Is the handheld console the perfect home for RPGs?

Ahead of Bravely Default's UK launch on the Nintendo 3DS, we explain why the handheld console has long been the perfect venue for RPGs...

In its early days, handheld gaming was considered to be the preserve of the long train journey or 10-minute tea break. Find yourself at a loose end for a few minutes in the early 90s, and you could reach for your slab of a first-gen Game Boy and enjoy a quick go on Tetris or Super Mario Land.

Even in today, with handheld gaming no longer the preserve of dedicated systems like the 3DS or Vita, it’s titles like Candy Crush, Angry Birds or Cut The Rope that are most commonly associated with the portable medium: bite-sized games that can be slotted in neatly between other, more important tasks.

Yet even in the relatively early days of the Game Boy – inarguably the key system in handheld gaming’s evolution – portable games have offered more involved, deeper experiences, too. Despite its humble specifications, the Game Boy was home to an entire library of perfectly playable RPGs – there were no fewer than four Final Fantasy entries (Final Fantasy Adventure, which mixed Zelda-style action with RPG elements, and Final Fantasy Legend I, II and III, better known as the SaGa series in Japan), Namco’s underrated Great Greed, titled Bitamina Kingdom Story in Japan, Taito’s Knight Quest, and Asmik’s Mysterium.

Although rendered in simple monochrome graphics, and necessarily tailoring their battle systems and world maps for the Nintendo’s screen and controls, these RPGs frequently contained many of the elements you’d find on a more powerful home console, including some great stories in the Final Fantasy Legend series, multiple endings in the case of Great Greed, while Mysterium even managed to approximate a pseudo-3D dungeon crawler on the Game Boy’s humble screen.

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Decent handheld RPGs were by no means the exclusive preserve of the Game Boy, either. Sega’s short-lived portable rival, the Game Gear, managed to amass a great library of little games in the early 90s, including Dragon Crystal, a simple yet engrossing RPG distinguished by a gradually evolving dragon; beginning as a floating egg which follows the player around, the creature eventually hatches out and becomes a useful ally. Then there was Ax Battler, a hybrid action RPG spin-off set in Sega’s Golden Axe universe – although suspiciously reminiscent of Nintendo’s Zelda II, it was a colourful and sorely underappreciated handheld title.

Then we come to what was, and probably still is, the Hoover of handheld RPGs: the Pokemon series. If there was ever any doubt that an RPG could work on a small screen, Satoshi Tajiri’s legendary series, which began with the release of Pokemon Red and Green in 1996, finally dispelled it.

Partly inspired by Tajiri’s childhood hobby of collecting insects in the Japanese countryside, Pokemon built on the example set by Final Fantasy Legend, which proved that Game Boy players were ready for something deeper than quick-fix puzzles and action games. Pokemon didn’t just adapt the RPG form to fit on a handheld – it actively embraced it, adding features to the genre that hadn’t been attempted on a computer or console of the mid-90s. Via the Game Boy’s link cable, players could exchange Pokemon or engage one another in battle. Spurred on by its “Gotta catch ’em all” mantra in the west, Pokemon quickly became a global phenomenon.

Since the advent of Pokemon, the handheld RPG has continued to flourish – and even as the JRPG has shrunk in popularity on home consoles, the genre has not only thrived in the portable realm, but continued to innovate. Square Enix’s The World Ends With You (2007) used the Nintendo DS’s dual screens to brilliant effect. Platinum Games’ Infinite Space (2009) managed to cram an astonishingly detailed sci-fi RPG into the DS, complete with real-time tactical elements, space trading and a complex branching storyline.

Square Enix’s Bravely Default, out this December for the 3DS, follows in the same tradition, with a story and gameplay that draw on the foundations laid by games like Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes Of Light and Final Fantasy V. And with its stunning character design (courtesy of regular Enix artist Akihiko Yoshida), detailed cut-scenes and an unusual battle system, it’s worth noting just how far handheld RPGs have evolved in a few short years. 

Bravely Default is a good example of why RPGs are so at home on a handheld. Although you could argue that RPGs can be a cinematic experience, requiring a big screen to better admire those magnificent fantasy vistas, it could also be said that playing an RPG is akin to reading a novel. It’s an intimate, usually solitary experience, where you become attached to the characters and drawn into their world.

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Although brilliant in any format, we’d humbly suggest that the Nintendo DS port of Square’s stone-cold classic Chrono Trigger was the perfect place to enjoy the game; its absorbing, affecting storyline and gameplay seemed absolutely right for the DS, while its colourful, adorable sprite design positively shimmered on its dual screens. 

A handheld console is the perfect place to enjoy the intimacy an RPG provides, with those screens serving as a miniature window into a magical landscape. As well as obvious improvements in graphics and sound, the Nintendo 3DS also allows players to simply place the console on standby and resume their adventure later – meaning that even something as complex as an RPG can be dipped in and out of between other tasks.

Although undoubtedly full of drama and cataclysmic events, RPGs bewitch us and engross us rather than assault us with sound and fury, like the latest military shooter. And with consoles like the 3DS now able to render these fantasy worlds and characters with the kind of detail we could have only dreamed of 20 years ago or so, we’d argue that the future of the RPG is undoubtedly handheld.

Bravely Default is out in the UK on the 6th December for the Nintendo 3DS.

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