How’d It Age #7 – Super Mario RPG

More Info from Nintendo

  • Genre: JRPG
  • Platform: Switch
  • Originally Available On: SNES, Virtual Console, SNES Classic

It’s a bit surprising that I’m doing back to back remakes of old games that came out in the late 90s, but here we are. Where Pharaoh felt like it strayed too close to the original and could have benefited from more modernization, Super Mario RPG feels like it does a good job of maintaining what worked in the original and smoothing out some things for a modern audience while also adding a couple new features here and there that maybe don’t work as well.

I guess we’ll start out with combat, since it’s where most of the changes occurred that stood out in my head. In this case, I’ll start with the two things that didn’t necessarily work out well for me.

The first is the little meter in the bottom left corner of that screenshot. This is one of the new mechanics tied to action buttons, where you can get bonus offensive or defensive boosts if you time an A button press based on the action occurring. In this case, the meter builds up when you get good action buttons until you hit 100%. At that point you can activate a move based on the composition of your team, with each team combo having some different move. The problem I have with these is that situationally they can be very useful in a niche, but aren’t generally that useful in most cases.

For example, one of the moves heals all party members both on and off the field. It’s useful if you got nuked by a big boss move, but you’d have to have the right party combo (Mario/Peach/Mallow) be alive to activate it anyway. The big offensive combo of Mario/Bowser/Geno does a series of random attacks and buffs which can be useful in the start of a boss battle to buff your party, but it requires your healers to then skip out on the buffs. It then takes a fair number of turns to recharge the meter so often I’d be sitting there holding onto it considering whether it’s worth using only to then finish the fights anyway. It’s one of those ideas that on paper sounds good, but in practice falls to a lot of the classic JRPG problem of holding onto something for so long that you lose the chance to use it.

Another thing that didn’t work out as well for me was the inclusion of randomized special enemies. These are nice in one respect in that they drop frog coins, which makes collecting them much easier than in the original game. However, the special enemies have weird mechanics (ex: nearly immune to physical damage, faster move speed, etc) and very little other over the top reward, so it again feels like a case where the idea is good on paper but not really baked enough to be a fun feature.

However, new things are much more positive for me from there. There are three small changes tied to the action button mechanic that all end up summing up to a much greater whole for the feature.

The first is the inclusion of a little (!) symbol to teach you the timing. This will show up the first handful of times you have to hit the action on a new move, both offensively and defensively. It allows you to learn the timing on the fly without the guess work of the original game. The nice thing is that once you get the timing right a few times, it goes away. However, if you later start to then miss the timing consistently it will come back until you learn the timing again. This is a fantastic way to teach players quickly about new moves, while allowing timing to be wildly different for different types of attacks. It also removes the feeling of being hand holdy by going away and letting the player succeed through repetition or fail for a while before it comes back.

The second is that successful action button attacks now change the damage to be AoE, doing about 25% damage to all non-targeted NPCs in the attack. My initial instinct was that this was going to make the game much easier, and it certainly does. However, where that ease comes in is just making trash fights much quicker. Now if I’m not quite one-shotting enemies, I can still just move on and attack other NPCs. More often than not, I would be able to clear a normal 3-person trash fight in 3 attacks by simply focusing each target once and letting the AoE take over. It’s ultimately a huge time saving reward for getting your action timing right, and not something that necessarily is negatively impacting difficulty.

The third is the chain mechanic. Getting action button timing right will build up the chain, providing stacking buffs to the entire party. Each party member then has stats tied to them that apply to this. For example, Mallow increases magic attack while Geno increases physical attack and speed. What this allows you to do as the player is to mix and match your party for the situation beyond just what moves the member does. It’s again something that has the effect of making the game easier on paper, but also providing a strong incentive towards hitting your timing just right. This becomes incredibly important in the post-game when the player is fighting boss rematches on the way to fighting the ultimate form of Culex.

