For the most part, people tend to be fickle and choosey with their RPGs. To be honest, there isn’t anything wrong with that. People are free to like what they like, choose what they choose, play what they want and pass on the rest. Gamers have strong feelings about what they play and what they pursue and this especially makes sense with Role Playing Games. The whole genre, while more easily recognized and accessible today than ever, is still a niche territory that has many different little sub-genres and trends nestled within it. People tend to find a vein of RPG gold they like and get attached. I personally like turn based J-RPGs or action heavy RPGS light on the stat based details. One of my best gamer friends however loves real time gameplay and heavy customization. The RPG genre seriously has something for everyone. But if you think about it, are these little grooves in tastes and expectation so great?
In my opinion I think people often miss out on things when they find their go-to patterns of likes and expectations. It’s good to have standards and all, but you miss so much by not occasionally tossing it all to the wind and exploring the gaming landscape around you! There are so many games out there that fall into odd cracks or have quirks that juuust stopped them from reaching that trustworthy score from EGM, or Gamespot. Games that aren’t perfect technically, sometimes by a long shot, but still have much to offer in terms of entertainment or enjoyment. The land of RPGs is a perfect place to do this exploring. Like I said there are lots of different areas to explore and by nature, RPGS tend to require a strong investment and attention to detail. By giving a wonky RPG this standard treatment you get to dig deep and explore a title. You get to find the diamond in the rough, (sometimes deep, in the rough.) or fall in love with a quirk that allows you to overlook rougher things like clunky mechanics.
Let’s nitpick, shall we?
I love games like this. Wonky RPGs make up a noticeable section of games that receive my unwavering affection. They stick with me, and I like looking for new ways to talk about a game that is spat upon or maybe never really talked about. Wonky RPGs have lead me to some great discussions at conventions and given me interesting things to talk about here. (I mean, I have definitely mentioned Cosmic Fantasy 2 more often than like every retro game writer/review I’ve seen.) With a close look, these games can be fantastic experiences if you give them a proper go and the right attention. Everyone should step outside of the box you’ve built yourself once and a while and I’m going to try and explain why you should Wonky RPGs a chance.
First, a lot of the games I speak fondly of are noteworthy because in some way, they are different. A lot of these titles try new things or experiment outside the norm. It’s true many have varying levels of success or innovation, but that doesn’t mean that new idea or twist isn’t worth experiencing. There are a lot of components that can be played with to spice up an RPG or keep a seasoned player on their toes. Graphics and style, gameplay and mechanics, or worlds and characters, they are all toys that developers tweak and manipulate a model with. Games like Mother 1 and Cosmic Fantasy 2 (See? I called it,) fall well into this space. The combat and overall game mechanics for this 1992 Turbografx-CD game are pretty bland. Monsters are genreric, battle screens are sparse, commands are competent but nothing new, and the encounter rate is a little erratic. However, on top of all that, the game has a lot going for it on the narrative and aesthetic side. The characters all have something interesting to say, the story on a main levels is a fun fantasy/sci-fi romp but it really knows when to throw a punch and switch directions. Cosmic Fantasy 2 also has some great sprite based cut scenes carrying it in key moments. The art is colorful and expressive. The translation is pretty good too, courtesy of the late, great working designs. All of this was very uncommon for an RPG made by a small company so early into the 1990s. Still, I often found myself diving right back into the fray of awkward and difficult gameplay traits mentioned before without a second thought because the game pulled me in.
Cosmic Fantasy 2: Cool cutscene and “meh” battle screenshot
Mother 1 follows this trend nicely as well. The Modern setting, stylish, well-crafted story, even the enemies and some items made the game stand out. Nevertheless, it doesn’t have anywhere near the following its sequel, Earthbound has. That’s because the combat is old fashioned and cumbersome, the difficulty and item capacity are frustrating, and the encounter rate is… let’s just call it clingy. Even though all this is true, I totally love this game! For me the strong points are so unique I kept going because my curiosity compelled me. The game became a challenge, a personal quest to finish. As I kept going through every frustrating step I found more fulfillment in the narrative and glue that held it together. It’s easy to brush Mother 1 off as Earthbound ‘s rougher, stiff older brother. Many do, but it’s more than than meets the collective eye.
