We are only a few weeks away from the next generation, and we can all expect the PS5 and Xbox Series X/S to take up most of the attention. But as exciting as that is, it doesn’t mean other games aren’t coming out for other consoles! The late 2020 release I’m looking forward to the most is headed to the Nintendo Switch, and not until the halfway point of December. It’s a new Square Enix classic compilation, the full North American title being Collection of SaGa: Final Fantasy Legend. SaGa isn’t the most popular series over here in the west, but these games are special for several reasons.
First, let’s go ahead and cover that bizarre title. This collection includes the first three SaGa games, released in Japan as Makai Toushi SaGa, SaGa 2: Hihou Densetsu, and SaGa 3: Jikuu no Hasha. These are not Final Fantasy games in a technical sense. But much like the Mana series, Final Fantasy was bolted on in an effort to sell these games in North America. So the association is not literal, but arguably spiritual. Well, that’s the case with Adventures of Mana, but the shared DNA between Final Fantasy and SaGa is more pronounced.
SaGa, which continues to be produced by Square Enix’s Akitoshi Kawazu to this day, is in my estimation a direct relative of Final Fantasy. All you have to do is take a look at Final Fantasy II to spot the connective tissue. Final Fantasy II, which had Kawazu as a combat designer, is possibly the most controversial in the series. That’s because of its unusual combat mechanics, which had characters’ stats go up randomly after battles, and things like weapon proficiency and spell strength going up through continued use. Final Fantasy as a series jumped back to more traditional, Dragon Quest-style progression, but Kawazu’s design sense would return when brought on to direct Makai Toushi SaGa.
Game Boy History
First, the SaGa series is significantly important for the Game Boy in a historical sense. Not everyone knows this due to the series’ later obscurity, but SaGa was the very first RPG for the Game Boy. It was RPG juggernaut Square Enix’s (just Square then) first game period for the Game Boy. And, to boot, SaGa was also Square’s first million-seller. Kawazu’s team had quite the task, bringing a Final Fantasy-style game to the handheld that was best known for Tetris (no shade on Tetris). So while SaGa typically either lands or doesn’t for people playing it, there’s no denying the key spot it holds in the history books. A collection like this, that preserves SaGa in its original form, and includes things like art and other features, keeps that history alive.
Outside the Box
Not only was SaGa a big deal for its place on the timeline, it’s also interesting precisely for its unusual mechanics, even for a game out in 1989. In a world of Wizardry and Dragon Quest clones, the experimental mechanics in Final Fantasy II lived on in SaGa. And they only got weirder. There is no other classic-era JRPG that handles like SaGa does. There was no EXP, and the ability to save anywhere was paired with crushing difficulty. Weapons broke after a number of uses, and were expensive to replace. You get only the tiniest of hints as to what to do or where to go, and figuring out how each “class” works is totally up to the player. Here’s a breakdown:
- Human: Pure stats. Humans are weak compared to their counterparts in this creature-ran world. So to keep up, they use a variety of different weapons and performance-enhancing drugs. Yes, you have to purchase strength, agility, and HP gains from the shops. Otherwise your humans will quickly fall behind. That said, you can rely on that never changing.
- Mutant: Espers in the original, Mutants are where the Final Fantasy II stuff shows up and gets more complicated. Mutants’ stats will randomly go up after battles, making them inconsistent but free-ish to grind. They also learn magic spells, so you don’t need to purchase books for them. Except you do, if you want consistency. As part of their ever-changing nature, these characters will learn skills at random, and overwrite them at random to make room. You can go from tons of damage to a bunch of useless debuffs in a matter of seconds.
- Monster: We aren’t done with the weird yet. Monsters don’t level up, don’t equip, and don’t learn new skills. However, if a monster you kill drops meat, you can feed it to the one(s) in your group to make them transform. As you go through the game and the enemies get stronger, so too will your own precocious little cannibals. It is possible to plan your monster transformations, but if you’re playing without a guide you’ll be updating your monster on a touch and go basis.
So yeah, if nothing else, SaGa as a series is notable for its constant experimentation in JRPG as a space or genre. Subsequent games would introduce all kinds of other strange mechanics, features, and classes over time. Even the sequels included in this package do, as you’ll get to try out robots for example. If you’re a fan of classic JRPGs like Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy, you can count on SaGa to throw you for a loop or three.
You know all those jokes about killing God in JRPGs? I’m pretty sure SaGa is the origin point. SaGa games are notorious for their mysterious mechanics and abstract writing. But that abstract writing has a way of grabbing on to you when you least expect it, and takes you to strange, unexpected places if you let it. For example, the first game seems like a relatively boilerplate RPG, until you realize it’s building up to something bigger, posing an intriguing question at the end. This is where these games usually go, chasing after things like curious concepts or philosophical questions between people rather than saving the world from a big bad. Obviously a Game Boy cartridge isn’t the best medium to get across complicated ideas, but you can really feel the attempts here.
Preservation! Weird Features!
This can probably serve as a branch off the history section, but honestly I think this deserves its own header. Game preservation is a growing issue, especially as we get further and further away from games of the mid-late 80s. These classics often are subject to real lacking foresight back then, or simply smaller companies without the resources to keep everything. But Square Enix has always been good about revisiting and re-releasing its older games for newer generations, and it’s great to see Square Enix stretch out from the usual suspects.
And on top of that, Collection of SaGa just has some odd features that seem like a lot of fun. For example, if you want the full, authentic Game Boy experience, you can set the image to that sickly, green Game Boy style, and even hold the Switch tate-style and use virtual buttons in an attempt to evoke that feeling. You can see similar odd but creative features in recent releases such as SNK’s Neo Geo Pocket ports, and I hope if these games get supported, more experiments like this can come into production.
In conclusion, I’m a big nerd and want to yell about SaGa at every opportunity. I want to use my small corner of the internet to evangelize something I really want to see do well. If I can get more eyeballs on Collection of SaGa than before, even if just a few, that’s a big deal to me. SaGa and games like it have always fascinated me as a JRPG enthusiast, and I think that Square Enix giving this set of regional obscurities a localization is a bold move that really shouldn’t be. So if you’re interested in gaming history, and especially have an interest in the original Game Boy’s library, you should absolutely check out Collection of SaGa. Let us know what you think about it over at the Prima Games Facebook and Twitter channels!