Friday, April 17, 2009

Fight It Out!

I have been spending entirely too much time playing Square-Enix's classic SNES strategy/RPG game "Ogre Battle: March of the Black Queen" on the Wii Virtual Console these past several weeks. (Yes, the game's Japanese designer listened to a lot of Queen back in the day.)

At my age, these kinds of games are appealing because there's something quintessentially adult about them. They're about managing scarce resources and planning the best approach to meet a goal, like real life but with more concrete rules for success and more room for experimentation. The action is largely NON-interactive, so my aging reflexes are not at issue, and the game's events are emotionally engaging. And even with the Virtual Console's luxurious save state allowing me an indefinite pause at any time, for any reason at all, it's a VERY tough game to put down.

When I'm ready to dive into a session, I can start a new map, dispatch my troops, and leave them to head toward their assigned destinations while I tend to other things around the house. They move in something like real-time, and the action pauses when a situation arises that requires my attention. So I can be involved, but I don't have to be gripping the controller every moment. I can in theory step away for any amount of time I like.

Even the battles don't necessarily require my input -- if I'm confident in the outcome, I can hit an acknowledgment button and let the battle play out on its own, without any direction on my part. After the battle, the action returns to the main map until another interruption comes up. Perfect for getting some laundry folded or bills paid.

What I get sucked in by, though, is that once the battling starts, the enemy onslaughts are heavy and unpredictable. Even though I could wander away between battles, my attention immediately becomes focused on the state of my beleaguered units. If there's a chance they won't come out on top of a round of combat, or might die in the process, I have to watch the battle carefully, ready to tell my team to flee or play a Tarot card in the hopes I can salvage my leader and revive any casualties at a nearby temple. If my people acquitted themselves honorably but not spectacularly, I may have to alter the original deployment plan and send them somewhere safe to rest up.

And that's where the drama kicks in. In my opinion, the heart of all RPGs is really in the battling -- sure, there's potentially an involving storyline and a bevy of audiovisual delights along the way, but the thrills of victory and defeat are all in the battles. Will the mage get a healing spell readied in time, before the weakest party member up front dies off? Will the big, slow monster in my employ get a chance to use its most powerful attack before its lack of armor takes it out of the fight? Is the enemy leader as invincible as he seems to be? Will an enemy blindside us with a powerful, party-wide attack and send my own leader to his/her grave before I can issue a retreat command, taking the entire unit out of action for the rest of the battle? Careful resource management and movement strategy helps to put the odds on my side, but the visceral, emotional, oh-man-we-aren't-ready-for-this-fight stuff all happens in the battles. And once I'm engaged in protecting a unit on the verge of demise, all sense of time is lost.

And so it is that I can start up a "brief" game of Ogre Battle at 10:00 PM, checking the clock every ten minutes or so, because I only have half an hour or so to spare. And by midnight I'm sure I can get to bed as soon as this next battle with Lans plays out or I get Aisha's badly injured team heading back home to recover. And at 2:00 AM I'm finally going to bed, with visions of pixelated yellow units working their way desperately across the map, cursing my addiction and looking forward to ending it by finishing the game at last.

I'm writing this, of course, while my game is suspended in the early stages of battle 24, waiting for me to find an hour or three to resume command. It's a tough one -- we're getting hit with waves of successively stronger units, and I have not been able to move very far out of my own base to claim new territory and tax revenue without losing units to the enemy. Too many of the enemy's units are escaping with dead leaders, fleeing swiftly over the distant hills before my units can catch them and finish them off. We can only watch helplessly as they flee home for instant resurrection -- a privilege the incumbent forces of Evil enjoy that my brave, ragtag rebel troops do not.

But we will prevail. Maybe after this next battle...

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