Tradition vs. Refinement: The Balancing Act
Comfort is great, whether you’re pigging out on some of your favorite foods, or diving into your preferred genres of games. If you’re into traditional turn-based JRPGs, you’ve likely come to expect easy-to-understand battle systems and a narrative peppered with anime tropes. Fans of roguelikes and roguelites embrace death and randomization, as they know that with more familiarity and experience, the ultimate prize is perhaps a little bit closer in the next run. Farming/life simulation RPGs, such as Stardew Valley and the Harvest Moon series, provide the player an assortment of activities – generally with their own progression paths – that they can dive into at their own leisure. This “comfort” is why many seek out the same flavors of games over and over, and why players oftentimes aren’t upset when a new game taps into many of the same features (and in the same format) that have been done many times prior.
Of course, refinements are still very much a necessity. Without them, every turn-based JRPG would likely star a descendant of Erdrick, tell its story through Old English dialogue, and allow grinding to fill 90% of the game’s total runtime. Not that I would complain about that or anything. Regardless, there’s a time for refinement, and a time to more or less “reuse.” Make improvements and adjustments when necessary, but why fix things that aren’t broken? This balancing act is one that I’m sure developers struggle with on a daily basis – should a core system be overhauled in hopes of having a wider reach, or will it prove to alienate existing fans? It is very much a question that must be asked and weighed on a case-by-case basis, and today I’d like to share with you an example of a gameplay system I absolutely adore, but is in dire need of modernization.
To begin, we have to go back to 1990 and the NA release of River City Ransom. This beat’em up RPG was one of the very first RPGs (alongside Final Fantasy IV) that I ever played. I adored the addictive beat’em up gameplay, Rockabilly aesthetic, highly emotive animations, and was fascinated at its unique character progression system: food. Sure, River City Ransom had its share of more traditional equipment, and many other games had provided consumables before, but not in the same way pioneered by the now 30-year-old title. Traditional level-ups, although still very much in its infancy in the console market at the time, were a thing of the past. Instead, players had to dine their way to victory by consuming exorbitant amounts of food found across River City’s multiple strip malls.
To get buff, the player would have to hop into the local diner and order an entree…or three…or five. Most restaurants would allow you to take out or dine in, with the former allowing some consumable action on the run while the latter would result in a hilarious animation of the player character eating/drinking whatever they just ordered. It was a small, simple detail that was nonetheless highly effective, and remains an uncommonly used gameplay concept over 30 years later.
It wasn’t without faults, however. River City Ransom featured dozens upon dozens of items you could purchase, none of which had any sort of description to inform you what you were getting into. Many items, while textually unique and flavorful, were often redundant and you wouldn’t realize that until after you had spent your hard-earned cash. This was likely due to hardware limitations at the time – virtually no RPG from the NES era had useful descriptions or equipment comparisons – but was still a frustrating byproduct of this otherwise enjoyable feature.
Over the years, other games would adopt the eat-to-grow progression system both inside the Kunio-kun series, as well as outside. Very little would be done to move the ball forward, however. 2010’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game was inspired by the Kunio-kun series in many ways, including the unorthodox character progression system. Unfortunately, it would fail to raise the bar in terms of providing useful data to the player, instead banking solely on nostalgia factor. In that game, you once again are presented with an assortment of shops with a variety of goods, and have no way of telling whether certain items are worth it or not.
Like River City Ransom, not all items are created equal, a lot of fluff exists, and higher priced items often don’t equate to better purchases upon breaking down their stat-to-cost ratio. Although there is a certain level of excitement associated with buying items without knowing exactly what they do, there’s also many moments of frustration when you pick up big ticket items that are simply not worth it. All of these same points can be applied to the highly anticipated direct sequel to River City Ransom, River City Ransom: Underground, which was released a few years ago. Like Scott Pilgrim, it also chose to bank completely on nostalgia rather than providing a more modern, user-friendly version of the now decades-old system.
2019’s River City Girls, another Kunio-kun beat’em up RPG, has likely done it the best but is still not ideal. In that game, item descriptions are permanently revealed in the shop menu after the initial purchase of any item. While this is leaps and bounds above and beyond what came before it, it still suffers from the same issues present in previous iterations – fluff, redundancy, and a general lack of information prior to purchase.
Why is this still a thing after 30 years? Although I realize a small subsect of players probably enjoy this extreme air of mystery, I’d wager that the many players want as much information up front as possible. When you go into a store or restaurant in real life, do you expect to buy goods without knowing anything about them beforehand? Without reading reviews? Without knowing ingredients, or what certain foods come with? It just doesn’t make sense. More traditional RPGs have been providing detailed descriptions and comparisons of items since the SNES days, so why is it that this beat’em up RPG trope that is ultimately not different in purpose so behind in innovation?
To me, this is a prime example of a mechanic in dire need of refinement – nostalgia is great, but doesn’t mean that something is without faults either. The joy that comes with purchasing things in River City-esque games, in my opinion, stems from the underlying mechanic itself and the vast amount of options available to you — not the lack of information. It’s 2021, man! Let’s move the goal posts within the modern era! I’m certain that providing more information will not desecrate the eat-to-grow mechanic whatsoever.
What are your thoughts on reusing vs. refining when it comes to game mechanics? Do you have other examples of a mechanic in need of some tuning, or perhaps one that continues to change for no good reason? Let me know!