‘Grinding’ is the term usually applied when players take time out of attempting to complete a game-set objective (for example, beating a boss) and instead spend time fighting monsters to accumulate currency, items and experience points with a view to making their party stronger. It’s particularly prevalent in old-school JRPGs and in MMORPGs is essentially half of the experience, masked behind a layer of ‘quests’ whose real intention is to see you close in one the game’s level cap.
Whilst in many RPGs it is unnecessary to hit maximum levels in order to complete the campaign, there’s usually great benefits for doing so. Some early titles, in particular the first instalments into the popular ‘Final Fantasy’ and ‘Dragon Quest’ games require immediate grinding in order to tackle something as simple as exploring the immediate landscape around the starting position. KRPGs, which emulate many of the systems seen in MMORPGS, will often start more softly but swiftly drop new areas that feature monsters of considerably higher levels than most players would have attained simply through play to that point, necessitating grinding to continue. Some titles however do circumvent the usual grind by producing a certain style of gameplay, Tactical RPGs such as the ‘Fire Emblem’ and ‘Shining Force’ series are particularly good at this, encouraging players to progress forward one battle at a time rather than repeating the same event on an endless loop (though this is possible by abusing the ‘Egress’ spell).
In some rare occasions players have found themselves hitting the usual level cap of 99 simply because they enjoyed combat enough to have actively spent time doing so for fun. Action RPGs such as ‘Kingdom Hearts’, the ‘Tales’ series and ‘Star Ocean’ lend themselves to playing in this manner with their real-time battle systems. More commonly with games released (or re-released) in the last five years is for games to include an automatic battle function, something first done on the Sega Mega Drive in the ‘Phantasy Star’ series but largely associated with mobile gaming. A quick tap of a button in these games sees the control taken away from the player and handed to the games AI, which usually will spam either basic attacks or the strongest spells in your arsenal until the battle has been won. Some titles, such as the re-release of ‘Final Fantasy IV’ on the Nintendo DS, allowed players to customise their party’s actions when this auto-fight option was triggered. In this manner a team could be optimised to fight on with minimal damage to Health or Magic Points, stalling the eventual trek back to town to rest up and do it all over again.
That this was included in Final Fantasy IV was an interesting move for Square Enix, having originally released an ‘easy’ version of the game (under the guise of ‘Final Fantasy II’ outside Japan) that dramatically weakened monsters, increased the rewards for killing them and removed several of the player character’s more interesting special attacks. A notable absence being Cecil’s special ability as a Dark Knight that saw him sacrifice HP in order to attack all monsters on the screen in one action. Later (correctly titled) revisions and re-releases fixed these changes and considerably increased the challenge of the game. The DS release showed the first time that Square Enix had perhaps considered the traditional grinding found in JRPGs to be too time consuming for players to want to go through and rather than re-restrict the difficulty for accomplished players they instead included this option for newcomers. ‘Final Fantasy XIII’ would be released not long after that point and would physically cap how far a player could grind at key stages in the game, making it impossible to power-level through the first half of the experience. Whilst not well received, it does show a change in how grinding is being perceived by major development companies and publishers. Their mobile entry, ‘Final Fantasy: Record Keepers’ practically plays itself and the re-release of ‘Final Fantasy VII’ for iOS has a built in cheat button to switch encounters off entirely on a whim.
Does this mean that level grinding is a thing of the past? Yes and No. Mobile games may have embraced automated play in a massive way but console exclusive titles have been more traditional. Titles such as the long-running ‘Disgaea’ series have made a point of focusing on level advancement through hard work and effort, incorporating a level cap of 9999 that can be regressed to 1 with a class change and done all over again. RogueLikes have also made a powerful return to the public eye and greedily invaded the mobile market in 2015, featuring not only systems in place to advance a character’s strength but permanent player death that sees characters destroyed and the whole grind started again for the simplest of miss-steps. These types of game encourage experimentation and customisation to your personal play style and allow for characters to slowly build into directions that you, the player enjoy. A thousand retro-styled RPGs wait silently on the iStore and on PlayStation Network for your purchase.
Perhaps the grind isn’t a thing of the past then, rather something that has been approached in a variety of different ways over the lifespan of the RPG genre. Levelling a character is perhaps the single more evocative element of any form of RPG, differentiating them from Action games in a satisfying manner, and where there are levels to be had, you’ll usually find players grinding to reach them.