If you’re a longtime iFanzine reader, you’ve probably noticed an undercurrent in my reviews of JRPGs: I go awfully hard on them compared to other genres. Not only is it the most difficult genre to get right in my opinion, but I think it’s also the one that’s really suffered in the rush to retro on mobile platforms. With those low production costs and limited animation frames come tons of random battles that make me want to reach for that “Auto” button rather than take real joy in commanding my little dudes and dudettes. For better or worse, I was cursed to spend the height of my gaming years in an era when JRPGs really clicked — when they made the player perform rather than level-grind, and asked for smarts or on-the-fly inputs that bent the turn-based model without breaking from it entirely. In my estimation that era began with Sabin’s Street Fighter-style “Blitz” attacks in Final Fantasy VI, so you can see my conundrum on a platform where so many titles take inspiration from the genre as it existed pre-1994. All this time I’ve waited for a creative JRPG that would sweep me back to that golden age.
Saturday Morning RPG is poised to be that game. Mighty Rabbit Studios lent us preview builds of the first two episodes over the weekend, and if these were VHS rentals, why, I’d have to ask for an extension because I’m enjoying these so much. We’ve knocked back Episode 1 so far, and seeing as it’s a giant showoff of all the game’s systems, that’s what we’re prepared to report on at this point — Marty’s story kicks off in earnest with Episode 2.
While last week’s interview prepared me to expect a battle system that’s more interactive than the genre norm on iOS, I was still blown away by just how deeply ingrained that interaction is! The most succinct way I can put this is: if you look back fondly on Super Mario RPG’s battle system, you need to keep a very close eye on this one, aesthetic differences aside.
Here’s the long version. As in most JRPGs, regular attacks are your bread and butter — only here they put your sense of timing in direct control of whether Marty delivers a puny punch or socks it to his target with a critical hit. A color-coded power gauge gives the player a handy visual aid for this. The game also puts you in charge of telling Marty when to block enemy attacks, which is incredibly important because he’s flying solo as far as we’ve played; there’s no way he’ll survive a protracted battle unless you get the hang of defense. Marty can charge up for a mega attack power boost, drawing from a gauge that’s refilled with successful parries and critical strikes.
What I love most about all this is that every enemy has its own particular timing for attacks and the player has to gradually feel these out foe by foe. Bosses are especially good at whipping out the unexpected; Episode 1’s climactic battle left me with the impression Marty was facing off against an intelligent nemesis rather than a meat shield with loads of hit points. This is how JRPGs always should have felt!
If I make it sound like the odds are heaped against Marty, I want to be clear on this — they absolutely are. For those who’ve felt JRPGs are far too soft on iOS, consider Saturday Morning RPG a love letter addressed to you! Thankfully battles aren’t so frequent that the player gets worn down by stress, and once enemies are removed from an environment they appear to be down for good. Another break Saturday Morning gives the player is the ability to re-start a failed battle from the top, something that tickled my fancy in Fantasy Chronicle last month. It’s put to even better use here because the interactive element gives it that “just one more try” magic. Finally, Marty’s supplies and health are replenished after every battle, which is perfectly appropriate because every encounter is a true grudge match!
We really should save some commentary for our review when Saturday Morning releases in late March (hopefully — keep an eye on Mighty Rabbit’s Kickstarter campaign, as that’s kinda-sorta important to the release date question). Before closing, I want to mention that if Episode 1 is any indication, Saturday Morning RPG is shaping up to be just as enjoyable outside of battle as it is in-battle. The first episode features a dungeon minigame with musical chimes, and secret special attacks reward the adventurous player. Like regular attacks many of these involve interaction, and they’re equipped on Marty by way of his trapper keeper — an authentic ’80s inventory management system! Indeed, if this isn’t the first coverage of Saturday Morning you’ve seen, you’ll know to expect copious pop culture references from that decade. Be that as it may, in this writer’s opinion it’s the lessons Saturday Morning takes from the 1990s that make it a must-watch title.