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A console RPG is a game for a game console that involves controlling a character or group of characters with defined characteristics that change over time. In today's genre-fusion gaming world, this means the gameplay has a preponderance of RPG elements, which include:

  • Levelling-up and Experience Points: For performing game actions, characters receive 'experience points', which improve the character's defined characteristics. Usually, this happens at 'Level-Up', which occurs at set numbers of experience points.
  • Equipment: Characters can acquire items, such as weapons and armour, which when equipped on the characters modify their characteristics.
  • Consumable items: Characters can also acquire items that provide a one-time effect, such as healing or a brief increase in power, and are then consumed.
  • Ability scores: The capabilities of the characters are expressed in terms of 'scores', which increase and decrease with various in-game effects (particularly the last three elements)
  • Character abilities: Characters can acquire various abilities, such as magic spells and special attacks, through the course of the game. Often, these use Magic Points (see below).
  • Hit Points: The state of the character's health is expressed in terms of a number of hit points, which decrease when the character takes damage. For this to truly qualify, the maximum number of hit points must somehow vary through the course of the game.
  • Magic Points: Some character abilities consume 'magic points' when used, that only replenish under certain circumstances, such as resting.

There is also one essential characteristic a game must have before it is considered an RPG, the necessity of character development. If a skilled player who starts at the very end of the game experiences the same difficulty as a player of the same skill who has played through the entire game, then the game is not an RPG. An example of a game that fails this criterion is Super Mario Brothers, where if you find some method of starting the game right at World 8-4, it is exactly as difficult as it would be if you played through all of the levels.

The console RPG genre has three major subgenres: action RPGs, traditional RPGs, and tactical RPGs. Each of these has very different conventions, and different choices from the elements above.

Traditional RPGs

The traditional RPG is the oldest and most popular of the RPG subgenres. Examples of traditional RPGs are Dragon Warrior, Final Fantasy IV, Breath of Fire, Final Fantasy VII, and Chrono Cross. Note that this is a very different genre than a traditional computer RPG, which has an entirely different set of characteristics. The identifying characteristics of a traditional RPG are:

  • Third-person perspective: A traditional RPG always has a third-person perspective during the main portion of the game.
  • Separate combat mode: In a traditional RPG, combat with enemies takes place in a separate 'mode' from movement. Usually this takes the form of a separate battle screen, but sometimes it is just a menu appearing above the regular field screen.
  • Separate world map: The world is set up as 'field' areas such as towns and dungeons. When you leave such an area, you switch to a world map screen where you can move between different 'fields'. The scale of this screen is much different than that of the field.
  • Experience points only from killing enemies: Whereas some other RPGs give experience for performing any actions, all experience points in traditional RPGs are the result of combat.
  • Magic: A traditional RPG will have a system of abilities, usually 'magic spells', that draw upon Magic Points or an analogous resource.
  • Strategic combat: Combat in a traditional RPG is 'strategic' in that the reflexes of the player are unimportant, and that there is no tactical control of character location. Usually this is implemented through a turn-based or Active Time Battle system, controlled using menus.

These characteristics are not necessarily unique to the traditional RPG, and not all traditional RPGs necessarily have all of them, but if a game has all of these characteristics, it is almost undoubtedly a traditional RPG. For example, Final Fantasy VII has all of these characteristics, as does Dragon Warrior. Chrono Cross, on the other hand, has a rather untraditional magic system and an unconventional levelling system, although it is still firmly in the traditional RPG category.

Action RPGs

The second subgenre of RPG is the action RPG. The action RPG is a more fast-paced game than the traditional RPG, and depends much more on player reflexes and hand-eye coordination. Example of the Action RPG are Crystalis, Secret of Mana, and Vagrant Story. An action RPG has the following characteristics:

  • Real-time combat: The definitive characteristic of an action RPG is real-time combat requiring reflexes and hand-eye coordination. The usual system has the character walking around and swinging a sword in front of themself.
  • No separate combat mode: So long as the controlled character in an action RPG is in an area with enemies, the interface is ready for combat. When the character encounters an enemy, the game does not shift to a separate screen.
  • Small parties: Most often, there is only one player character in an action RPG, who is controlled directly by the player. When there are other characters they are usually few in number and controlled by the computer, or by other players in games that support multiplayer.

The action RPG genre is more varied than the traditional RPG genre. There is also more debate as to the bounds of the genre. Most notably, there is disagreement as to whether The Legend of Zelda and its sequels (other than Zelda II) are action RPGs or just adventure games. The argument against calling them RPGs is that there is no levelling system or ability score system. They do fit the basic characteristics of the action RPG subgenre, though.