The final thing that I want to point out is how much better inventory management is. Rather than being a fixed list of 20 or so items that you can carry, you can now carry infinite items but with a limit per item type. For example, you can carry 10 mushrooms total or 6 pick me ups total. Anything over that amount is sent back to storage at Mario’s house. This just gets rid of so much hassle from the original game. You’re no longer keeping an empty slot just to pick up flower tabs. You’re no longer fighting with whether a revive is more important than a syrup. You’re no longer scrolling through the long unwieldy list for one specific thing. It’s such a small change but it modernizes the game incredibly well.

This is very clearly a lovingly crafted remake. It maintains the wonderful gameplay of the original game, completely revamps the visuals (because hoooooo boy the 2D didn’t age well on non-CRTs), reorchestrates the wonderful soundtrack, and does just enough to play the balance between nostalgia and modernization. It shows why the original game was so well received 25+ years ago and manages to still feel like a great experience now.

Game Ramblings #176 – Sea of Stars

More Info from Sabotage Studio

  • Genre: JRPG
  • Platform: PS5
  • Also Available On: Windows, Switch, PS4, Xbox One, Xbox Series

This is an interesting game, not the least of which is because it’s distinctly a JRPG not developed in Japan. It very clearly takes inspiration from games like Chrono Trigger, with which it shares a composer. It also clearly leans into games like Suikoden, FF6, and Lufia. However, the one it really brings to mind to me more than any of those is Super Mario RPG.

It was pretty early on when my brain went straight to “this is SMRPG” and the video above is indicative of that. Sure, it’s not exactly the same attack but the cadence of the deflection there is the same kind of cadence in executing a super jump and getting the full combo. Those little details are all over in combat. Timing your own attack bonuses is different with each person’s basic and special attacks, giving a bit of skill in making sure you stay fresh in using everyone. Learning the attack timing of enemies is even more crucial in order to reduce incoming damage. All of that is straight SMRPG in my brain. Sure it isn’t the only game to ever do things with attack timing in a JRPG, but it is the one that stuck for me.

Sea of Stars does it all wonderfully well. The animation tells on both sides of the equation are at a level of fidelity that I could only have dreamed of 25+ years ago and really enforce learning the timing of everything well. The precision of all of it feels just right – with it rewarding the timing but not making it too loose. The rewards for successful execution beyond just normal attack+ and defense+ on an attack are also nice, with it opening up combos and ultimates quicker if you’re good at executing the timing. That set of things in particular is where SoS starts to feel like a modern take on the genre. The way combat is setup feels distinctly more active than a lot of the “classics” of the genre.

MP is regenerative via attacks, which goes a long way to enforcing actual use of skills. Since you aren’t trying to horde items, you’re instead doing what you can to mitigate attacks entirely. That ties into the little icon panel above the targeted creature in the screenshot above, where successfully executing those types of attacks before the creature’s turn effectively wipes out their turn. That then ties into the successful execution timing, where a successful hit generally instead does multiple hits instead of just being a number++. That then also ties back into the use of combo attacks, which take multiple characters and multiple types of attacks and unify them into one turn.

I suppose what I’m ultimately getting at is that each part of combat feels like it’s supportive of the rest. Unlike a lot of classics of the genre, which often leaned more into numbers games, Sea of Stars legitimately feels like you can skill your way to victory. Smart attack timing allows you to be more aggressive, because building up the combo meter quicker means that you’ll have rapid access to a large party heal. Concentrating on cancelling enemy attacks means that you’ll reduce incoming damage just by not being attacked, again encouraging aggressive play styles. Being able to swap your party on the fly like more modern games have done means that you’re always encouraged to use very specifically the exact person that is useful right now instead of trying to make best guesses as to what party setup will be most useful over time within a dungeon. I’ve mentioned it as recently as One Piece Odyssey, but hot swapping is one of my favorite things that is becoming more common, as it means that you use your entire party all the time instead of being stuck on just a subset that is convenient.

