Late last night, Square Enix's official Japanese YouTube channel published a promo video for a long-promised 25th anniversary title to celebrate the SaGa series: Imperial SaGa.
The SaGa franchise debuted at the end of 1989 with the release of Makaitoushi SaGa for Game Boy, the first-ever portable role-playing game. Americans, of course, know it by the name The Final Fantasy Legend. Since then, SaGa has had an uneven and unpredictable relationship with the West through the years. Only about half the games in the series have made their way to America or Europe, and — as with the original Game Boy trilogy — often under different names. Collectively, they make for a dense, downright inscrutable RPG offshoot. The Final Fantasy Legend titles could be a bit puzzling, but they feel downright mundane compared to what came later.
And no surprise; the visionary behind the SaGa titles, Akitoshi Kawazu, falls very much into the auteur creator category. He's not really the Hideo Kojima "blockbuster game" type, though... more along the lines of the late Kenji Eno. His career has been built on games that don't so much defy player expectations as ignore them altogether; any given SaGa title consists of a curious mixture of genre conventions, series standards, and outright baffling ideas. The SaGa series is defined in part by all the things it does differently from other RPGs, and in part by the fact that it never actually explains how those differences work.
Crucially, Americans missed out on the high point of the series, the 16-bit Romancing SaGa trilogy, where its unique elements came together. No doubt the high cost of RPG carts (which typically retailed for $10-20 than other Super NES games) and the small console-based audience for the genre caused Square to realize that publishing SaGa outside Japan would be financial suicide. We did eventually receive the PlayStation 2 Romancing SaGa remake, but the originals remain stranded overseas — and thanks to their esoteric complexity, several have yet to see even fan translations.
Romancing SaGa's absence from the U.S. becomes doubly disappointing in light of Imperial SaGa, because the series' 16-bit entries serve as the basis for the new title. Or rather, the "new" title. Like Final Fantasy Record Keeper, Imperial SaGa basically takes a Smash Bros. approach to the history of its respective series — they're the crossover RPGs we all dreamed of back in the day, pulling together heroes and villains from the span of the entire franchise into the framework based on their 16-bit entries.
Unfortunately, that approach has very different connotations for SaGa than it does for Final Fantasy. The 16-bit Final Fantasies number among the most beloved games of all time in the U.S. — particularly Final Fantasy VI, whose style Record Keeper most closely mimics. But for the 16-bit SaGa titles, there's no nostalgia here whatsoever, aside from a sort of catch-all affection for retro game aesthetics. Because the Romancing SaGa games never traveled overseas, Imperial SaGa's ability to speak to foreign audiences is hobbled. For a game that revolves around taking a "greatest hits" approach to its design, pulling together heroes from across the full span of the franchise, the series' "otherness" to U.S. gamers would reduce Imperial SaGa to a sort of voyeuristic experience: Peering into someone else's fond memories.
It's a shame to think the SaGa series' 25th anniversary game probably won't show up in English, because it definitely looks to capture the same essence that Record Keeper does for Final Fantasy. The Imperial SaGa trailer shows a motley assortment of protagonists (including some characters who did make it to the U.S., the heroes of the PlayStation SaGa Frontier games) battling through scenarios lifted straight from the Romancing SaGa games and downsampled from later titles into a sort of faux-16-bit style. Likewise, the character sprites share a unified look, reminiscent of the Final Fantasy remakes for PSP. The sprites are a bit of a disappointment — not only do they look stiff and lifeless, the developers missed their chance to make in-game characters look more like Tomomi Kobayashi's gorgeous illustrations — but otherwise Imperial SaGa looks enticing. If nothing else, it's faithful to the "figure it out yourself" spirit of the games it compiles; the trailer places heavy emphasis on SaGa's trademark "lightbulb" moments where characters suddenly figure out a new skill or spell in the midst of combat through mysterious and opaque methods.
Personally, I find Imperial SaGa far more intriguing than Record Keeper, and not just because it's a browser game rather than mobile. This SaGa spinoff has the advantage of feeling different and new. Part of that is because I don't have much direct experience with the source material, but also, SaGa spinoffs are rare creatures indeed. We've seen a number of remakes through the years, but that's really about as far as Square has gone in franchising the series — quite unlike Final Fantasy. By the time Record Keeper hit, the idea of crossover Final Fantasy titles had long since ceased to be novel. We've seen those heroes in racing games, fighting games, weird fighter-RPG hybrids, making cameos in other titles, lending their costumes to other protagonists, and in mediocre mobile games; by the time they all came together for a proper RPG (not to mention a good mobile game), it no longer felt fresh or surprising.
There's also the question of how, exactly, Imperial SaGa will play out. It seems to use an abstract route map rather than a proper overworld, and combat seems to take a more nuanced approach than "five dudes line up and wail on one another."
I have a hard time imagining that all of this adds up to a game Square Enix will find a worthwhile candidate for localization. If they skipped the excellent DS remakes of the Final Fantasy Legend titles, which had a built-in audience of former Game Boy owners, it's hard to imagine something so much more foreign to American gamers would fare any better. Then again, Imperial SaGa is a browser game, which means the only real overhead would come in the cost of localization — not a negligible factor to be sure, but much less an obstacle than if the game were a retail product.
And even if Imperial SaGa remains stranded in Japan, this "nostalgic greatest hits" approach to game design seems to be heading toward becoming a trend. Even stolid Dragon Quest is getting in on the action with the action-focused Dragon Quest Heroes. I can think of worse ways for dusty old franchises to remain in the limelight.