My post last week about wandering monsters in video role-playing games got me thinking about some of the strange aspects of battle mode in general. When you run into monsters, the screen tends to fade out and send you into a graphical representation of the fight. Chrono Trigger is an exception in that battles simply take place wherever you are on screen, but this was such a challenge to program that I don’t know that it’s appeared since.
One oddity of RPG battles is that of taking turns. Not all such games now use turn-based combat, but it’s still pretty common, and was the standard from quite early on. It isn’t really all that rational, because why would a skilled fighter or a ruthless monster wait for someone else to make a move before they make one? What do they do in between turns? Take a tea break? Of course, taking turns is the typical way of games. Chess is sort of a war simulation, but if everyone could move at once, it would be too chaotic. That idea carried over into RPGs, and then into video RPGs. It’s a good thing in a way, because it means that those of us who aren’t so great with the hand-eye coordination have some games where we can get past the second level. The style of the old-school RPG battle was that the player would input commands for all of the party members, and then they’d all take turns executing those commands, with the monsters’ moves interspersed. The order is based on a combination of agility and chance. Certain monster types could make two moves per turn, but they tended to be rare and annoying. In the first Final Fantasy, if a character was set up to attack a monster that had since died, they’d end up attacking thin air.
Fortunately, that bit didn’t carry over to very many later games (or even remakes of that one), instead automatically letting that character attack the next monster. Final Fantasy IV might have been the first RPG in which the battles were time-sensitive, with the monsters continuing to attack if you dragged your feet in giving commands.
If you made choices as soon as the menus popped up, it would still usually work out to each player and enemy character making one move per round, unless they were chanting a complicated spell or something. In games like this, the battle still isn’t THAT fast-paced, but the time-sensitive nature adds an element of challenge and fun.
Another interesting aspect to examine is the graphical representation of the battlefield. Many earlier console RPGs, including most of the Dragon Quest games, simply showed the monsters standing still, with your party not represented on-screen at all.
The original FF had an animation for a protagonist attacking, but they never really made contact with the monsters, the two sides being in separate boxes.
Later FF games improved the animation so that the attacks were actually shown, but even here there were some oddities. FF6, for instance, tends to make the monsters a lot bigger than the playable characters, even when that doesn’t make sense. One of my favorite instances of this is when Sabin confronts his old partner Vargas in battle. The two were both trained by Vargas’ father Duncan, but Vargas is shown as enormous compared to the sprite for Sabin.
Must have been some rather awkward training sessions. Umaro is also monster-sized when you fight him, but not when he joins your party. Interestingly, when you fight Kefka in Sabin’s scenario, he’s the same size as the playable characters.
Granted, these aren’t typical battles, but it’s still weird. Kefka is monster-sized when your party battles him in the caves of Narshe, and again at the end of the game. Mind you, he’s obtained god-like powers in the latter. As I mentioned last week, it’s also typical in the FF series (at least the ones I’ve played, which means the early ones) for a battle screen to show the protagonists on one side and the enemy on the other, which means that running away should be a lot easier than it generally is.