Thursday, June 17, 2010

Sleeplessness Equates to Rantiness. Alternate Title: Ye Beware, Wall of Text Approacheth

So, for the last couple of nights, I've had a lot of trouble sleeping.  Instead, I've spent my night time hours attempting to sleep, failing, then getting up on 'playing' on the computer for a while.  Two nights ago, I was going over a 'fantasy conversation' in my head (i.e. something that never happened but is conceivable with a specific person) about why the Final Fantasy series is just...well, bad.  I actually gathered a lot of thoughts on the matter and quickly thought up a very simple way to improve the series.
Note that I am not against the stories the series tells (just the way it tells them).  I am not against JRPGs when they're done right.  I am not even against turn-based combat.  I am against two things that hinder gaming experience that Square Enix refuses to avoid.
1.  Over-intrusive stories.  When you spend more time taking in a story by watching cut-scenes or reading dialogue than you seem to spend actually playing the game.
2.  Horribly outdated combat mechanics.  This is the specific area I'm covering in this 'article'.  After I gathered my thoughts, I typed them out and did my best to present them in a meaningful and easy to follow way.
So, without further adieu, I present to you:  "Why Final Fantasy Sucks and How It Could Be Very Easily Made Better"

Final Fantasy, the original game that is, was released on December 18 of 1987.  It was among the first standard JRPGs to have ever existed.  It had a unique play-style much like the majority of NES games.  The 8-bit era saw probably the most innovation in gaming history with every developer attempting something different.  It was a great time to see what worked and what didn't.  However, time has a way of making something that once worked far less useful.
Nearly 23 years hence, Squaresoft (now Square Enix) hasn't done a thing to streamline the combat system found in the Final Fantasy franchise.  They add things and update things, sure, but those implementations just result in more text boxes and wasted hours dealing with "customization"; in other words, it's going in the wrong direction.  At its core, it remains nothing but scrolling through lists and selecting specific words from those lists.
This was perfectly 1987.  It worked back then, and it still 'works' now, but by what we find in today's games (even those of the same genre) these old mechanics are rusty.  A lot of people have started waking up to how boring playing like this is, myself included as I used to swear up and down that JRPGs were automatically the best games ever just for being JRPGs, and these people are absolutely right.
But what of it?  Should we completely toss out the old system and start anew?  Square Enix obviously doesn't think so and, surprisingly, I'm in partial agreement with them.
Yes, these mechanics are rusty.  So what can we do with rust?  We can polish it.  Streamline the system to make it slicker, prettier, more accessible, etc. all without sacrificing anything that's actually important.  The functionality will remain the same, the ease of use will increase.
Let's take a look at a screenshot of a battle from Final Fantasy IV.

IV is my favourite Final Fantasy title, in fact it's the only one at all that I enjoy.  However, I don't enjoy this game because I think it's fun to play, which is what we're going for in the polishing process.  I enjoy it because I love the story, the characters were awesome and the game even tossed in some great humour that was placed well enough to never deter the story from feeling 'epic'.
That said, we're now going to take my favourite game of the franchise and pick it apart; or at least it's battle system.
Three text boxes?  I think we can do better than that.  How about...NONE.  But now there's no information or anything to interact with and tell our characters what to do.  Well, that's fine because we're going to put some new stuff in that will be simpler and quicker and, again, all without compromising the important stuff.  To find the solution, we need look no further than the console we're already on.

Like so many gamers the Super Nintendo was my childhood, and it was a glorious childhood.  Developers were still trying new things, improving their previous ideas and really hitting their stride.  Things just worked.  And then there's the scale.  Proportionately, the scope of Super Metroid's adventure absolutely dwarfs some adventure games on today's market.
So how does the quality of the SNES's general library relate to the much overdue optimizing of Final Fantasy's game mechanics?  Well, the SNES contained many JRPGs and the like, several of which are deeply loved by just about any seasoned gamer out there.  Chrono Trigger, Breath of Fire, Illusion of Gaia, the list really goes on and on.  But the exact game I'm going to bring your attention to is a classic title called Lufia.

In this screenshot, you'll notice a significantly different battle layout than what you'd typically find in Final Fantasy.  That's not what we're here for though.  Take a look at the center of the heroes and you'll see five icons.  These are what you use to control in battle:  Simple icons.  This is the principle we're looking for, but even Lufia doesn't have it quite right.
Let's backtrack a bit and look at the screenshot of Final Fantasy IV again.

