Origins of the Strategy RPG (1982-1995)
An exploration of the early days of the strategy RPG genre
If role-playing games are about dice and roles and strategy games are about maps and resources, what can we get if we combine them into a single style of play? I still remember today how magical it was for me to play my first Strategy RPG (SRPG). As a big fan of RPGs and a big fan of strategy games, discovering the SRPG sub-genre was amazing, and to this day it's my favorite type of video game. Today I'm here to study the formula that makes an SRPG what it is and how this subgenre emerged in video game history.
My intention here is to offer content that is both broad and succinct, so I won't delve into some points as I may in the future in other articles. This study is divided into two topics and some final considerations. The two topics involve the emergence of turn-based SRPGs, also called Tactical RPGs (TRPGs), and then the emergence of real-time SRPGs; both styles are known in Japan as "Simulation RPGs".
A didactic way of imagining this subdivision between real-time SRPG and TRPG is to understand that the RPG genre can merge with one of the two great styles of strategy games: those in real-time, the Real-Time Strategy game (RTS), like Age of Empires series; and turn-based ones (TBS). These can be large-scale, like the Civilization series, or they can be small-scale, like the Advance Wars series, in the latter case, also called Turn-Based Tactics (TBT), or tactical turn-based (TTB).
- Real-Time SRPG (Action-SRPG) = RPG + RTS
- Tactical RPG (TRPG) = RPG + TBT/TTB
Strategy RPGs: concept and origin
Before starting to write the history of something, it is always good to have a clear definition of its object. Thus, let's start with a couple of definitions for RPG and Strategy. Defining them is not easy, and they could easily justify their own articles. We will consider here only a definitional sketch of these genres.
A strategy game is a game in which the players' uncoerced decision-making skills have a high significance in determining the outcome. Generally, this requires internal decision tree-style thinking and typically very high situational awareness. Although many types of video games can contain strategic elements, as a genre, strategy games are most commonly defined as those with a primary focus on high-level strategy, tactics, logistics, and resource management. This is one of the main game genres that emphasize "intellectual difficulty", a subject I covered in my last article Intellectual Difficulty and Fairness in Tactical and Puzzle Games (2022).
In turn, we can assume a broad sense of RPG such as what I have already presented in another article here at SUPERJUMP, What is the Difference Between Western and Eastern RPGs? (2021). The concept below is intended to encompass both Action-RPGs and turn-based RPGs and even some CRPGs without a battle system, such as Disco Elysium (2019), written and directed by Robert Kurvitz.
an electronic game is of the RPG genre (a Role-Playing Game) when it emphasizes the control and internal economy* of an evolving character or a group of characters (a party), in some world designed for narrative and exploration purposes.
* "internal economy" = inventory, moral alignment, attributes, abilities, status, job, among other subsystems that govern what a character is or has.
As I discussed in my aforementioned 2021 article, the RPG genre emerged in video games in the second half of the 1970s inspired by the classic board game Dungeons & Dragons (1974). Meanwhile, strategy games, which have been around for thousands of years in board form, had Invasion (1972) as their first console title on the Magnavox Odyssey.
After about a decade of developing these two game genres (RPG and Strategy), a game emerged that is often considered the first JRPG and which is also a precursor to Strategy RPGs (SRPGs): The Dragon and Princess (ドラゴン＆プリンセス) for the PC-8001 in 1982, published by KOEI. This game is a kind of tactical RPG prototype, it has RPG elements such as those mentioned above, but with an adventure style, and also tactical planning in moving units around a small-scale battlefield.
As will become clear throughout this list, TRPG is practically a branch of the JRPG. There are some Western tactical RPGs, but they were never as popular in the West as they were in Japan. Western games of this genre were late and less numerous, most of them appeared only after Final Fantasy Tactics (1997), which is to this day the internationally most popular and acclaimed title in its genre, with sales in excess of 2.5 million units and with critical reception of 88/100 in Metacritic (PSP version).
The First Real-Time SRPGs (1983~1993)
A year later came Bokosuka Wars (ボコスカウォーズ), developed by Koji Sumii for the Sharp X1 in 1983 and ported to the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) by ASCII in 1985. This title is responsible for the foundations of what came to be called "Simulation RPG" (シミュレーションRPG) in Japan, and is also considered one of the first real-time SRPG prototypes.