Tactical RPGs

Compared to both action RPGs and traditional RPGs, tactical RPGs have a small fan base. Despite this, it is still a third major subgenre of console RPGs. The characteristics of a tactical RPG are:

  • Turn-based combat: The combat system in a tactical RPG is always turn-based, to allow the player to make complicated plans.
  • Grid-based movement in combat: Combat in a tactical RPG takes place on a grid where the positions of the player characters and enemies are significant to their combat abilities.
  • Story told mainly in battles: Many tactical RPGs have most of the major plot events occur during combat sequences. Cutscenes are generally restricted to interactions between player characters and their allies.
  • A complicated system of character abilities: Characters in tactical RPGs generally have a wide range of abilities available to be developed. These skills often complement each other in interesting ways
  • Large parties: Tactical RPGs have large parties of player characters giving the player a sense of leading a small army.

Rather than have small parties taking part in small scale, us-versus-them battles, these games involve significantly larger parties taking part in tactical combat involving position, formation, and proximity in the use of skills and spells. The most famous tactical RPG is probably Final Fantasy Tactics, however the Fire Emblem and Ogre Battle series are also quite prominent.

A History of Console RPGs

The Dawn Age: 1986-1991

The NES and the Sega Master System were host to the 'Dawn Age' of console RPGs. Dawn Age RPGs had simple plots and characterisation, relatively simple combat systems, and a fairly high difficulty. Level-building was the order of the day, particularly for those games which made it across the Pacific to North America. The major 'traditional RPG' franchises were born in the Dawn Age, either on the NES or the Sega Master System, and the first action RPGs were NES-based.

The first true console RPG was Dragon Quest, aka Dragon Warrior in North America, reducing the complexity of computer RPGs like Ultima to a form that is more manageable on a console. The story wasn't anything special and your 'party' consisted of a single character, and the interface had some rough edges, but it, directly or indirectly, inspired every 'traditional' console RPG ever made. A more refined version of the traditional RPG debuted in Final Fantasy, whose nine sequels have been the backbone of the traditional RPG genre through four generations of consoles. Final Fantasy introduced a four-member party, a more complicated story (with plot twists!), and a simplified interface. Like Dragon Warrior, the emphasis is on levelling, and the game is quite difficult by today's standards. Both Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy had sequels on the NES, fixing many of their quirks and adding depth. Final Fantasy III and Dragon Warrior IV, in particular, have many of the features of later (SNES-era) RPGs, being released late in the NES's lifetime.

At the same time, Sega was working on the first RPG for its Master System console. The resulting game, Phantasy Star, is perhaps the most refined RPG of the Dawn Age. Using the greater power of the Master System hardware, the graphics were beyond anything on the NES, including a first-person pseudo-3D dungeon interface that has rarely reappeared in traditional RPGs, Shin Megami Tensei on the SNES being a notable exception.

Meanwhile, another type of RPG was being created, this time by Nintendo itself. The Legend of Zelda is considered by many to be the origin of the action RPG style of gameplay, with your character running around a 2D top-down world swatting with your sword at moving enemies. However, it lacks key RPG elements such as character statistics and development, as advancement is framed solely in terms of collecting items, so its classification as an action RPG is debatable. Zelda II, on the other hand, has experience points and levels, and is universally considered an action RPG, despite its side-scrolling perspective. Both games were tremendously influential.

The Legend of Zelda also brought another innovation that would have far-reaching implications in the field of console RPGs; battery-backed save memory. Previous games had used a password system to store saved games, so as saved information became more complex, the passwords became more and more unwieldy. (An infamous example of this is the original Japanese Dragon Quest.) Zelda did away with this, freeing developers to produce games with very complex persistent state. RPG developers took full advantage of this capability to make highly-customisable player characters a reality.

Some of the RPGs on the NES were very much in the style of computer RPGs, many of which were actually ports of successful computer RPGs (such as Ultima: Exodus) These games had more complicated interfaces and battle systems, and usually had rather clumsy controls due to the reduction from a full keyboard to a mere four buttons.

List of NES RPGs:

List of SMS RPGs:

The Golden Age: 1991-1996

The SNES, along with the Sega Genesis, was the home of the 'Golden Age' of console RPGs. Following the 'Dawn Age' of the NES, the genre came into its own, with improved story and characterisation, richer class and level systems, and high-quality graphics and sound. The Dawn Age series, such as Final Fantasy, Dragon Warrior, and Phantasy Star continued, and new series of traditional and action RPGs began. Another RPG subgenre, the tactical RPG, emerged during the Golden Age on both the SNES and Genesis.