That said, there were definitely some things that didn’t hit for me as well as combat. A decent portion of the game is spent without the ability to reasonably fast travel, which is a bit of a bummer. Rather than feeling natural within the game, it ended up just kind of reducing me wanting to explore areas that I’d been to to find new things. Very late in the game you gain the ability to go anywhere you want, but it felt a bit too little too late. The game also kind of dragged by that point anyway. You open up your full arsenal in combat by probably about the midway point in the game. Up until then you’re slowly being given new capabilities that allowed me to be spending time in new dungeons experimenting with interesting combat flows. However, once I was at full capability combat kind of started to drag. Other than bosses, a lot of the trash enemies are pretty samey, which is fine when you’re trying new things but is kind of slow otherwise.

There’s also something to be said about the fact that the story is often very convenient. It’s not that I found it bad or anything, but a lot of the plot points kind of resolve themselves quickly and with little effort on the main party’s part. For example, at one point an entire city basically gets leveled by the main antagonist, but within an hour or less it’s basically rebuilt, everything is back to normal, and you move on with your life. One of the main character’s story beats revolves around him not being able to fight in some specific battles, but he’s perfectly able to tell you exactly what you should be doing. Things like that kind of keep happening throughout the game. Obviously the things need to happen, but the way in which they occur just always feels like the shortest way out, rather than the way that makes sense for the world.

I suppose where that ultimately ends up is that the sum of the game’s parts were more than good enough for me to want to get to the credits, but not good enough for me to really want to push for full completion. There is a true ending that I knew about having backed this on Kickstarter, but I didn’t want to go throught the tedious process to finish the checklist of things to do. Combat wasn’t going to grow and the story wasn’t going to change that much, so I confirmed that via watching it on Youtube. From a plot perspective it kind of made me wish that they had skipped the alternate ending and just made it the core plot.

That said, I think this game is absolutely one worth playing if you’re a JRPG fan. The combat mechanics alone are good enough for fans of the genre to enjoy without needing to worry about anything else, and the game surrounding it is at least good enough for a core playthrough. It took me about 25 hours or so to get through, so it’s not even a particularly long entry to the genre. It may not quite live up to the bar set by its higher budget inspirations, but it leaves me in a place where I continue to be excited about where this studio is going after its shipped this and The Messenger.

There’s also something to be said about another game giving me fishing!

Game Ramblings #172 – One Piece Odyssey

More Info from Bandai Namco

  • Genre: JRPG
  • Platform: PS5
  • Also Available On: PS4, PC, Xbox Series

I kind of played this one on a whim. I’ve watched some of One Piece here and there so I was familiar with the series, but I wouldn’t call myself exactly a fan of it. However, I am a sucker for JRPGs and it fit well within that. What it ended up being was a game that I enjoyed far more than I expected because of decisions they made around their core combat that really worked out to the game’s benefit.

This being a JRPG, the combat had to be good to make it worth playing. The series that immediately came to mind here was Shin Megami Tensei/Persona. It didn’t have that complexity, but the core feeling is there. The entire combat loop is around exploiting weaknesses to maximize effects. There’s the core unit type, which is a rock paper scissors mechanic that applies to most attacks. Most of the units then have some elemental attacks (ex: Nami has lightning, Sanji has fire, etc) that can be an additional layer of weakness against some units.

While this doesn’t have the same turn skipping functionality of the SMT series, the end result is similar due to the balance of the attacks. Simply put, you want to take advantage of these weaknesses because it’s effectively double damage. In SMT you’d add turns by attacking weaknesses, thereby getting you through more enemies safely. Here you’re just nuking enemies, again getting you through more enemies safely.

