SaGa Collection: The Legend of Mystery and the Legend of Stability

I finally picked up the Collection of SaGa AKA the Final Fantasy Legends remasters. As reader(s) of my blog might recall, I’m unreasonably nostalgic about these weird games – to the point of writing an FAQ on one of them around 10 years ago.

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).

The Mobile remake includes button rearrangement, configurable backgrounds and portrait or landscape orientation.

It’s hard to pin down exactly why these games are so cool – there are a few factors I can think of. Both mix “swords and sorcery” with modern guns 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 on their platform, 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 weighted random chance 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 grey-brick model Game Boy (as far as I can tell, the Collection of SaGa version is equivalent to the GBC – which is rapid-growth, making Mutants easier to use and much stronger stat-wise, but less reliable ability-wise). 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 morph instead of needing an Inn.

The second game, meanwhile, 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 benefit passively from shields unlike other characters), and all other mechanics being – relatively – much more straightforward, Final Fantasy Legend 2 is a more focused and traditional JRPG experience.

The mechanics of each actually tie into the overall atmosphere of the 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 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 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 that deeply crave bananas that the black market provides which sets up Hana’s conflict with Echigoya / the Shogun.

For a long time, I considered Final Fantasy Legend 1 a lot worse than its successor – now that I play them back to back, in short sessions, I found FFL easier to bear and am finding 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 (Venus’ world) it has become more of a slog despite having two spellcasters (which makes most hard encounters easier). FFL2 definitely has a more standard-JRPG feel, and more interesting mechanics (in FFL I could not rely on any mutant abilities lasting more than a few battles), but the larger set of variations involved creates a bit of a FOMO feel akin to the first few hours of a CRPG (should I have started with a different party? why didn’t I pick a monster?).

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 Final Fantasy, and I could argue for them being 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 shortly after it came out, and beat it. I tried playing it again more recently and I honestly can’t recommend it over the original (you’ll probably find me saying someplace else years ago on this site); the encounters go extremely slowly, and while a fast-forward feature exists it makes it much harder to follow the action than it was on GB, and the game still runs slower. It’s largely faithful in theory (with a few added mechanics that bloat the game a bit), so I guess if you have more time and you love the original I could see playing it. I also feel like the designs in the remake are a little bland.

As a parent to young kids – hence the sporadicness, followed by complete dearth of updates – 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.

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Suikoden 3 on PSN

Suikoden 3 came out on PSN last night (PS2 classic – unfortunately, only playable on PS3 so far).  It’s $10, which is a steal – not quite as good a one as its predecessors, since they actually printed enough copies of 3 the first time around.  This is probably a ramp-up to finishing out the series on PSN.

I haven’t written much about Suikoden 3 specifically here or on videolamer – the reason being that I only came around to appreciate what it does well on replays.
First off – just in case you haven’t heard much about the series – here are a few major hallmarks:

  • It’s a fantasy world with Chinese influences (though 3 eschews the latter somewhat).
  • Conflicts are regional, not global.  By that I mean – when you finally face the final antagonist, by and large, what you’re staving off is a regional tyrant and not a global disaster.
    People are people.  There are a few who are extraordinary in some ways, but there is no classic shonen hero who saves the world through the power of the heart.
  • When you win, it’s not because you’re more determined than the opponent or because of the power of your friendships.  It’s because you rallied the people to join your cause.
  • Themes tend to focus on interpersonal relationships, intrigue, and state-building.

Though Suikoden 3 does veer slightly into traditional-JRPG territory later in the game, there are a few things special about it in the Suikoden landscape:

Three primary protagonists and one optional set of chapters allow you to see events from multiple points of view and to pursue each one in the order you prefer.  This allows the game to develop 20-30 characters focused around each “team”.
Only one protagonist, Hugo, is classic-JRPG fare.  Chris is a female knight already in command of a sizeable force, while Geddoe is a veteran mercenary captain who is suspicious even of his own team at first.
Many story battles you are “intended” to lose can be won with a small reward if they are beaten.  No change occurs in the story, though.
Mechanics such as treasure bosses in certain areas complement the strategy battle system to encourage exploration and experimentation with multiple types of parties.

Don’t get me wrong, there are certainly downsides to the game.  There isn’t a world map and exploration can be slow.  Battles in early areas especially feature a downright baffling choice of music, especially considering the rest of the game has a good soundtrack.  Combat can be strange at first, with characters “leashed” and only one available for a specific command each turn, and the skill system can be overwhelming.
Give it a chance, though, and you’ll find a really good JRPG with relatable characters, a solid plot, and hints of where the series was going until it was derailed.

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Resurrection of videolamer

Hey reader(s),

I’ve posted many times about how I wrote for videolamer.com, a fringe website that had a half dozen active authors at a time and perhaps twice as many readers.

I feel pretty good about the writing I did, and as a reader was continually impressed by the topics others would bring up (which ran the gamut from market analysis to commentary on politics of video games to photoshopping Jack Thompson in compromising conditions).  After it went down, I was sad that the site had gone into disrepair and more so that I wouldn’t be able to go back and read some of the great reviews and analysis from the others.  A few weeks back, Jay said he still had a backup.

