Limited Graphics, Memorable Spaces

When you’re talking about RPGs, there tends to be stories about reaching a specific point in the game.  Etrian Odyssey II has an early floor where you can see many game concepts in action.  While the graphics are identical to the previous area, the game is teaching you about game play and providing a fairly satisfying challenge.  In Chrono Trigger, the assault on Magus’ Fortress showcases attention to sound as a way of setting the mood.

Let’s start with Etrian Odyssey II.  While I don’t like Etrian Odyssey’s plots, I do like the concepts in their dungeon design.  In this map, by Zaraf with help from other people, you can see the second floor of the game.  There’s a number of interesting things about this floor.  You begin at the top at A4, and need to work down to F1 to exit.  The FOE monsters (the purple spheres) are moving in a basic circling pattern.  Now, when you enter a room, such as where Monster 2 is, you do not start with a map of the area.  You can sort of see the angled walls.  With each step, the FOE monster moves around.  At this point in the game, you’re likely unable to kill it, so you have to carefully figure out how to avoid it.  Assuming no battles, you can actually just charge south and you won’t have to wait until you get to Monster 4 and the final circling duo at the bottom center.

A detailed map by Zaraf of Etrian Odyssey II. This is the second floor of the game.

If you decide to explore, there’s two mining points with useful materials.  However, mining has a risk of an ambush by a strong monster in this game.  Similarly, Event 1 in A2 is a cute squirrel that wants to be petted. If you choose to do it, it steals one warp wire.  These items are basically a free warp back to town.  Unless if you carry two, you’ve just been trapped unless you can walk out of the dungeon.  So, what does this floor teach you? You learn how to watch enemy patterns.  Since running takes you back one step on the map, you can also learn that you can’t run if your back is to a wall.  You learn about the warp wire stealing squirrels (if you are caught by that trap.)  You may learn about class specific passages (that area to the right,) but usually it takes a while for you to happen upon that area with the right characters.

A cut scene shows bats fluttering up and away from the fortress with a large moon in the background. This plays when you approach Magus' fortress.

Magus’ Fortress appears several times in the Chrono Trigger introduction.  This area in the game has several clever elements to make it memorable.  You get a cut scene when you approach the area, and then there’s the first battle when you’re approached by some thugs.  In the DS remake, they removed the “echo” effect (used in a few areas,) but in the SNES version, it was active in this area.  So you had the tapping noises of the monsters hopping into position and then the echoing chime of the battle system opening up.  Similarly, approaching Magus included  a noise as each candle lit along the floor of his dark room.  You do get a few game play related lessons about avoiding enemies, but that’s not really the focus of that part of the game.

Note the stylish surreal background in this mini-boss fight in Magus' Fortress.

In the case of Etrian Odyssey II, the game is teaching you gameplay concepts and ways to map and deal with the wandering FOE.  It’s also including some not terribly fair tricks (like the squirrel,) but it’s only the second floor of the game, so you do have a chance of walking back out again.  If you’re not interested in dealing with the monsters, you can also enter and leave the area pretty quickly, since only a few monsters tend to block your path on the way in and out.

Chrono Trigger, meanwhile, uses a basic “castle” or manor sprite set and tries to make a dramatic and emotionally evocative area.  A cut scene near the start sets the mood, and then there’s sound cues to try to make the first battle dramatic.  When you reach the boss for the area, you get more sound and visual cues that actually lets the player have some control over the cut scene (since you can run through the path of candles and set them off quickly, or slowly walk.)  This serves to make the game memorable without using more cut scenes, or a large number of new graphical assets.

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