Mother 1 (Earthbound
Zero Beginnings) tried to do alot of things differently
Some games are bad because they play it too safe. They blend with the the gaming backdrop of the day or sometimes there isn’t much when you peel back the fine surface layer. However, I’ve noticed the right twist here, and the right details there can take a game that could have been boring to the point of instant forgetability, and move it up a notch into the “enjoyable but flawed place that is the wonky RPG zone. Evolution: The World of the Sacred Device for the dreamcast and it’s sequel fall well into this category. It’s a pretty standard dungeon crawling affair, but it’s saved with a battle system that has a slight strategic twist with party placement and charming characters. To be honest the tweaks and stand out characteristics don’t go too far but it works out well that way. It’s just enough to make the dungeon crawling interesting and the other elements aren’t too complicated to balance it out.
Evolution on the Dreamcast seems run of them mill at first glance but a subtle strategic party placement system in battle, customizable ability/item mechanics and charming designs power the rest of the game.
When I first started thinking of games that fit my “wonky games” outline Persona 1, or Persona Revelations came to mind quickly. These days, the Persona series is up there with the greats of JRPGs and some might consider putting a key entry on a flawed games list sacrilege, but yeah, it fits. Persona 1, the PS1 version, has a lot of elements that conflict from a quality/functionality standpoint. Some things aesthetically are done well, like character designs and music, but others like maps and menus have aged about as well as cheese left in the august sun. I’d argue that the menu system really wasn’t good to begin with. It might be fair to say the difficulty is a little unbalanced as well, but being the first game spinning off from the notoriously difficult Shin Megami Tensei (SMT) series it might just be where things were in that point of evolution. But all that aside, the game has a lot going on. The demon system, moon cycles, and other mechanics are inspired by other SMT games, but Persona molds these concepts into it’s own thing. Persona 1 is a great example of a wonky game that one would play to put recent entries into a clearer, well rounded perspective. If you want to get a better sense for the history and development of a favorite series sometimes it’s best to look a the beginning. (and often times that start point will be a bit wonky.)
Persona 1 had it’s work cut out for it as the first in a big line of spin offs from the massive Shin Megami Tensei line. While impressive it struggles in some important areas. Luckily the PSP remake fixes many things.
Earlier I mentioned that style and tone can sometimes carry a wonky RPG along despite mediocre or frustrating elements that go with it. Okage: Shadow King is a prime example of this. To be honest, I haven’t beaten it yet. I just picked it up after it popped up on PSN for PS4 but I am impressed despite it’s flaws. Okage is a visual wonderland. The designs are so unique, they really stand out for and game that first came out very early in the PS2’s lifespan. A time where more developers were attempting softer looks with more realism. Because of this you can see the imagination that was put into this game bursting at the seams. It’s fun to keep going just to discover what you will see next.But alas, like all the wonky games mentioned, there are some pits and valleys to cross along the way. Unfortunately, the part of Okage that was given the least amount of polish was the dungeons. The layouts aren’t too interesting and the visuals kind of blend and aren’t much to look at. It’s a shame considering how integral they are. Another point of contention is the battles. Okage does that thing some old RPGs do where you can’t really target specific enemies, just enemy groups. For example you can only select the 3 Tim Burton-y pumpkins in front of you or the 2 scraggly anime scarecrows. To top it off the menu system for doing all of this is just a bit… odd. Not cumbersome, just different. For someone who has played RPGs as old as the NES to current day these quirks aren’t an issue to me, they are simply quirks. But for someone who started their RPG career with the PS2 like my friend Vivi who is playing Okage as well right now, it can be more of a hurdle. It’s all relative depending on experience.
Okage: Shadow King’s art style and personality are absolutely fantastic but some mechanics and level designs may leave specific players disappointed.
Sometimes these wonky elements very person to person, and that is important to keep in mind when you give something a try or recommend a game to a friend. I thought the technical and mechanical struggles that Persona 1 gave me wouldn’t be too bothersome, but it started wearing me down. Likewise, I kept telling that same friend Vivi to try Mother 1 because of the setting, writing, and little quirks, but she just couldn’t get past the wonky elements that come with games over twenty years old. She just didn’t have the proper experience. Something we both found, (others as well actually,) while I was preparing this article was that we didn’t really regret our times with any of the wonky games for any of the reasons I explored here. Even if we ended up shelving a game out of disinterest or frustration, everyone seemed to have gotten something out of experience. A broadened perspective, a new appreciation for gaming history, or even new trends they discovered they liked to look for in the future. This is why I like wonky RPGs. Please, next time you are in the market for a new game to play, widen your scope. Ignore the critics. Play a wonky game to explore, learn, and enjoy.