‘Panzer Dragoon Saga’ 1998
The Sega Saturn was home to a number of outstanding RPGs, however the failure on Sega’s part to export parts 2 and 3 of ‘Shining Force III’ and Sony’s scooping the western release of ‘Grandia’ for the Playstation left it a console without a defining RPG series to match the likes of ‘Final Fantasy’ and ‘Dragon Quest’ that their key rivals possessed. That this torch was picked up by the Panzer Dragon series was completely unexpected, the previous games in the series being rail-shooters.
Whilst light on RPG elements, the setting for the series had always contained huge potential. Taking place in a post-apocalyptic planet where the competition for land and resources is fuelled by ancient technologies created by a deceased people who once controlled a galaxy-wide network of planets several thousand years prior to the series’ opening. These Ancients bred powerful beasts for labour and to fight their wars for them, and ultimately would be their downfall. Whilst the descendants of the Ancients make up the people who live in the ruins of this world today, the concept of their legacy has taken on an almost religious aspect as their deeds passed into legend. Now, as humanity begins to enter a new industrial age they once again harness the power of beasts of burden, this time in the form of great dragons on which they take to the sky.
The fourth entry into the series (after ‘Panzer Dragon I and II’ as well as ‘Panzer Dragon Mini’ for the Game Gear), Saga takes place across 4 discs and places you in the role of a young dragon rider named Edge. Unlike RPGs on other systems at the time, which were focussing on larger parties of characters, Saga features only its protagonist and his dragon as playable features. Most of the game is split between exploring towns on foot or in intense combat missions on the back of your mount. Action takes place in real-time and uses three power bars that charge on their own timers and use cool-down. These bars cover various kinds of attack. The screen is split into multiple zones between which your dragon can switch freely, with proximity to those containing enemies dictating now much damage you take or inflict.
Developed alongside the second title in the series as an offshoot of the main team, they development staff eventually grew into a crew of roughly 40 members, doubling that of ‘Panzer Dragon II Zwei’. In part this was due to the intention to expand on the games narrative in different and more interesting ways to the direct sequel. Whilst the Sega Saturn began to falter in the gaming market, Team Andromeda (led by director Yukio Futatsugi) struggled with their own trials in completing the game. Whilst given creative freedom they found that they needed to keep to the basic structure of a standard RPG in addition to creating their aerial shooting segments of the game. Fusing these two elements ultimately led to the ability to dismount and alter the dragon and its abilities at any point, rather than simply inside towns at specific points in the game.
The game makes use of a large quantity of voiced cutscenes with which to tell elements of the story, which were a rarity for the time, however due to the nature of the Saturn these were displayed in smaller windows within the screen rather than at a full ratio. Initially opening the game in ‘Panzerese’, the fiction language of that world, the acting shifts quickly to Japanese with English subtitles. Unfortunately, since this was one of the last games released for the Saturn in America and Europe, it was only printed in limited quantities. The end result being that the English version is now incredibly expensive (hovering in the $150 range). Though praised, the limited circulation of the Saturn and print runs of the game for the time led to Panzer Dragon Saga being a limited success, although critics hailed it as a masterpiece. A sequel, which returned to the series’ rail-shooter mechanics was produced in 2002 for the Xbox titled ‘Panzer Dragon Orta’. Although the series ends there, Yukio Futatsugi produced similar title ‘Crimson Dragon’ for the Xbox One in 2013 as a spiritual successor.
‘Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure’ 1998
Released in Japan as ‘The Puppet Princess of Marl Kingdom’, Rhapsody is the first RPG to come out of Nippon Ichi Software, the creators of the ‘Disgaea’ franchise and extended ‘Marl Kingdom’ series. Unlike anything else at the time or since (excluding its own sequel and re-releases) Rhapsody fuses RPG mechanics with the themes and structure of a musical, leading to the game containing multiple musical set pieces and characters spontaneously bursting into song at key plot moments.
After an initial release in Japan a cheaper second edition called ‘Marl Kingdom +1’ was released that contained an in-game art gallery and sound test options and came packaged with a bonus CD soundtrack. The English language release on the Playstation also contains these features with slightly altered CD content. At this point the game was rebranded as Rhapsody in the west. Featuring a turn-based system for combat that was similar to Tactical RPGs of the time, the game followed a young woman named Cornett who can command an army of puppets that she recruits in-game and takes with her into battle. Unusually for the time, Cornett’s story sees her travelling to rescue a dashing prince from the games villain and romantic rival Marjoly instead of the usual trope of the prince rescuing her. Special attention was given to the translation of the game into English.
Rhapsody was also ported to the Nintendo DS in 2008, and this edition changed the battle system to a more standard turn-based combat affair as seen in other Nippon Ichi titles such as the games direct sequels, ‘Little Princess’ and ‘Angel’s Present’. Additional playable characters are added to this edition, although this forced the game to use the Japanese soundtrack for songs due to the original English recordings not featuring the newly added characters. This edition suffered from several bugs and the reduced quality of the DS screen from the Playstation edition.