The premise of this game is to protect the leader of an army while controlling a battalion of soldiers to invade the enemy's castle. The player can even recruit units and level up. There is clearly a combination of action, chess, and RPG elements.
Other works that need to be mentioned and that are fundamental to the advent of SRPGs are the games of Kure Software Koubou (KSK), a Japanese game development company founded in 1985 that bequeathed to video games two influential SRPGs: Silver Ghost (シルバー・ゴースト), released for the NEC PC-8801 computer in 1988, and First Queen (ファーストクイーン), first released on the Sharp X68000 and NEC PC-9801 in 1988.
KSK's games are known for mixing RTS, TBT, and RPG elements. Silver Ghost is particularly interesting because it featured a point-and-click interface, for controlling multiple characters using a cursor. Furthermore, KSKs are also remembered for their beautiful artworks by Yoshitaka Amano — illustrator and character designer of the Final Fantasy series.
Silver Ghost was cited by Hiroyuki Takahashi (2010) as an inspiration for the Shining Force series (Camelot). On the other hand, First Queen was cited by Shouzou Kaga (2021) as an influence on the Fire Emblem series (Nintendo). These two series were the most influential of the 16-bit era on Sega and Nintendo consoles, respectively.
Another prominent title at the beginning of the SRPG genre, in 1988, was Hanjuku Hero (半熟英雄), which became the first of many tactical RPGs from Square, the most prolific company in the field of JRPGs in general. This game, with real-time SRPG mechanics, was directed by Takashi Tokita, the same who later directed Live A Live (1994), Chrono Trigger (1996), and several Final Fantasy games. The title also featured compositions by Nobuo Uematsu, who would go on to be Final Fantasy's main composer. The success of that release yielded sequels, with the series containing four main games and a spin-off.
In addition to the KSK games, I can't forget to mention Ogre Battle: The March of the Black Queen (1993), written and directed by Yasumi Matsuno. Ogre Battle, at the beginning of the 16-bit era, was not only a real-time SRPG with a major popular success (over 400,000 units sold), but also with influential innovations for SRPGs in general.
The game received a 33/40 from Famitsu critics and was considered notable for interesting battle subsystems, such as army reputation, but above all Ogre Battle was recognized for introducing a moral alignment system related to political choices such as whether or not to liberate a city or make deals with thieves. These political choices directly affect the gameplay and also the plot branching that leads to 13 possible endings in Ogre Battle. This creative system proved to be profoundly influential in the future of SRPG developers, most of whom were interested in deepening political choices in their narratives.
The First TRPGs (1983~1995)
Although there are tactical elements in JRPGs since the first game of the genre, like the aforementioned The Dragon and Princess (1982), there is no consensus on what the first TRPG is in a strict sense (i.e., with very significant elements from both TBT and RPG). However, many consider Nobunaga's Ambition — Nobunaga no Yabō (信長の野望) — the first or one of the first in the TRPG genre.
Published in 1983 by KOEI, Nobunaga's Ambition is the first in a long series that continues to this day and has sold over 10 million copies. Unlike most Japanese TRPGs, this series has a strong historical context. Nobunaga's Ambition takes place during the Sengoku period of feudal Japan. The objective of the game is to help Oda Nobunaga in the conquest and unification of Japan.
In addition to the games in this series, there is a 1989 game that is essential for the TRPG tradition and about which there is no doubt of being a TRPG, this is called Master of Monsters, originally developed for MSX and NEC PC8801. Master of Monsters basically used the gameplay base of a TBS strategy series called Daisenryaku (大戦略), but put fantasy characters and magical attacks in place of tanks, planes, and modern warfare weapons.
More importantly, Master of Monsters added experience bars to the units, a concept that was later employed by almost all console TRPGs. Also, unlike almost all other RPGs with tactical elements in its time, Master of Monsters made its way to the west via a port to the Sega Genesis in 1991.
Now, of course, we have to talk about Fire Emblem, which is almost like "the Dragon Quest of TRPGs". Just as Dragon Quest did not start the history of JRPGs, Fire Emblem also did not start the history of TRPGs. Still, both were responsible for popularizing these respective genres, especially on consoles. TRPGs in particular were very little known, even in Japan, and Fire Emblem was the first to become popular (over 300,000 units sold).
