Play video games for long enough, and it is inevitable that you’ll reach a point one day where you say to yourself, “I could make a game better than this.” Over the years, there have been game-creation tools that have challenged us fans to do just that, and one of the longest-running has been Japan’s RPG Maker series. While we haven’t gotten too many releases from the franchise here in the West, we’ve now received the latest non-PC entry in the form of RPG Maker Fes on the Nintendo 3DS.
I’ve long wanted to make my own RPG using one of the RPG Maker games (or otherwise), but what you quickly learn—and what I was reminded of while using Fes—is just how hard it is to do so. Even if tools such as these are nowhere close to true game development, trying them out can give you an appreciation for just how much thought and planning go into the titles we play.
In Fes, RPG creation is broken down into three main categories: Maps, Events, and the Database. At first, making maps seems easy, as you add forests, mountains, deserts, towns, caves, and other landmarks to your overworld. Then, however, you remember that for any of those things to actually go somewhere, you’ve got to create their destination. Put a couple hours into crafting one fancy town, only to then have it be little more than a Hollywood prop set until you make the interiors for all of the buildings. The Database seems equally easy at first, as that’s where your most important goals are coming up with the game’s cast and roster of foes. Ah, but characters need items, and professions, and spells, and you have to come up with enough of each to keep your adventure fresh and the player constantly gaining something new. Meanwhile, you can throw together a simple mob of enemies really quick, but then realize your game is unplayable because the balance is all out of whack. How will your party’s equipment loadout, experience level, and spell set face off against the attacks, hit points, and potential number of monsters at any given point? And will those foes, once defeated, drop the proper amount of XP and gold? It all quickly becomes a whole lot to juggle.
Neither of those sections compare to creating Events, however. These programmable actions are how RPG Maker Fes tells your game to do most things, and there’s a lot that goes into them. An event can be a cat that wanders around your town, an NPC that will talk to you when investigated, a door that takes you from one location to another, a character who asks to join your party, an innkeeper that heals you when given money, and so much more. If there’s any one part where I think players will want to give up on their aspirations of RPG creation, it’s here, because you have to put aside the fun of building or designing or writing and get into the nitty gritty of what makes the game actually tick.
Sadly, in all three of these areas, RPG Maker Fes’ limitations become more and more apparent. Creating maps is a ton of fun, until you realize that certain types of location graphics, world items, or building structures you want to use just aren’t there. A nice selection of options are included, but there are a few specific themes running through what’s offered—grasslands, snowy areas, deserted towns, and “Arabian” style architecture being the main focus—that lock you in to some degree for what you’ll be building. Fes also has a number of pre-created sprites for characters and monsters, but the selection of choices is pretty small even with pallete swaps, and racial diversity in the party options are sorely lacking. Even though the 3DS with its built-in touchscreen would be perfect for letting users make their own graphical pieces, there’s no such options, but the ability to download DLC (should we get it here in the States) will hopefully give you at least some choices should you want to make anything but your standard fantasy fare.
Things get worse when it comes to Event creation. At first, the variety of what’s offered in terms of what can be done seems decent, but I was continually butting my head against things that I wanted to do, but which seemed impossible to pull off. Even if you stick to the mindset of what 16-bit RPGs were, even simple things can be far more complicated than they have any right to be. A huge part of the problem in this is that RPG Maker Fes desperately needs an in-depth instruction manual or tutorial, but none exists here save for a woefully brief digital manual. The game does offer some “easy create” choices for making things like treasure chests, weapon shops, or doors that open and close, but the available list is pathetically small, and some of the provided choices don’t even make sense. (For example, innkeepers didn’t seem to work if I put them behind a counter—like almost every RPG across time has done—without some extra coding.) To get very far in RPG Maker Fes, you’re going to need a lot of determination, and have the ability to figure out things on your own. The more I progressed, the more little cheats or workarounds I started to find, yet “I guess this can’t be done” still remained a common end to some of my bouts of trial and error.
There’s a lot of ways in which I can tell you that RPG Maker Fes either gets things wrong, doesn’t go far enough, over-complicates things, or is just too obtuse for its own good—and yet I loved every minute that I spent with it. Using one of the RPG Maker releases on the PC where options are vast and custom creations can be added into the game with little hassle is one thing, but there’s just something really special about doing all of this on a platform—the 3DS—that does not at all seem like it should be allowing us to. It’s kind of like back when the Xbox Indies came to the Xbox 360 or PlayStation Mobile brought self-published games to the Vita—there’s a thrill in having your content on a platform where it usually couldn’t go that just doesn’t exist on the PC side of things.
Also, while there’s limitations to what Fes can do around every corner, there’s a strange sense of freedom that comes along with that fact. The more robust game-creation tools can be overwhelming and intimidating, but here, the smaller scope of what’s possible helped me focus in and better concentrate on the things that really matter. I feel like I could actually make and finish a game with Fes, which I think is a fantastic first step for anyone wanting to dip their toes in the game-creation pool without having to commit to diving into the deep end. And, again, I’m just thrilled that I can not only now do all of this on a device that I can throw into a pocket or purse and work on everywhere and anywhere, but also that there’s a legitimate—and easy—way to share my creations. You can upload your RPG to the game’s server for free, or check out the creations of others, which can be played either through Fes itself or a free app a 3DS owner can download.
RPG Maker Fes is limiting, it’s smaller in scope than you’ll wish it was, and it’s about as easy to decipher at times as long-dead languages. If you can get past all of that, however, along with the desire to give up when making an RPG isn’t as fun as you had envisioned it to be, it’s also a pretty awesome tool that stirs up a special kind of joy in all of us who have dreamed of one day making our own games. Bringing to life your epic adventure will take a lot of patience and a whole ton of compromise, but it’ll also be a journey that could be as fun to take as it will be for others to play.
It’s easy to list all of the ways in which RPG Maker Fes is limited in terms of scope, tools, available assets, and possibilities—but it’s also hard to deny how fun it can be when you’re crafting something within the parameters of those limitations. Those looking for a deep RPG creation program will be sorely disappointing, but for players looking for a first step in that idea, or those preferring to craft something a little less grandiose, this is still an exceptionally cool—and unexpected—release on our shores.
E10+ - Everyone 10+
|RPG Maker Fes is available on Nintendo 3DS. Primary version played was for 3DS. Product was provided by NIS America for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.|
Mollie got her start in games media via the crazy world of gaming fanzines, and now works at EGM with the goal of covering all of the weird Japanese and niche releases that nobody else on staff cares about. She’s active in the gaming community on a personal level, and an outspoken voice on topics such as equality in gaming, consumer rights, and good UI. Check her out on Twitter and Mastodon.