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Mix It Up: RPG Hybrids

After catching this post about Wizorb, an Arkanoid-like game with role playing elements, something occurred to me: I really dig it when two different genres make sweet love to each other and have a baby. Sure, that baby may grow up to have all kinds of problems stemming from its parents' socially unacceptable relationship, but it could also get past those issues and become a unique and totally kickass game.

The following list of games are such strange children. Most of them are pretty awesome games and worth checking out, especially if you're tired of stale releases that are too stuck in their genre's tropes to keep your interest anymore. Sure, there's always a lot of potential for things to go sour, but there's also always a chance that something fantastic can emerge when two of your favorite games collide.

RPG + Platformer = Castlevania Series
This may be the most well known and least risky hybrid on this list, but that doesn't make it any less worth mentioning. Castlevania's roots started in pretty standard platforming action on 8-bit and 16-bit consoles, but later the series evolved into something greater on the Playstation: a side-scrolling RPG. Taking a page from Metroid with a emphasis on exploration and hidden upgrades while adding RPG-like leveling and equipment, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night was the definition of hybrid.

The series' first foray into this mix is still considered one of the best of the Castlevania line by many and even one of the best games of all time by some. It's certainly a different beast than its predecessors, with much more puzzle solving going on, but there are still plenty of monsters to slay with a wealth of different weapons. Exploring Dracula's giant castle and finding all the secrets within is still one of my fondest gaming memories.

The series has kept this formula intact for its newer titles on the Gameboy Advance and DS, all of which are pretty fantastic as well (though still not quite as good as Symphony, in my opinion). I've heard arguments that the classic platformer style is better than the "Metroidvania" style because the new style is too easy, but I think that's a fair argument for pretty much any newer incarnation of a classic series. Granted, most of them haven't had such a complete change of style, but I still don't think any less of the Castlevania series for evolving the way it did. I really liked games like Super Castlevania IV, but I can also get into a game that takes that style and expands it into something sprawling and magnificent without forgetting its 2D roots.

RPG + Puzzle = Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords
When I first loaded up Puzzle Quest on my PSP, I was hooked. I've always been pretty enamored with puzzle games, but I probably wouldn't have gotten quite as addicted to this particular title if it lacked the RPG-elements.

In Puzzle Quest, you navigate a world map and fight monsters in puzzle battles that play a lot like Bejeweled. Depending on what kind of colors you match, you'll gain mana points that you can spend on special abilities that give you the upper hand. Some deal straight damage to your opponent, while others may alter the playing field in some way. You can also match gold and experience pieces that allow you to buy better weapons and level your character respectively.

The story was kind of unremarkable as far as I can remember (in fact, I don't remember it much at all), but I think that's to be expected. Sure, the main draw of your standard RPG is usually the epic story that unfolds and the underlying mechanics are just the busywork that takes place between cutscenes, but as time goes on, we get addicted to grinding for levels and searching for better equipment to aid in the grinding process. Seeing that experience bar go up, which in turn makes your character's level go up, seems to be just enough of an accomplishment to make our brains pat us on the back and make us feel like we've done good. So why not mix the addictiveness of senseless level grinding with the never ending appeal of simple puzzle games?

RPG + Mario = Mario RPGs
Yeah, I know: Mario isn't a genre, but his spin-off series of RPGs is still a very good example of the overall theme here. I just thought "RPG + Mario" looked better than "RPG + Series of games that normally doesn't have much of a story to speak of".

It all started with Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars on the Super Nintendo, a strange lovechild between Nintendo and Square, two companies known for making two very different types of games. Nintendo's lovable plumber Mario and the Mushroom Kingdom suddenly came to life thanks to Square's experience crafting interactive stories with the Final Fantasy series. It seems like an odd mix, but there's a lot of personality to love in Mario's world that we just don't see in his more impersonal platformer offerings.

This trend continued on with the Paper Mario series, which wasn't made by Square, but still carries on the spirit of the first Mario RPG. The Nintendo 64 and Gamecube titles were every bit as charming and the storybook theme makes them stand out visually. The Mario & Luigi games on the Game Boy Advance (Superstar Saga) and DS (Partners in Time, Bowser's Inside Story) also lay on the charm of a lively Mario universe to explore while giving Mario's brother Luigi his long overdue time in the spotlight.

RPG + Disney = Kingdom Hearts
Speaking of opposites attracting, I can't possibly mention Nintendo and Square's strange union without also touching on the latter's more recent odd combination. When I first heard that Square was teaming up with Disney to make a game, I was sure it would be awful. Man, was I wrong.

Kingdom Hearts thrusts you into the role of Sora, who is aided by Donald Duck and Goofy in a quest to save the world from dark creatures stealing hearts. Their journey takes them to a variety of worlds based on Disney movies and it's a pretty fantastic experience. By playing as Sora and helping the heroes of each world defeat their respective evil, it's almost as if you're a little kid again, pretending to be in the movies with your favorite characters. I'm not a Disney fanatic by any means, but I couldn't help but smile every time I entered a new world and met timeless characters in a completely new context.

That said, I must note that I feel as though the series has taken a turn for the worse with later games, as they begin to add a lot of non-Disney characters that seem to do nothing more than complicate the story and give the fangirls something pretty to look at. I swear, I played the first 60 or so in-game days of Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days and all Roxas did each day was talk about how confused he was or eat ice cream on top of a clock tower.

