By Heath | December 16, 2009 at 9:27 pm
Do you remember how many Final Fantasy games were released in 2003? Remember the trilogy that saw its beginning in the same month a 10-year-old franchise met its end? May The Force be with you as you rediscover the RPGs of 2003.
You know when you go ice skating, and there’s the guy who’s skating for the first time, kinda having some trouble and holding onto the side boards, perhaps even taking a flop on his ass? (Maybe it’s even you, cause hey there’s no sin in not knowing how to skate.) This was the GameCube’s RPG lineup from its launch. To this point in time, its best RPGs were Dreamcast ports, and that pattern would continue in 2003. The machine would claim the forgettable Summoner: Goddess Reborn and more notably, an updated Dreamcast port of Skies of Arcadia, to be renamed Skies of Arcadia Legends. The game was great, but a port is generally no system seller….
In Breath of Fire V: Dragon Quarter, Capcom took the series a different direction — namely, downward…like, underground. It centered around a colony living far below Earth’s surface, who’d never seen the sky. Its difficulty level was very high, its save system was harshly restricting, and its gameplay was much too dungeon-crawler for the general fanbase’s liking. The game, while loved by some, is widely considered the black sheep of the series, and presently stands as the last Breath of Fire game ever released. Talks and rumors of Breath of Fire VI come up once in a while, but so far, it’s been almost seven years without anything solid.
A year of Fantasy…
2003 was historic for those who play console RPGs, as Squaresoft and Enix, longtime rivals in the RPG business, combined into what we now know as Square Enix. But in one way, gamers already knew to expect craziness; at the end of 2002, rumors solidified that for the first time ever, Squaresoft would be developing a direct sequel to a main-series Final Fantasy game with Final Fantasy X-2. This controversial title hit the PS2 in late 2003. It featured three playable characters, all of whom were female in an RPG where changing jobs in mid battle was the norm. It made FFX‘s Yuna a sort of pop idol, yet its lasting praise would be for its battle system. To this day, some struggle with their masculinity before testing the game out.
The year would finally realize something many diehard fans of the most marketable RPG series in the world had long dreaded: an online-only installment of Final Fantasy. Announced in 2000, the PC version of Final Fantasy XI was all set to go in 2003, and the PS2 version had been planned. Taking place in the world of Vana’diel and featuring a job system somewhat similar to that of Final Fantasy V and Tactics, it delighted some and disgusted others (as would become par for the Final Fantasy course).
But Final Fantasy‘s assault on 2003 didn’t end there. Square (Enix) would lob a snowball to the face of the handheld gaming world with the Game Boy Advance’s Final Fantasy Tactics Advance. The title alone excited many, and was no doubt the cause of a visible sales boost for Nintendo’s portable. While being seen as overall a respectable tactical RPG, the game left a bitter taste to many who’d thought the title would have a lot more in common with the PlayStation’s Final Fantasy Tactics. It seemed the two were connected only in universe and subgenre, which earned it a good bit of scorn.
As if that weren’t enough, Square Enix remade the original Final Fantasy and its first sibling, Final Fantasy II for the Sony PlayStation, and launched them in a bundle called Final Fantasy Origins. The game would be released abroad, making it the first time Final Fantasy II had been made available in English. It would be the only PlayStation RPG release of the year and in North America, the PS1′s last RPG.
.hack and slash
CyberConnect 2 and Ban Dai would attempt something unique in 2003; they’d attempt to release a game and three sequels — even consider to basically be one game in four parts — within a single year. .hack//Infection, along with its successors Mutation, Outbreak, and Quarantine (released in ’04) were connected games which took place within an MMORPG. Many people mistakenly label the collection as a simulated MMORPG, but this is not the case. The MMO part of .hack was merely the setting of the story, and its MMOlike features were not its draws. Save data could be carried from one volume to the next, and each game came with an anime DVD depicting events that were happening in the real world at the same time that the game’s battles raged on. While the original plan was to squeeze out all four original .hack titles on PS2 within 2003, delays and the domino effect to later volumes caused part 4 to be released in January of 2004.
Gladius would arrive on pretty much every system that year. This turn-based RPG took place in the times of the Roman empire and tasked players with preventing an epic war. And how better to do that than with pre-emptive violence?
In July (Xbox) and November (PC), Bioware would bring out Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. The game told a classic Star Wars tale set thousands of years before the movies of such incredible mainstream popularity. Players customize their characters a bit and are immediately tossed into the thick of an attack that would set the tone for the rest of the game. The game was pretty huge, with a vocal cast of like a 100 people speaking a combined thousands upon thousands of different lines. Its immersion into the Star Wars universe, technical prowess, and signature Bioware gameplay earned it awards to spare in 2003. While Knights of the Old Republic provided an out-of-this-world adventure for single players, PC gamers wanting a multiplayer Star Wars fix got an MMORPG, Star Wars Galaxies.
Other MMORPGs to launch in 2003 were Shadowbane and EVE Online. The latter took place in space and made over 7,000 star systems completely explorable to its players. Free of levels, players hone skills by training and practice in EVE Online. Shadowbane, meanwhile, made a name for itself by being more player-vs-player focused than other MMORPGs of the time — no Care Bears. It was also pulling some neat technological stunts that other games would take a while to catch up to, such as players being able to actually affect the world around them, not just enemies and not just their own instances. It would get an expansion pack within the year, with Rise of Chaos arriving in December.
