In an era where I find online, free-to-play mobile games gross and yet play them anyway, an RPG experience that is small, complete, and playable in short sessions is a great palate cleanser. I finally picked up the Collection of SaGa AKA the Final Fantasy Legends remasters when they came out on mobile. As our thousands of readers might recall, I’m unreasonably nostalgic about these weird games – at one point I wrote an FAQ on one of them.
The Collection itself is about what you would expect. I got the Android version, and the real lure for me was the ability to play in portrait orientation and rearrange the buttons for comfort. The price tag might seem a little high for what it offers – but the fast-forward feature is a godsend (particularly for the second game, and I imagine I will appreciate it on the third also).
It’s hard to pin down exactly why the first two games are so cool – there are a few factors I can think of. Both mix “swords and sorcery” with modern weaponry and martial arts allowing for a variety of combat approaches, both have unusual (if not super deep, particularly for SaGa series games) advancement mechanics, and both have a variety of settings baked into a single game. They’re also among the few RPGs that were on Game Boy, so they also have that going for them. If there’s a single reason for my fascination, it’s probably that they were some of the only games I could put up with for hours on end in a car 20 years ago. But I’m going to pretend it’s the first three things I mentioned.
The first game, in particular, is an opaque mess of mechanics. Humans grow via stat potions, Mutants/Espers grow via random chance (weighted based on actions taken) at the end of a battle and can also gain/lose abilities at random – there are even system-specific mechanics, as some at GameFAQs seem to have noted different rates and mechanics on GBC versus the gray-brick model Game Boy (as far as I can tell, the Collection of SaGa version is equivalent to the GBC, which has rapid-growth, making Mutants easier to use and much more powerful). Monsters morph by eating meat, which makes them less predictable – and they have less overall growth potential – but they also have a lot better survivability in the game’s long dungeon delves and tower climbs since they can change forms instead of needing an inn to recover.
Re-examining the first game in the modern era is a bit of a trip. The game clearly expects you to have read the manual (which the collection sadly lacks), because after a short paragraph explanation that there’s a tower that rumors say leads to paradise, you pick a character type and you’re thrown straight into the game. In some ways it’s refreshing – take for example Final Fantasy XII, which gradually unlocked features, resulting in a “tutorial” arguably three times longer than any game in this collection – but for anyone not familiar with the original, it’s a potential brick wall. A new player might not even know how to improve their human characters, assuming they will grow organically (nope). While the means to progress in the first world is within easy reach – simple exploration will reveal and resolve the three questlines – the need to “use” a sphere (sorry, SPHERE) to open its corresponding door is going to be hard to discover on one’s own. Difficulty is pretty sporadic throughout the game, and comes mostly in long treks between towns rather than from bosses gating progress.
The second game is much more straightforward mechanically. Humans grow quickly, while Mutants grow slower but can get unique abilities that help the party or conserve resources. Notably in contrast to the first game, you can pick which ability a Mutant loses when gaining a new one. Monsters are still meat-based, but Robots (fully equipment-based) are added to the mix. With Robots being the ideal front-line fighter (as they can equip spare shields/armor), and all other mechanics being – relatively – much more straightforward, Final Fantasy Legend 2 is a more focused and traditional JRPG experience.
This relatively more controlled experience of FFL2 will be more intuitive to new players. While some more advanced game concepts like reordering abilities to pick which mutant powers get swapped out might be hard to discover on one’s own, the growth mechanics and robot mechanics are much easier to understand when you see them occur. The introduction section of the game gives you an overpowered helper, and the first major boss will take a couple hours to reach.
The mechanics of each lean into the overall atmosphere of their game. Final Fantasy Legend 1 has such a terse plot that it feels almost dreamlike – your characters’ motivation for climbing the tower itself is even left a mystery. The four main worlds themselves are drastically different from each other, but in between them there are also side-worlds that are mysterious – like the fish-statue mini-world – and even one side-world (arguably two) where you can solve peoples’ problem for literally no reward. The most fleshed-out side character has perhaps 5 lines of dialogue in the entire game.
Final Fantasy Legend 2, meanwhile, feels more like a “solid” JRPG; the motivations of the main cast are obvious, even if the journey is clearly bigger than they originally planned. Each world is much more grounded than (say) the third world of FFL1, with sky cities and gliders, and even though they have clear themes/motifs, that isn’t all they are and in FFL2 the concepts have room to breathe. For example – in said FFL1 third world, we have no idea why Byak-ko is hiring soldiers; as far as we can tell, the entire “resistance” is a girl living in a hut. As FFL2’s counter-example, in Edo we see townspeople who deeply crave bananas that the black market provides, which sets up Hana’s investigation into and conflict with Echigoya.
For a long time, I considered Final Fantasy Legend 1 a lot less replayable than its successor – now that I play them back to back, in short sessions, I found FFL easier to bear and FFL2 harder to bear. Even if it’s likely unintentional – mutants seem to grow much faster than my recollection – FFL requires very little in the way of grinding, even with a two-mutant party (my humans were finding it hard to keep up). FFL2 started off fairly similar, but around the midpoint of the game it became a major slog despite planning my party around the ease of taking out large enemy groups. FFL2 definitely has more interesting mechanics and rewards planning/preparation, whereas FFL’s mutant and monster mechanics make planning an exercise in futility unless you’re interested in an all-human party (not recommended). The larger set of variations involved in FFL2 creates a bit of a FOMO that feels akin to the first few hours of a CRPG (Should I have started with a different party? Why didn’t I pick a monster? Why am I building my humans this way?). The relative lengths of the games (FFL is around 3 hours, while FFL2 is closer to 10) and FFL’s relative lack of difficulty make the first game an easier entry point to the series.
For the non-nostalgic, these games are definitely products of their time. The first game is aimless, but each world is small enough that finding where you need to go is easy. The second is focused, but actually – oddly, for a game I used to praise for its brevity – a bit longer than it needs to be. They are both considerably more playable than the first Final Fantasy, and I could argue they are more interesting and as playable as Dragon Quest (if perhaps not as historic), but if you have the time and are curious about these odd little games, the Collection is an excellent way to play them.
Final Fantasy Legend 2 does have a DS remake which has been fan translated. I played it years ago and enjoyed it at the time. I tried playing it again last year and I honestly can’t recommend it over the original. You might find my younger, less jaded and less handsome self saying the opposite; don’t trust that guy, he has too much free time. He played Uncharted Waters Online for Christ’s sake. The encounters in the DS remake are extremely slow and while a fast-forward feature exists, it makes it much harder to follow the action than on the GB, and the game still runs slower. It also skips most animations and sounds entirely, leaving battles feeling lifeless. In a game where battling will be at least 80% of your time, that’s a hard sell. It’s largely faithful, and has some interesting mid-to-endgame optional content, so I guess if you have more time and you love the original I could see playing it. I also feel the designs in the remake are a little bland, versus the original which has just enough detail to leave a lot to the imagination.
As a parent to young kids, I’ve found the Collection to be a great counterpoint to the modern, constantly-online mobile game. Its entry point is lower than most mobile remakes for me – as a portrait game that loads up in just 20 seconds, that can be played one-handed and doesn’t require precise movement.
As an end-note, you can play Final Fantasy Legend 3 to enjoy the least SaGa game that is still a SaGa game somehow, complete with weird time-travel inconsistencies, a jumping mechanic for some reason, and poorly integrated monster/robot mechanics of the earlier games. I don’t actually think it’s that bad, but it just doesn’t hold the appeal of its older siblings. Although you should definitely listen to some of its music, which is among the best for the Game Boy.