A SaGa for the Ages

The Final Fantasy Legend

There is no denying that the original Final Fantasy was a powerhouse title. Although reports of the game saving Square may be apocryphal (supposedly it's name being "Final Fantasy" was because it was going to be the last game Square made... although that's largely untrue), the fact is that Final Fantasy was the next big step for the coming, launching them towards the company they are today. Without Final Fantasy it's doubtful that the current form of Square-EnixFormed from the unification of Squaresoft (home studio of Final Fantasy) and Enix (creators of Dragon Quest) this combined company is the largest game studios in the world. From action to adventure titles and, of course, JRPGs, Square Enix has become one of the biggest names in gaming. even exists.

The Final Fantasy Legend

After the release of the first game in the series, and it's quick success, a sequel, Final Fantasy II, was immediately put into production. Released just a year later, in 1988, the game was quite a bit different from the first title. While the original game borrowed liberally (read: stole a lot) from Dungeons & Dragons, the sequel moved towards a different kind of adventure. Gone were classes and levels, instead bringing it a more open, free-form growth system. The emphasis was on points, and development, and having your characters learn and grow into their roles. The game was well received at the time, although fans did note it was very different from the first adventure and, eventually, Square did agree, moving the next title, Final Fantasy III, towards the structure of the first game (with its own innovations in the process).

That's not to say that the ideas behind Final Fantasy II were wholly abandoned. Although this kind of stat-based building wasn't really explored the same way in the mainline series, producer Nobuyuki Hoshino, who worked on the first two Final Fantasy games, did take the ideas at play for the first "spin off" adventure, The Final Fantasy Legend. Now, calling it a spin-off is a bit of a misnomer; it was only linked with the Final Fantasy series in the U.S. to help boost sales. In Japan it was known as Makai Toushi SaGa, the first game in the eventual SaGa series.

SaGa (or Final Fantasy Legend, whichever name you want to call it) is a free-form, open design RPG. The core of the game is a linear adventure built around your heroes, one that you start with and others that you recruit along the way, going to a mystical tower in hopes of climbing it to reach Paradise. But at each step of the tower they have to find a magical sphere to unlock the segment of the tower, and those spheres are contained on the four major worlds of the game -- Continent, Sea, Sky, and Ruins. Collecting all the spheres allows the party access to the final zone where they'll learn the truth of their world... and their whole adventure.

For those that have played through many of the Final Fantasy games then the basic setup of SaGa will feel very familiar. Heroes going out on an adventure they don't completely understand, all so they can collect crystals (well, spheres here) to unlock the path to the end of their quest. That was how Final Fantasy was built, and it feels like familiar comfort food here. The game doesn't stray far from its forebears in its story (what little story there is) because it has other points on its agenda.

The key to SaGa is its free-form character development system. The game ditches any concept of levels or experience anything like that. Fighting monsters, for the most part, is the way to earn money in the game. If you're strapped for cash, go out into the world and get into some fights to buy more equipment. Then hit stores to gain boosts and equipment. Then go through the process again, and again, until you're ready to tackle the next part of the adventure. Or... take monsters.

There are three races in the game (not classes, races): human, mutant (esper in the Japanese release), and monster. Humans and mutants increase in power by wearing equipment and gaining magical spells; the key difference between the two is that mutants have higher magical stats than humans. To boost these characters you have to buy (or find) upgrades, like HP ups or stat increases. Fighting doesn't do anything for them otherwise. Monsters, meanwhile, gain stat increases for each battle won, although the effects are meager from fight to fight.

The real reason to take monsters is that they can eat meat. Chunks of meat will randomly drop from monsters (although certain boss fights are guaranteed to drop meat). Eating this meat will cause the monster to evolve into a new species. If you're new to the game these effects can seem random, sometimes taking a weak monster and making them stronger, other times evolving them backwards. There's a whole hidden table of monster evolutions that players are never shown (but that people have documented Online), meaning that if you know how the evolutions work you could create some massively powerful creatures for your party. Although, of course, that would require a lot of experimenting and checking things out.

That is, in fact, the goal of the game: to give you a simple, linear adventure so that you can free-form explore your way through it. The journey, and not the destination, was the goal. You can see how the ideas of Final Fantasy II carried into this game, giving you even more tools to craft your party the way you wanted, while rewarding experimentation and exploration of the characters themselves. It created for a very deep adventure... assuming you made your way through it.

I won't deny that the first time I played the game I had no idea what I was doing. I didn't know the right creatures to take, the right path to follow, or even what the end goal was. I played a few hours and then set the game aside, losing interest because the game didn't hold my hand enough. It was only through watching the game Online, and seeing how others played through, that I went back and developed an appreciation for the game. Make no mistake, this game takes no prisoners, both in its difficulty (it was designed to be hard) and it's required experimentation. If you take a party of four humans and expect to get very far you'll learn, very quickly, that the title has no mercy.

Well, okay, that's maybe not entirely fair. The game does at least let you save anywhere, at any time, so long as you're not in combat. This is nice because if you get into a fight you can't handle you can always revert to a previous, nearby save and try something new. At the same time, though, you can save yourself into a situation where there might not be an easy escape, and then you have to try and figure out how what to do. Yes, the game lets you do this... but maybe you shouldn't always.

Despite the games lack of mercy for the players, it was a huge success, becoming Square's first million-seller. The combination of the Final Fantasy name in the U.S. (this being only the second game to release with that name in the West) along with the omnipresence of the Game Boy ensured a wide, and rabid, audience for this title. It helped to launch the SaGa series, many of which were at least a tad kinder to the players. And it ensured that Square would continue supporting this series, and the Game Boy, for some time to come...