Although not a hit in the west, Rhapsody garnered a loyal fanbase in Japan and two direct sequels were produced before the release of ‘La Pucelle Tactics’, which shifted to focus onto Tactical battles once more and dropped the singing in favour of focussing on a new story set in the Marl Kingdom. Nippon Ichi also produced multiple puzzle titles to tie into the series, capitalising on their original experience in this field before making a permanent shift to Tactical RPGs.
‘Fallout 2’ 1998
The original Fallout was a huge critical hit, but didn’t sell particularly well until later in its life cycle. Interplay however wasted no time in setting up Black Isle Studios with much of the team who worked on the original shifted into this division and commissioning them to work on a sequel.
In order to capitalise on the popularity of the first game while it was still fresh in the minds of critics and gamers alike, Fallout 2 was given just a year and a half for development before launching in 1998. Shelving the original games harsh time limit on the initial quest and adding the ability to shove characters out of the player party’s path resolved many of the complaints that had been launched at the original, whilst the world included was bigger and more densely populated with information than ever. Set 80 years after the original, with a new character taking on the role of protagonist and donning the iconic outfit from Fallout, the world was shown to have evolved a little and new locations were incorporated, as was an off-beat sense of humour and adult tone.
Directed by Feargus Urguhart who also produced alongside Eric DeMilt and Fred Hatch, the games tone could at times be wildly erratic. Grim and sombre at one moment and then pop-culture savy and amusing in the next. This was in part excused by the method in which Black Isle had handled the games short development time, which essentially saw different individuals work on the title in small patches and then the overall game was stitched together with a narrative to link it all up. Perhaps because of this there are more sub-quests and random events present than many games of the time and it set a new standard for non-linear style gaming.
Fallout 2 received largely positive reviews from critics whilst some pointed out that the game had initially shipped with a number of bugs that were later patched. Not as grand a sales success as its reputation would have you believe, it did manage to outsell its predecessor but another Fallout title wouldn’t emerge until 2001 when a turn-based tactical battle game titled ‘Fallout Tactics: Brotherhood of Steel’ would arrive. ‘Fallout 3’ was kept in development for many years before a leaked technical demo found it’s was online in 2007 and although Interplay had to hand the game to Bethesda the series finally continued in 2008.
Developed and published by Square for the Playstation, Xenogears was intended to be part of a bigger multi-media franchise that took in several games and developed a complex narrative. Made up of many chapters, some books and anime, which cumulated in several key landmark games spread across the series’ internal chronology. Unfortunately a decision to abandon this plan on the part of Square leaves this game awkwardly afloat and led to a hastily constructed second disc that’s more boss-rush than game. The reasons behind this decision have never been made public, but Xenogears has gone on to become a cult favourite.
Hiromichi Tanaka, who had previously worked on ‘Secret of Mana’ for the SNES was assigned as the games producer whilst Tetsuya Takahashi and Kaori Tanaka were responsible for the games story (the former also serving as director). ‘Final Fantasy’ creator and by now a high ranking official at Square, Hironobu Sakaguchi was assigned to executive produce the title and a slew of popular artists and designers including Kunihiko Tanaka produced concept art. At its inception, Xenogears was very much at the fore when it came to the creation of a new IP for Square, gaining almost as much attention in-house as their flagship ‘Final Fantasy’ series. Indeed, many elements of the Xenogears story started life as a pitch for the next game in that franchise, but it was deemed ‘too dark and complicated’ and referenced ideas from Freud, Jung and Nietzsche as well as heavy religious themes from multiple cultures. Instead Xenogears was given the chance to flourish on its own, away from the Final Fantasy banner.
The game itself focuses on a science fiction setting where the character of Fei Fon Wong, an amnesiac (who lives as a painter in a small village) is thrown into a large scale conflict and is forced to pilot a ‘Gear’ into battle. Gears essentially being giant robots made by a previous civilisation. Much of the world’s history and backstory is detailed outside of the game in a Japanese-only sourcebook entitled ‘Xenogear Perfect Works’ and although produced by the now defunct DigiCube company, states that the game was the fifth of six intended instalments, with a great deal of fleshing out to characters backstories and the setting to be covered before the narrative was concluded in another game.
Perhaps because of this, Xenogears comes on two discs. The first containing the main game which features a heavy amount of combat (both on foot and in a Gear) and exploration in addition to cutscenes and mini-quests. This ends on a cliffhanger which is picked up in the second disc, which is comprised almost exclusively of boss battles and character narration. It has been speculated that the dropping of the franchise forced the development team to hastily include story content from the proposed second game in order to give the games narrative a conclusion, which also would have forced them to split their attention and held some of the more ambitious elements of the original game design back. This has never been confirmed or denied by Square, although they do state that Xenogears is a ‘complete’ game as it stands now.
Despite heavy religious imagery that had been censored in the past, Xenogears did see an English translation and was the first major project of Square’s resident translator Richard Honeywood who has gone on record to state that due to the games conflicting ideologies and philosophies it was a complex task to undertake. The game later saw launch onto Playstation Network in 2008 as part of the classics range, with America receiving a version in 2011. Europe never received a physical copy of the game at launch, nor a digital edition.
