Retronauts Vol. III Episode 26: RPG Battle Systems

Retronauts 26 cover

Hey folks, it’s Bob again with my second-to-last episode of the season—but don’t worry, there’s still a few to follow after mine. That said, this is a good one, with a topic brought to us by guest backer Cary Hamby, who unfortunately couldn’t make it in to be a guest on the show (but we still love him). Now, the subject of RPG battle systems might at first seem a little too specific for a 90-minute show, but as you’ll soon hear, we (all being RPG nerds) get a ton of mileage out of the topic, and still have plenty to say by the time the episode wraps up. This subject matter also gives me the chance to fill the episode with great RPG tracks, so you may notice I went a little overboard with the musical breaks. I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me.

Returning for this installment is GamesRadar’s Henry Gilbert, who also hosts the comic book podcast Cape Crisis, which just reached its 100th episode. I’m a big fan of everything going down at the Laser Time podcast network, so it’s always a treat to have Henry come in.

Libsyn (1:38:12 | MP3 Download) | SoundCloud

This episode’s description:

“RPG battle systems: What started as a way to simulate the rolling of dice on a Cheetos-stained card table has mutated over the past 30-plus years into something far different from its Dungeons and Dragons roots. And even though Gary Gygax had no idea what a “limit break” was back in the early ’70s, this and other additions have made menu-based enemy encounters far more appealing than they used to be. Join Bob Mackey, Ray Barnholt, Jeremy Parish, and GamesRadar’s Henry Gilbert as they wait patiently for their little meters to fill up before saying anything important.”

This episode’s musical selections:

As you could probably guess, they’re RPG battle themes. Here are the ones I picked:

  • 11:42 – Dragon Quest 1
  • 21:52 – Final Fantasy 1
  • 34:04 – Final Fantasy IV
  • 40:34 – Tales of Phantasia
  • 57:15 – Super Mario RPG (Boss Battle Theme)
  • 1:14:21 – SaGa Frontier
  • 1:26:48 – Grandia
  • 1:35:35 – Happy Parade, Delightful Parade (Super Mario RPG Credits Theme)

Packs of roving slimes will not take you by surprise if you give Retronauts a nice review in the iTunes music store. And why not wrap your attractive body in one of our equally attractive t-shirts?


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25 Responses to Retronauts Vol. III Episode 26: RPG Battle Systems

  1. andyesquire

    Henry is always a great guest on Retronauts! He gave us a hint that this was coming on RadioRadar. Can’t wait to listen to the episode.

  2. JohnLearned

    Henry Gilbert = cool guy

  3. WyrmWithWhy

    I could give a recommendation for Legend of Dragoon. It’s main problem is being excessively long, but it even uses the length in an interesting way to have the story progress from an initially small scale of ‘small town hero rescues childhood friend’, to a local political scale, to a national scale, to a mythical scale, to a cosmic scale. A lot of the characters are a little flat, but the combat system is engaging. It’s not the best RPG ever, but certainly not worth being entirely forgotten.

    Also, The parade from Super Mario RPG is probably my favorite video game credit sequence. That could be a fun topic for a pocket episode.

  4. DarthEnderX

    I’m with Jeremy on the ATB system. I was always annoyed by any battle system where the enemies could keep kicking my ass while I’m trying to navigate menus. It’s like the exact opposite of what I want from a JRPG.

    FF12 and 13 make this even worse for me where, on top of being real time, I don’t even have direct control of all my characters, which is another thing I hate.

    That’s why, for the longest time, FFX was my favorite JRPG battle system. Although there are definitely elements from other games that I like(combo attacks from Chrono Trigger, timed hits, etc.)

    But I think FFX might have finally been surpassed for me with Bravely Default. As it’s everything I love about straight up turned based Final Fantasy, only with the really great Brave/Default mechanic on top. Although, I could do without some of the gamebreaking online/streepass elements of that game’s mechanics.

  5. I’m a huge tri-Ace fan so I’m glad Resonance of Fate got some love.

    I think a more recent game that deserves a shout-out is Radiant Historia for the DS, from Atlus. It combined the visible turn order system from FFX with time manipulation that lets you swap turns with enemies and other enemies, so you could queue up a bunch of actions. Combine this with a system where the enemies are on a 3×3 grid and you can use moves to “push” or “pull” enemies onto one square, so that one attack will hit all of them. So you manipulate your turns to bunch up all the enemies and then try to finish them off, but if you don’t, then you’re left exposed having blown all your turns up front (sort of like brave and default in BD).

    I would also echo Ray’s sentiment that we need to speed things up. Suikoden and Suikoden II didn’t really do much revolutionary in battles, but I liked how quickly the battles moved because all of your party members took their actions swiftly and simultaneously. I think the developers did this consciously to compensate for the 6 person party size. More games could borrow from this.

    • Contemporary Dragon Quests are good about concurrent party actions, too. Animations will overlap, so you don’t have to watch every action play out individually. Thankfully.

    • Mega_Matt

      I am a big fan of the battle systems in the first two Suikoden games. They’re just so fast. It’s fun pairing certain party members together to do combo attacks also.

  6. nobody

    How about the combat system from Xenoblade? I thought it was pretty innovative, but it also gt cumbersome after a while.

  7. LC11

    I really liked the battle system in Ar Tonelico 2 it’s really fun. Sting rpgs also have great creative battle systems like Knights in the Nightmare.

