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Retro role-playing video games are all the rage — here's why

Chained Echoes, Sea of Stars, Cassette Beasts
Matthias Linda, Sabotage Studio, Raw Fury
Chained Echoes, Sea of Stars, Cassette Beasts

Developer Thierry Boulanger still lights up when you ask him about his favorite game from his childhood. "Chrono Trigger. This game is why I chose this career," says Boulanger, the creative director of the 2023 indie Sea of Stars. "I remember being 10 and entering Guardia Forest. The music hit me so hard, and it connected me with the notion that there was a guiding hand behind any game you play. From that point on, I started daydreaming about games I would want to make."

Decades later, after the industry chased higher fidelity graphics and approached the look of big-budget movies and TV, Boulanger and other international studios are spinning up new titles inspired by the golden era of 90s Japanese role-playing games — and audiences are responding to them. Sea of Stars sold over 100,000 copies during its first release day, despite being included for free in Microsoft's Xbox Game Pass and Sony's PlayStation Plus subscription services at launch.

Square Enix's retro-inspired Octopath Traveler II, which came out this past February, sold over one million copies as of June. A spiritual successor to the epic Suikoden series, Eiyuden Chronicles: Hundred Heroes, became the most-funded video game Kickstarter of 2020 and is now set to release April 2024. All while many, many more smaller pixel RPGs continue to flood the market.

Sea of Star's party-based combat.
/ Sabotage Studio
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Sabotage Studio
Sea of Star's party-based combat.

New dimensions

As games moved away from 2D-pixel graphics to increasingly realistic 3D environments, they also abandoned many tried-and-true mechanics. "One thing that we found recently is that as graphics get better and better, and as characters become more realistic and more photo-real, is that the combination of that realism with the very unreal sense of turn-based commands doesn't really fit together," said Final Fantasy XVI producer Naoki Yoshida in a past interview. "You have this kind of strange gap that emerges."

Rather than have realistic characters just stand around waiting for their turn to fight, Yoshida transformed the latest series title into a pure action experience, disappointing some Final Fantasy fans. While some new games like Baldur's Gate 3 buck the trend that's moved realistic graphics away from turn-based combat, old-school designs typically come paired with old-school aesthetics. But developers have still found room to innovate.

The combined polygonal and pixelated aesthetic of SacriFire.
/ Pixelated Milk
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Pixelated Milk
The combined polygonal and pixelated aesthetic of SacriFire.

SacriFire, developed by Pixelated Milk and inspired by the HD-2D style popularized by Square Enix's Octopath Traveler series, combines retro character sprites and textures with polygonal environments and HD effects. SacriFire's environment is 3D, but all of the textures are hand painted pixel art.

"This allows us to create rich locations with plenty of depth. We can play with camera work and lighting, but everything still retains that chunky pixel feel that was very important to us," Pixelated Milk studio head Bartosz Łojewski explains. "Last but not least, the camera is positioned really low to the ground, which gives a nice expansive view of the horizon."

Reforging the past

Thierry Boulanger, creative director for Sea of Stars.
Stéphane Bourgeois / Sabotage Studio
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Sabotage Studio
Thierry Boulanger, creative director for Sea of Stars.

"For the prime target audience who have played the classics and are older now but care to look back for a few hours, we wanted the game to feel like what they remember of those games," says Boulanger.

But that doesn't mean uncritically recycling old ideas. Boulanger wanted to capture the story beats that made games memorable without replicating what could make them frustrating. "If the audience were to go back and actually replay those games, they might think less fondly of them," he says. "The idea for Sea of Stars was to remove that tedium and get players to feel like they're moving forward, all the time."

"People tend to remember old games through rose-tinted glasses," says solo developer Matthias Linda, who debuted the criminally overlooked Chained Echoes last year. "They remember the epic boss fight they had, but they forget the hours of grind."

Chained Echoes' retro combat and pixel art in action.
/ Matthias Linda
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Matthias Linda
Chained Echoes' retro combat and pixel art in action.

During Chained Echoes' development, he emphasized how players felt when playing those older games, not how they actually played out. He also didn't use a traditional leveling system, since that would prompt players to repeatedly beat enemies that gave them the most experience points.

"Instead, I wanted the player to do different things in order to get stronger," Linda explained. "Doing various tasks, fighting different mobs, exploring, crafting and so on. This is why there is no EXP system in place but systems like the Reward Board, the crystal crafting, class emblems, skill levels, weapon crafting and huge maps with a lot of treasures."

Cassette Beasts, developed by Bytten Studio, uses pixelated sprites to present its world, characters and creatures, which battle each other like Pokémon. But unlike Pokémon, you can fuse Beasts together rather than just evolve them. "We knew that if we wanted to enter the 'monster collecting RPG' space, we'd need a unique selling point, something that our game would have that no other game has," explains Bytten Studio art director Jay Baylis.

Battled with fused creatures in Cassette Beasts.
/ Raw Fury
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Raw Fury
Battled with fused creatures in Cassette Beasts.

While Digimon and Persona allow you to fuse creatures, they don't go as far as Cassette Beasts, which procedurally models what any two fused creatures would look like as a new fully-animated critter – a task better suited for 2D pixel art. "With most RPG franchises moving into high fidelity 3D," says Baylis. "I think there's a part of that audience who still love pixel art games and would love new titles doing new things with it."

Coexistence

Other developers like Matthew Linda acknowledge that nostalgia alone can't entirely drive the retro RPG renaissance. "There are a lot of different people with different preferences and it's next to impossible for a developer to satisfy all of them," Linda says. "You will always have some people who don't want their series to change and people who do."

While it seems like Final Fantasy will continue to prioritize real-time action for the foreseeable future, publisher Square Enix also returned to older turn-based styles with recent franchises like the aforementioned Octopath Traveler. Interestingly, Sega went the opposite direction with the Yakuza series, transitioning from its real-time roots to a turn-based system starting with 2020's Yakuza: Like a Dragon and its upcoming sequel, Like a Dragon: Infinite Wealth. Even though the franchise boasts high-fidelity character models, turn-based combat fits because it underscores the series' goofy tone.

From the makers of Final Fantasy, Octopath Traveler II combines nostalgic aesthetics with modern lighting.
/ Square Enix
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Square Enix
From the makers of Final Fantasy, Octopath Traveler II combines nostalgic aesthetics with modern lighting.

Other games, like Final Fantasy VII Remake and the upcoming Legend of Heroes: Trails Through Daybreak, try to have it both ways: blending real-time and turn-based combat to create their own distinctive styles. But even when such established games cast a long shadow, SacriFire developer Łojewski sees an opportunity for indie studios to stand out in a RPG tradition pioneered by Japanese titans.

"With the bigger companies pivoting towards the creation of huge, open-ended worlds, it creates a vacuum for games with a more 'standard' progression, smaller but tightly designed maps, and traditional approaches to combat," Łojewski explains. "The successes of Octopath Traveler, Wandering Sword, and now Star Ocean: The Second Story R prove that players old and new still have a lot of love for a more traditional era of JRPG-inspired games. The trick is adding some new ideas to the mix as well, and hopefully we've done that."

George Yang is a freelance writer specializing in video games and culture. Find him on X: @yinyangfooey

James Perkins Mastromarino contributed to this story. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

George Yang