By request: The RPG-ification of shooters

By request of bnbowman

There’s been some talk in recent years of the convergence between shooters — first-person shooters, mainly, but also third-person as well — and role-playing games. Mass Effect has been the poster child, really, given the way the series flipped between “shooter-influenced RPG” and “RPG-influenced shooter” with the first sequel, but let’s not forget things like The Binding of Isaac and the most recent Adventure Time, which combine procedural dungeon-crawling with bullet hell mechanics and even gimmicks directly lifted from the likes of Ikaruga. We’ve come to a point where Call of Duty, a series whose creators go out of their way to obfuscate the games’ nature as games throughout the entirety of the campaign mode, leans heavily on RPG mechanics to keep players hooked on the multiplayer.

And yet! The idea that this is some new trend is pure fallacy. Many game designers, as a rule, hate coloring in other people’s lines and long to mix things into new and interesting configurations. Shooters and RPGs (especially if you work from the broader definitions of each) have been procreating together for decades. And just as children of mixed-race parentage are often the most beautiful people in the world, the hybrid progeny of shooters and RPGs can be truly extraordinary. Let’s look at some of the most significant. (By no means is this a comprehensive list; it’s just the ones I enjoy.)

Kingdom Hearts’ Gummi Ship (2002, PS2)

Just kidding.


The Guardian Legend (1990, NES)

Almost certainly inspired to some degree by Metroid with its transforming heroine growing in power, The Guardian Legend served as a sequel to the bizarre labyrinthine shoot-em-up Guardic. But where the original game consisted of single-screen shooting challenges connected in a free-roaming maze, The Guardian Legend distilled its shooter and RPG components into separate modes. The shooting sequences played out as more traditional vertically scrolling encounters, while the maze-crawling comprised the bulk of the quest and saw the heroine convert from her fighter ship format to that of a humanoid robot moving from area to area in a Zelda-like fashion. Each new area brought with it a new skill or strength enhancement, and developer Compile’s mascot Randar served as the erstwhile shopkeeper who peddled alternate fire modes (which handily doubled as keys for exploration).


System Shock (1994, PC)

Looking Glass’ seminal shooter probably represents the most important inflection point for the unification of these genres. Just about every game created by the people responsible for System Shock has carried forward its blend of mechanics, though generally speaking the RPG bits have grown considerably watered down over time: Thief, BioShock, Deus Ex, and so forth. But back in System Shock, those connections were hale and hearty. The nameless hacker you controlled grew in strength and capabilities as he accumulated various goods in the course of his adventure through a robot-infested space station, while a compelling storyline propelled him through the action.

System Shock came by its RPG elements naturally, since many of its creators had previously worked on the Ultima Underworld games. The Underworld saga held true to the traditions of the Ultima franchise, but it recontextualized everything in the form of a first-person action game. Since Underworld more or less predated the first-person shooter as a firm concept, I don’t think you could really call it a shooter in itself — but certainly it combined elements of the established RPG format and the nascent FPS concept. System Shock felt more like what we think of as an FPS thanks to its sci-fi setting and emphasis on firearms, but Ultima‘s underpinnings propped it up.

Gauntlet (Arcade, 1996)

While it’s not really much of an RPG to speak of, Gauntlet clearly drew on the influence of Dungeons & Dragons with its quartet of fantasy protagonists battling through ancient mazes against fantastic foes like ghosts and the Grim Reaper with the aid of magic spells and ranged weapons. It’s a curious blend of concepts that isn’t really either a true shooter or a true RPG, but it touches on both.

Venture (Arcade, 1980)

Do we want to count Venture? Sure, let’s count Venture. Venture was basically Berzerk, but instead of shooting robots in a sci-fi maze you shot ghosts and goblins in a fantasy maze. Simple, but formative in a way.

