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)
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.