What we can learn from old school RPGs?

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I recently decided to pick up the Nintendo Switch port of Dragon Quest. Originally published in 1986 it really is quite the trip when taking the jump from games like Skyrim, the newer entries in Final Fantasy and the Dragon Age games.

But there’s a lot we can learn from the design and limitation put on these older entries of gaming, where developers have been pushed by hardware limitations into accidental innovation. Something they easily succeeded through the years with games that defined and created genres; shooters originally being dubbed ‘doom clones’ and the genres of Metroidvania and Roguelikes.

Obviously, there has been a huge quality of life improvements, such as technological advancements that have led us to amazing graphics, sound engineering and interactive storytelling. So, what exactly is it that we’ve shied away from since 1986 that could be utilised more in games today?

Image credit: Dragon Quest SQUARE ENIX

Mostly it’s on the game play and mechanical level. The original Dragon Quest is by no means a perfect game. It’s a huge slog through grinding to an arbitrary level to be strong enough to win a fight with little to no strategy for the most part. The story is incredibly generic, and its portrayal of the princess is essentially the generic trope of: helpless princess falls in love with the hero who saves her bordering on misogynistic.

However, like many older games, it allows you to learn through interacting with the world. You get information if you choose to look for it. No cutscenes. No huge exposition dump. You have a goal and you go learning the game through trial and error, levelling up and purchasing better gear. The true essence of any RPG. There are no quest markers, you have to travel the world and figure everything out from speaking to NPCs and piecing together information on your own. There’s no excessive handholding like the newer entries in Pokémon and you can play the game and enjoy yourself without another main character interrupting your progress to tell you things you don’t care about.

Image credit: Dragon Quest SQUARE ENIX

The whole world is open to you from the get-go. If you wander into an area with monsters stronger than you, you die. It’s as simple as that. There is beauty in the game’s simplicity and it clearly tries to make up for the shortness of the story through grinding and gruelling boss fights that you cannot take on early in the game. This was common practise for older games and is, frankly, best left in the past but there’s a lot to be learned from respecting the player’s intelligence.

I felt so much more accomplished figuring something out for myself with only a generic world map and no clear easy-to-follow goal. To newer games credit, I haven’t had to search for an online walk through like I had to for various sections of Dragon Quest. When I was young, and the gaming section of the internet was still growing, if I got stuck on a section of a game then that was it. I can appreciate this game now 34 years later, but no way would I have enjoyed it as a child. I’d likely have reached max level before getting one goal accomplished and then put it down thinking I’d completed it.

Image credit: Dragon Quest SQUARE ENIX

But these newer RPG’s aren’t designed for children the 18+ rating on many of them makes that abundantly clear and treating your player like a mindless child isn’t always necessary. Sure, Skyrim allowing you to track the 100 quests you’ve managed to pick up and forget is handy but maybe it could benefit from Morrowind’s questing from time to time. While you may be able to turn these directions off, if it’s there you always have the temptation in it a moment of weakness to turn that icon on and do a quick fast travel.

Do I think all games would benefit from this minimal storytelling, drip-fed info and navigation? Oh, dear lord no, not at all. But I think there are plenty of games out there that would benefit from a game setting called Old school or classic which removes these elements, in fact, I’m sure there are games that do this already. But maybe the next Triple-A RPG would also benefit from this line of thinking.

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