such as the game’s sprite style, user interface, and even choice of concept artist. I want to instead discuss the element that has kept this game enjoyable years after its predecessors have grown increasingly out-dated, and to contrast it with the recently released Bravely Default. I want to discuss the combat.
I was speaking with a friend over on GamersWithJobs about the two games, their mechanics, and our different responses to what is often referred to as “trash mobs”. In an RPG featuring random or minor encounters, the “trash mob” is the group of enemies that occupy a dungeon and provide a minor challenge before reaching the much more difficult boss. What I found most interesting is Chrono Trigger’s gameplay still feels fresh and relevant today while Bravely Default, as much as I loved it, bears the same weathered age as the games that inspired it.
What I love about Chrono Trigger is how often enemies in each dungeon rely on the player utilizing their “techs”—special attacks such as magic. One cavern contains enemies that are only weak to such spells. Another dungeon contains foes vulnerable to lightning, stunning them and reducing their defense after receiving an electrical shock. Yet another contains monsters that will cast a counter-spell unless struck with a spell of a corresponding element.
For me, this made dungeons much more entertaining to progress through. I would make use of techs as often as possible, even simple low-level abilities that simply struck all foes in a single area. It added a level of strategy to each fight that kept it lively.
Oddly enough, this turned dungeons into even more of a slog for my conversation partner. She preferred these smaller fights be swift—to list out a quick series of commands and be done, minimal time or energy required. Bravely Default’s combat was much more efficient in this regard. After learning a dungeon’s foes, you could establish a reliable series of attacks capable of wiping out the opposition in a single round. You could then set each fight to automatically carry out these orders while also accelerating combat speed. A single battle would take less than a minute to complete, with the majority of it spent on the pre- and post-battle animations.
If a player is pressed for time, or is forced to wander the environment in order to level-up or gain money, then this system is beneficial. It can take a two hour process and whittle it down to half an hour. It’s efficient. However, it also sort of concedes that the combat is there to simply pad time rather than to be enjoyed, and thus it makes dungeons not only tedious, but rather pointless. Why not just have a cut-scene that leads to a difficult battle before moving on with the story? Genre conventions?
So theoretically my preference would be for more involved combat in a title like Bravely Default, emulating Chrono Trigger’s more carefully designed encounters.
The problem with this preference is that it doesn’t work for a game designed around random encounters. In a game with random encounters, each step within a dungeon has a percentage chance of engaging the player in combat. It is possible that many games run algorithms to mess with the odds, keeping encounters from happening too often. Perhaps encounter ratings are even modified based on location or current story events, or even how healthy your party is. Given that the original Final Fantasy even had such locations—most notably the Giant’s Hallway where each step forced the player into combat with a group of Giants—it stands to reason that future games would establish much more complex algorithms to achieve a greater sense of balance or even trickery.
So let’s say you have a room that occupies the entire screen. In the time it takes the player to walk from one end to the next, it is possible that they’ll run into two, maybe even three, separate fights. Or, they could run into none at all.
Chrono Trigger operates differently. That same room that occupies the entire screen will rarely ever have more than one fight. You will probably see your foe on the screen, and you may even be able to avoid engaging them in combat. Sometimes the foe will be hidden and only reveal themselves after the player has crossed part of the room. Other times, completing one fight could lead immediately to another. In most situations, however, the player is only going to fight one potential battle in that room.
One of the reasons Chrono Trigger’s more mentally demanding combat can be satisfying is that the number of encounters that can reasonably be placed into a dungeon are limited. A player will be able to see enemy placement, prepare accordingly, and even potentially avoid confrontation if they so desire. If you clear a floor of foes, then you will not see another fight on that floor unless you leave and return.
A game that relies on random encounters does not have that luxury. The player could run into as few as a handful of battles to as many as several dozen all on a single floor. How they explore the dungeon can affect how often they face a set of foes. If they wander an entire floor trying to find the trick to that barely visible treasure chest in the corner, then they increase the odds of facing more and more foes.
As such, having to continue fighting encounter after time-consuming encounter could lead any dungeon to becoming a truly tedious experience, sucking away any potential joy to be found in the encounters. By truly treating most of the foes as “trash mobs”, Bravely Default avoids this degree of tedium. At least, after the player has adjusted to each dungeon’s new foes and comes up with a plan or set of tricks.
This gives me a new appreciation for Chrono Trigger’s design. The way in which encounters are made visible and in specific locations limits the number of encounters a single dungeon can have. By limiting the number of encounters—and by designing levels with the area-of-effect of many Techs in mind—then the less tedious it becomes to tackle more mentally demanding fights.
Considering modern technology, it certainly makes me wonder why the random encounter continues to exist. If Bravely Default switched to scripted encounters like in Chrono Trigger, then they likely could have designed each fight to better demand careful planning from the player. I can only wonder if the entire reason to keep random encounters is to also cater to an audience that enjoys being able to grind.
Which, it should be noted, the player can modify in Bravely Default. I left it out of this discussion since I feel the intent to Bravely Default is to evoke that classic turn-based JRPG feel, but the player is able to reduce or increase the rate at which monsters randomly appear, right down to there being absolutely no chance of engaging with the enemy while wandering a dungeon.
Personally, I’d much rather a game where I don’t have to dig through a menu to deactivate the Tedium Switch. I’d much rather enjoy each encounter, even if it means repeating a fight because I need to backtrack.