Welcome to this week’s edition of “5 Games I’ve Beat,” where after one edition I’ve already run out of franchise-based or character-based entries because I stink at videogames!  Instead we are going to look at at a particular genre, it being RPGs.

For the uninitiated, RPG stands for Role-Playing Game.  To put it simply, an RPG puts you in control of a character or a team of characters, each with their own personality, backstory, attributes, and abilities, in order to overcome some powerful evil.  Often, you must crawl through dungeons and investigate towns in order to advance the plot.  Unlike other genres, the game is not structured by stages or levels, but rather it pits you in a large world, where you may explore each area as you please (often only some of these areas are accessible at the beginning, but more open up as you progress).

Perhaps the more defining characteristics of RPGs are the battle mechanics.  As you begin, each character begins weak or at the lowest level, but as you fight and defeat your foes, you earn experience points.  Enough points let you increase your level, allowing you sometimes to learn new techniques or abilities or even magical attacks.  The fighting is turn-based, meaning that you select what you want your characters to do first and then watch as they are played out in battle.  On the one hand, it’s great to have all the time in the world to make up your mind or assess the situation, but it might be weird to not be directly involved with what’s going on as you would in a platformer like, say, Super Mario Bros.

Because of the nature of RPGs, they are more conducive to tell stories that sometimes put novels or TV shows to shame.  But this introduction is already going pretty long, so hit the jump to look at 5 RGP games that I have beaten (did I mention that they are usually pretty long games):

1.  Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars (Super NES, Virtual Console)The Legend of the Seven Stars

When you combine the quirkiness and platforming goodness of the Mario series with the story-telling and expertise of Square (now known as Square Enix and better known as the creators of the Final Fantasy franchise), you get Super Mario RPG.  It was an absurd idea, but one that was done so well.  Mario and friends now participated in turn-based battles, but instead of sitting back and watch, you could be a little more involved with precision button-pressing for more powerful attacks.  The game features an isometric view, and most of the action takes place in the aforementioned turn-based battles, but there were areas that resembled classic Mario running and jumping.

The story is also a little bit more involved than the usual Mario game was at the time.  It begins simple enough: Bowser kidnaps Princess Toadstool (read: Peach) yet again, and Mario, who apparently lives around the corner from Bowser’s Keep, faces the King of Koopas in a “staged” battle that serves to help you familiarize yourself with the new battle mechanics.  When it would appear that Mario has triumphed over Bowser again, a HUGE sword comes crashing down and sends all three characters across the land.  What begins as Mario’s search for the princess becomes a quest to return 7 stars (hence the title) to repair the Star Road up in the heavens that was shattered when the sword fell.  Opposing Mario is the Smithy gang, who works to fill the world with weapons (these enemies are swords, arrows, anvils, and whatnot, in addition to typical Mario enemies, such as Goombas and Koopas).

Mario in a battle against several enemies

Mario along the way meets what would become the other members of his party: Mallow, a cloud-like “tadpole” who has power over the weather and later discovers he is the long-lost prince of Nimbus Land; Geno, a doll possessed by a star spirit with great magical ability, whose task is to repair the Star Road; Bowser, the heavy-hitter of the team who forms a temporary truce with Mario in order to get back his Keep from Smithy; and finally Princess Toadstool, the healer of the group, who after being rescued by mischief-maker Booster, wants to join in on the adventure for once and follows Mario.  Eventually, they reach the Factory through Exon, the sword, and defeat Smithy, thus getting all 7 stars and fixing the Star Road.

The game doesn’t try to imitate the emotional nature of the Final Fantasy games.  Instead, it’s hilariously fun as you see the team progress through the game and see their personalities shine (Mario even fits the profile of the “silent hero” very common in these types of games).  It’s very engaging as an RPG, and you’re promised to spend hours strengthening your team for the battles ahead.  Because of Square’s involvement in the game, Super Mario RPG never saw a direct sequel or remake, but the original was finally re-released on the Virtual Console for Wii.

2.  Pokemon Red and Blue (Game Boy)

The year is 1998.  The year would mark the beginning of the world-wide phenomenon known as Pokemon (it had been released in Japan for two years already, but whatever).  A lot of people that I talked to are under the false impression that the popular cartoon (anime) series of the same name came first before the games ever did.  Not so.  Pokemon was conceived as a game series before it was ever a cartoon, or a movie, or a card game, or a clothing line, or anything else that had the Pokemon name on it.

And it’s not just a game.  It’s a fine good game.  At least, the original Red Version and Blue Version were for its time.  You gotta understand, these games are RPGs.  They are as engaging and/or as convoluted as Final Fantasy, or Dragon Quest, or Lufia, or Lunar, or any of the other big name titles out there.  The perceived childish image is actually what you would expect from Nintendo, but it hides a complex battle system that I will do my best to explain succinctly.