Developed by Intelligent Systems, and published by Nintendo, Fire Emblem: Ankoku Ryū to Hikari no Tsurugi (ファイアーエムブレム 暗黒竜と光の剣), or Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light as it was later to be known in the West, made two important contributions to TRPGs. The game was written and designed by Shouzou Kaga, who gradually became the first auteur in the TRPG subgenre.
The first major contribution was to harmonize different concepts already existing in other TRPGs — such as the job system and experience bar — and adapt them to consoles. In addition, charismatic art and striking melodies composed by Yuka Tsujiyoko were also added, and it is not by chance that the main theme of the franchise, which was born in this title, continues to be played and appreciated until today in the games of the series.
In Fire Emblem, traditionally since the first title, the characters die permanently when killed in combat and this has consequences not only for the gameplay but also for the plot, which becomes non-linear and with multiple endings. This premise for non-linear narrative design influenced later TRPGs such as the Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor subseries.
Unfortunately, the Fire Emblem series took over 10 years to reach the West. Its first western release was Fire Emblem: The Blazing Blade, or simply Fire Emblem, released in 2003 for GBA. However, there were some Western RPGs with tactical elements. One of these, released in the same year as Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light, is Lords of Chaos (1990), written by Julian Gollop, known for developing notable series of tactical games such as Rebelstar and X-COM.
Unlike its predecessor, Chaos: The Battle of Wizards (1985), Lords of Chaos doesn't seem to be just a TBT, but has relevant RPG elements. The player controls a mage who can cast magic spells. Spells have various effects, some, for example, can summon player-controllable creatures, and others can damage opposing creatures and mages. The battle system supports many RPG variables such as experience points, mana, action points, toughness, constitution, combat, defense, and magic resistance.
However, even without Fire Emblem, the genre became known in the West for other Japanese titles that received an English version. One of them, the aforementioned Nobunaga's Ambition (1983), but mainly we must remember the post-1990 series was partially influenced by Fire Emblem and its predecessors in the genre.
Two notable series in this regard are Langrisser (ラングリッサー) or "Warsong" and Shining Force (シャイニング・フォース), relatively popular on the Sega Genesis / Mega Drive, which had their first titles released in 1991 and 1992, respectively. These series had interfaces similar to those of Fire Emblem, and contributed to consolidate the visual style of Japanese animations in the genre.
Other series were not so lucky. Super Robot Wars or "Super Robot Taisen" (スーパーロボット大戦), since 1991, for example, because it depends on many anime licenses, few of its titles are published in the West to this day. Some of Square's acclaimed TRPG games in Japan also took a long time to receive an official version in the West. This is the case with the Front Mission (フロントミッション), in 1995, which spawned Square's longest-running tactical RPG series.
Other important titles that did not have a western adaptation (or took a long time) were the series Majin Tensei (魔神転生), a spin-off from Megami Tensei since 1994, by Atlus; and Arc the Lad (アークザラッド), from 1995, even with sales exceeding 1.5 million copies in Japan. The title was developed by G-Craft and published by Sony exclusively for PlayStation, aimed at the TRPG audience in Japan. This worked very well and spawned a new series.
In the first half of the 1990s, many other Japanese games were important in consolidating the standards of what a TRPG is. Thus, many other tactical RPGs could be mentioned, but my intention is only to indicate some of the most important for the history of the genre. Based on titles mentioned in A Guide to Japanese Role-Playing Games (2022) by Kurt Kulata, below I list some more relevant games and series that emerged in this period:
- Crystal Warriors / Royal Stone (1991), by Sega — Game Gear
- Just Breed (1992), by Random House — Famicom
- Farland Story (1992), by Technical Group Laboratory — DOS / PC-98
- Dark Wizard (1993), by Sega — Sega CD
- Albert Odyssey (1993), by Sunsoft — Sega Saturn
- Feda (1994), by Max Entertainment — Super Famicom / Sega Saturn
- Mystaria: The Realms of Lore (1995), by Sega and Microcabin — Sega Saturn
But I can't end this story without talking about at least one more TRPG, Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together (1995), probably the most influential in its genre after the original Fire Emblem. Like the first Ogre Battle, this game was also developed by Quest Corporation, and also written and directed by Yasumi Matsuno, who from then on became another notable auteur of TRPGs, until today the most respected in this genre.
