Xbox and JRPGs aren’t exactly friends. There’s a long, brutal history of Microsoft failing to take root in Japan. Japanese Xbox games tried and failed to grab fans in the West too. But things are changing, and Japanese games are not only trickling onto Xbox One (and getting red carpet treatment no less), but even big publishers like Square Enix are coming back. While all the Final Fantasy ports aren’t surprising, I was shocked to see Romancing SaGa 3’s upcoming release platforms include Xbox One. I was even more shocked to later find Romancing SaGa 2 already there. SaGa is as esoteric as it gets in the Square Enix canon, but it’s one of those uncanny, unpopular JRPG series I love the most. Here’s why the Xbox community should care as much as I do.
If you’re into RPGs at all you probably know Final Fantasy. It’s the big one, the niche genre series that managed to penetrate the mainstream. Leave the nerdosphere I so comfortably inhabit and most folks into this stuff will be all about Final Fantasy, Kingdom Hearts, Pokémon, and maybe Persona or Tales Of. The average Final Fantasy fan has probably played most of the series, despite it only really taking hold here in the west via PlayStation. That said, plenty of people have gone back and tried the older entries, and everyone loves to argue their favorites. Despite those arguments, I guarantee one specific Final Fantasy sits on the bottom of nearly everyone’s list.
That game is Final Fantasy II. The 80s were a wild time for console RPGs, with Dragon Quest finally cracking the code to fit the Wizardry or Dungeons and Dragons experiences in a Famicom cart. The floodgates opened, and everything after was experimentation and endless iteration. While game designer Akitoshi Kawazu worked to get Final Fantasy as close to D&D as possible, he tried something wildly different for the sequel. Instead of fighting for experience points and broad power-ups from leveling up, Final Fantasy II’s systems are more obtuse. Character growth is dictated by character action, meaning stats and abilities only grow stronger after use. This made for a drastically different experience, and history has largely rejected it – but only for Final Fantasy.
Kawazu remains at Square Enix today, and has touched many other Final Fantasy games in various production roles. But he never served again as designer or director. However, Kawazu did become a champion of those ideas he introduced in Final Fantasy II, and did so via a series he still designs, directs, and even writes: SaGa. Squaresoft wanted in on that Game Boy action after Tetris blew up, but rather than copying that or doing a smaller Final Fantasy, wanted to stand out. This gambit paid off, and Makai Toushi SaGa was the company’s first million-seller. Ironically, the localization was branded The Final Fantasy Legend because selling RPGs was hard over here.
SaGa picked up where Final Fantasy II left off. It’s still a turn-based RPG a la Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy, but once again Kawazu’s team sought to explore what progression in that space could look like. If Final Fantasy II was too weird for some, then SaGa is a fever dream. Players choose different class options like in Final Fantasy but each class has distinct mechanics. Humans have strong physical base stats but only grow by purchasing stat-boosting items. Espers start with higher MP but instead gain stats randomly after battles. They also learn (or forget!) spells at random. Finally, there’s the monster class, which can shape-shift based on eating meat dropped by enemies. Getting stronger that way is incredibly complicated, so shout out to all the FAQ writers out there.
SaGa was not only made to be weird and explorative, but it was also deliberately difficult. While Final Fantasy chased accessibility over time, SaGa was the grungier, more hardcore younger sibling. In some ways the first title took notes from early rougelikes, setting the whole game in a single, sprawling dungeon and doing cruel things like giving weapons limited uses. The only way to survive is being smart with grinding and resources, all while dealing with those unconventional mechanics. SaGa was modestly received in the west, but a big hit in Japan. A lot of that had to do with how well-designed the game was for commutes. You can save anywhere, which was unheard of at the time! Despite its disregard for convention, SaGa was all set to become a franchise of its own.
SaGa got a trilogy on Game Boy and all three were localized. Then the Super Famicom saw a second trilogy: Romancing SaGa. None of these games was localized for the Super Nintendo, via the same logic powering Final Fantasy Mystic Quest. RPGs were still a niche in the west, and while it was a growing niche it was still hard to justify the cost. The number of “lost” Squaresoft titles that were never localized from the Super Famicom era is tragically high, but some old wrongs are finally being righted.
Romancing SaGa is where the series really started taking form. The foundation was laid for a house style, which oddly enough moved away from the weirdness of the Game Boy titles and back towards Final Fantasy II. But Romancing SaGa also introduced elements that still stick around today. The big one will be familiar to anyone who played Octopath Traveler. Most SaGa games see the player start off choosing from a list of characters. Sometimes you get to run through multiple stories with each, sometimes you meet the other choices along the way. Either way, picking your main character flavors the rest of the adventure. Of course, the key of these games is their unconventional progression mechanics.
Romancing SaGa took the individual stat bump idea from Final Fantasy II, but reined it in a little. Final Fantasy II was viewed by many as broken because each stat was tied to actual use. That meant things like defense and evasion would fall behind HP and attack, and major magic spells that typically only saw use in specific moments would lag behind too. Those issues often led to players grinding by having their party attack itself, which was much more profitable than doing things by the book. In Romancing SaGa, stats go up randomly for participants in battle, and stats, in general, are simplified. Characters also learn new skills randomly based on what weapons they equipped. While each game in this series has its own gimmicks and refinements, these core mechanics have stayed pretty consistent. They work! It’s more random but still feels like organic growth through effort.
SaGa is a series that often falls under the radar, especially here in the west. And for a community/platform like Xbox, which has historically struggled with Japanese games and their fans, SaGa is hardly even a blip. Yet here we are, with a game in the series, never before localized, getting ready to land on Xbox One. Square Enix even announced Romancing SaGa 3 (and Scarlet Grace, but no Xbox version there) on stage at E3, which blew my fragile, little nerd mind. Come November 11, 2019, Xbox One players will be able to play a long-lost Super Famicom RPG that would have had no business appearing on Microsoft hardware only a few years ago. Romancing SaGa 3 and the rest of its siblings are hardcore, old school JRPGs, but with a special zest like no other. From unique progression mechanics that make every battle matter, to intriguing, open-ended storytelling, SaGa is a must-play for any RPG fan hankering for something a little outside the box. We’ve come a long way since Final Fantasy II.