The other place this comes into play is with the regeneration of TP – this game’s mana stat. Most of the high end special attacks take up a significant amount of the player’s TP to the point where 3 or 4 attacks with them will often drain the entire TP pool. In a typical JRPG, I’d probably just hold onto those special attacks until a boss fight rather than spamming items to get the resource back. However, in this game TP regenerates on basic attacks. Because of this, you’ll often want to nuke as much stuff using AOE on turn 1, then finish off fights to regen TP as you mop up the rest of the enemies. Against bosses, you’ll do a bit of a back and forth where you go back and forth between heavy damage and regen phases, or in the case of the healer you spend time trying to determine when it’s the best chance to heal vs. regenerating TP to avoid running out. It’s another good way to really tie combat together.

The second piece of combat that I found smart was their use of a bonus XP mechanic. The short version of this is that a lot of fights ended up introducing some small mechanic to throw off the balance of combat – could be something like kill strengthened enemies before someone in your party dies, kill an enemy before it uses a strong attack, use a specific person to finish a boss, etc – that grants bonus XP if successful. The thing that threw me off initially is that this gave a ridiculous amount of XP, often being 400-500% of the XP of a fight. It seemed exploitative. However, over time it became clear to me that the balance of the leveling curve was actually built around achieving these to avoid grinding.

What these things do in practice is really just throw off your patterns and make combat more engaging. Yes, the enemies end up being the same as in many fights, but having to switch gears to figure out how to get people into the right position to clear out groups of specific enemies fast is fun. Having to figure out how to get just the right damage to make sure the very specific person kills a boss on next attack is fun. Having to suddenly have your party focus on something they may be weak to to get bonus XP is fun. It’s small constant tweaks to the core combat that make things just different enough to reduce repetition in a genre that is typically bound to repetition.

The final piece that just worked nicely was party hot swapping. During combat you can swap party members at any time as long as they have not yet attacked in the current turn. This could include just switching where party members are on the field, but it also includes swapping party members in from the reserves. It extends to hot swapping out party members that get knocked out, which comes in particularly handy against bosses. In practice what this does is always allow you to focus on having the right people in the right spots at all times. You don’t have to worry about figuring out what the best min/max party for an area is, but instead can just focus on having the right people for the situation. It reduces a lot of what is typical party stress in the genre and actually allows and encourages you as a player to try a bunch of different combinations. It results in the entire cast being familiar to you by the end of the game, because you’ll have been using everyone often throughout the game. It’s a smart way to integrate everyone into the experience while still only capping combat to 4 members and really goes against what is typical in a lot of JRPGs.

However, where the game nearly lost me was in the stuff that is tied to the narrative. It’s not that the narrative was bad, and honestly I enjoyed it a lot, but it was often forced in a way that didn’t feel right for the genre. There were long segments of 3-4 hours where I couldn’t explore. I couldn’t fast travel. I couldn’t go back to places that I had side quests in. I couldn’t really do anything but stick to the core narrative. In a lot of these places, there was also very little combat as it would often be sections of the game where you’re interacting with people in cities and dealing with One Piece-universe story segments that simply didn’t belong in the overworld.

As a pacing thing, this just felt off. It led to a bit of a weird situation where any time I was given the opportunity to freely run around, I felt like I had to do everything that was optional at one time. I couldn’t just go “ya I’m going to take 15 minutes to screw around” because I would often be stuck. The result of this was that a couple of the longer narrative-forced sections nearly had me shelving the game, simply because I wanted to be given a break to just do anything that wasn’t a fetch quest. This was another thing that felt a bit atypical of JRPGs, but in this case it felt like a negative to the experience.

Overall thought I was pleasantly surprised by this game. I figured it’d fill the gap between XB3’s DLC and Final Fantasy 16, but I ended up enjoying it enough to delay starting FF16 instead. It does a solid job of blending the One Piece IP with a really solid representation of the JRPG genre by borrowing combat reminiscent of Persona while doing a couple things here and there that broke some genre conventions, and it ended up being a better game for it. If you’re looking for something new to check out in this genre, I’d feel pretty good throwing this one out for a recommendation.