The History of the SaGa Series – A Comprehensive Timeline from 1989 to 2024

    The Legend Persists and Lives!

    Square Enix is a juggernaut in terms of JRPGs. They have dedicated themselves to providing quality and unique experiences that have garnered worldwide acclaim and adoration. Of course, there’s their prolific Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest game series. These two giants sit at the forefront of the genre with engaging gameplay, lovable characters, and immersive stories. Then, there’s their smaller series like Mana and Star Ocean that have different appeal than FF or DQ while garnering their own fan bases with their own charms and flavors. However, there is one series that Square produces that is quite often overlooked. This series offers challenging yet rewarding gameplay, distinct and complex progression systems, and deep lore. I can already hear you saying, “Just what is this series? It sounds awesome!” Well… let me tell you about the history of the SaGa Series!

    SaGa, a legendary series in Japan, is oft ignored overseas. Its complicated gameplay and out-of-the-ordinary format have typically left the series out of the mainstream conversation. Despite being a million-selling franchise, it never really blew up outside of Japan. Some players appreciate the series and love it more than Square’s bread and butter. How dedicated! Although, it appears not to be to taste of most people. Why? Because the very DNA of SaGa hinges on being different and giving players a unique offering compared to other games. The premise, gameplay, story, and more are always up in the air for this franchise. I’d say that the learning curve and experimental nature of these games are oil to the average gamer’s water. Especially if they’re more familiar with how other RPGs work and ask of them. I believe that SaGa offers great rewards if you’re willing to put in some elbow grease! 

    Ushering in a Legend (of the Final Fantasy Variety?)

    Making a Name for Himself – Creator, Akitoshi Kawazu

    There are plenty of handy interviews (GameInformer, Eurogamer, Forbes ) where the man himself sheds some light on his design philosophies and how he goes about crafting unique experiences. He grew up speaking his mind and loving tabletop gaming. I believe that Kawazu combines his strong personality and burning passion when he creates games.

    This is definitely what led him to make his mark at Square. He used his own unique traits during the creation of Final Fantasy I and II. He aimed to create something special on both occasions, creating the basis of Final Fantasy‘s core battle system and establishing Final Fantasy‘s drive towards change. These aspects are clearly very Kawazu. FFI‘s battle system takes cues from tabletop RPGs, and FFII is practically a proto-SaGa game. The huge success of the Final Fantasy series would lead to Kawazu being allowed to hold the reigns of his own franchise. A franchise that takes the DNA of FF but distills it down into a highly concentrated formula. A franchise that would form its own stylings and fanbase. A franchise that would become SaGa

    Humble Beginnings – Finding a Home on the Gameboy

    The Nintendo Gameboy (1989) absolutely EXPLODED in popularity, first in Japan, then worldwide. Square wanted to capitalize on creating games for it immediately due to Tetris’ success. At first, they wanted to simply trend chase and retort with their own puzzle game. Kawazue decided that it would be best to make an RPG despite what the top brass suggested. Square had already begun making a name for itself in the RPG space, so applying its own world-class RPG experience was a foregone conclusion that would bear fruit. SaGa was released as the first RPG on the Gameboy hardware and became Square’s first million-selling game. 

    SaGa employed many smart design decisions that led to its success. The limitations of the Gameboy and the drive to create a new experience formed the foundation of what would later become a full-blown franchise. The portability of the Gameboy and its limitations, such as color and battery life, forced the team to creatively design the game and get strengths from apparent restrictions.

    Things like the graphics, game balance, and playtime were all carefully considered and calibrated to create a refined JRPG experience that could be played in satisfying bursts or a pleasant marathon. A finely tuned encounter rate ensured that no matter how long a player actually played the game, they would be able to experience the gratifying thrill of battle. The game’s length was specifically crafted to be 6-8 hours, the perfect amount of time to occupy you on a wonderful vacation flight from Japan to Hawaii. These careful considerations combined with the deep, customizable gameplay to create a never-before-seen experience! In your pocket at that! 

