Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles was perhaps a niche title when it was released on the Nintendo GameCube back in 2003. It was the first Final Fantasy title to be released on a Nintendo console since Final Fantasy VI in 1994 but did not follow the traditional turn based combat that the series had grown to recognition for.
Crystal Chronicles, at its core, was meant to be a multiplayer game. While it could be played and completed by a single player, a certain depth to gameplay was lost without the additional players. However, the game was met with mixed reviews. Many would agree that the gameplay, graphics, and music were top notch like Square-Enix had always delivered with their Final Fantasy titles. The problem, however, was Nintendo's choice of implementing Gameboy Advances and Link Cables as controllers for multiplayer.
Multiple screens isn't something we as gamers are new to in this day and age, but this was well before the Nintendo DS and Nintendo's multiple screen home console, the Wii U. At the time of its release, the requirement of having additional Link Cables and your friends owning a Gameboy Advance was a hefty toll to pay to be able to play the game to its fullest. When the planets aligned and four players with the equipment came together, the game truly shined.
The core gameplay elements concern a number of what are essentially dungeon-raids. The players set off to a location, explore and solve puzzles to progress through the stage as they hack, slash, and blast with magic, until they reach the boss. There were fourteen dungeons in all in Crystal Chronicles and the way the game worked required you to visit these dungeons multiple times, each one increasing in difficulty until they became the hardest they could be. Through this repetition of dungeons the players slowly gained precious Artifacts that increased their core stats or gave them new abilities and collected materials to craft new and stronger weapons until the players could finally be strong enough to face the final boss.
Because of sort-of open world that Crystal Chronicles had, a player could face the final boss after a certain number of cycles through the dungeon runs, but would be faced with a near impossible task of defeating the foe should they try. This effectively forced players, especially single players, into repeating the dungeon cycles over and over again to become strong enough to complete the game. A vicious tactic of making the game longer, perhaps. But is the fake-length really a problem when the game is so enjoyable?
The visuals, the art direction, the gorgeous music of Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles brings the game to life. At the start of every dungeon there is a narration, as if read from an Caravaner's journal, with a brief description of what you're about to face. These simple scant lines of dialogue, the only voice acted lines in the game, are beautiful at times. The following excerpt is read as you enter Selepation Cave, a damp cavern system where the music includes samples of wind blowing and wind chimes clinking lightly.
“The wind is strong here. Legend has it that from this cave, each and every gust of wind is born. I wonder why the wind here chills my face. It must have been born just moments ago. Perhaps it will blow across the land, growing warmer with each memory it gathers. The wind then plays it part by carrying those memories everywhere it goes. And once it has finished, here it shall return.”
The world of Crystal Chronicles was always a pleasure to explore, never a chore. Whether it was the music or the vibrant world it instills a sense of awe. Not many games are capable of doing that while you repeat the same tasks again and again.
And yet, some games approach repetition completely different than Crystal Chronicles. Phantasy Star Online was first released on the Sega Dreamcast in 2000, and was later ported to the Gamecube and Xbox in 2002 as a collection of both Episodes 1 and 2. Phantasy Star Online was an online game that allowed you to play offline as well, offering special events and quests to those who could play online. It featured four player split screen, as opposed to Crystal Chronicles' single screen enhanced by four Game Boys.
Phantasy Star Online had 8 dungeons and four levels of difficulty for each. Players would start in a hub city and choose which dungeon to tackle and at what difficulty level. They would fight their way through the dungeon, solving puzzles and avoiding traps until they reach the boss and defeat it, opening access to the next dungeon. When the players cleared each difficulty rank they'd unlock the next and with it a greater challenge. With Ultimate, the highest difficulty, the monsters changed appearance, patterns, and even strengths and weaknesses. PSO was at its core a gear grind, the players repeating the dungeons over and over in hopes of obtaining rare equipment.
Like many modern MMO's, Phantasy Star Online rewarded the repetition with equipment that made you stronger. With new equipment and by leveling up the jumps in difficulty became more manageable until you were able to succeed flawlessly. Through repetition comes skill and with skill comes the ability to clear content quickly. What may have taken an hour to clear before may take fifteen minutes with the appropriate gear and knowledge gained through practice. It's almost a form of power creep until you reach the point that you can face any challenge thrown at you and you gain a sense of satisfaction in the power you obtained.
This is a pattern of progression that has been copied in many recent games. Phantasy Star Online's hub city and dungeons with bosses at the end is an early blueprint of what Capcom later did with their Monster Hunter series.
Capcom's series has gone on to become a massive hit in Japan. It was first released in 2004 for the Playstation 2 and offered a similar experience to Phantasy Star Online, omitting a leveling system and focusing on a pure gear progression. With a more intense combat system with well-defined hit boxes, Monster Hunter forced its players to become good at what they were doing. More often than not, a failed hunt was the result of lack of skill. Monster Hunter and Phantasy Star Online take on repetition similarly, making the reward a sense of pride, though they do approach it from different directions.
Perhaps the best example of repetition in gaming is the Speed Run. When a gamer has played a game so many times and become so skilled at it, they take upon a self imposed challenge of completing the game as quickly as possible. There are numerous websites dedicated to people making record breaking runs of all sorts of games. The amount of time and dedication put into such a run is incredible, often times involving repeating the same parts over and over again in order to do it just a couple seconds faster. Other times it involves restarting from the beginning numerous times in a row.
When all of these factors come together, repetition in gaming can be good. Art direction, a sense of accomplishment, bettering your skills. But most important of them all, of course, is how much fun you're having. If you're having fun, you barely notice that you're doing the same thing over and over again. It's because of this that I myself have been able to go from this:
without going completely crazy. So repetition isn't necessarily a bad thing. At least, in small doses. Now let's see... I need three more runs of Amdapor Keep to cap Mythology Tomes for the week... Wonder if I can beat our twenty minute record this time...