You control a Pokemon trainer, a young boy (not necessarily Ash from the series) who dreams of catching all Pokemon known to man (at the time) and training them to be the strongest.  You start with one of three available creatures and begin your quest to catch all 150 Pokemon.  Some are found in the wild.  Others “evolve” (and it’s not even “evolution” as envisioned by Charles Darwin; this is an immediate transformation) by leveling up, trading with friends, or giving them items.  Some are very common, and others are only found once.  You can’t find them all in one game, which is why is necessary to find a buddy with the opposite version to get those who are missing from your game (or if you’re like me, just buy both games, two Game Boys, and the trade cable).

The player's level 5 Bulbasaur engaged in a battle with an opponent's level 5 Charmander

The goal of the game is actually to defeat the top trainer in the area, the Champion, who turns out to be your bitter jerk of a rival.  To gain access to the Indigo Plateau and face the champ, you must first gain 8 badges from Gym Leaders in different towns of the region (later retconned as the Kanto region).  Once you beat them and the Elite Four, you face your rival and upon victory you are declared the Champion.  Your Pokemon do all your battling for you.  This is where it falls into more traditional RPG territory.  Each Pokemon has attacks that are “super-effective” against certain types.  Knowing what attacks work against your opponent is half the battle (which are turn-based, by the way).  To be any good at this game, you have to be smart about what Pokemon to put in your team of six (or your opponent might exploit a weakness), what attacks give them, and to level them up to appropriate levels.  And I’m not even going to talk about stats and effects or any of the more complicated stuff, and this is just in the first games.  Stuff gets more complicated in sequels.  I’m still a little amazed that eight-year-old kids are any good at this stuff.

Even though I’ve only beat the Red Version, I put the Blue Version here because, again, it’s the same game but with different monsters inside.  I also actually managed to catch all 151 Pokemon (even Mew, which I got from Toys R Us).  I haven’t managed to do that for any of the other games.

3.  Golden Sun (Game Boy Advance)

Golden Sun was such a sleeper hit.  Developer Camelot (also known as the developers for Mario Tennis and Mario Golf) created a unique sword-and-magic tale that was so encompassing that they had to split them in two games.  Golden Sun tells the story of Isaac, a young boy who is an “Adept” able to use a magic known as “Psynergy.”  When his hometown is ransacked by two criminals, an ages-old seal was broken and catapults the world towards destruction as a power known as “Alchemy” threatens to return.  These two criminals, Saturos and Menardi, also steal elemental “stars,” which if used in the four elemental “beacons” scattered across the world, then for sure the world will be destroyed… or will it?  Anyway, because the two evildoers are responsible for the death of his parents and kidnapped his friends, Isaac and his friend Garret volunteer to save the world from catastrophe.  Isaac is an Earth Adept, and Garret is a Fire Adept, and along the way they join with Ivan, the Wind Adept mind-reader, and Mia, the Water Adept and guardian of the Water Lighthouse.  The four do their best but fail as two of the beacons get activated.  But the rest is a story continued for another time.

Battles in Golden Sun have many special effects. Here, a weapon specific attack is unleashed by the sword Gaia Blade.

Golden Sun is a very traditional RPG.  Your characters are able to attack using swords, axes, maces, and magic staffs.  All four characters have distinct magic spells based on four elements.  They can also call upon the help of creatures known as Djinn, as well as huge summon creatures.  The graphics are a selling point here.  For a GBA game , they are very impressive.  The music is also excellent.  My main problem, though, is that there were A LOT of random battles and is difficult to get anywhere because you are constantly assaulted by enemies.  There are some times when you don’t clearly know what you are supposed to do next and you miss out on some things (like I did).

Overall, I like Golden Sun, but I’m very fond of its sequel, which I haven’t finished yet.  Golden Sun: The Lost Age picks up right where you left off in the original, except you play as the bad guys… or are they?  Yeah, the story throws some awesome twists at you in the sequel.

4.  Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories (Game Boy Advance)

Much like with Super Mario RPG, the Kingdom Hearts series is another strange mix, this time between Square Enix and Disney.  The original Kingdom Hearts was a PlayStation 2 exclusive.  In there, you play as Sora, a Final-Fantasy-esque character who enjoys playing with his buddies Riku and Kairi.  One day, his homeworld is destroyed by dark creatures known as the Heartless, and he ends up in another world.  Sora embarks on a quest to find his missing friends, journeying through such places as Neverland (from Peter Pan), the Coliseum (from Hercules), Agrabah (from Aladdin), and Aquatica (from The Little Mermaid).  The one pulling the strings here is none other than Maleficent (from Sleeping Beauty).  Sora is aided in battle by Donald Duck and Goofy, serving as wizard and shield-bearer, respectively, who join you as they search for the missing King Mickey.  Other characters from Final Fantasy VII and VIII make appearances.  Eventually, it is revealed that Riku has been brainwashed by both Maleficent and original character Ansem the Wise, and he fights Sora near the end.  Ansem is revealed as the true bad guy, who longs to find Kingdom Hearts, a repository of knowledge and power.  This proves to be his undoing and is defeated, but Sora loses his friend Riku and King Mickey to the world of darkness.  Kairi returns to her homeworld, now restored, and Sora promises to come back with Riku.