Many of the staff who worked on Xenogears went on to work on the ‘Xenosaga’ title for the Playstation 2, which was developed by Monolith Soft and published by Bandai Namco. Similarly to Xenogears, six titles were projected for this series, with the final game consisting of only three being released and the story ended early. A tie-in anime was also produced. ‘Xenoblade Chronicles’ on the Wii and ‘Xenoblade Chronicles X’ for the Wii-U are also loosly linked into this collection with ‘Xenosaga I-III’ and Xenoblade to create a loose series, although no narrative links exist between them.
‘Baldur’s Gate’ 1998
Developed by Bioware, a company founded by two practising physicians (Dr Ray Muzyka and Dr greg Zeschuk), Baldur’s Gate is the first title to use the now famous ‘Infinity Engine’ that would go on to be used throughout the late 90s for a broad selection of WRPGs including ‘Icewindale’ and ‘Planescape: Torment’.
Published by Black Isle Studios and Interplay Entertainment, whilst being distributed by Wizards of the Coast, the game takes place in the ‘Forgotten Realms’ fantasy setting and runs on a modified version of the ‘Advanced Dungeons and Dragons’ second edition ruleset. Because of this the game takes place within the established world of that campaign environment in an area known as the Sword Coast. Baldur’s Gate itself being the name of a city within that region and the games name-sake. Cameos from famous characters appearing in AD&D tie-in novels are also included, further strengthening the games position as part of that universe.
Developed by a 60 man team that had never before participated in the release of a video-game, Bioware worked closely with Interplay and credit them heavily for the critical success that the game enjoyed at launch. The Infinity Engine itself, initially designed for use in a declined strategy title that would have been similar to ‘Warcraft’ and ‘Command and Conquer’, was built around the concept of easily selecting one or more members of a party and giving them complex actions to undertake in real-time, with the option to pause the game at any point to allow for more detailed tactical decisions. Prior to developing this system and Baldur’s Gate, the company had only worked on one title, the vehicle action game ‘Shattered Steel’ which featured destructible/deformable terrain and localised damage. Whilst these features did not make it into Baldur’s Gate, the level of attention to detail to environments displayed here allowed for a complex and deep world filled with details easily missed but often memorable, filling out the rich history of the Forgotten Realms setting for newcomers.
Finally seeing release after three years (a development cycle that had a third founding member of the team – another doctor named Augustine Yip – to leave and return to his medical practise) the game was an immediate critical and commercial success, prompting the release of an expansion pack titled ‘Tales of the Sword Coast’. This added between 20 and 30 hours of new content to the original game including four new areas to explore, gameplay tweaks based on user feedback and a raised level cap without affecting the functionality of the original quest. A sequel, ‘Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn’ was released in September 2000 and received a similar expansion in ‘Throne of Baal’. Both games received enhanced re-releases for touch-devices on iOS and Android as well as a Steam re-release in 2013.
Baldurs Gate received an Action RPG spin-off title for the Playstation 2, Xbox and Game Boy Advance titled ‘Dark Alliance’ that capitalised on the popularity of the brand at the time whilst playing up to the less powerful nature of the consoles of the time and proved popular enough to produce its own sequel. Bioware would experiment with the ‘Neverwinter Nights’, series and stand-alone ‘Planescape: Torment’ before moving on to focus on the Star Wars IP with ‘Knights of the Old Republic’.
‘Might and Magic VI: The Mandate of Heaven’ 1998
Development for the sixth instalment into the ongoing Might and Magic franchise began almost immediately after ‘Might and Magic V: Darkside of Xeen’ was released and following the success of the ‘Heroes of Might and Magic’ sub-brand. Despite teasing the game at the conclusion of Darkside of Xeen and in the credits for Heroes of Might and Magic 2, New World Computing was bombarded by player queries as to whether the original brand was being abandoned. To remedy this a teaser trailer was produced confirming development and fantasy author Geary Gravel was hired to write a trilogy of novels based on the games proposed story and setting.
Due to the evolving nature of the project and Gravel’s experience as a writer, he was instructed to write the books as he saw fit within the confines of the world they had developed and the developers would alter their project to fit his eventual vision, rather than the other way around. Del Rey Books eventually published two of the three novels (The Dreamwright and The Shadowsmith) before Might and Magic VI saw release, with the final game choosing to alter its setting to compliment rather than recap the novels and serve as a bridge between the Heroes and Might series. Gravel was offered that opportunity to adapt the completed game in addition to concluding his own trilogy of novels but declined.
Establishing a formal connection between the ‘Heroes of’ and ‘Might and Magic’ series allowed for Might and Magic VI to continue some of the narrative threads from both prior games and references were made throughout to earlier entries dating back to the original Might and Magic title. The largest and most ambitious game in either series to date, the game world included more than a thousand miles of virtual terrain and architects were hired to design the games buildings. The title use a mixture of 2D and 3D layers to generate this world, with uncomplicated elements rendering in 2D (such as trees) whilst buildings and landscapes were generated in 3D. Sprites were pre-rendered using a 3D engine called 3DS Max and Character Studio before being overlaid in a manner similar to ‘Donkey Kong Country’ on the SNES. The first Might and Magic title to feature full motion video for its cinematic, the games soundtrack was composed by a collective group consisting of Steve Baca, Rob King, Paul Romero and Jennifer Wang – Baca, King and Romero had previously composed music for ‘Heroes of Might and Magic’.
