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Same problem different solutions: Super Mario RPG vs Final Fantasy 6

Super Mario RPG and Final Fantasy 6 were released for the same system and were the same genre, so how can they be so different?

This is a cross post from here: http://guilelessmonk.tumblr.com/

Both Super Mario RPG and Final Fantasy 6 are what I am going to call ‘God Tier’ quality games, and I’m not going to talk about which one I think is overall better because both are so good that it would be arbitrary. What we can do though is talk about how they sought to address some of the same problems with the turn based RPG with very different solutions and how that affected the overall game.

For two games in the same genre (turn based RPG) and made in the same period (the release dates were about 2 years apart) made for the same game system the design philosophies of these two games are about as opposed as they could be. Super Mario RPG sought to simplify as much of the game as possible without losing depth and FF 6 tries to add as much depth through complexity as possible while keeping the game playable. Mario RPG has only 5 stats per character, Final Fantasy 6 has so many that have such complex interactions that 1 famously does nothing but no one noticed until after the game was released.

A big problem turn based RPGs have is that the battles, which is where you will be spending most of your time, aren’t engaging. They are menu based and you can walk away from them without caring, the game’s fun comes from customizing the team and making/unlocking new strategies and battles serve that end and are not typically ends in and of themselves. Mario RPG made battles fun by including the Timing attack system and FF6 by introducing the Active Time Battle system.

Timing attacks were such a brilliant idea because they put a reward mechanic directly in the battle. Typically in RPGs the in battle rewards were items, equipment, or spells that are unlocked at the end of a battle for the next one but with the timing attacks you were instantly rewarded with a satisfying sound and more damage when you payed attention and hit them properly. It was such an effective reward system that for years after I played this game I would try to hit timing attacks in every RPG I played, and still catch myself doing it to this day. It made you feel like you were the characters when they attacked and not just like a disconnected general issuing orders to the troops. They kept the attack timing feeling fresh throughout the game by making it so each character had several different attack timings based on what weapon that had equipped and it also allowed them to create special abilities based around these timings which made each character in the game feel unique and different.

They use this reward mechanism as the means of engagement because the customization is so simplified as compared to other RPGs, like FF6, that it can’t be the sole form of engagement. The equipment you put on the various characters isn’t really a statement about how you want to play the game but is just the best there is at the moment. Rarely does a piece of equipment fundamentally change the way to fight like it can in FF6 with the relics, and the number of people you can choose from for your party isn’t so large that you can have radically different parties then someone else who plays the game. They realized that the simplified versions of these mechanics wasn’t enough to create a great game because of these limitations and so they included an extra reward mechanic in the battle system and then additionally used the Mario lineage to make running and jumping around in the world more fun (and allow you to pick your battles) so that each piece of the game was engaging in and of itself and not just as a means to the end of the 2 larger forms of engagement (customization and story) typically found in RPGs.

While Mario RPG used rewards to get people engaged, FF6 forces engagement by using the ATB to create a constant tension during battles. Battles suddenly become dramatic and tense because you don’t know if you will be able to get to heal in time to live through the next enemy attack so you mash the buttons while waiting for that little bar to fill up as fast as possible. The second it does you have to quickly flip through the lists to find the heal spell. Sure, you can set the ATB to “Wait” mode (don’t do this!) so that you don’t have to flip through menu’s as fast as you can but even if you do that there is still the tension of waiting for the gauge to fill that keeps you screaming at the little bar to fill faster.

Where Mario was able to use the timing attacks to make each character feel unique FF6 made each character unique by, again, adding more complexity through the use of unique mechanics for each character. Only 1 could blitz, steal, or use tools and each one of these mechanics reflected something about the characters: their mixed heritage, their wild and uncontrollable nature, how rich people can just use chain saws and cheat at fights. The large and complex cast of characters and their mechanics was fully used because you couldn’t just ignore characters due to the fact that the party was continually split up and so you had to understand pretty much all of them if you wanted to make it through the game.

Different solutions solutions to the same problem can create vastly different games even in the same genre, and so long as you keep the underlying choices between these mechanics consistent you can create great games regardless of how you want to approach them. These games are at odds in almost every aspect: creating tension vs rewarding players, simplicity vs depth (it should be noted that depth is different from complexity and that complexity is a cost of depth and not a goal), Yoshi not playable vs Yoshi also not playable because why isn’t Yoshi a playable character?!

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