Akitoshi Kawazu is the honey badger of RPG design: He just don't give a ****. He's my favorite video game auteur, and for good reason: No one makes RPGs like he does. And that's for good reason, too.
My first exposure to Kawazu's distinctive approach came when SaGa Frontier showed up on PlayStation — it launched 18 years ago today in Japan and showed early in 1998 here in the States. I hadn't played the Final Fantasy Legend games, what with not owning a Game Boy and all, and in any case I had no idea that SaGa Frontier was in fact the sequel to those old portable RPGs.
Like a lot of people, I went into SaGa Frontier expecting something along the lines of Final Fantasy VII. The U.S. packaging for the two games shared a common style thanks to the unified visual approach that defined Square's early PS1 releases, and the packaging boldy trumpeted the Final Fantasy VII connection for those who lacked the visual acuity to make the connection. And, like a lot of people, I was surprised by how very different SaGa Frontier turned out to be from its sibling. No stunning CG cutscenes, no whizzy 3D graphics during combat, and in place of FFVII's big world-saving plot there were instead seven small, self-contained RPG stories to deal with. Oh, and also, the combat system was totally weird and confusing.
And that's just how SaGa rolls. Kawazu once told me that he got his start as a game designer making board games for his own amusement, and it seems that — even once he took charge of big development teams making games for millions of consumers — he never really shook that tendency. He directed the sequel to the original Final Fantasy before striking out with the SaGa series, and his one entry in the franchise remains a blip in its history, as none of its sequels followed up on its concepts.
"Final Fantasy II was basically my system," he told me cheerfully, "and it's an eclectic kind of system. Eclectic because I made it, you know? There was nobody else I could hand the torch off to afterwards, because there was nobody else who could fathom it."
In other words, he takes a distinct sort of pride in the opacity of his games — a tendency that reached its peak with 2004's bewildering Unlimited Saga, which took Kawazu back to his board game roots while simultaneously incorporating all the undocumented features of the SaGa games. Reviews for Unlimited Saga were almost universally negative, either baffled or angry. I've been told Kawazu was perfectly well aware that Unlimited Saga was almost completely inscrutable to anyone but himself, but he chose to exercise his political capital as one of the company's oldest employees to make it happen anyway.
Of course, games are more expensive now than they were a decade ago, and the stakes are much higher. That's undoubtedly why Kawazu's SaGa games have all but dried up; while there's a browser game in the works along with a mysterious 25th anniversary project, SaGa has definitely faded into the background.
Thankfully, anyone pining for a true SaGa experience isn't entirely out of luck; Atlus is publishing Furyu's Legend of Legacy this fall, a game designed by a number of former SaGa team members. It plays remarkably like a SaGa game, all the way down to (according to people who have played through the Japanese release) suffering from a few nagging design quirks that keep it from hitting masterpiece status. I'm still eager to play it, even if it disappointingly lacks Kawazu's involvement. But the fact that Legend of Legacy is being shaped in the image of SaGa means I'm not the only one out there with a fondness for one of gaming's quirkiest designers.