    The Next Step – Pressing Forward on New Hardware

    Super Famicom Box

    The success of the original SaGa would eventually spawn sequels. The original SaGa trilogy’s success would eventually lead to another trilogy on Super Famicom that would push the envelope on the now-famous, emergent RPG gameplay that SaGa is known for. With the Super Famicom entries going above and beyond in terms of new mechanics and ideas. The PlayStation entries would further toy with the core ideas of what JRPGs with different takes on the then-modern trappings of the genre. The emergence of the 7th generation of gaming would cause some growing pains as SaGa struggled to gain overseas popularity despite this gen having some of the most interesting SaGa games in the series.

    It just didn’t have the appeal or polish as its older brother, Final Fantasy. Ironic due to their shared legacy and ideologies. SaGa’s aim does not align with FF‘s. FF aims to offer new experiences, yes, but they generally seek to broadly appeal with accessible gameplay,  a deep linear narrative, and some of the prettiest graphics on the market. This would be what most people would gravitate towards (including me). SaGa‘s key differences are intentional; Kawazu wants SaGa to be almost an antithesis to FF. Sadly, it seems people get the idea in their head that a genre can only be a handful of things, a way of thinking that’s antithetical to SaGa.

    After years of dormancy, SaGa had to find itself a new form yet again so that it could share its charms and ideas with a new generation. A form that I hope continues to change for many more years to come…

    Experimental Freedom (The Essence of SaGa)

    Final Fantasy Legend – The Original Trilogy

    Makai Toshi SaGa launched to high praise on the Gameboy. Successful Japanese titles usually got localized, and SaGa did! In the US, the original trilogy of SaGa games was known as Final Fantasy Legend I-III. The original Final Fantasy had become one of the first popular JRPGs stateside, so Square banked on the brand recognition of FF to help push more copies. The Final Fantasy Legend games were actually fairly popular, too! Just as they were in Japan!

    The original trilogy features unique premises, such as climbing a tower to defeat a god, collecting ancient fragments of a goddess, and traversing multiple dimensions. Even though RPGs of the era were story-light and relied heavily on their themes, SaGa succeeded at creating memorable scenarios. On the gameplay side of things, even the original SaGa entries featured atypical leveling and character classes. Some classes changed their stats after performing actions, some learned abilities by changing their form, robots had different stats depending on their equipment, and so on. 

    Feeling the Romance – Super SaGa

    After the success of the first two SaGa games on Gameboy, Nintendo urged Square to develop a new entry for their upcoming Super Famicom hardware. Final Fantasy was making the jump to 16-bit, and SaGa had become enough of a hit series for a primary gaming hardware manufacturer to demand it evolve. This new SaGa trilogy would feature the Free-Scenario System and many other ambitious mechanics that would create a level of depth that we still hardly see replicated to this day. Sadly, we never got these games outside of Japan until their HD remasters or remakes. I feel that the SaGa Series would have retained some popularity if these had come out. 

    This SaGa subseries introduced the Free From Scenario System, which allows players’ decisions to alter story progression. This led to unique events during every playthrough. The multiple playable characters in each game added an extra layer to the plot since each protagonist offered a different viewpoint on the events. The strong mechanics made the story conceits even more enjoyable to engage with. Romancing SaGa 1‘s deep world lore created a memorable adventurer. The interesting and one-of-a-kind dynasty succession of RS2 is impressive, and RS3‘s dark plot feels very mature for the era.

    A New Frontier – Cult Classic Duology

    The PlayStation is possibly the best console when it comes to JRPGs. The sheer amount of variety, interesting ideas, and landmark titles is nothing short of staggering. This also includes SaGa. The PlayStation allowed new graphical techniques, and its CD storage format allowed for even bigger games. SaGa experimented with new art styles, more abundant areas, and more detailed storylines. 

