By request of Wheels
One of the great injustices of the previous console generation was that Square Enix never bothered to bring over the DS SaGa remakes. Like a lot of fantastic latter-day DS (and PSP) RPGs, the shrinking American portable market and too much optimism around the time it began to shrink robbed us English-speakers of some very nice remakes.
Of course, you probably wouldn’t have played them, would you? Because you played SaGa Frontier and Unlimited Saga and were like, Whoa man, this Akitoshi Kawazu dude is straight-up dumb. For years, we saw localized versions of the less accessible SaGa titles, and back when the Game Boy SaGas (of which the DS games comprised remakes) were being brought over to the U.S. it was under the auspices of the made-up “Final Fantasy Legend” saga. All that naming chicanery and insistence on localizing opaque, demanding titles kept people from taking a shot with the excellent Romancing SaGa PlayStation 2 remake, which in turn made Square Enix gun-shy about localizing SaGa 2: Goddess of Destiny and SaGa 3: Shadow and Light. And that is too dang bad, because both remakes were fantastic.
It helps, no doubt, that both remakes were built on a very solid foundation. Both SaGa 2 and 3 hold up surprisingly well for early Game Boy RPGs; the former refined the nifty by messy ideas laid down in the original Makaitoushi SaGa, while the other was basically Final Fantasy Mystic Quest Part Zero. A big part of these remakes’ appeal is that they bring these two very disparate chapters of the same series into alignment with one another, normalizing a lot of their mechanics while nevertheless retaining much of their distinct character.
They also feature some of the nicest graphics on the DS — fully 3D, bright and colorful, cel-shaded, detailed without being jumbled. Oh, and the music. My god, the music.
The remakes make no effort to be obsessively faithful to the originals, yet you wouldn’t mistake them for anything else. From the few hours I’ve played of each, they both retain most of their predecessors’ plot points, though they’re often shuffled about and embellished. SaGa 2, for example, begins with something of an extended tutorial courtesy of that little eyeball monster guy — a loose adaptation of the original game’s beginning, but considerably more modern in style (for better or worse, depending on your tolerance for slow starts and tutorial) content. Random battles are out altogether, replaced by roaming monster encounters on the world maps or in dungeons.
Of course, they both retain their essential SaGa-ness in terms of combat and mechanics. Turn-based fighte have that trademark element of unpredictability that Akitoshi Kawazu does so love; stats level up incrementally per battle as opposed to per level-up; and you never quite know what’s going to happen with your Beasts and Espers. Yes, SaGa 2 and 3 retain the classic race-based system, which is particularly notable in the case of 3, which didn’t originally operate under by same principles as the other SaGa games. Now, it works more like its brethren… though it’s still decidedly SaGa 3, with a convoluted time-travel tale taking center stage.
Most importantly, neither game loses the sense of “get lost, figure it out yourself” that defines SaGa, even when it’s calling itself merely Saga or Final Fantasy Legend or whatever; this is especially true of the third game, which consists largely of side quests, many of which have multiple possible outcomes. Even with the gentle intro and relatively kind difficulty curve, a lot of the process of playing these games consists of sorting out their vagaries. It’s remarkable in one sense – something of a rarity among remakes like this – yet also seems totally expected given the way the Romancing SaGa remake turned out. These two games were created very much in that same spirit; I’ve read that both games offer vastly more character development than the original versions… which, again, shouldn’t be too surprising given that they were Game Boy RPGs, but nevertheless adds a great deal of value to both remakes.
As I mentioned before, Square Enix declined to localize either of these games, but a fine group of citizens took up the cause and managed to deliver both a complete translation patch for SaGa 2 and a mostly complete one for SaGa 3. Tragically, I’ve only played the games in Japanese, since I own the retail carts and the patches aren’t Mac-friendly, but even in Japanese the quality of these remakes really shines through. They’re two of the finest RPGs on a system drowning in great RPGs, and frankly I have no compunctions about recommending the localized versions — it’s not like you’re taking money from anyone’s pockets, after all. But hey, maybe Square will surprise us and release the games on the DS Virtual Console for Wii U. Ah, I crack me up.