The Golden Age began with the release of Final Fantasy IV, or Final Fantasy II in North America. From the moment you start up the cartridge in your SNES (or the ROM in a SNES emulator), it is clear that this is something different than what came before. The opening seems purpose-designed to show off the difference; surprisingly orchestral sounding music, Mode 7 world map, and a named main character with an individual personality all appear in the first minute. Final Fantasy IV was the first major traditional console RPG to provide believable and varied characterisation, including characters that enter and leave the party, and a plot involving betrayal, love, death, and character transformation. The think-on-your-feet Active Time Battle system debuted in FF4, as well as character-specific (rather than class-specific) special abilities. The added buttons on the SNES controller permit the interface to be much more comfortable, with a detailed menu system.

These innovations turned the entire console RPG world on its head, affecting everyone. Squaresoft would go on to make two more milestone traditional RPGs during the SNES era, the sweeping ensemble drama of Final Fantasy VI, and the time travel classic Chrono Trigger. Final Fantasy VI had a true ensemble cast, with no clear-cut main character, something that had never been done before, and has rarely been done since. Also, unlike previous Final Fantasies, switching between party members became a matter of player control, rather than being solely a matter of plot. Chrono Trigger was the most graphically-detailed RPG available in North America, played on the basic SNES hardware. (Super Mario RPG and Star Ocean had coprocessor chips, and Tales of Phantasia was Japan only) It was the most detailed and immersive RPG to date, and was just as epic as FF6.

Other SNES traditional RPGs of note include the Breath of Fire and Lufia games, both of which spawned ongoing series. The Dragon Quest series continued but didn't get released in North America due to the collapse of Enix of America. Super Mario RPG used the SA-1 chip to push the graphical capabilities of the SNES, and it, too, has spawned a series (Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi). Phantasy Star had three sequels on the Genesis that were successes with those RPG fans who owned a Genesis. The Sega CD extended the Genesis owner's RPG collection with the classic, anime-styled Lunar games, which gamed a larger fan base when remade for the Playstation.

The action RPG was also refined on the SNES. Although the simplistic but interesting Soul Blazer and the classic Zelda installment A Link to the Past, came earlier, 1993's Secret of Mana was the pivotal game in the evolution of the Action RPG in the Golden Age. In addition to including the improvements in graphics and sound featured in Final Fantasy IV, Secret of Mana featured a deep weapon system and, perhaps most importantly, three-way multiplayer support. There is a party of three main characters in Secret of Mana, any or all of which could be controlled by a player, with an AI mode controlling the characters without a player. A more detailed plot and deeper characterisation can be found in its sequel, Seiken Densetsu 3. (Secret of Mana is Seiken Densetsu 2 in Japan) Unfortunately, it was never released in North America in favour of the lukewarm Secret of Evermore.

North American gamers were cheated of a classic action RPG again when Terranigma was released, but only in Japan and Europe. Terranigma was the third part in Enix and Quartet's Soul Blazer trilogy, consisting of Soul Blazer, Illusion of Gaia, and Terranigma. Terranigma combined the deeper gameplay of Illusion of Gaia with the intriguing premise of Soul Blazer; pieces of the game world are frozen and locked away, and it's up to the main character to save them and return them to their normal existence. The initial world map of Terranigma is the trippiest use of Mode 7 I've ever seen, where the world map is distorted into the shape of the inside of a cylinder.

The third genre of RPG, the tactical RPG, became a notable presence in the Golden Age. Unlike with traditional RPGs, these games were more common on the Genesis, with the pioneering Shining Force series being the first to enter the North American market. The only SNES tactical RPG released in North America during this period was Ogre Battle. Tactical RPGs have always been rather sparsely released, continuing through to today.

List of SNES RPGs:

List of Genesis RPGs:

The Silver Age: 1996-2000

The Playstation, and to a lesser degree the Sega Saturn, was host to the 'Silver Age' of console RPGs, marked by transitions from 2D to 3D, from cartridge to CD-ROM, and from a niche market in North America to a large part of the gaming scene. Plot and characterisation came to the forefront of traditional RPG design, sometimes to the detriment of the gameplay, and frequently to the detriment of the difficulty. Both Dawn Age and Golden Age series continued in this period, some successfully, and some with mixed results.

As with the Golden Age, the Silver Age was started by a Final Fantasy game. This time, it was Final Fantasy VII. With this game, Square abandoned Nintendo for the massive storage capacity of the Sony Playstation's CD-ROMs. Spanning three CDs, Final Fantasy VII was the largest Playstation game yet, and this capacity was used to the fullest. Gone were the blocky hand-drawn backgrounds, super-deformed sprites, and simple overhead perspective of earlier Final Fantasy games. Instead, your (blocky) 3D polygonal character walked around a prerendered 3D world, with numerous FMV animations sprinkled around major events. Gone, too, was the fanciful setting of the previous Final Fantasies, replaced by a dystopian and thoroughly science-fictional world with giant elevated cities, airplanes, and evil corporations taking over the world. Better or worse, it was like nothing that had ever been done before, and was the first RPG to sell a million copies in North America.

