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History Lesson: SaGa, the Final Fantasy spin-off that became its own series

By Matthew Castle on Sunday 15th Jun 2014 at 2:00 PM UTC

Think games are difficult in 2014? You should have seen them in 1994.

Dying within ten seconds? Ha! We could die in five. In our defence, Final Fantasy Legend II was often in our Game Boy's slot at the time.

We, like many others, were drawn in by the Final Fantasy connection. We, like many others, were surprised to find mutants and robots and a random encounter rate unlike any other. Had Final Fantasy turned mean? Turns out, Legend was no Final Fantasy.

In 1989 the Game Boy - a.k.a. Tetris - took the world by storm. Square president Masafumi Miyamoto (no relation) wanted in and tasked a development team with cooking up a Game Boy hit.

Among the developers in charge was Akitoshi Kawazu: producer of Crystal Chronicles these days, but then fresh faced from a design stint on the first two Final Fantasy games. Rather than pitch a Tetris-alike, Kawazu suggested an RPG tailored for portable play.

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The game, Makai Toshi SaGa (Warrior In The Tower Of The Spirit World), would take six to eight hours to complete. Why? This was the length of a flight between Narita and Honolulu. Presumably Kawazu really liked Honolulu. This is speculation.

SaGa may seem an inappropriate name for a short, portable tale. You'd be right. But portable it was, tuned for five-minute train rides with an abnormal encounter rate. Kawazu wanted commuters to have an action-packed ride to work so he shoved monsters down your throat every five or so steps.

For some masochists the game wasn't hard enough, and so the single character challenge was born - completing the game without enlisting any other characters into your party. We wouldn't get past the title screen.

SaGa was also known for its party creation freedom and quirky character classes. Only mutants would level up (mutate). Monsters would morph based on eating other (potentially weakening) monsters and humans would have to buy upgrades, much like in Kawazu's Crystal Bearers.

Released in December 1989, Makai Toushi SaGa was the first Game Boy RPG. Square began translating the game into English as The Great Warrior Saga, but upon the May 1990 US success of Final Fantasy they rebranded it as The Final Fantasy Legend.

Surprisingly, it was SaGa, not the NES's Final Fantasy, that was Square's first million seller. But its legacy goes beyond sales figures: Pokémon creator Satoshi Tajiri claims SaGa proved the Game Boy's action credentials. Is it coincidence that SaGa's mascot - a one-eyed octopus - has a hint of the 'mon about him? Yes.

As is the Square way, success spawned sequels: one a year. SaGa/Legend II and III saw the series mutating into a more traditional RPG format. Still harder than Vinnie Jones dipped in concrete, more developed stories softened the tough outer shell.

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SaGa III even went as far as dumping the character class quirks for straight-up party levelling. Shame. By the time Legend III came around we were just getting our heads around it all.

When Romancing SaGa appeared on Super Famicom in '92, the transition was complete. Bar re-releases (including 2009's 20th anniversary DS port of SaGa II), SaGa and portables were through.

Sadly, the Super Famicom's Romancing SaGa trilogy never made it to the West. In it, Kawazu and the gang took SaGa in an almost Dragon Quest-like direction, dabbling with multi-stranded character-driven narratives (very DQIV) and Romancing SaGa 2's ambitious cross-generational epic (a bit DQV).

Hardly a portable adventure, Romancin SaGa at least made a minor nod to the commuter tradition: its seven mystical baddies were all anagrams of major train stations on Tokyo's Yamanote Line.

Straying from its portable roots, it was arguably no great loss to Nintendo fans to see the final SaGa trio head Sony's way in Square's 1996 exclusivity deal. Despite radical tweaks - space-travel, striking 2D artwork - SaGa Frontier 1 and 2 never did for PlayStation what they'd done on Nintendo.

When PS2's Unlimited SaGa reinvented the RPG in a board game mould in 2003, the series breathed its last. A sad end for Square's most idiosyncratic series, but as it turned out, a good day for Nintendo.

To get around the Sony exclusivity deal, Square set up a new external studio - The Game Designers Studio - owned by Kawazu. Not technically part of Square, a SaGa-less Kawazu was able to begin work on GameCube title Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles, until Square merged with Enix and brought the studio into the fold.

GaGa for SaGa

The SaGa series consists of nine titles, starting with the original Game Boy title and ending with the divisive Unlimited Saga on PlayStation 2.

If you want to try your hand at owning all of them, here's the complete series in order - treat it as your own shopping list.