Makai Toushi SaGa

In December 1988, the Square Corporation released the first Final Fantasy sequel, Final Fantasy II, which would not see the light of day outside Japan for over a decade. Some followers of the fabled franchise considered the sequel to be something of a dark horse, given its unique mechanisms compared to its predecessor, with its uniqueness still being notable today. The following year, Square released the very first role-playing game for the Nintendo GameBoy, Makai Toushi SaGa (Helltower Warrior SaGa in English), which saw its release outside Japan as The Final Fantasy Legend, although the brainchild of Square developer Akitoshi Kawazu had little to do with the more popular Final Fantasy series.

Much like the episode of The Simpsons where Marge gives Homer his own cake to mess up as he pleased, the SaGa games gave Kawazu free reign to introduce unconventional mechanisms to RPGs. In 2002 came an enhanced remake on the Japan-exclusive WonderSwan Color, which has lamentably not seen an incarnation outside Japan, although it definitely deserved a foreign release, since its nontraditional mechanics work quite well.

Upon starting a new game, the player can choose a main character from one of three types: human, esper, or monster, each with their own strength and weaknesses. In the first town, the player can recruit three allies of the aforementioned races, with a decent beginner’s party consisting of two humans, an esper, and a monster. By default, humans and espers come equipped with weapons that have a fixed number of uses before they disappear from the character’s inventory, with no way to refill weapon uses (although there are some rare weapons with unlimited uses). Humans and espers can also equip defense-enhancing armor, though monsters cannot.

The player randomly encounters enemies on fields and in dungeons, with commands for humans depending upon what they have in their inventories. Espers also have inventories albeit half the size of humans’, since half of their item lists are filled with commands that may randomly change after the player has won a fight and won money. Espers can have passive skills and active skills that have a fixed number of uses, these the player can refill by sleeping at inns. The player cannot equip weapons, armor, or items to monsters, whose skill lists are fixed depending upon their current incarnation.

After the player wins a fight by killing all enemies, foes may occasionally drop meat that the monsters in the player’s party can consume to change into another monster. An improvement over the GameBoy version is that the player can preview the species change before deciding whether or not to consume the meat. Victory also may net occasional stat gains and new skills for espers, though this depends largely upon random chance, and if an esper’s skills change for the worse, the player can always soft-reset the game, more convenient given the always-welcome ability to save anywhere outside battle.

The player can increase human HP, strength, and agility by using special buyable consumables on them. SaGa suffers from the typical turn-based RPG flaw of random and unpredictable turn order, even when fighting multiple enemies of the same type, and there is no way for a character to “pass” their opportunity to use a command unless they have absolutely no consumable weapons, skills, or items in their lists. Soft resets will also be frequent for more compulsive players such as Yours Truly, although the game mechanics ultimately work well, even somewhat better than in future SaGa titles.

Control is largely solid, with easy menus, the aforementioned save-anywhere feature, and a general linear structure in the game’s tower-climbing setup that for the most part keeps players moving in the right direction, although the player’s standard inventory space has a cap, with players needing to dispose of items to acquire the contents of treasure chests. It’s also a good idea to keep consumable Doors on hand in case the player finds himself or herself stuck at a certain point in the game so they can go back to a tower floor where a town is nearby. Overall, SaGa interfaces well with the player.

The plot is the weakest part of the game, with the player’s freely-customizable party naturally having scant development, although their characters may occasionally participate in conversations throughout the game’s events, and there is a twist near the end. In the end, however, SaGa has no more story than its original GameBoy incarnation.

Kenji Ito, as usual, does a nice job with the soundtrack, with the only real shortcoming being that his tracks sound no more different than they did in the GameBoy version.

The graphics look somewhat better, though, yet still appear somewhat primitive, with the player’s characters being unseen in battle and foes containing no animation, with a few palette-swaps as well.

Finally, the remake is short, taking less than ten hours to complete (this reviewer finished in around six hours), with the endless party customization and New Game+ providing unlimited replayability.

All in all, Makai Toushi SaGa for the WonderSwan color is a solid remake non-Japanese players unfortunately missed, with no future ports or remakes in sight, and Square-Enix’s North American branch giving the franchise the shaft, given its nontraditional mechanics. However, curious gamers will be happy to know that a complete translation of the remake exists so they can play it in English, if they’re of course fluent in the language and don’t want to spend endless hours learning Japanese.

The Good:
+Solid non-traditional RPG elements.
+Good soundtrack by Kenji Ito.
+Excellent replayability.

The Bad:
-Prepare to soft-reset and reload often.
-Little story.
-Lackluster visuals.

The Bottom Line:
Great remake Americans unfortunately missed out on.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: WonderSwan Color
Game Mechanics: 8/10
Controls: 7/10
Story: 5/10
Music/Sound: 9/10
Graphics: 6/10
Lasting Appeal: 10/10
Difficulty: Depends on party
Playing Time: Less than 10 Hours

Overall: 7.5/10

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