RPG + Trading Card Games = Mega Man Battle Network Series
There may well be better/more popular examples of this type of game (Lost Kingdoms and Pokemon Trading Card Game come to mind), but I'd rather use this particular hybrid to give mention to a series very close to my heart. Far too many people shrugged Battle Network off when the first game hit store shelves so many years ago, but luckily, I was still young enough at the time to think buying the first new Mega Man title I saw when I walked into Gamestop was a good idea.

In Mega Man Battle Network, you play as a boy named Lan (get it? LAN?) in a futuristic world filled to the goddamn brim with bad computer puns like that. In this future, pretty much everything (from your oven to your doghouse) is controlled by computers and almost everybody carries around a PET (PErsonal Terminal) with a NetNavi (Network Navigator) installed. These avatars have AI and act as friends to the humans that control them as well as extensions into the digital world. Lan's NetNavi is MegaMan, who was custom created by his father, Dr. Hikari (or Dr. Light).

As you probably noticed, there's a lot of reference to the main Mega Man series, complete with Dr. Wily as the head of the net terrorist organization, but that's where the similarities end. Battle Network has a unique vision of the future, with viruses taking the form of digital avatars as well that need to be faced by heroic NetNavis. The combat takes place on a grid that MegaMan can navigate in real time, while using various BattleChips (the collectible card aspect that I only just now quietly nod to) to deal with enemies.

Anyway, I could write a whole post about how good the Battle Network series is (and I might!), so I'll keep my unintended gushing to a minimum (hopefully I actually tell you something relevant to the topic on the next game). Just know that you're robbing yourself of a great experience by not checking these games out (especially if you like collecting cards, bad networking puns, and a very interesting take on the future). Also know that the first three games are fucking awesome, 4-6 are a mixed bag, and Star Force can eat a dick.

RPG + Shoot 'em Ups = Sigma Star Saga
Here's an odd one (implying most of these games aren't odd ones), mostly because it's the only game on this list that isn't getting my praise. I desperately want this particular mashup to work, though, so I'm highlighting this game in hopes that someone can point me in the direction of a better example.

Sigma Star Saga for the Gameboy Advance is your standard, top-down, 2-D RPG at first glance, but when you face your first random encounter, you'll find yourself being transported to your space ship in order to fight the game's evil alien force R-Type style. While the concept is cool, the execution is poor. The battles are frequent and annoying, bringing on the realization that shoot 'em ups are only fun when you get to play them for more than 30 seconds at a time.

To make matters worse, the story is nothing to write fanfiction about. Remember how I forgave Puzzle Quest's lack of engaging narrative? I'm not doing that here. The gameplay is not nearly enjoyable enough to keep my attention when everything else is dull as well. The sad truth is, not all babies grow up to be winners, but I have to hope that somewhere there's a cooler baby born from this hybrid that's grown up to respect its heritage.

RPG + Car Combat = Car Battler Joe
Here we have a much better (and earlier, even!) Gameboy Advance offering that does a hybrid right. Once again, I could complain about a boring story or character development or whatever, but who plays RPGs for that stuff, anyway?

Car Battler Joe is a bit on the bland side when it comes to pretty much everything except the combat, which is enough to keep you playing. When you're not walking around town and scrolling through text boxes, you're tearing ass in a Mode-7 wasteland and blasting the shit out of everything with your pimpin' ride. You can buy all kinds of cool weapons and assorted upgrades for your car, which is basically all I remember about this game, but I remember it being AWESOME.

RPG + First Person Shooters = Doom RPG
This is another one of those combinations that have been done left and right, but perhaps not quite in the way this one was. Possibly the only cell phone game I've ever enjoyed (and played to the end!) enough to recommend to anyone, the Doom RPG.

If you took a classic turn-based RPG that had you exploring dungeons in first person (Phantasy Star comes to mind) and replaced everything but the "first person" and "turn-based RPG" parts with Doom, you would know exactly what I'm talking about. It makes a lot of sense when you think about it that way, considering all that really needed to change with Doom was making the movements and shooting turn-based. The end result is a game that's perfect for mobile phones, since you can pick it up and play a few turns at a time (and not have to kill your thumbs making any quick movements).

I played this little title to 100% completion on my old LG flip phone and loved every minute of it. Again, the story wasn't memorable (it is Doom, after all), but I do remember getting a few chuckles out of the messages that scientists left behind. I think giving the game a funny story to compliment the gameplay was a much better idea than trying too hard on a good story.

So there you have a nice little list of games that break down the barriers of a single genre and reach out to become something a bit more memorable. Not all RPG hybrids are good, but sometimes they turn out pretty alright, even if the story isn't quite there. If the combination works and all it needs is a better story, it could potentially pave the way for better titles, right? The simple act of rubbing one type of game against another until they make fire isn't hard to do, just hard to do well. But that doesn't mean nobody should try!

Does anyone else have some hybrids close to their heart? They don't necessarily have to be RPG-based, just anything that mixes two genres in some way. Maybe a RPG/Shoot 'em Up hybrid that isn't Sigma fucking Star Saga?
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About donkeyspacemanone of us since 10:49 PM on 12.05.2006

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Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII (PSP)
Kirby Super Star Ultra (DS)
Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts (360)
Child of Eden (360)
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XBLA Games That Deserve Some Lovin':
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