Friday, June 28, 2013

Classic RPG Combat - Genres

This is the first post in a three part series.

In this first part we will talk about how to classify some basic combat systems. In the second we will talk about resources and abilities in combat. In the third and final part we will bring these together and talk about what objectives are being accomplished by combining these mechanics.

Classifying RPG Combat by Genre

At the top level there are basically four distinct types of combat systems. Below these four categories you can continue to subdivide the genre further, but for the most part that will only consist of grouping different permutations of specific mechanics; none of which are necessary for this analysis.

  • Turn based
  • Tactical
  • Action
  • Puzzle

Admittedly modern technology has allowed many RPGs, specifically western ones, to significantly blur the lines between these categories. World of Warcraft's abilities are active turn based, while it's motion is action oriented, and it's modern raids are extremely tactical.

For the sake of simplicity, let's consider this a classical review that covers only console games from the 8bit through 32bit eras.

Turn based

Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy defined this genre over 25 years ago, and both still adhere to the fundamental design. Your characters line up on one side of the screen, the enemies on the other, and you take turns attacking until one side is defeated. This is by far the most common combat system in the entire RPG genre, and is used still to this day by the majority of JRPGs.

The two most common sub-genres here would be turn based or active time battle combat. This is the difference between having to enter your team's commands all at once, like the 8bit Final Fantasy games, or entering each characters actions as they are ready to take a turn, like the 16bit Final Fantasy games.

Another common set of sub-genres that are worth pointed out would be Active versus Passive combat. The simple distinction being whether or not combat is paused while you make action selections from your menus. Some games, such as Chrono Trigger, allow you to choose whether or not you want this enabled.

Side Note: The creative team behind the original Final Fantasy described the game as being their attempt to create a digital version of Dungeons and Dragons. I find this funny as D&D is an American invention and the FF combat system feels distinctly like ancient Greek warfare, where the two sides line up to attack each other. The irony being that America won it's independence from the British Empire very specifically by breaking these classic European rules of combat.

Common Complains: This combat system is often associated with very grindy game play. You will very likely experience a few thousand of these turn based battles throughout your time beating the game, and the vast majority of them will be won by clicking attack over and over again. Additionally, with this particular combat engine completely saturating the traditional RPG market, it has been noted that more recent games often lack any deep mechanical innovation.


To be fair, Chess was the game that first defined this combat system. You have a series of units on a limited field of play, each unit constrained in its range of motion and actions, and you fight to defeat the other forces on that battlefield. Like chess, most of the time there are only two opposing forces and the field of play is a grid.

Fire Emblem is considered to be one of the most successful, influential, and defining game series of this genre. Fire Emblem is just a standard grid based tactical game with one major addition: it added the rock paper scissors mechanic to it's combat. This extremely simple addition to the game play added a level of depth and strategy to this genre that is still imitated to this day.

Another defining work in this genre was Final Fantasy Tactics. What FF:T brought to the genre was an abundance of customization, making combat driven around unique abilities that were not specific to characters but to classes. This then allowed players to heavily customize their armies, and to create a seemingly infinite number of distinct tactical combinations. (Yes, I know that Tactics Ogre came before FF:T and was from the same creative team, it just was not as commercially successful as it's successor.)

It is worth noting just how diverse the tactical combat genre is: Civilization, X-COM, Heroes of Might and Magic, all of these games are considered to be tactical combat games. Again, for this analysis I am just focusing on early generation console games.

Common Complaints: The tactical combat system is often a game defining system, as in combat itself will comprise the majority of game play. Battles will usually be very long; in contrast to turn based combat which usually takes only a few minutes per encounter, tactical combat can often take an hour or more to complete.


More commonly referred to as action adventure, an action RPG has a combat system wherein the protagonists take up arms and freely walk around the map to attack their enemies in real time.

For the definitive example of this genre, we need look no further than the Legend of Zelda. Link takes up his sword and shield and walks across the world hacking and slashing his enemies to death. In this game the world and town maps are the the same as the combat maps.

Other examples of action adventure include the Secret of Mana (Seiken Densetsu) series. Key differences between SOM and the Zelda are that there are multiple protagonists working together in combat, as well as the addition of a more a traditional leveling system.

Games like the Tales series take a unique twist on action combat by separating the world map and combat engine, so that combat encounters are played out in a side scrolling battles more akin to fighting games. The Tales series could be described less as action adventure, and more traditional RPGs with action elements.

Common Complaints: The is the genre that termed the phrase "hack and slash." The majority of game time spent in this genre of games is comprised by walking up to other units and pressing attack over and over, and it grow stale rather quickly. Additionally, hack and slash combat itself is often criticized for being overly simple, requiring very little strategy or skill to win encounters.


I would be remiss not to mention that recently there has been an influx of puzzle RPGs to the gaming market. Games like Puzzle Quest and Dragon Puzzle take the simple bejeweled style puzzle game and place in into an RPG as the combat system.

Far more impressive is Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes. This game is a completely unique and innovative take on puzzle RPG combat. You move color coded units between the columns on your battlefield, and lining up units vertically will charge them, while lining them up horizontally will cause them to form a wall. There are multiple races, each with their own unique units, all of which have special skills, and level up as you play. Clash of Heroes was awarded game of the year by RPGamer when it was originally released for the Nintendo DS in 2009. You many now get this game on DS, PC, iOS, and soon Android; I highly recommend that you check it out.

Common Complaints: This is a relatively new genre, but the major complaint that I have heard is that it hard to find the intersection of these two target markets. Puzzle gamers do not enjoy the RPG elements, and RPG enthusiast want to hit things with swords more than they want to solve puzzle.

To be continued in Part 2...

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