Map Design and Random Encounters in Retro RPGs


As recently as a year ago, I would contend that my favourite RPG subgenre would be the turn-based JRPG. While everyone else had moved on to Oblivion and Fallout, I stuck with my Final Fantasy and Pokemon. I liked the sometimes nonsensical, fluffy stories, the patient menu-based battle systems, and even the thrill of random battles. But having worked through Pokemon Black 2, Penny Arcade’s Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 3, Final Fantasy VII, and now Final Fantasy Dimensions all this year, I suddenly realized that these games don’t hold the allure for me that they once did.

For a lot of ’90s JRPGs and retro-styled indie RPGs of today, this is due to one fatal flaw: a brutal combination of lazy map design and a high encounter rate. In any JRPG of yesteryear, you’re often faced with a choice when dungeoneering: go one way to get the treasure chest, go the other way to progress through the dungeon. A completionist like myself wants to always get the treasure first, then take the other path and inch closer to the end of the dungeon until I’m presented with another forked path. This is the much-vaunted “non-linearity” that people who decry modern game design love to champion as an example of why the old ways were so much better. But when I’m presented with a forked path, nine times out of ten my view of the ends of those paths is deliberately obstructed, making me choose at random. If I find the floor exit, I know I’ve missed out on the treasure, and I have to go all the way back to the other path, then get the loot, then trek all the way back to the exit, fighting random battles all along the way. In a game like Final Fantasy where your party’s health and MP don’t regenerate after battle (even a little), this wears down on your mages, who are constantly struggling to keep the party’s health up without having to resort to expensive healing items. And if there are more than two available paths, that’s just cruel. The game becomes a slog, with what should be healthy exploration bogged down by a combination of too many unknown paths and too many random battles.

When this design pops up in games today, I feel punished for wanting to explore the game world. I want to see every nook and cranny and make sure I haven’t missed any loot or any secret shops/conversations/party members, what have you. But my desire to explore goes down once I realize that means fighting through another series of battles every few steps, which can take anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes depending on the game.

I’ve currently sunk 25 hours into Final Fantasy Dimensions and I’m only about halfway through the game, but don’t let that fool you into thinking the game is a deep classic JRPG experience. The dungeons aren’t long by any means, usually only about five or six floors with only two or three forks per floor (one to the treasure, one to the next fork, then repeat), but the game’s taking me so fucking long to get through because I’m fighting a random battle every time I twitch. There’s no way to reduce the amount of random encounters, and running can take up to twenty seconds and allows the enemy to get plenty of free hits in before that. Hell, I’ll just give you the skinny right now: the game is a neverending sequence of forest, cave and mountain dungeons (the mountains are the worst, as you usually go up the mountain and then back down…yeah, no boss battles at the summit in this bad boy) broken up by the occasional town where nothing special happens beyond allowing you to buy new pieces of armour, with the only story progression usually occurring at the very end of each chapter (often after a town-dungeon-dungeon-town-dungeon sequence).

Zeboyd’s retro JRPGs (Breath of Death VII, Cthulhu Saves the World, Penny Arcade 3) are prime examples of this kind of map design, except their branches take even longer to find out whether you chose the treasure path or the exit path than in Final Fantasy Dimensions. However, one large plus is that after you fight a set number of random battles in each dungeon, the random encounter rate will drop to zero and require you to manually enter battles via the menu screen. This allows you to explore to your heart’s content without fear of getting jumped by a bunch of slimes, while simultaneously acting as a levelling tool (once you hit the max number of random battles, it’s suggested that you’re done grinding in that area, and you’ll have a chance against the boss). Penny Arcade 3 does away with random battles entirely, placing enemies on the map in scripted positions and regenerating your party’s health completely after each battle; progressing through the dungeon is more like clearing away barriers in the form of enemies until you have a clear path to the exit/treasure. I like the latter more than the former, but both are acceptable alternatives to traditional JRPG design, and the former in particular is kind of innovative.

Nowadays, I think I’m losing my patience for JRPGs that have this kind of design. I find myself gravitating more toward stuff like the Tales series, where the enemies are visible on the overworld map and avoidable, there is no penalty for running, you get a small amount of health and TP back after each battle, and you can usually explore to your heart’s content without fighting an endless series of battles. Or even stuff like The Last Story, where every battle is scripted and there are no random enemies whatsoever. Or, hell, even Western RPGs, where combat might not even be broken down into discrete “battles.”

9 thoughts on “Map Design and Random Encounters in Retro RPGs

  1. I grew up on JRPGs mostly. The first RPG I ever played was Dragon Warrior III for the NES (my older brother’s copy). As I’ve gotten older and player through a few, I can wholeheartedly agree who obnoxious it is to have to fight a random battle every 5 seconds when all I want to do is explore dungeons. Earthbound had a particular great system which I’m surprised you didn’t mention. After you got strong enough, you auto-won battles against weaker enemies. Although, maybe that’s because it didn’t have absurd sprawling dungeons. Easily one of my favorite RPGs just because of that though.

    • I’m surprised I didn’t mention Earthbound too. I had forgotten about that system, and it works great as a levelling indicator by showing you whether you’re overlevelled. The battles in Earthbound were pretty quick too, owing to the lack of detailed animations (Zeboyd’s early games were like this too). I usually turn battle animations off for games like Fire Emblem and Pokemon anyway, so I didn’t mind the lack of sparkly spritework.

