Retro reflections by Matt S.
Square Enix owns a lot of different franchises, of course. Of them all, perhaps the one that has been given the least attention, despite being eminently worthy, is the Ogre Battle franchise. Indeed, aside from the Tactics sub-series, you have to go all the way back to the Nintendo 64 for the last genuine Ogre Battle title. And that’s a real pity because those Ogre Battle games were filling a niche that even modern consoles have struggled to do justice.
Ignoring those tactics games (another story for another day), the original Ogre Battle game, Ogre Battle: The March of the Black Queen, and the Nintendo 64 successor, Ogre Battle 64: Person of Lordly Caliber, were distinctive because they were a hybrid of JRPG and real-time strategy. At a time when consoles weren’t particularly good at doing the RTS genre (and indeed there still aren’t many games of that genre on consoles), having an epic quest mixed in with real-time action was quite the novelty.
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As a kid, I found the structure of Ogre Battles games to be incredibly appealing. You would build small units of characters, made up of anything from basic grunt infantry through to hulking monsters. You would then direct these small units around large battle maps, with the task of defeating enemy units, pushing their forces back, and capturing their castles and villages. All the while you’d be keeping an eye out for treasure and following along a plot that involves the standard fantasy tropes of evil empires and warlords.
Ogre Battle SNES; Note, this video was not created by DDNet.
Because you’d only be able to have a couple of characters in each unit, balancing them out was a key strategic challenge, and I would spend hours mixing and matching up units to try and find the right combinations. Big, hulking monsters were undoubtedly more powerful than the common soldiers, but because you can’t fit much more in a unit that contains them, they also get taken down relatively easily from concentrated attacks.
If units met in battle and just went at one another until a unit was destroyed, then that would be one thing, but another appealing and quite unique part of the strategy of Ogre Battle is that when units fight in combat, they only get a couple of rounds to swing at one another. Whichever unit loses the most combined health is defeated in that battle and pushed back on the map. This means that your units could survive a battle with a more powerful foe, and then retreat to a town or similar, where they can recover.
Battles had a nice flow to them as a result, where typically the enemies (or at least, the bosses) would initially be more powerful than your units, and the solution would be to wear some losses early on, accumulate experience, and then slowly start to push the enemies back in turn. Each battle could go on for quite some time, but the size of the battles also helped lend them tactical and strategic depth. The Ogre Battle games were eminently replayable, as there was a number of different ways in which to meet each challenge that they threw up.
Ogre Battle N64. Note: DDNet did not create this video.
The other thing that I loved about the Ogre Battle games was the art style. The overhead battle maps look simple by today’s standards, sure, but as a kid who grew up playing tabletop wargames, the way the units were represented on these maps as pieces that would move around called to mind that particular tabletop aesthetic. In-battle the units were some of the most gorgeous fantasy sprites that you’ll ever see, with simple, bold character models, and such incredible variety. At the start of these games you won’t have too many units to choose between, but by the end you’ll have such a mix of units that it will really feel like you’re in command of a fantasy army.
While it might sound like this series was light on narrative for all its focus on RTS action, both Ogre Battle games actually offered quite a lot of storytelling, both on the battle maps and, in the case of the N64 game, between battles. On the battle maps itself, when your units reached and liberated towns and villages, typically bits of commentary would pop up; often with the villagers giving you hints or warnings about what kind of fighter or creature the bosses were. It was also possible to make wrong decisions as you played, which would lead to the villages “booing” you and generally not feeling very liberated.
I’m honestly not sure why Square Enix hasn’t kept this franchise going. The company that originally created the series, Quest, also gave luminaries such as Yasumi Matsuno, Hiroshi Minagawa, and Akihiko Yoshida, their break into the industry; those names are more familiar for their work on Final Fantasy XII and Final Fantasy Tactics, but it was Ogre Battle and its tactics spin-off that first caught the attention of Square. Square acquired the company in 2002 (seven years after those developers had already joined Square) and has done almost nothing with Ogre Battle since.
Which is, again, a pity, because there would be so much potential for this series on just about every platform out there. The strategy gameplay and the way that you build up units would make for a natural fit with mobile games, or alternatively, the art style would look truly gorgeous on the PlayStation 4; imagine something like World of Final Fantasy, but with large numbers of units moving around in all directions.
As it is, the only way to experience these games again is if you’ve bought them through the Wii’s Virtual Console (they were not re-released on the Wii U Virtual Console). There’s a very real risk that, unless Square Enix preserves them in some other way, these games are going to be forgotten and difficult to play in the not too distant future, and that would be a real tragedy.
- Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @digitallydownld