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I fear I am getting too old to be getting into arguments in video game stores. When I was 8 years old, a clerk and I engaged in a comical debate about who was better: Link or Gordon Freeman. I hadn't played Half-Life yet, and really, I was probably too young to even enjoy the masterpiece that it is. I also assumed that Gordon was related to Cathy Freeman, a famous Australian athlete and, consequently, could not see the appeal. The whole encounter was actually quite endearing.
Fast forward 13 years. Location: EB Games, Stone Road Mall. Situation: A gentleman, ironically wearing a faded Call of Duty T-shirt, is complaining about the "lame difficulty" of new-school games and the need for a return to more "classical" role-playing games. Response: complete over-reaction.
The whole ordeal seems trivial in retrospect, and to be honest, it was a low point for Will Bevens. However, to my surprise, my adversary told me of the "fond memories" he had grinding through Dragon Quest, which baffled me. Who in his right mind enjoys grinding? More importantly, who enjoys grinding enough to use it to supplement his argument on "why old-school RPGs are better"?
The Oxford dictionary defines grinding as "a dancer's erotic gyration of the hips." I don't really remember there being a lot of that in Dragon Quest, but my obnoxiouos rival in EB Games was so convincing that I'm tempted to believe him.
I jest, of course. If I were to choose an example that paints the best picture of grinding, it would not be that of Dragon Quest's, which is a classic game that many RPGs since have sought to emulate. But Dragon Quest's grinding was just so basic (read: boring) and what I consider to be grinding in its simplest, purest form.
I would point to games like Breath of Fire and its sequel, Chrono Trigger, Secret of Mana, and more modern games like the Pokémon and Golden Sun series, which all require a relatively similar style of grinding in order to progress past bosses and further their storylines. I don't for one second look back on these games and feel an ounce of frustration; in fact, I still play them all once per year.
Regardless, everytime I pick these games up again, the grinding mechanic begins to show its age. The archaic formula of merely entering a field/tall grass/overworld, encountering random enemies, and then killing them to gain experience is antiquated and requires tweaking.
To be accurate, Pokémon deviates from this equation slightly by incentivizing levelling up through evolution of characters. Chrono Trigger does gringing through the concept of "side quests" (which are relatively standard these days, but at the time, shifting away from the main storyline was not common). It has now become of the upmost importance for RPGs to have an expansive amount of content in which grinding is integrated seemlessly into gameplay or even completely mitigated.
The older RPGs were, of course, strictly linear, and therefore, designers could devise roughly what level players would be at any given time and place and create a boss of difficulty that would most likely prove too challenging for a player who refused to grind. In an age where RPGs did not have sprawling maps and innumerous side quests, this was a simple, elegant solution to extend the life of a game. It certainly worked, but with the resources today's designers have, it would definitely be a cop out.
If we look down the other end of the grinding scale where enemies are scaled to your current level, we see Oblivion, the fourth entry in developer Bethesda's Elder Scrolls series. Why this didn't work is conveniently opposite and yet similar to why I believe games suited to grinding should be phased out, and it showcases why a happy medium is far more enjoyable.
When you enterred into a new area in Oblivion, the difficulty of enemies would be catered to your current level. This maintained a comforting equilibrium throughout the game wherein you could never feel too powerful or completely overwhelmed. I flat out don't like this for the exact same reason I don't like having to grind: It is tedious.
I play video games to feel like Zeus with Freddie Mercury's moustache and Jesus' upper-body strength. But I also want to feel like David (biblical guy who fought Goliath, not Spade … but I guess also David Spade) up against the odds and fighting tooth-and-nail to vanquish my foe.
Bethesda improved upon this in Fallout 3 and then again in Skyrim. As you enter into new areas, you will be faced with enemies that, again, will be a relative challenge at your current level. If you return to previous areas, though, you will be able to beat down on those weakling mud crabs until they're a delicious sashimi. It is an intelligent system — even if one with downfalls — but I believe it is the future if RPGs want to remain entertaining.
I truly cherish the RPGs of the past, but that is exactly where they belong. Like growing a respectable beard, I'll give it a go every now and again, but I'll realize soon after trying that I look ridiculous.
We're so incredibly lucky that we're enterring an age of unlimited possibilities that include digital distrubution services like Steam, improving game engines (Source 2! Half-Life 3 is coming … I can feel it!), and indie developers churning out more inspired games than ever before. Be glad that grinding is a thing of the past because, in reality, it doesn't work well in video games … or night clubs.