I know I'm a primarily Nintendo-based opinion editor. But I really wanted to write about role-playing games, in a number of different ways. And that means branching out further away from Nintendo.
But I'm still going to mention Nintendo in some way.
So, what makes a role-playing game a role-playing game? A DnD player may have a different opinion than a video gamer does, So we're going to stick with the latter's definition. Or at least, my attempt at setting a definition for one, since I'm primarily a video gamer. A role-playing game has the player take on the role of a certain character archetype as a "role" and follows some sort of story element, in some way. Number-based systems are usually implemented, as are various activities that said "role" would or could eventually invest their time in. That's pretty much it.
Combat in role-playing games is numbers-based. This is what sets an adventure game like Zelda and hack and slash games like God of War apart from the genre. Hit points and statistics greatly alter battles, which are essentially the backbone of the RPG genre. Let's face it, if a role-playing game doesn't have battles, it's a life simulation game. Often, elemental systems (not necessarily pertaining to actual elements) add weaknesses and strengths to the game. Role-playing often means complexity.
But there's so many ways to do a role-playing experience, and often, the best ways implement choices. The ability to alter your path and manage different parts of the "role" you are playing as is arguably the most interesting part of a role-playing game. Case in point- what I'm currently playing, Final Fantasy III for the Nintendo DS.
While this is truthfully my first-ever personal playthrough of a core Final Fantasy game, I've watched full playthroughs of other installments in the franchise. Specifically, VII (Gasp the greatest game of all time), X-2 (Gasp the worst Final Fantasy of all time), and XIII (Meh). Now, III is a very different beast from all of these games. The characters are mostly shallow and the job system is simplistic, really allowing any character to take steps in any direction if sufficient grinding is done. It's just a solid role-play. There's a number of different little set pieces that lead into one another, with a few side-quests (added to the DS version. It was a pretty bare-bones RPG), all linked together by random battle encounters. That's Final Fantasy for you. Link all the story together with dungeons and overworld travel and make each story portion as unique as possible to create a diverse experience. Well, that's what it used to be. But no time to discuss that.
Spectrobes, as story-driven as it seems, is another example of an RPG, though from more of the Pokemon aspect. In monster battling games, the role-playing comes from what partners you choose to utilize, and the battle systems are less based on your personal state and more on theirs. However, Spectrobes succeeds as an RPG a little more because of the customization that goes into each aspect of the game, though it fails to reach the depth of most other RPGs that deal with classes and side quests.
Again, factor in role-playing games like Diablo, Wakfu, and (ugh) Runescape. Point and click role-playing games that feature vastly different mechanics, from questing, to economy and environment stabilization, to just doing a whole lot of very role-specific jobs.
Of course, then there's also games like the Elder Scrolls, which focus on first-person role-play combat and a variety of different classes and character customization abilities.
The reason I mention all of these different types of RPGs is to illustrate my point about the genre in general- there's really so much that can be done with it. In recent years, however, this has not been the case- there's kind of been some ill-will towards role-playing games, mostly because they're boring. The medieval theme that seems to tie a majority of RPGs together has become far too stale- luckily, the Fallout series seems to crush this stereotype, and more daring attempts have been made to reinvigorate what makes a role-playing game what it is. But JRPGs, a vital part of the original success of the RPG, have been looked at more critically because of how ridiculous they are. While Final Fantasy originally had very one-note presentation of being medieval themed, later installments took liberties with the worlds they presented- but with the advent of HD gaming (and sort of before then, too) the visual style of the franchise has gotten a little out-of-hand, with characters not even looking as if they exist in a world where congruent style exists and enemies becoming more and more monstrous. Also, the battle systems have suffered from attempts to become too innovative, such as XII's real time battles and XIII's paradigm shifting HD extravaganza- though some could argue that XIII-2 successfully polished XIII's weird battle system, I believe it still needs a lot of work. While there's a multitude of JRPGs and RPGs that don't fall into this trapping, Final Fantasy has oft-been looked to as a true trailblazer in the world of JRPGs, and it's troubling to see such a beloved franchise suffering from fluctuations in quality.
But the role-playing genre is far from dead, even if numerous sequels have plagued major RPG releases for some time now. Fallout was at least a new take on the genre with a shooter-esque feel to it, and vivid worlds are being explored in RPGs like Kingdoms of Amalur (though it also seems to fall back on tried-and-true fantasy themes) and Contact (which was so vivid that it weirded people out). Two games that have been very highly anticipated North American releases, Xenoblade Chronicles and the Last Story, are two JRPGs (which really aren't all that different from western RPGs) that test the boundaries of what makes role-playing games so compelling. Xenoblade takes the "classic" format of JRPGs and gives it all the bells and whistles of a next-gen offering with quick-travel, real-time battling that works (and makes sense based on aggro), and a massive overworld that is worthy of a lengthy RPG title, while the Last Story is a tactical action RPG throwing battle after battle at the player while interweaving them with the story and providing lovely set pieces.
The point I'm trying to make is that the RPG genre has one of the most varied and deep libraries out there, but is so little acknowledged by gamers- in specific, American gamers. While there's a population that subscribes to MMORPGs (which are good and evil in their own way and deserve an article entirely to themselves), the classic idea of telling a fantastic, compelling story and giving players the choice to direct their personal play-style into the experience is very under-appreciated. This is partly because of game developers and partly because of gamers, really. There was a time when a decent RPG would encompass 60-70 hours of story-driven gameplay, allowing players much more time to play with their character and become immersed in the "role". But it's far easier and more profitable to come out with a game that features a 10 hour story and an online portion instead of a true storytelling epic. Thus, we are shoehorned into a certain type of gaming experience because, let's face it, role-playing games need to be FUCKING GOOD if you're going to play them. A number of elements need to weave together just about perfectly in order to truly call an RPG a success, which is why they're such a gambit unless they're done by people who have had success with them in the past. Partly why we keep crawling back to Square Enix for our RPG fix, really.
But honestly, if you're a fan of the challenge and depth they often provide, you're going to have a tough time looking for RPGs on one particular system. However, the Nintendo DS has had a number of very good RPGs on it, if you're willing to hunt them all down. A true RPG fan probably has a number of consoles, though, because they really are spread out pretty thinly over them all.
The RPG is a very fascinating subject, one that I hope to return to, in a little bit more detail. I know this article is very, very long, but I would like to go into each "sub-division" of RPG styles, such as strategy, point-and-click, JRPG, etc. But I just wanted to discuss their nature and get people's brain juices flowing. I also hope to talk about some of my favorite RPGs, and get feedback from readers as well. Why do you like RPGs, and what is it that they bring that really makes them stand out among other games?