January 1, 2009
As much as I like them, I’ve always been slightly conflicted about the high level of abstraction in turn-based JRPGs.1 When the party discovers a treasure chest, a message box reveals what’s inside but the item itself remains unseen. During battle, the player selects ATTACK from a menu instead of pressing a button to swing the sword herself. The upshot is that I feel like I’m delegating gameplay activities to my characters and spending my time and energy on the more menial tasks like inventory management, equipment upgrades, and efficient leveling.
There is still pleasure in this, to be sure. At its best, turn-based combat offers a satisfying strategic challenge, and boosting a characters’ stats taps into our brains’ reward centers. On the other hand…well, there’s a reason they call it grinding. Progressing through a JRPG too often depends on sheer time investment more than anything else, and that can spoil the fun for me.
While developing Super Mario 64, Shigeru Miyamoto famously had his team perfect the gameplay details — physics, controls, animations, camera — before working on the levels themselves. In his view, gameplay is central to the experience, and playing the game should still be fun outside of the context provided by the designers. In many JRPGs, by contrast, the “game” part is a means to the end of getting to the next chapter. Grinding for experience and turning a page of a book are functionally equivalent, but the latter doesn’t suck away hours of your life.
One of Mother 3‘s minor brilliancies is that it deftly sidesteps this problem — if it is a problem — by eliminating the tedium of grinding with its music-based battle system.2 Not only did it allow me to avoid battling for experience, but the combat was so inherently pleasurable that I sometimes fought enemies for fun anyway.
Here’s the gist: If, during an attack, you hit the A button in time with the background music, you will begin a combo. Each successful hit adds to a unique riff that your characters “play” along with the song — Kumatora shreds on an electric guitar, while Duster slaps out bass solos. Music notes appear and spin around the enemy as your attack continues, and a crowd cheers if you manage to strike sixteen times in a row (the maximum). A lengthy combo can deal two to three times the damage of a single strike and will handily defeat higher-level enemies.
There are two wonderful things about this system. The first is that the uninterested can completely ignore it. The game will take longer to finish, of course — perhaps significantly so, as I imagine you’d need to be several levels higher. Still, aside from a brief NPC explanation early on (and the subtle music note on the attack icon), it’s largely invisible.
The second is that the rhythm battle system is surprisingly deep. It’s not Rock Band, but neither are 16-hit combos easy to come by. Don’t take my word for it, though — that’s where we’re headed next.