Earthbound (the second game in the Mother series) has many fine features as an RPG, but very few of them related to its ponderous, uninteresting, and slightly awkward gameplay. The game’s interface gets the job done, I suppose, but always just a little slower and less fluidly than it should. Not that that’s important, of course--what’s important is Earthbound’s fun and uniquely bizarre brand of storytelling, and that’s what makes the game a solidly good RPG. But the actual act of playing it to see this storytelling is, I’d have to say, more of a chore than it usually is in the genre. Mother 3 is much the same as its predecessor in this regard, only more so--the storytelling elements of Mother 3 are even better, while the gameplay elements are somewhat worse with the damned timed hit system.
There is, however, one aspect of Earthbound and Mother 3’s gameplay that is excellent--inspired!--and that I really, REALLY wish had caught on with other RPGs: the Auto-Kill encounter. Basically, when your party runs into an enemy in Earthbound and Mother 3, a quick calculation is done by the game, and, as I understand it, if your party’s members were fast and strong enough that they could defeat the enemy party in 1 round before the enemies could take their turns, then the game wouldn’t even bother to initiate the battle. Instead, the game would just tell you that you won, list out the spoils of the combat, and send you along your merry way. As a side benefit, once your party’s strong enough to do this auto-kill on an enemy, that enemy no longer even attempts to initiate combat in the field--sensibly, it runs for its life away from your party when they approach.
I feel like I don’t even need to explain why this is a good thing. Rather than have the player engage endlessly in the excessive tedium of enemy encounters against powerless foes that require no greater strategy to defeat than hitting the A Button 4 times, Earthbound and Mother 3 save you the boredom of fighting enemies that no longer pose any sort of threat (and usually reward no significant experience any longer). This also saves you a bit of time that you can devote to something slightly more important (which would basically be just about anything you could possibly think of to do) than beating on underpowered EXP fodder. How much time, I’m not really sure, but even if it doesn’t add up to much altogether, it at least SEEMS like the system’s saving you a lot of time, probably because of how annoying that time would have been to spend going through the round of combat. Even someone who actually enjoys turn-based RPG menu battles (definitely not me) would be crazy not to appreciate this--if your characters are strong enough to kill the enemy party without once taking a hit, then whatever supposedly enjoyable challenge of the enemy encounter isn’t there to begin with. How long can even the greatest fan of RPG gameplay maintain his enthusiasm with a screen change, introductory line of text, 4 button presses, and the words “You Win!”? That’s really all that these auto-kill encounters would amount to. You get more variety in repetitive motions from a job on an assembly line. And the added bonus that you don’t even have to put up with auto-killable enemies trying to bother you is another time-saving convenience. And for those who want the free experience, the enemies don’t run all that fast, so it’s easy to still catch up and auto-kill them, so there’s really no downside.
Earthbound was, to my knowledge, the first RPG to come up with this auto-kill encounter idea.* What annoys me greatly is that almost none of the hundreds of menu combat RPGs to come from Japan since then have bothered to take advantage of this excellent and yet remarkably simple idea. And certainly those few that have a similar system in place don’t do it as well. The Mario and Luigi games, for example, allow an automatic hit against enemies that Mario or Luigi jumps on in the field, so any enemy weak enough to be killed with a single hit essentially becomes an auto-kill. Very handy, and I much appreciate it--but it still lacks compared to the Mother series, since you still have to go into the battle screen to see it happen, which is still repetitive, and not much more convenient than just going through the battle normally.
Now, I do realize that the auto-kill only really works in this form when you’ve got a game where you see enemies on the field, and battles happen when they touch you. But it seems to me that the system wouldn’t require a whole lot of ingenuity to adapt to random encounters, too. Just have a message come up (like a scrolling ticker or something, not one that interrupts your control) that announces an auto-kill battle victory and lists the spoils. To avoid people taking advantage of this by just running around in circles for an hour racking up the experience points and cash, auto-kill encounters could only give out a fraction of the experience points and money of regular encounters. And to avoid people getting butthurt about being forced to take lesser rewards after a point when they’re level-grinding, there could be an option in the game that allowed the auto-kill system to be turned on and off. See? Not difficult. Hell, some RPGs, like the Suikoden series, already automatically adjust how much experience points characters receive from battles depending on the levels of the characters and the levels of the enemies, so they would employ this idea even more easily. Imagine the hours--DAYS--of an RPG fan’s life that could be saved if every menu-based RPG had an auto-kill feature for all those many low-level enemy encounters one comes upon when revisiting dungeons from earlier in the game. If even half of the menu-combat RPGs I’ve played since Earthbound’s release had such a system, they probably would have, by now, saved me over a week’s worth of time, at least. Think of all the extra gaming I could get in, the TV shows I could watch, the rants I could avoid writing with that extra time!
Yeah, okay, obviously I waste my free time anyway, but even my meaningless hobbies are better ways to while away hours than thousands of mindlessly repetitive enemy encounters. For the love of God, RPG makers of the world, please take a page from the Mother series on this one.
* It should be noted that the Fire Emblem series has had something somewhat similar for just as long if not longer, though. With at least most (possibly all, I’m not sure) FE games, you can turn off battle animations, essentially meaning that when one unit attacks another, you just see the little field units move against each other while their hit points lessen accordingly, instead of going into the longer battle visuals of how the fight takes place. Since it just reduces the time and scope of the conflict whether or not it’s a one-hit-kill scenario and rather than skipping the battle altogether, it’s not really the same as Earthbound’s auto-kill system. But I thought I should mention it so any Fire Emblem fan who one day manages to stumble onto this blog doesn’t yell at me for claiming Earthbound was the first to do anything like this.