A critical success upon release, VI was followed by ‘Might and Magic VII: For Blood and Honor’ as well as ‘VIII: Day of the Destroyer’ and currently sits at 10 instalments with the release of ‘X: Legacy’. Critics praised the games exploration and character development, though noted that it could become dull at times.
‘Chrono Cross’ 1999
Square began planning for Chrono Cross immediately after the release of Xenogears in 1998, having committed a large number of their staff to its development. Returning from the original ‘Chrono Trigger’, scenario director Masato Kato had been brainstorming ideas for a sequel from as early as 1996, after the text-adventure style Satellaview exclusive ‘Radical Dreamers’ was released on the SNES peripheral. Square appointed Hiromichi Tanaka as producer on this new project and spoke with Kato about the concepts he had for a sequel. Kato believed that ‘Radical Dreamers’ was released in an unfinished state and wanted to continue the story of the character ‘Kid’, however Tanaka felt that the Satellaview had enjoyed only a small user base and that following on from that title directly would be a mistake. Knowing that Square planned to re-release ‘Chrono Trigger’ onto the Playstation as part of their ‘Final Fantasy Chronicles’ project they elected to make an in-direct sequel that used concepts touched on in both titles.
Working to produce a game that would be a sequel but also an adequate starting point for players new to the series, the decision was made early to downplay the use of time travel, which had been a major theme and game mechanic in the original title, and as such the game was titled Chrono Cross instead of the proposed Chrono Trigger 2. Kato cited the belief that “there’s no use in making something similar to before.” Following on from that statement in an interview before release he also added “We didn’t want to directly extend Chrono Trigger into a sequel, but create a new Chrono with links to the original. Yes, the platform changed; and yes, there were many parts that changed dramatically from the previous work. But in my view, the whole point in making Chrono Cross was to make a new Chrono with the best available skills and technologies of today.”
Tanaka would also elaborate on this point “When creating a series, one method is to carry over a basic system, improving upon it as the series progresses, but our stance has been to create a completely new and different world from the ground up, and to restructure the former style. Therefore, Chrono Cross is not a sequel to Chrono Trigger. Had it been, it would have been called Chrono Trigger 2. Our main objective for Chrono Cross was to share a little bit of the Chrono Trigger worldview, while creating a completely different game as a means of providing new entertainment to the player. This is mainly due to the transition in platform generation from the SNES to the PS. The method I mentioned above, about improving upon a basic system, has inefficiencies, in that it’s impossible to maximize the console’s performance as the console continues to make improvements in leaps and bounds. Although essentially an RPG, at its core, it is a computer game, and I believe that games should be expressed with a close connection to the console’s performance. Therefore, in regards to game development, our goal has always been to ‘express the game utilizing the maximum performance of the console at that time.’ I strongly believe that anything created in this way will continue to be innovative.”
At its peak a team of 80 staff members worked on developing Chrono Cross, with an additional 20 cutscene animators and 100 quality assurance testers in place. Though not helmed by the ‘Dream Team’ of devs that had masterminded the original game the title was significantly ambitious, growing from a small original concept into a cast of 45 playable characters. Ambition was cut back however due to the limitations of the console and time allotted to development, meaning that fewer alternate endings and scenarios were included than the team would have liked. Instead of time travel, alternate timelines were used as the games core theme, with the games main character accidentally falling through into one such world where he didn’t exist at the games outset.
At launch, Chrono Cross shipped 850,000 units abroad and 650,000 units sold internally in Japan. The game seeing re-release as part of the Greatest Hits range on the Playstation and again in the Ultimate Hits series in Japan. Europe however would not receive an official release Chrono Cross, even after the game was added to Playstation Network in 2011. Critics praised the games plot, original combat system and moving score whilst acknowledging that it takes a significant step away from the systems seen in ‘Chrono Trigger’. Although there are currently no plans to return to the Chrono series, many members of staff within Square Enix have gone on public record stating that they are interested in working with the IP, including Kironobu Sakaguchi.
‘Evolution: The World of Sacred Device’ 1999
Sega’s Dreamcast console would be their last entry into the rapidly changing world of gaming hardware, the company pulling back to develop exclusively games for hardware owned by third-parties and now narrowing their focus to mobile platforms. Although the console wouldn’t enjoy a large catalogue of RPGs over the course of its life, it did manage to acquire some ground breaking titles for its time. ‘Shemune’ brought gaming’s first significant sandbox title, whilst ‘Phantasy Star Online’ was a console MMORPG in a market where only a few existed on desktops. ‘Evolution’ wasn’t as ambitious as these trend-setters, but it did update the RogueLike sub-genre for modern gamers.
Produced by Sting, who also worked on ‘Treasure Hunter G’ for the SNES and ‘Baroque’ for the Sega Saturn, Evolution tells the story of a family of adventurers and explorers. The games protagonist, Mag Launcher isn’t particularly skilled in this field and as the latest in a long line of heroes to lead the household he’s worried about bringing shame onto his family name. What begins as a quest for fame and treasure slowly warps into a conflict over a relic called ‘Evolutia’ which Mag’s father supposedly recovered on an expedition years ago. Technically, Evolution is Sting’s first game to be released outside of Japan and was localized by Ubisoft.