To start, let's actually leave the text boxes as they are and see if we can shrink that list at all.  Thankfully, we have the perfect example in this particular screen as it's good old wizard Tellah up to bat.  His magic skills are separated into two groups:  White Magic and Black Magic.  I ask, why?  I mean, I know what the difference is, but if we have one list of magic and just have the spells themselves tell us whether they perform healing or deal damage (which can be done with either text or icons) then we start on our road to optimizing this system.
So, the list of actions for Tellah now becomes Attack, Magic, Recall and Items.  Here's where the icons come in.  Visualize the scene with no text boxes but with small, simple icons hovering around Tellah; one below him, one above and one on each side of his sprite.  Picture each of these icons having a simple drawing on them that tells you exactly what they are.  This is where Lufia really comes into play because it does just that.  The sword icon is for Attack.  Of course!  The magic staff is for Magic.  Duh!   So on and so forth.
What Lufia did not do right, however, is that there's still the inconvenience of highlighting your options with the D-pad and then  selecting one with A.  This doesn't seem like much of a problem but it is something that can be made more efficient easily so there's no good reason not to do so.
We're getting to the real purpose of minimizing the list that appears in the screenshot.  Having 4 options is perfect for this scenario.  Again, we have simple yet informative icons hovering around Tellah in four directions, one for each of his main options.  What we can do now is simply map each option to an input on the controller.  Here is an SNES controller:

I don't suppose you see anything that would be good to assign FOUR DIRECTIONS to?  The D-pad/Control pad/Cross pad/whatever is the key to this entire process.  With nothing but a single tap of one of the buttons, we now instantly access any one of the four options.  This means no dealing with text box lists.  Again, it doesn't seem like much of an accomplishment when first thinking about it.  But really, with just these simple couple of changes alone, we've pretty much tripled the efficiency of a once incredibly cumbersome battle system.
Tellah's magic may raise a concern however.  In a lot of JRPGs, characters who cast magic end up with a gigantic arsenal of spells by the end of the game.  Certainly we can't assign all the spells to the four directions.  Even if we accounted for the D-Pad recognizing diagonals and all the other buttons, we're still likely to come out short.
So what can we do about this?  I admit, there's a bit of a compromise here but in the end, it's really not that bad.  As I just noted, the SNES's D-Pad does recognize a total of 8 directions and having access to only 8 spells during battle doesn't hinder things as much as one may initially think.  Those large arsenals of spells are often loaded with skills long since made inferior and even of those that are still useful, you're incredibly unlikely to find a battle where you would use all of them.
So, we can use the field menu.  As for the menu itself, I'm perfectly OK with its use of text boxes and such as it is pretty much just the pause screen; i.e. what you go to when you actually want the game to slow down.  A needed feature in the menu would be the ability to select a character who uses magic and decide, from what they know, which spells are their 'battle spells'.  So these are the spells that would be assigned to the directions during combat.  Of course, you can swap these out for other spells at any time outside of battle.
The reason this would work just as well as having access to every spell is that, as was already said, you won't find a single battle where you'll be using all your useful spells.  It's also very possible to determine which spells are going to be useful before you encounter any enemies.  If you're wandering the overworld, the area you're in will affect what monsters appear, so you can of course 'equip' the spells useful against the monsters that are common of that area.  A simpler example is a Boss fight:  You know exactly what you're up against, therefore no problem.  A similar principle could be applied to Items.
So maybe it eventually turns out that access to 8 spells isn't enough.  Well, we still have 6 more buttons on the controller (A, B, X, Y, L, and R; Start and Select are there too but they should probably be saved for other functions) we could use anyway.  8 spells is probably enough and 14 is plenty.
There are some things that don't really need any changing like choosing your target.  I'm OK with the D-Pad scrolling and A-button selecting in this case, though it certainly doesn't need a text box when the cursor could just point at the enemy itself.

There, with some very simple critical thinking we have a much more efficient battle system that the SNES is perfectly capable of supporting.  The SNES came out 20 years ago in Japan.  If this can be done with technology so old then why hasn't it been completely mastered and flawless by Square Enix now?

That's the end of the article I already had worked out.  I realized something as I was proofreading though.  One text box probably is necessary for the battle screen.  Considering the resolution of the SNES, the heroes' stats and ATB bars would cause too much screen clutter if we had them display somewhere around the heroes (a la the icons).  So, leave the one text box for the heroes' stats.  The point of this whole spiel was to point out flaws in the game mechanics, not issues with screen clutter so my point still stands.  This is an improvement that could easily be made of more recent entries into the franchise.

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