No introductory preamble today. Let’s talk about Timed Hits.
In most RPGs with a standard battle system (that is to say, menu-based combat), using a basic attack against an enemy is a simple case of selecting the Attack option, picking out which enemy you want to damage, and confirming with another button press. Very efficient, very simple (especially considering that Attack is almost always the first option on the menu), which is good, because you’re gonna be doing it maybe 4000 times or so for basically any given RPG.* Of course, as simple and efficient as it is, it’s equally tedious and boring. You all know by now that I consider the actual playing experience of RPGs to generally be boring (I’m in it for the story, characters, and all that jazz, not for the actual gameplay), but even by the standards of someone who for some reason enjoys limiting their gaming experience to moving a cursor up and down through various menus, selecting the Attack command probably starts to get monotonous after the first 500 times.
This is where timed hits come in. Pioneered, I think, by Super Mario RPG on the SNES,** the idea of a timed hit is that it’s an attack or skill which requires the player to enhance the effectiveness of said attack/skill by hitting a button, or multiple buttons, at just the right time and/or in just the right way during the attack/skill’s act. For example, in SMRPG, if you have Mario use a jump ability on an enemy, he leaps into the air and comes down on his enemy’s head in standard Mario fashion. But if you press the A button at just the right moment as he’s landing on the enemy, the attack will do extra damage, or Mario will bounce back up for another jump attack altogether (depending on which variation of the jump attack you’re using). For the sake of convenience, I’m going to use the term Timed Hits to cover both these basic button-pressing occurrences, and other, similar cases where more than just a button press is needed--for example, from the same game, one of Geno’s powers is boosted if you hold the Y button down until a certain time, and then release, and one of Bowser’s abilities is enhanced when, if I remember right, you move in counter-clockwise circles on the direction pad. In a sense, all this sort of thing still has to take place in a certain way in a certain time limit, so you can call it a Timed Hit. Also, for the purposes of simplicity, we’ll assume that a Timed Hit is only something that happens in standard menu-based combat. Timing your attacks and blocks and combos and such in an Action RPG is the norm, not an extra. Hell, I’m not sure how you’d have an Action RPG without timing your actions in some way.
Anyway. There is a right way, and a wrong way to do Timed Hits. Unfortunately, it is much more common to see it done the wrong way than the right one. Let’s take The Legend of Dragoon, for example, because it’s got just about everything wrong with Timed Hits that can be wrong. In TLoD, with the exception of Shana and Miranda, every character’s full normal attack consists of a half dozen or more strikes that can be made if you push a button at the exact right moment during the attack’s sequence. Here’s the first problem--the rapid-fire Timed Hits are frustrating. Where Super Mario RPG had the sense to keep its regular attacks restricted to a single well-timed button tap, your regular attacks in The Legend of Dragoon aren’t going to get you anywhere if you can’t keep up with their pace, something which usually requires more memorization than actual response skills (which just makes it all the more annoying that you’ll have to change their pattern several times during the game’s course as more powerful sequences are found, meaning you have to memorize a whole new set all the time). Look, game, I’m just trying to attack the enemy. I want to do some damage and get done with it. Why the hell do I have to tap 10 times to Dart’s silly sword dance each and every damn time I want to do this, huh? Sony put the work into choreographing all these attack routines; you’d think they’d want us to be able to pay attention to them instead of having to completely focus on the little button prompt box.
I guess I should just be thankful that TLoD’s rapid-fire button ordeal was at least functional. Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood’s special abilities very often required tons of fast-paced buttons pressed and circled and so on, and that crappy game’s stylus control always seems a bit off, or like it doesn’t detect the input right. Ugh. I guess that’s one Timed Hit sin that TLoD doesn’t have--a Timed Hit system that doesn’t work properly.
Next potential problem with Timed Hits that can also be found in The Legend of Dragoon: too much reliance on them. Like I said above, if you aren’t making the most of your Timed Hits for your regular attacks in this game, you’re not getting anywhere. The incredibly weak attackers in the game, Shana and Miranda, aren’t weak because their attack deals less damage than an attack by someone else on the team, they’re weak because it only deals that damage once, when the others can deal it many times over. But that’s the problem--without the Timed Hits, your characters are all doing White Mage damage. Super Mario RPG’s Timed Hits were very useful and made a real difference, but they were not essential. If you didn’t get the timing for a character’s attack, yeah, they’d do noticeably less damage, but it wasn’t so little as to be insignificant. Without Timed Hits, Super Mario RPG would be a little harder, and its battles would all be several turns longer, but you wouldn’t be crippled by the problem. But in The Legend of Dragoon...well, the game already suffered from bad experience balance, and a good-on-paper-terrible-in-practice magic system.*** The Timed Hit attacks were more or less your one and only truly effective, truly reliable combat option in most cases. Where does that leave a person who just doesn’t have a knack for timed button presses? Well and fully fucked, that’s where.
