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Thoughts on the early days of RPG's
and squresoft's move towards cinematic games
It’s been a rough few weeks in Candlebook Island land, and trying to get the Nintendo Switch port ship-shape. There are always a few small things that need to be fixed when tidying up a console port, since the game is always developed and tested on a PC first, and then pushed onto the actual physical hardware. This time, because of my brutish clumsy code, there is more work to do than normal. But, I’m still hopeful for a Switch first release, and mazette! (the publisher I work with for console games) is great at optimization, so this should just be a matter of time.
In the meanwhile, while we wait, I’ve decided to talk a little bit about the history of console RPG’s, and the move of Squaresoft (as well as Enix, back when they were two seperate entities) towards cinematic style RPG’s. It’s something that’s been on my mind a lot lately, espicially since I’m thinking of moving away from the messy Candlebook Island/Catacomb Kitties engine, and towards something in that cinematic gaming style.
What does this mean exactly?
Well, let’s take a wander into the past and talk about it.
So, it seems odd looking back, but console style RPG’s from Japane weren’t always story focused, or cinematic. If you go back to the Nintendo era of these games, and the Master System era, you’ll see that a lot of the games are light on story, heavy on exploration and combat. Very much like their PC counterparts, when you think about it.
When you compare maps and areas in Squaresoft games particularly, the evolution from exploration based gameplay to cinematic style gameplay becomes even more pronounced, particularly during the SNES period. At the start of the SNES period the maps and backgrounds were heavily tiled, still referencing the Ultima/Dragon Quest style of RPG gameplay. Yet, even though this was the case, they were already starting to construct cinematic style scenes for the cutscenes.
Final Fantasy 4 saw the nudge in this direction. Final Fantasy 5 went a little further. But Final Fantasy 6, and espicially Chrono Trigger, saw drastic push towards cinematic scenes and not video game maps. You can see that the tiled gamey backgrounds and maps are dropped for composed pre-drawn scenes that look like stills from a movie. Lighting and the rest are placed for maximum impact, not just in cutscenes, but also in the places you walk and explore on screen.
This has a downside, though, too. The more cinematic the games became, the less interesting and maze like the dungeons and exploration. It makes perfect sense when you think about it. The amount of art required for scenes like this, since they weren’t using reusable tiles, but instead drawing it before hand and breaking it up into tiles. So complex, labrythian maps become a distant memory from a different era of RPG.
You could see this happening as we walk through the above games. In five, we still get proper dungeons. In 6, we get less proper dungeons, but there are still some. In Chrono Trigger, you will probably never get lost. Not even a little bit. But that’s okay, the priorities had shifted, more towards a narrative experience and less towards a pure gaming experience.
Dragon Quest dabbled in this style of gameplay for a bit, too. Dragon Quest 4 and 5 had narrative heavy cut scenes with cinematic qualities, but the gameplay itself stayed firmly rooted in the old school style DQ 6 toyed with cinematic backgrounds, and the end result felt very much like Chrono Trigger. The Dragon Quest 3 remake for the Gameboy Color included a lot of scenes with the cinematic style background as well, but not going quite as far as 6.
But after that, when DQ moved to the Playstation, it kept the gamification overworlds, and saved the cinematic qualities for the cutscenes alone. This is fitting with how DQ plays, it’s more about immersive worlds and a silent protaganist, and less about cinematic story telling.
In other words, they are still narrative based, but narrative told in a game format. Not a game presented in a cinematic format.
But when squaresoft moved its games to the PSX, it had the memory available and power to create fully cinematic games. If you look at Chrono Trigger and the SNES Final Fantasy’s (as mentioned above) you can see the slow evolution towards this style. Away from tiled backgrounds, and towards backgrounds that look like they were composed scenes for the most impact.
On the Playstation they started using pre-rendered backgrounds to make the live action bits where you wander the map match the cut scenes, to try and create a seamless transition. Much like CT before them, the backgrounds were static, detailed, and complex. But also like CT, that meant the exploration was far less complex and interesting. The narrative became the thing.
Squre did a similar thing with the Legend of Mana, but instead of using pre-rendered 3d backgrounds, they used water color hand painted backgrounds. I think the end result is still the same, you get maximum cinematic impact. It looks beautiful. But some other, older forms of gameplay suffer. Not that it’s a bad thing, just a different kind of thing.
This is all to say, I’m thinking my next project will probably go in a similar route. That’s the plan, at least. I’ve been working on a scene designer for doing thins specifically like that.
Anyway! I’ll keep you abreast of all that’s going on with Candlebook Island.
Until next time!