Paper Mario by Intelligent Systems, directed by Ryota Kawade (2000).
This was originally for the Nintendo 64, but I played it on the Wii Virtual Console with the classic controller. It’s an RPG with turn-based combat: you wander around the world collecting party members, items, and spells, fight monsters, gain experience and level up in order to reach new parts of the world and fight harder monsters.
In the past I haven’t had much success with turn-based RPGs: I tried Final Fantasy VII, Skies of Arcadia, and some others, but didn’t get on with them at all. It’s hard to say exactly what was wrong, but it’s a combination of the complexity of the combat system, the very slow pace at which everything happens, and the lack of interactivity. Somehow picking an action from a menu and then watching an animation just doesn’t draw me in.
Paper Mario goes a long way to overcome these problems for me—I think it’s deliberately designed to be an RPG for beginners—and after playing it I can glimpse what people see in proper RPGs.
The lack of interactivity is overcome in Paper Mario by the action command system: attacks and defences are boosted if you press or release a button at the right time during the action, for example Mario’s jump attack causes double damage if you press A just before he lands on the enemy. This means that there’s always something to pay attention to. As the fights become harder it becomes more important to get the action command right: success or failure may lead to life or death.
(I believe this neat system first appeared in the 1996 game Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, a collaboration between Square and Nintendo, co-directed by Yoshihiko Maekawa and Chihiro Fujioka.)
The complexity is built up piece by piece instead of being dumped on you all at once: first you get the basic set of attacks and get to practice those for a few battles. Then you get the action command. Then you get star powers (magic spells). Then you get enemies that are resistant to certain attacks or spells, or which cause special kinds of damage.
The system never gets very complicated by the standards of the genre, but it is complex enough to support several kinds of play. You can choose whether to concentrate on your toughness in defence, on your skill with the action command to boost particular attacks, or on your use of star powers. You can work out tactics and exploit them for a while, but the nice thing is that eventually they stop working because the enemies become resistant to particular techniques, and then you have to find new tactics. I found that I had to change my preferred approach three times during the game, and it was fun working out good ways to use the system to meet each new challenge.
It almost tempts me to try another RPG. Any recommendations?