I was able to bring the site back at http://www.videolamer.niahak.org.  It’s a temporary home for it while we push the hosting back and forth a bit.  I had to do a bunch of manual SQL nonsense to get things working, so if you do happen to take a look, please let us know if links are broken.

Compared to before, I don’t really have as much free time as I used to, but I’m hoping I can at least write a few small reviews and some E3 fan stuff (loved the first looks at Xenoblade Chronicles X) sometime in the near future.  Not sure if the “whole gang can get back together”, but at least what we wrote over the course of a half dozen years is back on the internet, and I’m pretty happy with that.

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The Eventual Death of MMO-Only Games

A long, long time ago, I played one of the very first Massively Multiplayer games.  It was actually a set of games, really – dubbed the ImagiNation Network and owned by Sierra, it had several different sub-sections including standard board and gambling games, a multiplayer Red Baron, and, most importantly, an RPG called Shadows of Yserbius (later, Fates of Twinion and Ruins of Cawdor would be added).

At the time, the MMO had to be a part of basically its own internet, since the World Wide Web wasn’t really much of a thing at that point, and so service was extremely expensive especially by today’s standards.  Unfortunately, it seems to have also been too expensive for the owners, since they ended up being shut down.  It’s fascinating that the decision to kill Yserbius and its cousins was made to avoid competition with (the MMO) Neverwinter Nights, as that’s another such game I have some memories of.

In any case, it’s possible to download a version of Shadows of Yserbius and play it on your own, but that only gets you maybe a quarter of the experience.  Yserbius was meant to be played online, and its balance for single-player is really pretty bad.  We’ll set aside whether it’s actually a good game.

(courtesy of wikipedia)

Where does this leave us?  Some hobbyists are trying to resurrect INN in some form, but haven’t really gotten much of anywhere.  If they did, it would be perhaps a fraction of the original subscribers — of which there weren’t all that many in the first place.  It couldn’t possibly be the same, only somewhat similar.  There is an experience here that is arguably irrevocably vanished, impossible to reproduce.  Maybe that’s okay — change is a part of life, and pining for interaction with others in the form of an RPG that’s kiddie-pool level compared to dozens of free-to-play games is sort of silly.

But when I thought about it in the context of current free-to-play games, like World of Tanks, Maplestory, and especially less popular games such as Uncharted Waters Online, there are some experiences that will, in turn, be lost forever in a sense.  This is one reason why I prefer games to have an offline mode of some kind, or a design that won’t make a single-player version of it totally pointless.  I’ve heard Guild Wars does this well, and presumably. when it finally kicks the bucket, Diablo 3 will handle it gracefully.

Another interesting facet is that there is an admittedly small sub-genre of RPG that mimics online games, most famously the .hack series.  I can “log onto” that and find a dozen or so “other players” to have a good time with — in fact, that service will stick around forever, effectively.  It’s not quite the same as interacting with real people, but it arguably solves real-people problems such as excessive public chat, dancing in the streets of Stormwind, totally stupid players, and so on.  While .hack doesn’t feel like an MMO, in another few years games could reach the uncanny valley where I’m not sure if I’m interacting with a player or a bot.

I wonder if eventually, the remedy for dead and dying MMOs could be a “single player mode” which contains dozens of AI-guided characters playing alongside you?  The thought is simultaneously fascinating and chilling — if it were possible to get the AIs to the point where they could interact with people well enough, it could have all the benefits of MMO and few of the downsides.

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Another trip to Japan – stuff I picked up edition

I returned from another trip to Japan about a week ago.  This was my third journey there, and I was lucky enough to share it with my significant other.  She was most enthusiastic about visiting as many places as possible each day, so I had a ton of really good experiences I hadn’t before.

What was interesting about this trip versus my second was that I actually did very few of the same things I did the first time.  The only repeats were:

  • Akihabara (which gets less game-y and more creepy as time progresses)
  • Golden Temple (which I could go to every week and not get bored)
  • Kenrokuen and Kanazawa Castle (see Golden Temple)
  • Briefly, Den Den Town in Osaka (much better than Akihabara)

Although I only went to a few stores by comparison, I still made it out with some pretty good game-related loot.  I got the following games (all for SFC/SNES):

  • LaPlace’s Demon (sort-of psych thriller set in early 20th century (link))
  • Metal Max Returns, open-world post-apocalyptic RPG remake. Earliest entry we got was Metal Saga (PS2).
  • Leading Company, a business simulator by Koei that didn’t make it over the Pacific
  • Elnard, 7th Saga in Japanese
  • Mystic Ark, Elnard’s semi-successor
  • Wozz, a bizarre parody JRPG that’s highly regarded

In addition, I picked up a pack of soundtracks I’d been looking for:

  • Wild Arms 2 and 3 (2 and 4 CDs respectively)
  • Suikoden II (both volumes, 4 CDs total)
  • Stella Deus (1 CD, apparently poorly regarded as it was $7)

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