A Bit for Your Bite: RPG Evolution on NES
Calling something an “RPG” is more of a semantic argument about the content of a game in question rather than any particular gameplay structures in said game. Taking the term at its broadest and most literal meaning would make every game under the sun except for a large chunk of puzzle games an RPG simply because the acronym means “Role-Playing Game,” and going in the opposite direction in the ’80s would plant you firmly in the laps of the Ultima and Wizardry series, at least in the West. Your average football game has as much in common with your average “RPG” in terms of stat juggling and party arrangement and so on, but it’s the swords and spells rather than flying pigskins that tend to define RPGs.
This makes RPG a genre descriptor rather than a hard and fast notation of game design, and this gets emphasized more the closer you get to the modern day -- all despite the efforts of some in the industry to redefine it in their favor. That means there is little point in trying to define major game design shifts in the genre simply because there are no real conclusions to draw from those changes in of themselves. Unlike shooters of various perspectives which all draw from a single heritage and a single purpose, RPGs don’t share a similarly meaningful history. Any changes in a single game’s design tend to be those that work to emphasize the game’s plot and narrative through the character’s actions, as in the virtues system present in Ultima IV and modern Bioware games’ morality systems. It makes sense after all, since these gameplay systems are all about selling a character and narrative and not necessarily altering the underlying mechanics that are pretty much universally present in every game in the genre. Most developers are simply content to bolt their system of choice on top of this foundation, which is the source of comments like “boy, the genre sure has stagnated since xxxx.”
So that means the genre has been largely stagnant from day one, at least from a mechanical perspective, because it relies upon numerical abstractions and descriptions for everything about the characters in a game. When you start to think about it, abstracting the concept of personal health into “health” points is actually pretty absurd, with similar reactions for everything else like strength, agility, and so on. It reduces the complexity of a “person’s” traits into something easily understandable and usable, and also makes for a rather shallow sandbox, gameplay-wise. Developers recognized this, of course, which is why things like vulnerabilities and resistances to various special effects and attacks are introduced in order to liven up the gameplay side of things and deepen the complexity of the simulation from a mechanical perspective.
This is a problem because the genre’s never depended on mechanical changes and developments like other genres have since RPGs have always been more about the plot, narrative, and character than the mechanical. Very few people have actually tried to resolve the two aspects in any serious way and actually succeed in a limited fashion for one reason: size. People are complex in ways that have yet to be fully emulated in any realistic fashion because a “person” is more than just an aggregate of their physical and mental characteristics. There’s simply too much information to easily compress in a comprehensible fashion. This is of far less importance for other characters than the ones the player is meant to control, but since the player’s “avatar” is meant to be the one they control the greater the complexity in the simulation, the more realistic it becomes.
Which is where morality systems and the like come into play, and again, the problem is size. Most of the reason there weren’t many RPGs on the NES as compared to other genres is because their resource-intensive nature made them more expensive to manufacture. When you add complexity to the narrative in the form of expanded text and player options, all things that have to be kept track of in expensive cart memory and battery saves, it quickly becomes very expensive to publish your game. Then you also have to factor in the NES’s technical limitations. The NES didn’t have the technical chops to handle what would be normally be called an RPG today—a fusion of the text/graphical adventure genre and combat segments largely drawn from Dungeons & Dragons mechanics. That’s why so many early RPGs featured silent heroes and NPCs with strange and cryptic text, since the wealth of art resources and stat tracking required limited the space available for other things. Given the relative cheapness of floppy disks as compared to cartridge memory at the time, and the greater specs of most personal computers, it’s not terribly surprising that the most complex and involving RPGs of the day mostly stayed there outside of a few ports of very questionable quality.
In the west, the scant few RPGs we did get mostly served as a basepoint for everything that would follow with the Genesis and the SNES. The subgenres like SRPGs and so on mostly didn’t exist, although the greatest exception would be the Romance of the Three Kingdoms for American audiences. Japan got more than a few wargaming simulations and the beginnings of the Famicom Wars and Fire Emblem series, and a whole host of one off games that wasn’t replicated across the Pacific. Then there’s the other two Final Fantasies released on the Famicom, and the Dragon Quest series for additional fuel to the Japanese fire.
What’s more surprising is how much the genre hasn’t changed as a whole in the last twenty five years. Most RPGs that include personal morality systems and the like still haven’t integrated much of them into the games as a whole. Even the current standard in Mass Effect 2 is still a third-person shooter married somewhat uncomfortably with a space opera where you can occasionally bluff your way out of an encounter or put a bullet in a jerk’s head if you happen to have enough points in one of the morality scales. There’s remarkably little to unite the shooter-Shepard with the dialogue-Shepard, and make it so that the choices the player makes with either part have an effect on the other.
So RPGs on the NES are a bit of an interesting case, since they serve as a combination prologue and footnote in the genre’s history that gets continually revisited with every new RPG that comes out.