Thursday, March 10, 2011

When Good Gameplay Carries a Subpar Game

So lately I've been playing Dragon Quest VI.

For longtime readers of our humble blog, this shouldn't be surprising - after all, I've reviewed three other Dragon Quest games for this site. For this particular game, though, I didn't want to run a traditional review, mostly because I couldn't think of another 600-800 words to say about yet another Dragon Quest game. It's Dragon Quest. You have hit points, you wander the globe killing monsters, it is at once one of Japan's most popular and most conservative game series. There is not much to say that hasn't been said.

The thing about Dragon Quest VI is that it's one of my less favorite games in the series. I know that this may be akin to preferring brown M&Ms to tan M&Ms, but it's true - each DQ game after the first has a point at which you're given some means of conveyance, usually a boat, and in opening up the world for you it makes the game more non-linear and sometimes less story-driven. The best of the games maintain their impetus through this stage, but in VI this moment comes really early and it sort of sucks all the momentum out of the game.

Despite that, I'm still playing and enjoying the game, and this got me thinking - what happens when, especially in a long-running series, fun gameplay concepts or fundamentals help make up for the fact that a game just isn't that great?

The first series that came to mind after Dragon Quest was the original run of Mega Man games on the NES, particularly the later entries - Mega Man 2 (and sometimes 3) are considered pinnacles in this, yet another resistant-to-change Japanese series, with later entries like Mega Man 5 and 6 considered by most to be inferior, and correctly so. Still, later entries kept the tried-and-true formula and the finely-tuned engine from earlier games, meaning that even if Yamato Man was kind of a stupid boss, it was still just as satisfying to run around and shoot things, so longtime fans could still find something fun about them. The series lost this well-worn, pixel-perfect engine for Mega Man 7 and Mega Man 8, and both games suffer for it.

Let's also consider Mario and Zelda: the GameCube iterations of these familiar formulas (Super Mario Sunshine and Wind Waker, respectively) are generally considered to be lesser relative to both their immediate predecessor (Super Mario 64 and Ocarina of Time) and their immediate successor (Super Mario Galaxy, Twilight Princess), but once again, a strong foundation helps make the games worthwhile. Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of both series, is famous for insisting that his games be fun to play even if you aren't "playing" them in the proper sense - in other words, it should be fun just to run and jump and dick around. This philosophy holds true for both Mario and Zelda, and works to the benefit of both series.

When games in long-running series stray too far from their roots, in fact, we can sometimes end up with a mess - Square Enix has been drifting away from the origins of the Final Fantasy series for some time, for example, and the core charm and battle system which made even Final Fantasy V playable on some level has been left behind for a series of increasingly elaborate systems that sometimes work and sometimes don't, depending on the game you're talking about and who's asking/answering the question.

Don't take any of this to mean that innovation in games is bad, or that I want everything in every game series I liked as a child to stay the same all the time forever - that's not what I'm saying. What I am saying is that a lot of games became popular because their gameplay, for one reason or another, struck a chord with people, from Mario's pick-up-and-play appeal to Dragon Quest's simple yet deep and strategic battle system. If you stick to your fundamentals, no matter how uninspiring your game is, there will still be something there to appreciate.