    The first SaGa Frontier follows the stories of multiple characters across several, rich, sci-fi worlds. Frontier takes what was great about the Romancing SaGa games and dials it up a notch. SaGa Frontier 2 experimented with a gorgeous watercolored art style to differentiate itself from the pre-rendered backgrounds of its contemporaries. Frontier 2 features 2 distinct storylines focusing on specific characters. So, while it technically features fewer main characters than other entries, it more than makes up for it by covering them in great detail. You see their stories unfold across a LIFETIME of events. 

    Slipping Outside of Japan – Struggle of SaGa

    The SaGa series was never quite as big as Final Fantasy, but it found mild success overseas. The games sold obscenely well in Japan and had a strong cult following in the West. However, this began to die down immensely during the PS2 generation. We got two SaGa games on the PS2, and both sold peanuts compared to its home country. Unlimited SaGa received harsh criticism, and Minstrel Song didn’t fare much better… Most folks didn’t give SaGa the time of day. Fair criticisms were even buried by over-the-top-cynicicism and closed-mindedness. Could this be the end of the SaGa series overseas? 

    Unlimited SaGa sports systems that are deeply inspired by tabletop games. Area movement is similar to moving an actual game piece across a board, while combat involves selecting multiple commands, creating combos, and carefully using characters. I find the art style super appealing and detailed. I can’t get enough of that 2D look!

    Romancing SaGa: Minstrel Song Remastered

    Romancing SaGa: Minstrel Song is an expanded 3D remake of the original Romancing SaGa. I personally love this game! It’s a bit overwhelming at first, but if you stick with it, you will discover amazing lore, diverse culture, enchanting music, insanely deep combat (like actually insane), and even the divisive art style that grew on me!

    Modern Refresh – Finding a New Niche

    SaGa, as a series, had been dormant for 14 years. The gap between Unlimited SaGa and the next main series entry was a wasteland. Well, besides some spinoffs and remakes. But that doesn’t quite quench the same thirst… Then 2016 rolled in with a new entry, SaGa: Scarlet Grace, on the PlayStation Vita! This new title touted a new battle system and a unique world map system not seen elsewhere in the franchise. Sadly, the game was Japan-only. UNTIL 2019 with an updated rerelease titled SaGa: Scarlet Grace Ambitions. This revision brought a slew of updates, including better load times, new characters, and more!

    Side Features – Tiding Over


    Between each new and exciting main entry, fans received tons of rereleases and spin-off games. In the 2000s, the first 3 SaGa games received remakes, along with Romancing SaGa 1. These included WonderSwan Color versions and DS reimaginings. Now, we have just about every main SaGa game remastered (fingers crossed for Unlimited and Frontier 2). On top of all of these releases, Japan has had several browser-based and mobile game spinoffs. 

    There have been several remakes and spinoffs in the SaGa series. Every game, ranging from SaGa 1 to Frontier, has some sort of remake or remaster. There are even rumblings of even more remasters… Maybe eventually, we’ll have a modern version of every SaGa that is widely available! That’d be the dream. There are SaGa spinoffs that are exclusively mobile/browser-based! Imperial SaGa is a two-game subseries, just like Frontier, and Emperors SaGa was the first mobile title in the series. I personally love the look of the WonderSwan and DS remakes of the games! They’re made with the same love as the Final Fantasy remakes on the same consoles. 

    The Legacy of SaGa (What the Future Holds)

    SaGa Emerald Beyond Key Art

    SaGa fans have been treated well over the past few years. With various remasters and even a new entry in the series, I sincerely hope that it regains its foothold as one of the premier niche JRPGs. SaGa’s exterior has changed quite often, but its soul is still the same as ever. I think that SaGa being true to itself will ensure that it has its fans, keeping the series alive for many more years to come. 

    The SaGa series is still alive and evolving. We’ve had a couple of minimalist titles, so I wonder what’s next. Something entirely new, I bet! Personally, I would love a higher-budget SaGa. Maybe Kawazu has some ideas that can only be done with a more “maximalist” style. 

    Payne Grist
    Payne Grist
    Payne is a huge fan of JRPGs. SQUARE ENIX owns his heart, especially their 'FINAL FANTASY' series. He is currently studying various mediums of art and Japanese.

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