The importance of intuitive gameplay

Megadrive’s Phantasy Star IV: The End of the Millennium was my very first role-playing game (RPG). That was back in 1995 and I was 9. As it turns out I still have the original game and I just played it through last month. 17 years later, probably for the 20-something time. I guess your first RPG is the one you’ll love for life. The game itself is indeed a classic and has almost exclusively outstanding reviews. But when I first opened the box to play it, the experience left something to be desired. A lot.

Back then, localisation was still a small, almost non-existing market. I think Landstalker was the only game I had in French. So PSIV was in English and while I did have some notions of English from school, it was far from being enough to understand the whole story. Worse: the game is full with abbreviations such as wdnshld for “wooden shield”. Enjoy the nice bunch of nonsensical consonants.

Game Cover

In the 90s, there was none of those in-game tutorials (which tend to be sometimes too invasive if you ask me, just try Final Fantasy VIII) and the only resort to understand the game’s mechanics was to read the “translated” booklet. Which 9-year-old kid would? None and even then, it was a heap of useless information, such as characters biographies and lists of skills. Not much about how to navigate through the game.

And so, my user experience was a disaster. Imagine: all the saving systems I knew were passwords to access a certain level and achievements (beat the boss on world 1, save your progress). It took me a rather long time to realise I could save whenever I wanted using the start button to trigger the settings menu (yes, 2 menus in that game, the hidden one has the save option. Nice.) I went through the beginning of the game 25 times.

I also had no idea about the main menu’s features. Items was clear, Techs too (magic), Order made sense, due to its immediate effect (see your characters in a different order) but I had no idea what State, Equip or Macro were for. Since Status gives you information like strg, defs, stm, spd, etc. you’d think it’s rather unimportant.

So the only aspect I understood from the RPG was grinding. Kill monsters, level up, get stronger, learn new techniques and skills. I went halfway through the game with the default equipment since I was never told it made a difference. Consequently, I would be come Zio with techniques such as Gisar and Nawat, skills like Efess and Rayblade due to my characters’ very high levels.

At least, it teaches you patience and the story had to be bloody good to keep me hooked.  Another thing I just remembered is that I did not understand spells that affected your status. Wren’s Barrier skill is really useful, but when you use it for the first time, all you get is a “NGR barrier is up!”. Oh, now that’s great. Also made the whole thing more challenging.

MD_Phantasy_Star_4

That experience helps me understand why RPG were rather unpopular outside Japan until Final Fantasy VII: the lack of localisation made it an extremely tiresome process to fathom the way the game works. Nobody would like to go through that, where’s the fun factor?!

But when I look a the French localisation of Breath of Fire III or Suikoden II, I really, really miss the time when games were only in English…

Picture: Megata Sanshiro, McLoaf Wikipedia

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About John Barré

English & German into French translator. Interested in languages, literature, video games, localisation & translation - among many other topics.
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