“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, the Romancing 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 the Final 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!
Anyway, case in point: Saga I or Final Fantasy Legend has the really barebones premise that your party is climbing a tower that leads to different worlds and ultimately to Paradise. There really isn’t that much more to the story than that, except for a glorious part where you end up in a post-apocalyptic cityscape that manages to feel like a “Mad Max”-“Akira” combo and where all the secondary characters you befriend die horribly. After that, you fight the Devil and kill him. Then you meet God and kill him too. Even better, there’s a glitch in the game where you can kill him in one hit with a chainsaw. I just can’t get past that Nintendo at the time kept their games from displaying churches and crosses in order to not offend anybody’s religious sensibilities, but a game with a climax where you literally go and butcher God with a chainsaw was perfectly acceptable. Speaking of which, has anyone noticed a trend in Japanese games where you fight, if not kill, God? Dragon Quest VII, Shin Megami Tensei I and II, Shadow Hearts…there’s a trend there.
Anyway, you get to kill gods again in FFL II, but this time they’re pagan gods from “our” world. It turns out the “gods” are really just people who have collected enough Magi, pieces of a magical statue that grants their holder special powers. Of course, it turns out that most of the “gods” are dicks. Deicide aside, the real fun of the game was the sheer randomness of the entire game’s universe. While in the first game you could and did have an arsenal that included swords, guns, and chainsaws, t’s here that the SaGa series put down its potential for surrealism, because you get to have in your party robots, monsters, and “Mystics” (who were translated as “Mutants” in the first English port of the game, but from what I understand they’re actually more like vampires). And in the course of the game you go to a dragon-racing world, Valhalla, a city where unattractive people are exiled, a Japanese world (where in probably one of the most famous examples of Nintendo’s watering-down translation policy all mentions of “opium” are turned into “bananas”, which caused many a kid in my generation to wonder why there was this Shogun hellbent on outlawing bananas), and at one point you get involved in a Fantastic Voyage-esque adventure. Still, though, I don’t think I ever finished the game, because I became much too frustrated at the fact that most of your weapons run out, which was a factor in the first game too but somehow it’s even worse here. Even when you buy, say, Broadswords, there’s a number next to them like “70” and it goes down by one each time you use it. I think instead of you literally buying 70 Broadswords and using them one by one, in the logic of the game it’s supposed to mark how your weapons slowly wear out, which I guess makes sense, but why the hell would they pick that point to display realism?! (And having played Silent Hill: Origins for the first time recently, the game where your steel pipe can break after using it four times at most, I have to say that my attitude toward this kind of “realism” has not changed).
Luckily they dropped that in the third game, and threw in the old-fashioned RPG system of levels. Unfortunately, you also couldn’t make a party of robots and monsters anymore, but at least you could turn your human party members into monsters (by eating monsters’ meat, which is a little disturbing when you think about it) and cyborgs. But FFL 3 honestly had one of the best premises I’d seen in a RPG; these evil gods from another dimension are slowly flooding the world and your party has to travel between three time eras to be able to get into said dimension. Admittedly, though, the time travel part of the story doesn’t lead to as much madcap exploring as there was in the second game. There are only three time zones, and except for the futuristic…well, future there isn’t much difference between them. Also, once the time travel part of the plot is dispensed with, you end up in the eeee-vil dimension where the game enters standard issue RPG territory, although there is one last fun part where you can buy weapons and armor in a shopping mall complete with escalators.
Oh, and you kill God…again. To be fair, it turns out that God has been corrupted by the evil gods and is turning into a monster, but still! Oh, Japan.