Gameplay is focused on dungeon crawling over the traditional JRPG structure, and randomly generates layouts, treasure and items in the spirit of ‘Rogue’. Bosses and up to 3 party members from a pool of 5 help to spice things up, as does a super-deformed Japanese style for the characters (known as ‘chibi’) and regular plot sequences that help forward the narrative. Enemies can all be seen on screen and collision with them sparks a turn based combat system into action.
Although Evolution breaks little new ground, it was the first RPG to be released for the Dreamcast and a significant visual improvement over titles available on the Playstation or Nintendo 64. A 2D port of the game was developed internally at Sega for the Neo Geo Pocket Colour under the title ‘Evolution: Eternal Dungeon’ in 2000 and retained much of the original’s content in a smaller, sprite-based form. A direct sequel, ‘Evolution 2: Far off Promise’ would see release that same year and uses much of the existing art, graphic and sound assets as well as the same engine seen in the original. This featured a new plot set immediately after the credits of the first title, as well as an optional dungeon for bonus content. Both titles would be packaged together and re-released for the Nintendo GameCube in 2002 under the banner ‘Evolution: Worlds’, with an added English vocal performance for the main cast but some dungeons cut from the first title in order to speed up gameplay and speed plot beats.
At this time neither Sting, nor Sega have shown any intention of visiting the Evolution series for a third entry or porting the existing games onto mobile. Ironically, the randomly generated nature of the games dungeons would be perfectly suited for such a release, as would the games approach to storytelling.
‘Front Mission 3’ 1999
Whilst the third entry into the popular mech themed Tactical RPG series to be produced by Square, Front Mission 3 was the first to be translated into English and released outside of Japan. Preceded by ‘Front Mission 2’ and ‘Front Mission 2: Alternative’ on the Playstation, the game takes place in the fictional future of 2112 and is divided into two distinct scenarios based on an early choice made by the player. Directed by Toshiro Tsuchida and produced by Koji Yamashita with story was written by Norihiko Yonesaka and Kazuhiro Matsuda.
The Front Mission series has traditionally fallen into two camps, those being numbered entries and those with sub-titles. Numbered entries are always structured as Tactical RPGs whilst the sub-brand acts as a form of spin-off media that can use any genre. ‘Front Mission: Online’ for example is a Massively Multiplayer Online Third-Person Shooter, whilst ‘Front Mission: Gun Hazzard’ is a side-scrolling shooter. The series focus on large machines of war (known as Wanzers) piloted by soldiers lends itself well to a variety of mediums. The series main selling point it a consistent approach to storytelling, with games following on from one another chronologically and dealing with the consequences of former actions. Political viewpoints, military strategy and the ethics of war are among the themes touched on in each campaign and although the technology and political parties change as advancements are made between titles, war itself is viewed as a constant entity.
Graphically weaker than ‘Front Mission 2’ to compensate for complaints levelled at its predecessor’s load times, Front Mission 3 manages to trim a lot of unnecessary details in order to generate a smoother performance on the Playstation. The games musical score was composed by Koji Hayama, Hayato Matsuo and SHIGEKI (who submitted only one track) and received a limited soundtrack release from DigiCube.
Front Mission 3 sold 298,342 copies in Japan at launch and was awarded 32 out of a possible 40 by ‘Famitsu Magazine’ when it was reviewed. Critics in abroad were harsher on the title, GameSpot giving it 8.3 out of 10 and stating that the franchise may be worth further exploration but criticising the graphics. Re-released a number of times in Japan, in 2000, 2002, 2003 and 2006 before seeing digital release as part of Sony’s classics range on Playstation Network in 2010. Currently the series stands at 9 numbered entries with Yasuo Otagaki (creator of two Front Mission manga series) stating that the franchise will see a final conclusion with the release of a 10th numbered edition.
‘Pokémon Gold and Silver’ 1999
After the release of a special ‘Yellow’ edition of the original title, Game Freak first showcased the games second generation at the 1999 Nintendo SpaceWorld Expo in Japan to massive public acclaim. Additions to the existing formula included a day and night cycle, new story, Pokémon and region of the world to explore, a real-time internal clock and backward compatibility with the original games in the series. Importantly, true Game Boy Colour support was included, making the game a much more visually pleasing experience for those playing on Nintendo’s newer handheld device.
Over the course of an interview at ABC News, president of Creatures Inc. Tsunekazu Ishihara spoke openly about the development process for the varying new Pokémon, explaining that “The ideas for each of these monsters came from the imagination of the software developers at Game Freak who get these ideas from their childhood experiences, including from reading Manga, the name for Japanese comic books. Ideas come from scary experiences they had as kids, catching insects, and so forth. So from these experiences in childhood, these ideas for Pokémon came out.” Pokémon breeding was also announced, allowing players to partner two Pokémon and produce an egg that they would need to carry around in real time in order for it to hatch. The exclusive Pokémon, Celebi was created in a manner similar to Mew from the original series, and served as a promotional tool that players could receive at Nintendo events. Well over 100,000 gamers arrived at the first of these (held in 2000) with Nintendo resorting to a 100,000 ticket lottery to decide who obtained the character.
