Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Action RPGs: Still Not a New Thing

Posted by Rampant Coyote on May 31, 2011

I guess my post today is an echo of my earlier post, but Hardcore Gamer has a useful little post about the long history of western “Action RPGs” that’s worth looking over. It’s shy on details, but provides plenty of examples:

Hardcore Gamer: A Brief History of Western Action RPGs

A number of his examples are debatable, but one point is most certainly not: Action RPGs did not begin with Diablo. Or Ultima Underworld. They’ve been around  in one form or another for almost as long as we’ve had any other kind of RPGs.

Here’s the thing: Back then, we didn’t make the distinction. We didn’t care. Well, okay, sometimes we got annoyed by an otherwise passable RPG system polluted by poorly-implemented action (or, as we called them, “arcade”) elements, or had to get creative to make sure our characters didn’t starve or get attacked while turns passed in “real time” while we took a bathroom break (yeah, Ultima got annoying that way…). But for the most part it was all just different flavors of the same genre. We never expected one style to marginalize the others, and so never felt the need to be protective of one over another.

I’m not sure when people started referring to games as “action-RPGs.” Maybe it was with the release of Diablo. I don’t remember thinking of Ultima VII as an action-RPG when I played it.  But it was, in retrospect. And, for those who haven’t played, the action-based combat pretty much sucked. I love the game in spite of that.

I’d just like to direct RPG designers with big mouths (oh, wait, that’d be me, huh?) to review this article before spouting off to the press about how new and innovative their idea of making RPGs more action-oriented is. News flash for you guys: It’s a very old idea. Just because you took two-and-a-half decades for it to become dominant to jump on that particular bandwagon doesn’t make it the new hotness.

A tip o’ the skull-cap to GameBanshee for the link to the Hardcore Gamer article.

Filed Under: Retro - Comments: 15 Comments to Read

  • Spaceman Spiff said,

    I can recall playing Gateway to Apshai ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gateway_to_Apshai ) back in the early 80’s. It totally would be considered an “Action RPG” in the vein of Diablo and Ultima Underworld.

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    Ultima VII as an action-RPG? Did you mean VIII?

    I tend to define an action-RPG as one where the player has to directly control the character during combat in real time.

    It’s a terrible definition, but the best I can come up with. That’s the main issue of course, how exactly are such things defined?

    Personally I’ve always felt that there are far more games with a heavy combat emphasis rather than every other part of an RPG, since I’d always prefer fewer but more challenging fights rather than the large volume of “trash” enemies.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Heh – amusingly enough, I remember specifically playing it one day on the C-64 while listening to Genesis. Dunno why I remember that, other than thinking the song made a decent soundtrack.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    @Andy_Panthro – Nope, I meant VII. VIII just took it a few steps further. The combat was in real-time, and I think you could have direct control over the Avatar … kinda… but it was a mess.

  • Menigal said,

    I don’t remember ever using the term “action-RPG” until fairly recently. Probably not until Diablo had been around a while and spawned countless clones, and even then I think it was mainly a synonym for Diablo-clone. Everything else was just an RPG, occasionally with real-time or more, as the Coyote said, arcadey elements.

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    If you include Ultima VII as an action-RPG, then the term is truly useless (if it wasn’t anyway). Would you consider Baldur’s Gate to be an action-RPG? It’s combat isn’t too far removed from U7, if you have your companions AI controlled, and it’s also played out in real-time. My comment about definition is boiled down to: Where do you draw the line?

    This reminds me of the suggestion that Neverwinter Nights is similar to Diablo… there is a certain amount of overlap but the gameplay is rather different (not least the rather major difference in player-character control).

  • Eldiran said,

    Ultima VII had combat? Seemed more like there was just a button that compared how many comrades and items you had to what enemies were nearby and made you win or lose accordingly. :p

  • jzoeller said,

    I generally think of it in simple terms, if you walk away from the game while in combat and you can die, its real time action rpg.

    However I see three different categories.

    1.) Turn based – usually strategy is based on menu driven actions/spells etc. You can take as long as you want to make decesions. (dragon quest, early final fantasy’s, wizardry, etc.)

    2.) Realtime – usually strategy is based on quick actions/decesions, often non-menu based but not always.
    (Diablo, Sacred, Borderlands, etc.)

    3.) Hybrid – Some games offer both a turned based mode of combat along with realtime combat. (The later might and magic games)

  • skavenhorde said,

    I would throw Ultima 7 in the action-RPG genre. I hated Ultima 7 when it first came out and still do to some degree. Although Exult has made the combat in that game somewhat tolerable. I can now use some of the better spells since I can see the enemies now before they are right upon me, but it is an action-RPG through and through.

    Before you had a nice tactical map where you could plan everything out and had some room to work in and then U7 happened. Every stupid monster was upon you in three seconds and you were swinging your sword every time. No time to think about what spells to cast or do damage to them from far away. Still annoys me to this day what they did to the combat in that series.

  • jzoeller said,

    Final fantasy ATB would be an attempt at combing turn based and reatime, to a slight degree.

  • McTeddy said,

    You almost had me there Jay… 🙂

    Next thing you’re going to tell me is that it’s okay to make players think in games… haha…

    But we both know there is only room for one kind of game in this world. Everything else is outdated and bad design. Clearly, the marketing designers know best…

  • Will said,

    I’m pretty sure the legend of zelda series had something to do with that. If I were to tell you about the most action-ey RPG, it would be zelda.

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,

    Ultima VII was definitely an action-RPG. You basically just initiated combat and mashed away. Really, how well you had equipped and prepared your party determined how combat would play out. Once it initiated it was out of your hands.

  • SER said,

    I can see Ultima VII as an action RPG. A very poor action RPG, but yeah. The game was great for other reasons, the combat was, by far, the worst part. But, luckily combat was not the focus of Ultima VII. I always think of action RPGS where the action is the focus. It certainly was not in this game. It’s more an RPG with poorly implemented action combat.


  • SER said,

    To clarify, rather than action combat, lets say poorly implemented real time combat.