mark cerqueira well-rounded nerd

Retrospective - Fast-Grinding in Video Games

Shin Megami Tensei IV Box Art

I have been working my way through Shin Megami Tensei IV (SMT4) on my Nintendo 3DS. This series is known for being notoriously difficult, and the latest entry carries on this tradition. As is common in Japanese RPGs (JRPGs), when you get stuck, you grind to power up your party. Grinding is oftentimes a long and arduous process; among my friends who aren't fans of JRPGs, grinding is a common complaint. Coincidentally, there seems to be a new trend emerging to cut down on grinding. Developers, including the ones behind SMT4, are releasing downloadable content (DLC) that allows players to grind more quickly. Here, I reflect on how fast-grinding has changed JRPGs for me.

Fast-grinding saves a ton of time. If I get stuck fighting an enemy and I’m already exploiting their weaknesses, it’s time to grind. Instead of spending an hour fighting weaker enemies ad infinitum, I can now quickly power up my party, and get back to conquering my earlier roadblock. Once I’m a few hours into a game, I’m normally committed to completing it. Lately, with awesome games coming out left and right, cutting down on grinding propels me through games faster, and avoids intensifying the anxiety I get from video game backlog. For example, SMT4 came out on July 16th and Tales of Xillia (PS3) comes out on August 6th. With fast-grinding available in SMT4, I’m confident I can get through the game before Xillia comes out.

If fast-grinding is used, it shouldn’t break the game. After grinding in some games, I can mindlessly spam attacks, since most enemies are now comparatively much weaker. In SMT4, even after grinding several levels, I was not an all powerful demigod. After some fast-grinding, battles do become a bit easier; but if I stop paying attention for even a second, I still find myself on the Game Over screen. Via a system of elemental resistances and weaknesses, SMT4 brutally punishes bad strategies, even against weak enemies. Grinding shouldn’t break games, and fast-grinding shouldn’t break games faster.

But something awesome and intrinsic to JRPGs is lost. There is something twistedly rewarding about grinding. Investing time to power up your party to beat that tough boss gives value to your hard (and often tedious) work. With fast grinding, it’s like winning the lottery every time you run out of money; it quickly takes care of a problem (not having money), but you have something you really didn’t work hard to earn (unless you consider picking numbers hard work). Taking down an über-powerful superboss might not feel very satisfying when it only took a few hours of fast-grinding to build your victorious party. You’ll save time with fast-grinding, but time spent grinding can give value to your gaming experience.

Ultimately, I think fast-grinding is a great complement to JRPGs, and including it is a smart move on developers’ part. So far, I’ve seen it available in SMT4 and Fire Emblem: Awakening (3DS) as paid DLC. The good thing is fast-grinding is not only optional, it costs money, so you always have a good excuse to grind the old fashioned way – which I sometimes prefer. However, while I get joy out of watching characters in games grow, both in story and in stats, I find myself wanting to fast-grind more often than before. Maybe it’s because I’m not a kid anymore; I’ve grown up and lost that nostalgia-inspiring ability to fully dedicate myself to a game. Not to mention, I’ve lost the spare time. So I’m grateful that JRPGs are growing up alongside me.

Got an opinion on fast-grinding? Feel free to share your thoughts on r/truegaming or r/jrpg.