  2. I think random encounters can still be okay, as long as they’re not excessive. Still, as much as I enjoyed Pokemon Black 2, I found myself dreading those cave areas where every step might turn into a Zubat. Like you mentioned, it’s one of the reasons I find myself gravitating toward series like Tales, where the enemies are all visible and you can pick your poison.

    • I’m okay with Pokemon’s system because of the presence of Super Repels and a Run option that doesn’t punish you for using it. When you’re rolling deep about midway through the game, purchasing thirty Repels becomes a drop in the bucket, and it ensures those Zubats will bother you no longer. Black 2 even improved on this system by prompting you to use another Repel once your old one runs out.

      As a sidenote, I did NOT enjoy Black 2. Felt like a huge step backward compared to the phenomenal Black 1, especially in terms of story and writing.

  3. I couldn’t agree more. While I want to still love JRPG’s, they are mostly just tired rehashes of old mechanics and storylines now.

    I like the strides some series are taking to mitigate random encounters by making them avoidable on the map or stopping them after you’ve ‘cleared’ an area. I’d prefer they become more meaningful however.

    Most random battles just serve the purpose of dwindling down your HP and MP to make a dungeon more stressful, while giving you cannon fodder to feed on. They almost never require any sort of meaningful input other than choosing to spam Attack and get crits, or waste a little MP. I don’t like the full heal because games that do it still typically have easy, meaningless random encounters as well.

    My preference would be to have encounters on the map, though with traps added in for suspense (D&D-style traps, not just chests that are actually monsters). They wouldn’t respawn, but you could still force a battle in the Menu. Monsters would have a variety of behaviors, ranging from some that will spot you and chase you for a long time, to others that actively run away.

    Instead of easy cannon fodder, they’d be more akin to mini-bosses, but less frequent. To make up for experience loss, you’d earn experience for exploring new paths, tackling more special monsters, and gaining new treasures.

    Finally, you’d regain to max after every battle, but battles where you do poorly result in ‘wounds’ which limit your characters’s max health and mp. Only resting in a Tent, an Inn, or at rare special Save points would remove them all.

    And as a bonus, if you die, you can choose to restart the fight though with an additional amount of ‘wounds’, at a gold cost, and with significantly less reward (xp and loot).

    • Good point about the full heal. All three of the Penny Arcade JRPGs have it, and I’ve never felt challenged playing those games (of course, I’m playing them for the jokes and references anyway). The “wounds” idea actually sounds pretty cool to me, because I do think there should be some kind of punishment for performing poorly in battles. Kind of reminds me of Metal Gear Solid 3’s injury system, where you’d always have enough healing items to bring yourself back to max health after a sloppy firefight, but taking bullets leaves bit of shrapnel embedded in Snake’s skin that lower your max HP or cause you to bleed out. Fall damage results in broken bones, which decrease movement speed. The only way to heal yourself completely is to find the appropriate items or wait a certain length of time.

      As far as D&D-style traps, the only game I’ve played that actually uses these (and not just Mimics) is Neverwinter Nights 2. Arrow, spike, and gas traps are EVERYWHERE in this game, which I guess makes sense since it IS a D&D game. The problem is that bringing a thief along to sense these traps is completely unnecessary because the traps will, at most, take away only a sliver of your health. Since traps are usually a replacement for enemies in NWN 2’s map design, there usually aren’t any of the latter hanging around the traps, so after triggering them, you’re free to just rest away the damage you took anyway (you can only rest when there are no enemies present). It renders the traps pointless, since plowing through them and then healing up is much faster than disarming them.

      • It wouldn’t be an original idea, but JRPGs are so far behind the curve that they could do with a lot of newer ideas. It really amazes me that we haven’t seen more JRPG style games from the indie scene given just how many of us grew up on them in the late 90’s and early 2000’s.

        Traps are one of those things that are difficult to really balance correctly. I definitely see your point in regards to NWN2. What I meant, though, wasn’t necessarily straight damage traps. More of ‘next fight debuffs’ or things closer in nature to having Poison in Pokemon. I hated taking damage OUTSIDE of battle, but it always added a real sense of urgency if I was in an area that was perhaps beyond my ability.

  4. I always felt like I was behind, trying to play catchup with others’ fandom of JRPGs. There’s only a stark few that really ever won me over. I think the difference between loving these games when they came out and now is that we’re older and need games to better respect our time. Earthbound was kinda great at that with letting you auto-win certain battles. But it still takes some time. And Fire Emblem is my favorite – but only when all the animations are turned off so the game takes like 1/3 the time. Speed is so important with those big long battles.

    Great commentary. And some good conversations. I feel like I’m kinda butting into old convos that are multiple weeks dead, but I also realize that they’re quite ongoing. So I’ll just add to the bottom here.

    • I kept animations on for the GBA games because they’re quick and very stylish (and I like to see the HIT% and CRIT%), but I turned off those ugly, boring, overly long Path of Radiance/Radiant Dawn animations. I kind of regretted having to do so though; I felt like I was missing out on the meat of the battles somehow. Awakening offers a neat compromise where you can play with the animations on, then hold the A button to double the animation speed, making each battle less than ten seconds. Of course, you can still play with animations off.

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