RPG Musings – 90s RPGs

Okay, now it’s time for me to nostalgia, hard. This isn’t for a single game, though. It’s for an era that came and went. Riding high on the insane success of Final Fantasy 7, the world of RPGs became a powerful force in gaming. So, as any sane company would do, everyone started making RPGs. Sure, lots of people had been doing that already (I mean, it was the seventh Final Fantasy, after all, and they’re hardly the only RPG series that had been running from before the PlayStation), but FF7 brought RPGs to global attention. For a little while, it was a very different gaming scene. A better one? Eh, I’ll just hammer out a bunch of rose-tinted text and let you decide for yourself (spoilers: it was better).

So maybe a lot of games were pretty clear FF7 clones. That’s okay, FF7 was an extremely fun game. Sure, it wasn’t the deepest of battle systems, the best writing/localization, or even the most excellent of visual styles (unless you’re the world’s biggest Popeye the Sailor fan (art idea: Barret and Cloud as Popeye and Bluto (other art idea: learn how to draw))), but damn, it’s fun. It moves along at a good clip too, which is important (for games with massive pacing issues, see Xenogears). This meant something wonderful for all of the clones that people were making: they wanted to be as fun as FF7 (or at least look enough like it to trick people into buying them).

This isn’t just a story of fun FF7 clones. This was a time where RPGs were a tried and true system. They were guaranteed sales. Which means something that I generally have to go to itch.io for these days: crazy innovation and experimentation. Companies (especially Square, which now had the reputation of “They made Final Fantasy 7, so this other game they made must be good”) could put together all sorts of crazy RPGs without fear of no one buying them. The success of FF7 didn’t just open the market up for clones of itself, it opened the market up for any RPG that was cool looking and awesome. I can certainly testify to multiple RPG purchases on the grounds that “FF7 was so cool, this other RPG must be cool too” (which is how I bought a lot of games that I really love).

Let’s not forget something that games back then did in general (and FF7 was certainly no exception) – the colors were vibrant, the visuals a brilliant mixture of fun when they could be and mature when they had to be (well, some games did that, more of them just tried). The use of color in games has change drastically as the years have gone on, and the bright colors of Midgar, Cloud, and Red XIII have faded into the muted silver and grey of the first twenty hours of Final Fantasy 13 (even the hair of the protagonist is a faded pink instead of a strong and solid color). That initial swell of RPGs around FF7 still focused on the SNES and Genesis color palette, which (after the initial “holy cow, we can do realistic browns and greys for once and makes something that’s still recognizable”) tended to air on the side of bright and, well, interesting. It might just be me, but I really like when things look interesting.

There was one other major feature of the FF7 era of RPGs: extra content to the main story. A lot of RPGs have historically played like FF4: tight, focused, and not a lot of content beyond the main quest (certainly nothing other than an extra dungeon). FF7 did a lot to popularize minigames and sidequests. Everything involving Yuffie from having her in the party to doing anything meaningful in an entire section of the map was optional. You could catch, race, and breed chocobos, you could box, snowboard, and battle in a submarine, and you could fight in an arena for special items. This insane wealth of extra things to do served as inspiration for all of the clones and tag alongs: if you were making an RPG at the time, you needed a ton of extra stuff.

It was a weird time. RPGs occupied a place in the public eye that they haven’t been able to duplicate since (thanks, FF8, you sure kept there attention by shifting from the most player friendly game in the FF series to the least). It was a time that we’ll likely never see again (the horrifying stamina/pay to play dungeons of mobile RPGs are making that clear by diving into the freemium model in the worst possible way), and that’s a real shame. The mechs and bizarrely convoluted story of Xenogears. The colorful (really, just look at the magic system) dimension flip-flopping of Chrono Cross. The strange visuals and gameplay of Septerra Core. The weird one-offs like Okage: Shadow King. The continuing series that took hints from FF7’s success (or didn’t and just kept rocking but finally got some deserved attention thanks to RPGs suddenly being popular – Suikoden, Breath of Fire, SAGA, Dragon Quest/Warrior, and way more than I can think of to list (I only had so much money to pick up everything I could back then)).

It’s a brilliant era of fun and creative RPGs, so many of which are well worth playing. Oh, and Sony made Legend of Dragoon, so I guess there’s that too.

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