By Chad Denton
“Final Fantasy” fans who got hooked in the ’00s don’t know how lucky they were. Being an old-school fan, who was literally with the franchise from the start, was a weird ordeal for anyone living outside Japan and wasn’t enough of a hardcore gamer to own a genuine Famicon and have the ability to fluently read Japanese. The majority of the games in the series were simply not available to people unwilling to learn Japanese until the advent of the Internet, emulators, and fan-translations, and even if you did know enough Japanese to play the games it was still a hassle and an expense to actually order the games and a Famicon or Super Famicon to play them. To twist the knife, Square made the decision to title the real “Final Fantasy IV” as Final Fantasy II, which eventually created a huge (and now proverbial among console RPG fans) amount of confusion when saps like me finally got wise to the fact that all of North America was deemed unworthy to receive the series in full (I suppose it’s a good thing they ended the policy before “Final Fantasy VII” became “Final Fantasy IV.”) To make matters even more confusing, Square, despite the international success of the Final Fantasy franchise, decided that RPGs were unprofitable in the North American market and that the only RPGs that had any chance of selling had to be under the Final Fantasy brand name. So, when they did decide to release two other RPG franchises to North America, they released them as Final Fantasy Adventure and Final Fantasy Legend,despite the two series having almost nothing in common, even in gameplay, with any of the Final Fantasy games that did make it to North America and Europe. I never played “Final Fantasy Adventure” until fairly recently, but I did get to experience “Final Fantasy Legend,” albeit years after the series was first released on Game Boy.
The truth is that the Final Fantasy Legend games were really the first installments in a series called SaGa (yes, the “G” is capitalized for some reason). The games did not start being released in English under their real name until the Playstation era and even then a sizable chunk of the series, theRomancing SaGa trilogy released on the Super Famicon, never saw an official English translation. While I forever curse Square for never releasing the FF series in full (especially for releasing the severely watered-down and just plain boring Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest instead of FF V), I can understand why they never brought over the 16-bit SaGa games, even though the Final Fantasy Legend trilogy was a smash hit. Whereas from pretty much the beginning theFinal Fantasy series values story over gameplay, SaGa games take exactly the opposite approach. Instead of the near-universal system of gaining experience levels, SaGa always encourages obsessive tinkering with how your characters act in battle or with certain choices made post-battle, making for a much more demanding but vastly more flexible (or, depending on your point of view, more infuriatingly random) system of character development. The worlds were often at least abstractly defined and at most downright surreal. And again the plots never aimed to be operatic; if anything, they never ventured far past their basic premises. Even though I think the SaGa games generally were made more to scratch the cultural preferences of Japanese gamers than anything else, I’ve actually grown to have a fondness for SaGa, and in fact I’m probably one of eight Americans who actually enjoyed the sort of infamous SaGa Frontier, if only because it’s the game where you can play a lesbian vampire, a superhero, a wandering minstrel, a robot, and a supermodel-turned-hitwoman all in the same game!