RPGs are a very common single-player experience in modern gaming. There are some who buck the trend, like Gearbox Software’s Borderlands series, or Blizzard’s Diablo series. Being able to play, slay, and loot with friends has always been an odd interest of mine; especially in the age of the Internet, where most of your friends are probably people you’ve never met in real life, let alone seen. This is where a conflict comes into play: Say you have a group of friends who are all RPG fanatics, and you want to play a classic RPG; something with a turn-based or Active Time Battle (ATB) system, or an ARPG from before the advent of much more loot-driven (and less grind-intensive) games like the ones mentioned above. You’re at an impasse because, simply, those games almost never exist, even in the indie market.
Most of these games are still Diablo-like, as in, they are loot-based, like Secrets of Grindea. Others are more combat-oriented, like Wanderlust. Then you have games like Torchlight II or Destiny that try to evolve past their roots, but end up entwined in what I call ‘The Grind Wall’; a point in which, no matter how much you play, or what gear you get, you’re stuck at a point in the game where you simply can’t improve. This is usually caused by hitting a level cap or, in Torchlight II’s case, not having an endgame (not without the Synergies mod, anyways).
Co-op games are slowly becoming a dying breed in gaming culture; either through removing it entirely or only having one of two options: Local or Online Multiplayer. Now, both have an exception that they can equally take advantage of, and that’s LAN. But at their core, they lose a major part of their audience. Which is why multiplayer in RPGs are becoming so deeply rooted in the online side of things; there’s not much need for a LAN mode, or it’s nearly impossible to implement a local multiplayer mode (split-screen being a very important note here). However, that has caused JRPGs to falter, and ARPGs to flourish.
In the 1990’s, one company sought directly to implement a way for multiple players to take part in the same game: Squaresoft. Squaresoft was famously known for their many, many RPGs during the SNES era, and the PS1 wouldn’t slow them much, either.
Let’s start with the obvious one: Secret of Mana. Secret of Mana would wind up being one of the first games in the SNES library to use the Multitap, an accessory that allowed four controllers to be used with a Super Nintendo. And this was important, because SoM would be a three-player co-op RPG. Impressive for its time, the Ring Menu system was still very stiff, and wouldn’t age well in the long run. However, these were missteps in what I’d consider a really good game.
Knowing that the Multitap wasn’t very successful, they dialed back the multiplayer for both sequels to Secret of Mana. Secret of Evermore, and Seiken Densetsu 3. Seiken Densetsu 3 would only have two-player co-op, and Secret of Evermore wouldn’t even have multiplayer at all. Of course, thanks to modders, both games allow three-player and two-player modes respectively. With that, though, it was apparent that multiplayer wasn’t quite working out as they had hoped, and it wasn’t implemented for Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy VIII upon leaving Nintendo and joining Sony’s quickly-growing third-party group.
Secret of Mana is one of those “why doesn’t this have online yet?” titles.
Enter Final Fantasy IX. Love it or hate it, it was a very impressive game to top off the PS1’s life before the PS2 landed. Despite how slowly the ATB bar moves, it’s still stressful, and it also marks the return of multiplayer in the FF series. Final Fantasy IV, V, and VI implemented the multiplayer mode originally; the former actually allowed you to set specific party members to either of the two controllers in the Japanese version, but the multiplayer is still available in all other regions.
Back to FFIX, the implementation of multiplayer is a big deal. In battles, the screen indicates which controller is active, and the game is paced well enough to keep things interesting for the second player. This probably explains the battle speed, but still, it’s slow. After FFIX, the next game in the series to have any sort of multiplayer would be FFXI, an MMORPG, which essentially spelled the fate of multiplayer in RPGs; the MMO.
Other companies have tried since then, but they all follow the same path: Battles are real-time (ARPGs). I asked about RPGs with an “optional” multiplayer, and a couple of people responded with the Tales franchise (After Tales of Symphonia, apparently). Sure, it keeps both players active during a battle, and it has a really investing form of co-operation, however it’s lacking the charm of those aged JRPGs from back in the 90’s. There’s something about the limitations that made you and your friends work together in order to succeed.
Now that MMOs have hit the stage, that has been brought to a formulaic degree; players are put into roles, and they are taught how to play those roles. Continuing with the unintentional trend of involving Square into this topic (though seriously, in the 90’s, they defined the genre), I fell in love with Final Fantasy XIV. To me, MMOs were always a grey area; I always enjoyed watching people run through raids and dungeons, but I could never get into them. But I gave FFXIV a shot, because I was breaking in my PS4 and all I had was Destiny. So why not give the free trial a go? I had nothing to lose, and because of FFVII on PC, I had a Square Enix Account already.
So I made an account, made a character, and hopped in. I made a Conjurer, thinking that it was a typical no-strings-attached Mage class. A moment of questing, and I had noticed that my damage output was rather…miniscule. That’s when I had realized what I had started: I was the healer class. Some may argue about which of the three types of class is more important: DPS, Tank, or Healer. Let’s be honest, though. Healers essentially decide who lives and dies, and they keep the tanks alive so they can distract enemies so the DPS can do the work. Healers are very important, and I was terrified of failing at what I think is the most important task in any MMO.
But that’s the thing about MMOs, is that a lot of other people have been, or are also, healers. They’ve been down the same road before, and they’re usually more than glad to guide you down the right path. It’s an effort by everyone to help each other, and it’s generally pleasant. This sense of community is why MMOs have succeeded in the RPG genre; along with the whole “role-playing” thing. It was an eye-opener to me, that I finally found a world that I enjoyed “living” in, and whenever I can’t log on, I miss it.
That said, I don’t think JRPGs are going anywhere, and in this current era, they could very well flourish. The lack of restrictions with this generation’s hardware, along with the multitude of software that can be programmed to do whatever you need, could allow for massive potential. I’d like to believe that one day, we’ll get a multiplayer-oriented ATB-based JRPG, that can be played online with friends. Maybe I’ll be the one who makes it, since it’s kind of a dream project of mine to make a full JRPG. But in this age of gaming, it’s only a matter of time until someone does.