In an interview with Nintendo president Satoru Iwata, he stated that Gold and Silver started development immediately after Red and Green were released in Japan, with an intention of releasing a sequel in 1998 to sync with the finale of the tie-in anime’s first season, however development issues caused by the development of ‘Pokemon Stadium’ on the Nintendo 64 led to the game missing that date and ‘Pokémon Yellow’ was released instead. When asked, programmer Shigeki Morimoto stated “We were very greedy in terms of all the features we wanted to include in the games.” Ishihara declared that Gold and Silver were supposed to be the last in the series – “I didn’t intend to make any more Pokémon titles. I even thought that once we entered the twenty-first century, it would be time for me to do something else entirely.” However the fan hype around the franchise and its increasing range of licensed material (the anime now joined by a Collectable Card Game that eventually got not one but several games adaptions of its own) led to ensuring that the franchise continued.
Anticipating high sales, Nintendo produced a shipment of three million carts, predicting that eight million would be sold in Japan alone. However an earthquake in Taiwan damaged their production and only half that number were able to be made in time for launch. Media at the time speculated that Nintendo were deliberately taking advantage of the situation to excuse manufacturing fewer copies in order to increase competition and raise demand.
At launch players were amazed at how much content Game Freak had crammed into a single Game Boy cart. Not only did the game take place in a new region that was roughly the same scale as the original games world, but completing the story unlocked the entire map from that game for additional exploration as well, doubling the scale immediately and producing the Game Boy’s biggest RPG world.
Most importantly, this second wave ensured that Pokémon wasn’t a one-hit wonder and remained a potent franchise that could be mined again on the Game Boy Advance and beyond. A special edition entitled ‘Crystal’ was released in a similar manner to ‘Yellow’ that updated some elements of the games design and was exclusively targeted at the Game Boy Colour. Pokémon now have small animations when they enter battle, the player can choose the sex of their avatar, the legendary creature Suicune had its own sub-plot, as did the Unown. The biggest addition was the Battle Tower which encouraged stadium-like battles. This cemented the tradition of a special edition releasing shortly after each new generation to fill the gap between new installments. Remakes on the DS titled ‘HeartGold’ and ‘SoulSilver’ were released in 2009, with game director Morimoto stating that he aimed to respect the feeling of those who had enjoyed the originals whilst introducing a new generation of players to those titles.
‘Planescape: Torment’ 1999
In 1997 designers at Bioware produced a 47 page document that outlines the premise for a new title that they called ‘Last Rites’, set within an avant-garde fantasy world rather than the established high-fantasy of the AD&D license used previously in Baldur’s Gate. This document contained a number of notes, character designs and sketches for what would eventually become Planescape: Torment.
Intended to subvert traditional roleplaying mechanics from the outset, the game features none of the traditional fantasy race staples and many situations were designed to be openly approached in a manner chosen by the player. The designers disliked the idea of a game having a ‘correct’ or predictable approach to any given situation and wanted to dabble in moral flexibility. To this end the game isn’t about defeating an ancient evil and saving the world from peril, instead being a more personal introspection on the central character (the Nameless One) and his immortal life. Developed using the Infinity Engine first seen in ‘Baldur’s Gate’, Planescape: Torment was in the awkward position of entering production before that game’s release, and so being uncertain as to how the public would react to the engine at launch. Luckily the gaming public quickly accepted the Infinity Engine and Bioware set about creating art assets that visually distanced this new game from the visual style of their last release.
Whilst working on ‘Fallout 2’, Chris Avellone (the games lead designer) was also working on Planescape: Torment. In an interview from 2007 he stated that this helped him to re-think dialogue options and choices and later led to his involvement in ‘Neverwinter Nights 2’. He remarked that the game’s strong identity “could only have been communicated through text, simply because no one would have the budget or resources to fully realize many of these fantasy works through TV or movies.” An interesting statement that later would lead directly into Bioware’s experimentation with dialogue options and performances for multiple alternate scenes in ‘Dragon Age: Origins’. Although Avellone regrets making the game particularly dialogue heavy, feeling that it undermines many of the games more subtle mechanics in favor of talking your way in and out of many situations, he proudly stands by its 800,000 word script.
Guido Henkel, the games producer was increasingly frustrated by Interplay’s management of the title, with them pressuring development and threatening to withdraw funding. This led to some subplots and characters being cut from the final product before the planned release date and Henkel has claimed that Interplay showed more interest in packaging designs for the title than the game itself. In his own words, Henkel’s job was to “prevent the game being crippled” before leaving Interplay while the game was in beta. He has since claimed that his role in the games development was downplayed in favor of Chris Avellone, Eric Campanella, or Dave Maldonaldo due to hard choices he was forced to make.
Initially hiring Dark Ambient musician Lustmord to create the games score, this version of the soundtrack was later scrapped entirely in favor of one produced by Mark Morgan and digital performances from actors including Michael T. Weiss, Sheena Easton, Rob Paulsen, Mitch Pileggi, Dan Castellaneta, and Tony Jay were made. Sitting within the AD&D license, the ‘Planescape’ multiverse-based setting was selected to highlight the abstract nature of the story and characters, that included a floating, talking skull and an immortal protagonist.
