Blog of Scott Brodie

4.18.2005

Ogre Battle: March of the Black Queen

[The following is an early article I wrote regarding Ogre Battle: March of the Black Queen, one of the more influential and memorable titles of my childhood. The post doesn't quite fit on this blog anymore, but I wanted to keep it shared here for those interested.]
When the question, "What is your favorite game of all time?" is asked to me, I will usually elicit one of the two following responses:

If I'm in a hurry or don't feel like explaining myself: "Quake Series, Final Fantasy 7, NBA Street Vol. 2, or Super Mario Bros."

If I'm speaking to someone who I think might be a more avid gamer: "Without a doubt, Ogre Battle: The March of the Black Queen for SNES."

I have these two separate responses because the 2nd (true) response always invariably must follow with an explanation. The game only shipped a total of (had to look this one up) 25,000 copies in the United States, and I was only exposed to it because the local video rental store had a copy of it. I believe I rented it a total of 6 times, before finding the ROM later. I found a copy once in a Meijer and it was retailing for around $68 dollars due to the cart's rarity, but no amount of kicking and screaming would convince mom that this was a necessary purchase. I haven't looked in a while, but I'm sure you won't find a real copy on ebay for less than that.
The reason I bring this up is that so few have played this amazing game. To me it ranks above all others for reasons I will enumerate shortly, and it is a travesty that many gamers haven't had the opportunity to play it. I won't bore you with a ton of back-story, but if you are interested in learning more about the game (which, in order to be my friend, you must), check out some older reviews at the various game sites (I would recommend one, but none of them do the game justice).

What I'm about to set out to do is explain why this game is deserving of the title of my "favorite game of all time", and why it was ahead of its time in terms of gameplay concepts. If this inspires any of you to go out and give it a try, then all of this typing was worth it. You can find it easily now for the PS1 (they did a remake port, although there are problems with it that I won't go into), or just search for the ROM online (piracy is bad, however).

Gameplay

Ogre Battle's one sentence description would read something like this: "Lead, build and recruit a massive army of characters to do battle in a non-linear, unique blend of turn-based RPG and Real-Time-Strategy gameplay." After creating a leader for your army, you set out in a series of 30 or so maps organized into a non-linear campaign with 13 possible endings. Each is littered with cities to liberate, items to find, and an enemy castle that the player must reach to defeat boss general inside. The game is best described as a_highly_modified Early nineties Turn-Based RPG. You recruit a huge cast of characters over the course of the storyline. Unlike, say, a Final Fantasy title, you can acquire something like 100 characters for your army. A typical level starts you at your home base, and asks you to deploy your troops. Each unit has a movement type, which can be affected by the terrain. You direct a unit's movement using a cursor and planting a destination. Then the game takes over and the units start to move over time (ding ding, the real time portion). When an enemy and friendly unit get near enough to each other, they will initiate combat, stop all other unit movements, and move to a separate battle screen. These battles are automated turn based battles that the player may interrupt to flee, change attack strategy, or cast huge magic attacks via "Tarot Cards". Think Summons in FF.

battle


The only flaw of the game is that the maps are quite large, and the game does not allow you to save in the middle of a battle. Thus, you were forced to play about hour long sessions without the ability to save. Playing the game on an emulator with a save state ability fixes this flaw.

Innovations ahead of its time

The primary reason I would recommend the game to other designers is to experience the way the developers (The now defunct Quest, published by Atlus through Enix) were able to create such a deep character development system with such a simple set of variables.

Some characters are non essential, but many are special NPC's who can interact with other characters in the game, but are really just hybrid characters created from various combinations of all the other abilities in the game (a rough estimate would be about 50 unique characters). The brilliance behind the game is the emergent way in which you can mix and match your characters through the organization screen, and the way in which other characters will affect the development of any others in the army.

battle



The character class has a selection of 6 stats that affect how each character deals and takes damage in battle, one equipment slot that allows for additional boosts from items found around the map and at cities, an alignment stat (more on this in a sec), a cost (use for one battle integer) and two attacks. The two attacks represent what attack the character will do when placed in the front or back of a formation. The player can place a character in a grid of 2x3, with the exception that larger characters like dragons or gryphons take up multiple slots within the formation. As characters fight in battles, they gain experience and earn the ability to change their class (changes their attack types and future available classes). This simple set of properties per character ends up offering the player an exponential amount of choices that makes for an incredibly deep and rewarding game experience.

The previously mentioned alignment statistic is where the game was ahead of its time. Where games like Black and White, Fable, and KOTOR are being praised now for their ability to allow players to develop characters towards good or evil, Ogre Battle calculates good or evil for each character in both the enemy’s army and yours! This change happens battle to battle and over the course of the game, affecting how characters interact with NPC’s and enemy characters during encounters, what classes the character can eventually become, and what types of units a character can recruit into the army. It really is amazing to see how these simple lists of stats interact to create a unique cast of characters each time you play the game.

In Closure

It seems like I'll never be able to avoid long posts, but I feel this game deserves to have its brilliance listed out for those who may have never experienced it. The game definitely has a few flaws: as mentioned, it does not allow you to save very often, which can be frustrating especially considering there are a plenty of random elements to the gameplay. Also, the game has a fairly high learning curve, and to fully appreciate the game you should probably play through it more than once.
But despite Ogre Battle's flaws, it does an important thing right -- it captured my imagination and created an experience that had a profound effect on me as a player. It taught me an early lesson that games are most powerful when they can present a compelling possibility space for the player to explore.