Pathways Into Darkness (Mac, 1993)

Bungie’s first real game drew pretty heavily on Ultima Underworld, though it played more like a graphical adventure than an RPG — there was inventory, there was dialogue, but there was no leveling. And don’t you know, levels are the only thing that matters when it comes to RPGs. Pathways Into Darkness made for a fairly clumsy shooter, but it was really looking more to other genres than it was to the likes of Wolfenstein 3D, even though Bungie clearly hoped to hop on the FPS bandwagon before it had even departed the depot. Like System Shock, you can spot Pathways‘ influence in its creators subsequent works: The Marathon series’ earliest form was basically just a shootier Pathways (and the final variant maintained the heavy emphasis on narrative), Halo muddles along with considerable Marathon influence, and Destiny looks to bring it all home by blending Halo with an MMO RPG.


Mass Effect (Xbox 360, 2007)

Mass Effect did such a good job of replicating the feel of a third-person shooter that some people didn’t even realize it had an RPG foundation, at which point they found themselves rather stymied by how difficult the game became as they progressed without taking level-ups or switching equipment. Really, the original Mass Effect represents the ultimate marriage of the two genres, as it still carries forward enough of BioWare’s D&D heritage to make stats and dice rolls count, yet it feels sufficiently shooter-like to hook the rubes. While I can understand the developers’ decision to make the sequels more accessible — read: reduce the intensity of their RPG mechanics — a part of me wishes they could have continued evolving the pen-and-paper essence of Mass Effect and focused more on making the true RPG components feel smoother and less herky-jerky. But such is the business of selling multiple millions of video games, I suppose.

7 thoughts on “By request: The RPG-ification of shooters

  1. I really need to play the System Shock games sometime. I tend to like shooters more when they have RPG elements.

    Anyway, I know it’s technically the reverse situation (The Shootification of RPGs?), but Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas definitely come to mind when I think of shooters with RPG elements. I’m not a big shooter fan, but in many ways I like Fallout more as an FPRPG than I did as an RPG.

  2. Though I find the series somewhat boring myself, I think Borderlands deserves a nod as the ultimate shooter/loot-RPG hybrid. It’s kind of perfect at what it sets out to do – make Diablo a first person shooter.

    The reason I couldn’t get into it personally was because the game mechanics are played in terms of shooters (i.e. twitch skill), but your skills are totally negated by the stats. You could be a pro CoD player, but it doesn’t matter if the enemy is 10 levels above you – you’ll probably die. It seems to combine the worst part of, say, MMOs (stat based progression) with game mechanics (twitch based FPS skill) that doesn’t fit it in the slightest.

    Of course, this is really just a problem with the first game’s design, which had semi-open environments.

    In any case, it’s a particularly notable example of how FPS gameplay combined with a very specific type of RPG.

    • Yeah, like I said, it’s more a list of games I like, which doesn’t really include Borderlands. I’m really hoping Destiny does Borderlands right.

  3. I always feel like I am the only person on the planet who liked the Gummi Ship part of Kingdom Hearts. I only played KH2, and for me, the rest of the game was horrible. I really only played the regular game to unlock more Gummi levels. Eventually I gave up on the main game because I was so turned off by the storytelling style, the story itself and the bland combat system.

    As for rpg shooter hybrids, Radiant Silvergun did a decent job of levelling your ship through score, which made the game easier the more you played it. At least on the Saturn version.

  4. Plus Venture has the treasures gained in each level. The presentation of your loot (on a virtual display-case, I would say, between levels) gives the player a nice feeling of progression.

  5. I think the RPG-ification of video games in general is an industry trend.

    Aside from puzzle games, it seems like a lot of genres of games are borrowing from RPGs. The core of RPGs to me is: character progression. Sports games, Racing Games (car progression), and Shooters are all borrowing from RPGs stat and skill progression in various forms.

    Its rare now to play a triple-A game that does not contain RPG elements in some form. I love RPGs, but I don’t need them in every game. Sometimes, its refreshing to play Simon Belmont or Mario and go through the game with abilities given to you at the start. Its increasingly rare these days.

  6. Haha, you had me going for a second at the top. Though, honestly, thje Kingdom Hearts *2* version of the Gummi Ship segments wasn’t half bad as far as a customizable on-rails shooter goes.

    Also, mmmm, Bungie Nostalgia. I’m not sure I ever finished Pathways Into Darkness, but it is fun to see the arc coming back around a bit in Destiny. Definitely intrigued, though I’ve missed out on the Halo segments of the evolutionary true due to not having any XBoxen.

Comments are closed.