I never had any significant problem with TLoD’s Timed Hit system, incidentally. I did, however, have a problem with Mother 3’s Timed Hits, a mastery of which was almost as essential in that game as it was in TLoD. In order to make your characters’ attacks effective in Mother 3, you had to tap the attack button along to the beat of the background music, something I was absolutely fucking TERRIBLE at. I don’t think most players have that much trouble with it, but I’m apparently just utterly tone-deaf (or however you’d describe it), so I was lucky if I could get even one of the beats right. Like TLoD, Mother 3 seemed to be set up on the assumption that you were at least moderately competent at this timing thing, and this assumption made a game I think was supposed to be only as mildly challenging as its predecessor Earthbound into an excruciating ordeal. You guys may snicker at my insistence on playing games with no regard to how fun or boring or frustrating they may be, but I’m glad I do things the way I do, because if I let the actual gameplay of an RPG bother me, I never would have gotten through Mother 3 and would have missed out on a really great game.
At any rate, my point here is, you should never make a gimmick like this into something so important to your battle system that the game can’t be played adequately without it, because there are going to be some people, even if it’s only a small percentage, who just will not be able to perform it as expected. And it’s an RPG, not Guitar Hero, Parappa the Rapper, or Whack-A-Mole--this is not a skill that a gamer who wants to play an RPG should HAVE to have. You know how much I hate mandatory minigames--well, making Timed Hits too significant a part of effective combat is essentially making the entire battle system a mandatory minigame. A successful Timed Hit should be a bonus, not a necessity.
One more way to do Timed Hits wrong: forgetting why you put it in there to begin with. I started this rant by talking about how monotonous and boring it is to just hit the Attack command over and over again for 50 hours or so. Well, Timed Hits are an uncommon feature that changes how this works, so it’s fairly logical to assume that a developer who puts them into his/her game is doing so with the interest in making the playing experience more interesting, right? Well, here’s the problem--it often doesn’t actually make the battles any more interesting. I mean, the ones in The Legend of Dragoon will throw you for a bit of a loop when you first encounter each new sequence, but after a few battles, you’ve either got a handle on it, or you don’t. If you don’t, things are more interesting, but in a bad way, as you become frustrated with this system that you’re having trouble with. And if you do get used to it, well, the difference between a normal game’s Attack command and The Legend of Dragoon’s is that TLoD requires you to push the confirm button several times more. That’s, uh...that’s more or less it. Is that less dull and repetitive? Is it really?
I don’t hate the idea of Timed Hits and their ilk. Like I said, I found that Super Mario RPG did them fairly well--they were simple and straightforward enough, and if you found yourself unable to perform them, it wasn’t too major a roadblock in your attempt to play the game. Barkley: Shut Up and Jam Gaiden also involved Timed Hits in a pretty decent capacity--while not as forgiving as SMRPG, the Barkley game didn’t need you to time everything perfectly each time to do a reasonable amount of damage, and the timing and necessary actions were quite different for every single attack, so it actually managed to avoid becoming tedious pretty well. Some of the Timed Hits were even fairly creative. Still, it’s a gimmick that’s easy to make into an annoyance instead of a fun feature if someone’s not careful about it. Developers, please keep this in mind in the future. Y’know...because I’m sure you’re all reading this.
* You may think I’m exaggerating, but honestly, I think that number’s probably fairly accurate. I mean, on average you’re gonna engage in combat many hundreds of times, possibly over a thousand, in a given RPG, and I think most of those battles will see you use regular attacks at least a few times. It’s gotta add up into the thousands, wouldn’t you think?
** Although I’d swear there were several spells in Breath of Fire 2, released 2 years prior to SMRPG, that you could guarantee a critical hit from if you pushed the A button at just the moment the damage was being dealt. I’ve looked online at GameFAQs and spoken to other players about this and no one has any idea what I’m talking about, but I just know it’s true. Those spells couldn’t possibly have had such a huge Critical chance during every single one of my half dozen or so playthroughs, right? Someone tell me I’m not freaking crazy here.
*** The enemies consistently gave so little experience that grinding was so time-consuming that it was almost out of the question; if you fought every enemy you encountered between one boss and the other in a large dungeon, you’d usually only level up once, which is NOT a good rate for a standard JRPG. Magic abilities could only activate if you transformed into a Dragoon, after which you’d need to recharge your ability to transform again. Additionally, the only significant way to heal your characters was Shana and Miranda, the ones whose basic attack did about as much damage as an anorexic kitten halfheartedly throwing a marshmallow at the enemy. So if you wanted to have any magical healing, for those rare moments when your magic was actually available to you, you had to go through a battle with 1 of your 3 characters unable to do any serious attack damage, AND unable to access her actual abilities without taking special steps. But with the game’s difficulty and the fact that level grinding was twice as tedious and time-consuming as it usually is, not having that magic healing, unreliable though it was, was all the more difficult.