Of Legends and Relics: Discussing RPGS of the Past and Remakes

Friday, May 25th, 2012

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Operation Rainfall has gone from a concept ignited by a few, to a collective idea embraced by thousands. I believe we were able to bring so many together because each and every one of us has a passion for Japanese games, particularly Japanese RPGs. Our common interest in Xenoblade, The Last Story, and Pandora’s Tower has brought us this far.

What about the games that introduced us to the genre? Surely these titles, however well known or obscure they’ve become over time, are just as important. You’ve no doubt played, or at least heard about certain staples in the genre. Before he created The Last Story, Hironobu Sakaguchi was responsible for creating one of the franchises that put RPGs on the map. And before composing a handful of songs from Xenoblade Chronicles, Yasunori Mitsuda was responsible for the masterful music from Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross.

Whether it was some of these titles, or perhaps games from the Dragon Quest / Dragon Warrior franchise that you first fell in love with (maybe it’s a game none of us have even heard of), let your memories of the past once again be your guide as I discuss a franchise that has a bit of a cult following.

Remake   Remake

The first RPG I ever played was Final Fantasy Legend II, more commonly referred to in Japan as SaGa 2: Hihō Densetsu. I suppose the publisher thought sticking the name “Final Fantasy Legend” onto the three SaGa games released stateside would make them more popular. I believe the same tactic was applied to “Final Fantasy Adventure” released around the same time—a game many would come to know as Sword of Mana some years later when it was remade for the Gameboy Advance.

The early SaGa games have a lot in common with some of the titles considered to make up the foundations of the role-playing genre. The plot is hardly considered groundbreaking, but the experience and appeal of the game relies heavily upon the player creating a team, essentially from scratch, and exploring a world that grows as the characters do. For anyone who is not familiar:

The main character (hand-picked personally by the player to be a Human, Mutant, Robot, or Monster) departs on a journey with three friends (also hand-picked by the player—you could travel as a merciless Robot Death Squad if that’s what you desire) in order to find his or her father and search for 77 relics, dubbed MAGI, said to be born from a goddess. The story has its fair share of turns, and the cast of characters outside of your team is somewhat memorable. But, what Final Fantasy Legend II boils down to is something most of today’s games have forgotten: simplicity and imagination.

RPGs of this ilk reflect a time in which their difficulty was not yet scaled back to welcome newcomers. The boss fights were incredibly difficult; there is little to no hand-holding throughout the game. Players are very much respected for their intelligence. If there’s a particular game mechanic or MAGI relic you don’t understand, you’ll get left behind.

To be completely honest, I miss the more customizable, imaginative role-playing games. And I’m not talking about games that offer the power of choice, like something from Bioware or Bethesda. I’m talking about the games where the player can name and customize the stats of the entire cast to fit whatever he or she is feeling at the time. It certainly offers a high amount of replay value, if nothing else. But this kind of game is a lost art, something you don’t see every day because of just how much the genre has evolved over time.

That’s why, when Square-Enix announced this game would be remade for the Nintendo DS in Japan, I was all over it. I was excited; I highly anticipated a stateside release, whether they decided to go with the “Final Fantasy Legend” shtick again or not.

SaGa 2: Hihou Densetsu – Goddess of Destiny was released in Japan on September 17, 2009. It must have sold well enough, because its sequel, SaGa 3: Jikuu no Hasha – Shadow or Light, was released about a year and a half later. These two games offered a closer look at their 8bit predecessors.  Each game’s story was given an extra layer of depth to reflect today’s evolved RPG audience, and of course each game’s graphics and soundtrack were drastically improved due to the power of the Nintendo DS family of systems. But these games stayed true to their roots; despite being remakes, their gameplay is still reflective of the very early 1990s.

I wonder if that’s why neither game found its way across the pond.

Square-Enix tends to localize a vast majority of its library. They’ve given us a handful of Dragon Quest games, Theatrythm Final Fantasy, The Four Heroes of Light, and perhaps even Bravely Default: Flying Fairy. But somehow, these two SaGa remakes were overlooked. Do they think our palettes are too sophisticated, or even…too spoiled for these games?

When news of SaGa 3 DS made its way around the web, I figured my chance of reliving my first RPG through the means I would like to had come and gone. I got the chance to see the remake through clips on Youtube. And I must say, despite an obvious language barrier, the gameplay and music showed some signs of evolution. Hearing a modern take on one of Nobuo Uematsu’s early compositions was really cool.


They even took a final boss that drove me up the wall back in the 90s because it was so hard, and made it seem even more intimidating.

After seeing the game in action, I found myself wanting more. Part of me wants to see if there are clips of SaGa 3: Jikuu no Hasha – Shadow or Light online. After all, I consider the classic version to be among my favorite games of all time. The DS update promises graphics that put the Gameboy to shame and a fantastic soundtrack.

I’m holding off for now, though.

After seeing SaGa 2 in a brand new light, I realized: while it was a great game, and it honored the original… it wasn’t quite the same. And that sentiment reflects something I’d like to ask of you all.

Can the experience of a remake, no matter how jam-packed full of content it is, ever surpass our memories the original version? Sometimes I feel like we should just leave games where they lie, rather than trying to “update” the classics.

The gameplay, music, characters, places and events that were birthed in the past…cannot compete with the present. Operation Rainfall’s Clinton Nix just did a retrospective piece detailing Final Fantasy VII—a game that fans desperately want to relive on a modern console through a multi-zillion dollar game.

I may be one of the only ones who feel this way, but… leave Final Fantasy VII alone. As wonderful as nostalgia is, and as much as Nintendo loves to capitalize on the concept even more than Square-Enix, it cannot make “classic gameplay” compete against the modern age. Something would have to change.

If there’s anything reflecting upon the “Final Fantasy Legend” games has proven, especially given that Square-Enix was unwilling to give their remakes a chance anywhere outside of Japan…

You cannot change the past, no matter how hard you try.