Square Enix, SquareSoft, or simply Square (depending on your age), has had a long history of successful RPG titles spanning their three decade career. While most of the western audience would associate their earliest years with Final Fantasy on the NES, it might surprise you to hear that it was not their first game to sell over 1 million copies. In fact, it wasn’t a Final Fantasy game at all, nor was it Dragon Quest / Dragon Warrior! Rather, it was the first entry in the SaGa series, Makai Toushi SaGa, that reached that milestone on the original Gameboy. While localized as The Final Fantasy Legend on the in the west to capitalize on the new-found Final Fantasy craze, the gameplay within could not be more different in comparison to your staple Final Fantasy title.
One of my fondest memories growing up in a GameBoy household was with the sequel, Final Fantasy Legend 2 (SaGa 2). As a kid, I found the second installment to be more approachable because I felt that The Final Fantasy Legend was crushingly difficult in comparison. But after revisiting SaGa Frontier on the PS1 a few weeks ago, I found myself craving more of the same style of gameplay that only the SaGa series consistently brings to the table. That, and I felt it was finally time to go back and experience The Final Fantasy Legend with a fresh, more mature (eh…hopefully) mindset.
Before powering up the original Gameboy version, I found out that a remake was made for the Wonderswan Color and decided to experience that one instead. And from what I can remember from the original, the Wonderswan edition is very much the same in regards to difficulty, minus quality of life improvements to equipment/spell descriptions that make them far less cryptic to decipher (and, of course, the graphics). That said, I can understand if some think that the improvements take away from the difficulty of the game, but they are welcome nonetheless. Either way, I found that a moderately high base level of challenge is intact across both versions. With all of that out of the way, let’s see what Makai Toushi SaGa is all about.
Despite hardware limitations and the fact that it was the first ever RPG on Gameboy, Makai Toushi SaGa still managed to have an interesting story. In a Biblical Tower of Babil-esque fashion, a structure exists in the center of the world that is said to lead to Paradise, a celestial habitat shrouded in mystery, compelling everyone to visit. The catch is that nobody has reached Paradise and lived to tell the tale. That is where you, the player, come into the scene.
You rally up to three other companions and decide to brave the tower in hopes of reaching Paradise. And it’s no wonder why so many people before you have met their deaths whilst attempting the task, because a menagerie of horrifying creatures await you at every turn. Really, how any sort of meaningful commerce is conducted around the game world is beyond me, given it is a festering pool of death.
Fortunately, you have some battle experience under your belt and can at least stand a chance against the overwhelming amount of adversaries. Once you select your main character from a Human, Mutant/Esper, or Monster (yes, MONSTER), you are dropped into the starting village and can act as you see fit from there. But, immediately running out of town on your own would be stupid, so just wait. As the old man in Zelda once said, “it is dangerous to go alone”, so be sure to recruit three additional members for your party before stepping out of town. The same process is followed as with your main character selection: choose a race and name for each party member. Once satisfied, THEN you should be set to start your adventure. Each party member will start out with a base level of equipment, so no serious shopping will be necessary immediately out of the gate.
Makai Toushi SaGa is very much a linear game, but there are instances where the reigns are taken off and you can tackle things in your own order. Your main objective, however, will be to find whatever is necessary to open up new sections of the world within the tower, with the ultimate goal of reaching Paradise. This often requires conversing with townsfolk to get a feel of the area and what issues might be present there. Finding and solving these objectives often lead to the acquisition of spheres (crystals in some versions), which can then be used to unlock doors that allow you to ascend further up the tower. If you find yourself in a situation where you’re unsure of how to progress, again, look to the townsfolk or explore in order to get back on track. NPCs are few and maps are small (remember, it is an OG Gameboy game), so you shouldn’t have too hard of a time getting the progressional ball rolling again.
Where you might hit a snag is in the combat, particularly early in your adventure. The random encounter rate is god awful, with frequent instances of combat after each step. You start out terribly weak and enemies are very strong. You will find it necessary to frequent the inn to heal up, sometimes after every fight, until you have a base level of character progression intact. And being the granddaddy of the SaGa franchise, expect it to handle that progression in a nonconventional way. Humans require store-bought items (drugs? steroids?) to enhance their various stats. Mutant/Espers will naturally gain increases to individual stats with experience, while also having a chance to learn new abilities in combat. Monsters can improve their prowess by consuming the meat randomly found off the corpses of their enemies, though that doesn’t always work in their favor. Sometimes you might eat something that actually hinders your performance, so keep that in mind.
The “beauty” of Makai Toushi SaGa lies in the ability to tailor your party around your personal tastes. Want to use the human master race exclusively? Go for it. Or maybe you prefer a mix of humans, mutants, and monsters? Screw humanoids, how about a full-on monster party? Absolutely. While this level of party customization opens up the possibility of multiple playthroughs without the experience going stale, it is a superficial feature at best except for those challenge seekers out there. Meaning, there are many more challenging party makeups than there are viable ones to the average player.
For example, unless you absolutely hate yourself, you won’t want to roll with an entire group of monsters as they’re arguably the weakest and most difficult “race” to develop. Surprisingly, you also wouldn’t want to have an all-human roster due to the significant amount of cost involved in their stat-boosting process alone (unless you just really love to grind–like a lot). Mutants are definitely the easiest to build because they naturally gain stats and abilities from combat experience alone. The saving grace here is that your initial party selection isn’t held at gunpoint for the entire game. You are able to replace your three companions with different ones at most towns, though, obviously, your progression is lost in the process. Even if you decide to stick with your initial four, you may find yourself at the recruitment table at some point due to the permadeath system.
Yes, akin to most SaGa games, Makai Toushi SaGa gives each character a limited amount of lives (hearts in this game). One heart is expended each time you fall in combat, rendering the character permanently dead should their tally reach zero. While it may seem a bit too hardcore to some, I welcome the idea as it makes each encounter that much more engaging since you’re forced to keep party health in check at all times. There are items that can restore hearts, but they are incredibly expensive early on. The best course of action is to play it safe and SAVE OFTEN. You can save anywhere outside of battle, so be sure to capitalize on it.
Makai Toushi SaGa looks great on the Wonderswan, managing to please those that experienced the original version with added flair (namely spell and ability animations) while also paying respect to its source material. Although the original Gameboy graphics may not appeal to everyone, keep in mind that this was the first RPG on the system and released within the first 6 months of the console’s life. The important thing is that it has a definitive style that is easily recognizable even today. Graphics aside, I think we can all agree that the soundtrack, composed by none other than Nobuo Uematsu himself, is a treat. Interestly enough, it is said that he initially struggled quite a bit with composing for the platform, seeing as his console experience beforehand stemmed from the Famicom. Needless to say, I think he was able to persevere and deliver a really solid composition for it.
There are not many games as old as Makai Toushi SaGa that I would necessarily recommend playing today, but I do think it is a title worth checking out for any hardcore JRPG fan. It isn’t a terribly long game at 10-20 hours, and expect for most of that time to be allocated to grinding, whether it be for money, stat upgrades, or monster meat. It’s interesting to see the beginnings of the SaGa series and how much different it is than its Final Fantasy cousin, especially considering the complexity of both franchises despite their hardware limitations. Should you decide to check Makai Toushi SaGa out for yourself, it doesn’t matter whether you play the Wonderswan version or the original. However, you might want to grab a spell/equipment guide for the latter to save a bit of potential headache with it. The difficulty can prove to be quite taxing, specifically early on and depending on your character loadout, but it does get better after the initial hour or so.