Planescape: Torment launched to wide-spread critical acclaim on release but only made a small profit, with the majority of gamers favoring consoles at the time and desktops still in the grip of a long-lasting First Person Shooter period. The game’s premise and writing were warmly received with a review in the New York Times noting that “The game’s level of detail and its emotional impact have prompted some players to cast about for literary peers.” The game won several Editor’s Choice awards and was named RPG of the Year in 1999 by both GameSpot and Computer Gaming World. Following the announcement of ‘Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition’ Overhaul Games announced their intention to shift their focus onto Planescape: Torment and upgrade the games visuals, integrating touchscreen controls for modern devices. As of November 2012, Brian Fargo, the head of inXile Entertainment, acquired the rights to Torment and in 2013 announced that the spiritual successor to Planescape: Torment, titled ‘Torment: Tides of Numenera’, was in production.
‘System Shock 2’ 1999
Designed by Ken Levine, System Shock 2 is a sequel to the Action RPG developed by Looking Glass Technologies in 1994. Not unlike the ‘Ultima Underworld’ games, ‘System Shock’ (directed by Doug Church and produced by Warren Spencer) brought a dark science-fiction setting and puzzle solving to the table and sold in excess of 170,000 copies. It’s sequel would be multi-award award winning, but hadn’t always been intended as a follow up to one of MS-DOS’ great RPGs.
Looking Glass Studios initially approached Irrational Games in 1997 with the idea of co-developing a new title. The development team admitted that they were huge fans of the original System Shock and sought to create a game in the same mould. Various early drafts were processed throughout this period, with the game ebbing between being more RPG and more FPS until a happy balance could be found. After 18 months and a budget estimate of 1.7 million dollars, the game was pitched to multiple publishers who turned it down, until Electronic Arts (who owned the rights to the System Shock franchise) took notice of their projects’ potential and contracted them to turn it into a true sequel. An eager development team agreed and story changes were implemented to tie the two narratives closely together. Looking Glass was given a year to complete their work, and to compensate for the short development cycle they worked with an unfinished build of their own Dark Engine that was being used to create ‘Thief: The Dark Project’. This came with the added bonus that the Dark Engine was already optimised for complex sneaking and environment manipulation.
The environment in System Shock 2 is persistent, set aboard a space ship called the ‘Von Braun’ that is under the control of rogue AI SHODAN (who returns from the original game as a foil for the player). As the player interacts with it the environment changes, with both areas previously explored and virgin territory both seeing subtle changes in accordance with his/her actions. A key focus of the game was the shift from straight action to horror themes, with the environment designed in such a way that isolation led to nervous anticipation or jump-scares as monsters attacked. Controlled using a mouse and keyboard, the game makes use of FPS mechanics and an RPG levelling system to find balance between shooting mechanics and character growth. The player also chooses their class at the games outset, directly affecting what their specialism will be and impacting gameplay in a significant manner.
When System Shock 2 neared release a demo for the game featuring a tutorial and small amount of the first mission was given to the public nine days before the game shipped to retailers. An enhanced patch was released a month later to add significant features such as multiplayer and tweak both enemy spawn rates and weapon degradation. A planned port for the Dreamcast was announced and then cancelled. Despite this the game won over a dozen awards including seven ‘Game of the Year’ titles. The game has amassed a cult following and demand for a sequel has been high, with titles such as ‘Bioshock’ and ‘Dead Space’ filling the vacant spot a third entry into the series could inhabit with spiritual successors. EA has however ensured on multiple occasions that they retain the rights to the series, first in a court battle with Meadowbrook Insurance Group (who acquired the assets of Looking Glass Studios after their closure) and then renewing the trademark on the name in 2006, indicating that they are considering a potential re-entry into the System Shock world.
‘Ultima IX: Ascension’ 1999
The ninth and final instalment into the Ultima franchise that started in 1981, Ascension is almost universally disliked by fans of the series and critics alike. Buggy, nonsensical and often a chore to play, it symbolises how far from greatness the series fell after Origin was brought out by EA.
Following the Avatar’s escape from Pagan in ‘Ultima VIII’, you are once again brought into Britannia for a final confrontation with his nemesis the Guardian, whose disrupting the land using eight magical columns. Interestingly the game chooses to ignore the end of Pagan, which saw the Avatar travel directly to Britannia for a showdown and instead starts the game in ‘our’ world, where you once again become drawn to a gateway that will teleport you to Britannia. Upon arrival a near-miss with a dragon sets things off with a touch of cinematic flair. There are other changes to the established world and a great deal of flaws present in the plot, which went through at least four distinct versions over the course of its development.