Another feature of Final Fantasy VII which is very common in Silver Age RPGs is the minigame. The Gold Saucer in FF7 contains several minigames that you can play for gil or items. This was enough of a success that just about every RPG after FF7 has some sort of minigame in it. Sometimes, as in Xenogears, these minigames would be worthwhile games in themselves, but often, like in Final Fantasy VIII, they could be more trouble than they're worth.

Several different graphical styles emerged during the Silver Age. In addition to traditional 2D games, such as Suikoden, there were games with different degrees of '3D-ness'. Grandia and Xenogears are '2 1/2-D', with a 3D-rendered, fully-rotatable background combined with detailed 2D sprites. Star Ocean: The Second Story uses a similar method but with prerendered backgrounds. Perhaps the most common style is the full-3D Final Fantasy VII style, with prerendered backgrounds and 3D characters. Beginning with Parasite Eve, much more realistic and detailed character models were used than the blocky FF7 models.

One new thing for traditional RPGs in the Silver Age was the emergence of ports of older, Golden and Dawn Age titles to the newer hardware. All of the SNES Final Fantasy games were ported to the Playstation, as well as the first two NES titles. Final Fantasy II and Final Fantasy V were released for the first time in North America, and Final Fantasy IV received a new, unexpurgated translation into English. The Lunar games were heavily modified and updated, and released in elaborate bundles including soundtracks, 'Making Of' discs, and 'omake'. Eternal Blue even came with a replica of a main character's pendant.

Some important new series emerged during this time. Square's deep and epic Xenogears has two prequels on the Playstation 2, with a plan for four more games. Game Arts's Grandia, originally released on the Sega Saturn but ported to Playstation for North American release. Its sequel Grandia II had a similar evolution, beginning on the Dreamcast and then being ported to Playstation 2. Chrono Trigger acquired a great sequel in Chrono Cross, and the Star Ocean series finally came to North America with Star Ocean: The Second Story.

The action RPG was in a relative slump during the Silver Age, with few new releases during that period. The Castlevania series of platform games dabbled in action RPG gameplay in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, and the Legend of Zelda series had two installments on the Nintendo 64, the only RPGs on that system besides Paper Mario and the abysmal Quest 64. The most innovative action RPG of this period was Vagrant Story, a realtime-rendered game with a deep and strategic realtime combat system and a rich system of magic. The true highlight of the game, though is its detailed system of equipment, where weapons become specialised through use and modification in 'Workshops' scattered throughout the game.

Several notable tactical RPGs were released on the Playstation Final Fantasy Tactics was the first Square tactical RPG released in North America, and although it was a minor flop when it originally came out it eventually became one of the most highly sought-after games on the Playstation. Used copies were selling for as much as $150 on the secondary market. So it was re-released in 2001 in the Playstation Greatest Hits series to brisk sales. Other tactical RPGs of the era were Shining Force III on the Saturn and Front Mission 3 on the Playstation, which were both rather minor releases as is common for tactical RPGs.

List of Playstation RPGs

List of Saturn RPGs:

List of Nintendo 64 RPGs:

Since the End of the Silver Age: 2001-Present

The RPG world has been somewhat quieter since the release of the Playstation 2 and the decline of the original Playstation. The Playstation 2 has been the primary system for RPGs in the latest generation, with a few titles being released for the Nintendo GameCube and Microsoft Xbox. The biggest change in this time is the resurgence of Golden Age-style RPGs on the Game Boy Advance. In addition to ports of older titles such as Breath of Fire, and Nintendo's ubiquitous and much-maligned Pokemon games, the GBA has been home to the very traditional Golden Sun games, the novel Mega Man Battle Network action RPGs, and tactical RPGs such as Tactics Ogre: The Knight of Lodis. On the other end of the scale, massively-multiplayer console RPGs in the vein of the PC game Everquest have emerged recently, beginning with the Dreamcast's Phantasy Star Online. PSO has been ported to other consoles after the death of the Dreamcast, and Square is getting into the game with Final Fantasy XI. At the moment, there are many RPGs upcoming for all systems, as can be seen at http://rpgamer.com/games/upcoming.html .

Please /msg me about any omissions.

Sources include allrpg.com, rpgamer.com, and the Nintendo Database at http://planetnintendo.com/nindb/
Contributions and suggestions from ClockworkGrue, fondue, Davidian, generic-main, DustBunnie, malcster, and amib. Inspiration from Pseudo_Intellectual, werejackal, and Servo5678
This writeup is copyright 2003 by me and is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs-NonCommercial licence. Details can be found at http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd-nc/2.5/ .

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