Why did I just type up one paragraph to explain the story of a game that is not even on this list?  Well, Chain of Memories bridges the story of the first game and Kingdom Hearts 2.  For the most part, it rehashes a lot of the stuff that happens in the first game, especially in the Disney worlds.  Sora, in his search for his missing friends, ends up in Castle Oblivion and finds out that he is steadily losing his memories.  As he progresses through the 13 floors of the castle, he is further messed up in his memories by a witch named Namine, who is under pressure from cloaked figures known collectively as the Organization (later known as Organization XIII).  Eventually, she fesses up, and Sora eliminates the Lord of the Castle, Marluxia, the person responsible for trying to use him as a tool to become the leader of the Organization.  However, with his memories all jumbled up, he decided to have them restored by Namine, but the process ends up taking a year.  Here is where KH2 picks up (I’m purposely skipping over a lot of the terminology and details, because the story is incredibly convoluted and confusing, and even I have trouble making sense of it).  There is also a side story featuring Riku, who, remorseful over his actions in the first game, seeks to fight his inner demons and return to the light.

Sora battles Vexen. Player information, including cards and HP, is located on the left side of the screen while enemy information is located on the right.

Unlike traditional RPGs, Kingdom Hearts is more action-oriented, though you still need to customize your characters and level up to gain abilities.  In the GBA game, you use a card-system, in which every swing of your weapon, the Keyblade, or every spell or summon is triggered by a card.  Thus, you have a deck of cards with you that you use in battles (which are usually random, and like with traditional RGPs, they send you to a different screen, though it’s more of a side view than isometric or from-behind view).  The trick is to balance your cards properly (you have a certain limit, so that you can’t stack your deck with a lot of powerful cards) or you might be at a disadvantage when some of the latter bosses.  Each card has a number.  Your enemies also use cards, so most of the time you are trying to play higher-numbered cards to inflict damage (otherwise, the attack is canceled out).  This is all happening in real time (i.e. this is not turn-based), so you must be running around and dodging attacks while searching through your deck, so card placement is also important.

I must admit, I was not very good at deck building, but this is a very fun game.  The graphics are bright and cheery, and the music is excellent (I especially like the battle track “Forgotten Challenge” which plays in the 13th floor).  If anything, I like this game because it fills some gaps that are not explained in either Kingdom Hearts or KH2.

5.  Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga (Game Boy Advance)

Let’s finish with another Mario RPG.  Mario & Luigi is another “spiritual sequel” (meaning it’s not at all related to the other Mario RPGs around in terms of story or even battle mechanics).  What has become a separate series from the other Mario games is also delightfully tongue-in-cheek, with so many jokes and self-references to past Mario games.  What also sets the series apart is the fact that you play as both Mario and Luigi (as the title suggests).  You control both brothers simultaneously in field and in battle, and they are your only party members at all times.  Each one’s movements are delegated to the press of the A and B buttons.  There is a lot of jumping and platforming involved, as you might expect, in order to progress through the game.  In battle, Mario and Luigi can jump, use their hammers, or use special fire or lightning attacks.  There are also “Brother Moves” in which the two team up for a powerful attack.  Again, the battles are turn-based, but you have to be precise with your button presses both to inflict more damage and to dodge attacks.

Superstar Saga's battle system

Mario and Luigi attend a special event in which Princess Peach receives the ambassador of the Beanbean Kingdom.  This ambassador turns out to be the evil witch Cackletta, which together with her servant Fawful steal Princess Peach’s voice.  In a hilarious sequence, Bowser teams up with the Mario Bros. to get  her voice back, but all three are repelled and end up flying off into the Beanbean Kingdom.  Peach’s  voice is needed to awaken a wish-granting star known as the Beanstar, but, in a twist, Peach reveals that it was all an act.  Furious, Cackletta kidnaps Peach for reals.  The final battle takes place between the Mario Bros. and the witch, who possesses Bowser (who at this point had lost his memory and been a lackey for some other loser), but in the end she is defeated.

I greatly enjoyed this game.  For one thing, it’s great that Nintendo didn’t just ignore Luigi like they usually do.  Fawful steals the show with his broken English also.  I heartily recommend it.

So there you have it.  I noticed another trend as I was typing this entry, and it’s that most of the games on the list are portable games.  The Game Boy Advance saw a great number of fun and engaging RPGs.  We’ll revisit some more in the future, once I beat enough.  These type of games tend to go on forever, like I do sometimes.

Be sure to comment and share!

~My Two Cents