The original version of Ultima IX was conceived by series creator Richard Garriott as part of his planning for the third Ultima trilogy as a whole before Origin began work on ‘Ultima VII’. This idea suggested that each conflict with the Guardian took place in a different world, starting in Britannia before shifting to Pagan and then entering the Guardian’s homeland for the final confrontation. These concepts also retained the ‘Ultima VIII’ engine for use, which had an isometric design. The second version was developed somewhere between 1995 and 1997 and was based in part on user feedback that Origin had received after the release of Pagan. Fans felt strongly that they wanted to return to the world of Britannia after Pagan’s sinister environments and the team agreed that this would be the setting in place of a planned third world. By early 1996 the first screenshots of Ultima IX began to appear in gaming magazines and Origin started to reveal information regarding the plot and gameplay mechanics. These previews demonstrated a 3D rendered version of the game that had an overhead camera that approximated the visual style of the isometric engine but allowed for camera rotation. Images of pre-rendered cinematics also began to appear, showing red skies above a barren land and Origin confirmed that this was Britannia under the Guardian’s rulership. Unfortunately the unexpected interest in ‘Ultima Online’ led to many of the staff working on Ultima IX being shifted to work on that title instead. By the time they were freed to return in 1997, corporate interest in the game had greatly diminished. The 3D engine was visually pleasing but software-rendered, meaning that it was unable to compete with newer changes to other 3D games taking advantage of 3D hardware acceleration. This prompted the decision to tear it down and start again from scratch.
In 1007 Origin hired Ed del Castillo to produce the title (who had previously worked on the ‘Command and Conquer’ series) and a third version of the game was established, entering development between 1997 and 1998. At this point the camera was fixed over the shoulder of the Avatar in a third-person perspective similar to the way it was being used in the ‘Tomb Raider’ franchise. This shift led to the other party members that had traditionally accompanied the Avatar on his adventures to be cut from the game, turning it into a solo experience. Due to the amount of audio needing the be recorded for the game it was also decided to cut the option to create a female version of the Avatar in order to save on space. In order to make up for losing the ability to control a party, parts of the game where the player took on the role of Lord British, Shamino and the female pirate Raven were introduced.
In early 1998 several key members of the design team (including lead designer Bob White) left Origin. Later del Castillo resigned due to “philosophical differences”. This forced Richard Garriott to take a more active role in the production of the game, who was joined by Seth Mendelsohn as lead designer. Under significant pressure to salvage what they could, they re-wrote the entire story to focus on the Avatar’s final visit to Britannia and the reactions of the people to this news. Some elements of the previous storyline were kept to make use of existing pre-rendered cinematics, but most were heavily edited of used in dramatically different context.
At launch the game was complicated by a bug-ridden first issue that also required high-rend computers to run. Although the team had objected to the timing of the release, Electronic Arts management enforced the launch against their wishes and essentially shipped an incomplete product. Months later this was silently swapped in-box for a working edition and the team leaked an unofficial fix online to further moderate the damage. EA also produced a ‘Dragon Edition’ of the game which came with prints of in-game artwork, tarot cards, and ankh pendant and special versions of the games booklets. A ‘World Edition’ would later be released that included both Ultima IX and ‘Ultima Online: The Second Age’. The game was considered the be a failure due to weak sales and poor critical reception and prompted Garriott to leave Origin shortly after its initial release. EA then shut the studio down, using the name and a variant logo to brand their digital distribution service.
Ultima IX meanwhile was considered ‘Abandonware’ and EA publically distanced themselves from it, cancelling any future Ultima plans past the release of ‘Ultima Online: The Second Age’. Members of the fanbase for the series took it upon themselves to try to fix the game, creating mods and patches to bring it up to playable standards and in doing so discovered much of the games original plot still inside the games data. In 2010 GOG.com re-released a downloadable version of Ultima IX that contains many of these fixes and in 2014 the Ultima Codex Community was able to acquire the source code for the title for offline archival to prevent its permanent loss. Aside from a short-lived attempt to revive the franchise as a mobile castle building sim in 2014 (which was shunned by fans and new gamers alike), the Ultima franchise has sadly remained dead.
The Western RPG market exploded after the release of Baldur’s Gate, with reinvigorated interest in the genre. This paved the way for Bioware to become a major player in the RPG market, working with multiple licensed titles before finally beginning to experiment with their own original IPs. Though still largely associated with desktop computers in a market where gamers predominantly favoured consoles, the additional memory and processing power of such a format allowed for the introduction of the ‘expansion pack’ which added new content to an already installed or even completed game. This would later be seen again in the concept of digital DLC.
Japanese RPGs meanwhile are experiencing Squaresoft’s ‘Golden Years’ where every title they release onto Sony’s Playstation was hailed as a classic. ‘Final Fantasy VIII’ dared to do something very different to what players had experienced in ‘Final Fantasy VII’, and its junction system wasn’t to every gamer’s tastes, but it quickly became one of the highest selling games of the year and received a multi-media advertising campaign that generated interest in its unique story. ‘Pokemon Gold and Silver’ showed that the franchise could repeat their initial money-printing formula and dared to add interesting new features that pushed the aging Game Boy hardware to its limits, prompting Nintendo to look into updating their handheld.
Not every game was a success however. ‘Ultima IX: Ascension’ alienated fans of the series and was a buggy, punishing experience that should never have seen release in the state it was in. The game tanked the long-running franchise and to this day hasn’t been perfected, even with the use of fan-created mods and patches. Whilst ‘Ultima Online’ remained alive and well in the digital realm, Richard Garriott publically put his life’s work to bed and moved on to pastures new.