Thanks to the Nintendo DS I’ve had the chance to sample a wide variety of RPGS over the past year or so, from the insanity of The World Ends With You, to the good old days of Etrian Odyssey. Anyway this last month I picked up Dark Spire for the DS which according to fans is as old school of an RPG that you can get and I absolutely hated it. Before I get called “weaksauce” by the RPG vets, I loved Nocturne, Etrian Odyssey and TWEWY so I am a healthy member of the RPG veterans club. This got me thinking about the definition of old school and what does it mean for game design.
The description of old school is funny to me, as it means different things to who you talk to. For me old school is the NES and Atari era, to some it could be older then that and for some it could even mean the PlayStation 1 era. When we talk about the good old days a few design mechanics are always mentioned: Difficult games and highly focused on gameplay above storyline. If I used those variables then both EO and Dark Spire are both examples of the same style of game design, so then why do I love one and hate the other? I’ve come to the conclusion that old school design for the better part of it… sucks.
The problem when we refer to games as “old school” is that there is a difference in calling a design decision a “game mechanic” and a “game limitation”. To say that games have evolved since the 80s is an understatement and many of the features of older games were really limitations of the technology of the time. For example having to enter in long multi character password, I’ve never found that to be a good idea and was so happy when battery backup and saves were created. A lot of times we look at limitations in the form of a less then stellar interface such as with X-Com (yes I went there) but sometimes the design of the game get hit by this. Going back to my comparison of DS and EO there is a great litmus test to see if you like the former or the latter better. In DS you can only bring up the map by using a spell that only one class has access to and it only remains up while you’re standing still. Conversely EO has the map taking up the entire bottom screen at all times and allows the player to make notes and references and build the map on their own. If you think DS has the better mechanic then I think you would enjoy it more then EO.
If we were to compare both DS and EO to see which one is more old school then the other then DS would win easily, however I find EO to be the better game of the two. EO is brutally difficult but it makes several modern day concessions that even it out, such as being able to have a map at all times. DS is stuck in the 80s with a horrible interface and difficulty for all the wrong reasons. When we talk about leaving certain game mechanics in the past, challenge shouldn’t be one of them. However creating a game that take all those lessons learned about design and ditches them is almost as worse.