  8. Orochii Zouveleki

    Live a Live could had been a pretty good mention. But I forgive you all, because you mentioned Romancing SaGa. <3.

  9. Pingback: Brick and Mortar Finds: A Summer RPG Edition. - Blog by bookwyrm05 - IGN

  10. I really enjoy Kawazu games, especially SaGa Frontier.

    The angle I’d use to pitch it is exploration. You have plenty of games that explore worlds, and the core is in finding and enjoying the world in this sort of “physical” space, but the SaGa games have battles at the core. Everything else is kind of filler for the idea that you are “exploring” battles. There are hidden spaces and surprising secrets all while you struggle to understand the “world” of this combat.

  11. Gropestha

    If ATB didn’t go further than FF4, I could still live with it (My all time favorite FF). Also, is there any chance for a Mother 3 episode in the near future? I was listening to some of the older episodes and heard there would be a potential episode dedicated to it. I wasn’t aware of the fact that the Mother 3 battle system had what was mentioned in this episode. I might have to go replay it since I powered my way through that game the first time. Great Episode!

  12. Stuart Kinnear

    Sorry to be that person but I have to come out in defence of Shadow Hearts a bit. At least Shadow Hearts: Covenant – I never completed the other games in the series. The battle system isn’t a direct rip-off of FFX just adding timed hits – there was also a positional element to it where party members could combine their attacks Chrono Trigger-style if they were standing next to each other. I don’t remember FFX having that. It did add a little extra interest to the battle system although the timed elements were clearly the focus. I was surprised to find that I ended up loving the timed system actually – later in the game I even reduced the sweet spot sizes to allow more hits in one turn.

  13. FineLerv

    While listening to this episode I realised that there must’ve been a very early cut-off point for JRPGs when I could actually still understand how to play them. I keep trying all these RPG demos on my 3DS and I just can’t understand half the battle systems. I wonder if it’s almost necessary to have kept up with the genre while it has been evolving, else you reach a point where it’s all just too overwhelming for a novice to wrap their head around.

    Of the Final Fantasy series, I only ever played the original title on NES so I can’t imagine trying to play one of the later entries by the sounds of things.

    (PS I’m breaking my rule of not participating in Internet forums/comments because of how much I love Retronauts).

  14. Another fantastic episode.

    My personal favourite battle systems are Grandia, Valkyria Chronicles, Final Fantasy XIII and the Yakuza series.

  15. My favorite battle system is definitely the Mario & Luigi games. It’s the best combination of platforming reflexes and RPG strategy.

    One thing that you didn’t cover was the effect of RPGs starting to have enemies on the field. Not only does it do away with random combat, but it gives you the option to avoid or fight enemies on your own terms.

    I don’t know if Earthbound was the first game to do this technique, but it was definitely the most effective. I love how the enemies will actually flee from you when you beat a dungeon boss or get high enough level. It both reinforces how powerful your party has become and makes it easier to get through those areas since enemies aren’t trying to actively engage you.

  16. Bob Mackey, you crack me up. I loved that dark joke–had me laughing out loud.

    But, I’m glad Lunar was mentioned. The grid/action style of it was very addictive, even with the questionable voice acting of Nall. It seemed like what Final Fantasy 1 wanted to do, but didn’t have the technical power to do so.

  17. Patrick Dubuque

    We shouldn’t neglect the most innovative RPG of its era, Final Fantasy Mystic Quest. Stationary foes visible on the overworld! The tally-mark hit point display! Enemies that showed battle damage over the duration of a fight! Okay, maybe that last one wasn’t so bad.

  18. Sean C

    I haven’t finished the episode yet, but you were talking about Black Onyx. A game I only heard about recently. I was looking at it because a blog I follow is playing through every Sega game ever made (Dylan Cornelious the guy who did the Questicle blog playing and reviewing every NES game.) and is going to be getting to it soon on the SG-1000. I think it’s the SG-1000’s only RPG. Anyway as far as I could find Reiko Kodamas involvement is credited with the graphics for the SG-1000 version. It was released around the same time as Phantasy Star much later than the micro computer versions so I wonder if it has some of the same dungeon design or similar character art, even though it’s on a system roughly as powerful as the Colecovision.

  19. My big problem with RPG combat is that the “RPG” part always seems to cancel out the tactics. Maybe I’m wandering around too much to run into random battles, but in almost any JRPG I’ve ever played, my party always felt a bit overpowered, and most of the time I found myself strategizing to end battles as quickly as possible to not waste too much time, rather than trying to win. The few times that I found myself underpowered, it never felt like I could make it work with the right method, but more like I really had to grind. That and in most JRPGs, every fight that’s not a boss battle is filler, anyway.

    The one big exception I’ve played is Crimson Shroud, which really profits from the limited scope in my opinion. Rolling dice with the stylus is also super fun.

    Are there any JRPGs that try to make the available resources finite like some Western examples do (KotOR, Vampire: The Masquerade Bloodlines, Shadowrun Returns)? Was Resonance of Fate like that? (Resonance of Fate’s mechanics were just too tiresome and drawn-out in the long run, though.)

  20. Ron

    Man, I love me some SaGa Frontier. I agree, I would love to play it on my Vita. I remember hating it for years, but kept going back to it for years before realizing “Hey, I might actually like this game.” I tear through at least one scenario every summer and always go for the DSC.