Existing, healthy MMOs would naturally expand; Anarchy Online with Shadowlands, EverQuest with The Legacy of Ykesha and Lost Dungeons of Norrath, Dark Age of Camelot with Foundations in June and Trials of Atlantis in October. Ultima Online‘s Age of Shadows pack would assist in the game’s reaching an all-time scubscription high of almost 300,000. Non-MMOs would also make themselves bigger, Neverwinter Nights doing so with Shadows of Undrentide and Hoardes of the Underdark, Dungeon Siege with Legends of Aranna, and Elder Scrolls III with Bloodmoon and Tribunal.
Wanting in on the MMO craze, Microsoft announced Mythica, though MMORPG developer Mythic would take the company to court in December of that year over the name of the game. They’d sue for copyright infringement, win, and the Mythica project would eventually get canned.
It’s time to slay the dragon!
The PlayStation 2 would officially receive the first MMORPG on a console, EverQuest Online Adventures in February of 2003. I was surprised to find out recently that there are still people playing the game. I thought it burned out. In any case, the game and an expansion would launch exclusively for PS2 within 2003, and some may remember the title for its hilariously bad commercials.
The Game Boy Advance would really start to demonstrate that great handheld RPGs do not have to be as rare as they’d previously been. Doing so would be helped by the release of the Game Boy Advance SP, which finally granted the ability to play games in lesser light; the previous version practically required a nearby lamp. Aside for the aforementioned Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, the system would also unleash Golden Sun 2: The Lost Age, Shining Soul, Mario & Luigi Superstar Saga, Harvest Moon: Friends of Mineral Town, Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow, DemiKids, Mega Man Battle Network 3, Pokémon Ruby/Saphire, and several others. GBA would serve as the official first system to host an English-language Fire Emblem game, as Fire Emblem 7: Rekka no Ken would be renamed simply Fire Emblem and released in North America. Random Fond Memory: I got that game for Christmas that year. Thanks again, mom.
Game Boy Advance would also play host to a rather interesting little game in Boktai. The Boktai cartridge came with a sun sensor, and when it picked up solar rays, the character and his Gun Del Sol (Spanish for “Gun of the Sol”) could blast whatever got in the way. Gameplay was much more difficult without the buffs provided by the sun, but thankfully game did allow for solar energy to be stored in a bank of sorts and be withdrawn at times when the player was not playing in the sun. Boktai: The Sun is in Your Hand was moderately successful, which is surprising, considering the target demographic presumably sees the sun so rarely.
The little portable wasn’t without its flubs, though, and the common consensus was that Lufia: The Ruins of Lore, Dragon Ball Z Legacy of Goku II, and Sword of Mana were not quite up to snuff. And if I may inject my own opinion, Onimusha Tactics is one of the worst portable RPGs to date.
The market presence of tactical RPGs was boosted considerably in 2003. Along with Final Fantasy Tactics Advance and Fire Emblem coming to GBA, Disgaea: Hour of Darkness created scores of new TRPG (or SRPG, whatever you wanna call it) fans. Developed by Nippon Ichi and originally published by Atlus USA, the game made waves with its fun humor and new twists on the more traditional TRPG battle systems of the time. A song by Tsunami Bomb didn’t hurt.
The Arc the Lad Collection having hit the PlayStation the year before, Arc the Lad: Twilight of the Spirits made it to North American PS2s in ’03 and was generally regarded as a nice transition for the series. Another sequel to be released that year was Dark Cloud 2. This sequel to Level-5′s “Zelda Killer” was more like what the original was hyped up to be, and remains one of the most loved action RPGs on the system.
And no recap would be complete without mention of the hotly anticipated Xenosaga. I remember my brother finding out about it in a magazine and calling me about it. “I’ve got news for you, H,” he warmed up, “Xenosaga.” And I was all like “Whoa.”
Since its announcement, fans of Squaresoft’s critically acclaimed PlayStation RPG Xenogears had been clamoring for the new game, thinking (not unreasonably) that it would have far more ties to Xenogears than it actually did. Even long after the game’s release, people were wondering how long it would take till they started seeing ancestors of Fei and Elly — myself included. Xenosaga was originally touted as a game that would come in five or six parts, and it was widely rumored that one of the last ones would be a PS2 remake of Xenogears. The two games ended up being very similar in world, theme, and mood, but the similarities pretty much ended there, to the disappointment of many.
As can be seen above, 2003 was a massive year for RPGs.
-The PS2 had hit its stride near the end of ’02 and was now going full force.
-MMORPGs were only continuing to get more and more popular, with room for more growth on the market while existing titles could continuously expand.
-Quality handheld RPGs had existed long before the arrival of the GBA, but never before had they been seeing releases so quickly. It’d generally been a few years’ wait between great portable RPGs.
-Four Final Fantasy games, for different platforms and all of different subgenres, in a single year. Whether it was bad or good, you gotta admit that’s noteworthy.
-Finally a worthwhile Star Wars game.
RPG System of the Year 2003: PlayStation 2. The thing just had so much going on for it.