From that title, the Ogre series branched out between Ogre Battle (a real-time SRPG series) and Tactics Ogre (a TRPG series). In part because of this game's influence, the word "Tactics" was also applied to other game series that started doing tactical-style spin-offs. Most notable is Square's Final Fantasy Tactics, also written and directed by Yasumi Matsuno. This game was also highly praised for its extremely detailed pixel art with art direction by Hiroshi Minagawa, who is now well known for his work on Final Fantasy XIV (2014), Final Fantasy XVI (2023), and games in the world of Ivalice, especially Final Fantasy XII (2006).
At least two things need to be said about this game that was profoundly influential in the TRPG genre. The first point is the verticality of the battle scenario, which came to be used in many other TRPGs, including recently in Square Enix's Triangle Strategy (2022). This style of topology brings more tactical variables to move units and especially to use ranged attack units such as archers.
Another point in Tactics Ogre that made it very influential was its narrative design. The game's text has depth and maturity that is uncharacteristic even today. The plot has a much more contained and well-defined fantasy than Ogre Battle, the characters have believable and well-written dialogues, and the political plot is considerably more complex and non-linear than any other TRPG so far.
In addition, the story uses moral alignment much more intelligently, and the concept of evil and good is completely abolished. These aspects of the text are perfectly complemented by Tsubasa Masao's serious and detailed illustrations and Hitoshi Sakimoto's dark and immersive soundtrack plus some brash and bellicose compositions by Masaharu Iwata. It is no coincidence that this is one of the most critically acclaimed TRPGs, with 87/100 on Metacritic and 36/40 in Famitsu (PSP version).
Because of these aspects, many notable developers have considered Tactics Ogre as one of their main inspirations or one of their favorite games, such as Hironobu Sakaguchi (creator of Final Fantasy) and Naoki Yoshida (director and producer of Final Fantasy XIV and Final Fantasy XVI). In particular, the text of the game has markedly influenced other political plots at Square Enix. A recent case was the Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers (2019) plot, written by Banri Oda.
In part because of the influence of this game that today we use the term "Tactical RPG" (TRPG), and also the name "Tactics" was applied to other series of games that began to make spin-offs in a tactical style. Most notable is Square's Final Fantasy Tactics. After, many Japanese and Western series have also used "tactics" in their tactical spin-offs, such as Fallout Tactics (2001), La Pucelle: Tactics (2002), Suikoden Tactics (2005), and more recently Metal Slug Tactics (2023).
Whenever we study the history of something, it is natural to come to the conclusion that the phenomena studied are the result of processes, and not of an unexpected disruptive event. SRPGs didn't fall out of the sky on a beautiful day, and TRPGs didn't start with Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together (1995) or Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light (1990), or The Dragon and Princess (1982). They were the result of a process, a succession of games with common influences, which experimented with hybrid RPG and strategy systems and consolidated game design standards.
In Tactics Ogre we have one of the pinnacles of this genre, although even it has aged in some aspects, which is why it has been significantly improved in the PSP version, and now again, in Tactics Ogre Reborn (2022). Something similar can be said of games from series like Fire Emblem, although the history of this series has its ups and downs. From the concept and origin of TRPGs, RPGs of this style have evolved a lot with many interesting titles, which are often challenging in terms of intellectual difficulty and fascinating in political and ethical plots.
Unfortunately, the history of real-time SRPGs is not as fruitful as that of TRPGs, perhaps because it did not have a "Final Fantasy Strategy" in its history. Anyway, SRPGs, in general, are having a good time, with the return of Square Enix series like Front Mission and Tactics Ogre, releases like Triangle Strategy (2022), and even a real-time SRPG, The DioField Chronicle (2022). In addition to numerous TRPG games that have been made by indie studios, almost all are inspired by titles that we present in this article.
Personally, strategy RPGs are my favorite type of game, and I hope this SRPG renaissance will be long and fruitful, inspiring, and influential for generations to come. I feel that many SRPGs are not known as they should be. They didn't get the same chance as Marth to be in the Smash Bros. cast, so they depend on stories like this to be remembered. So try some of the titles of the series that I presented, maybe you will be impressed.
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