Due for re-release on the Japanese Wii U Virtual Console service today, Bahamut Lagoon is (another) one of Squaresoft’s lost RPG treasures, a game that eighteen years after its original release still doesn’t officially exist to those of us living outside Japan.
The game most closely resembles a strategy RPG, similar to Shining Force II or Fire Emblem, but it has a few tricks up its sleeve that set it apart from the crowd. Each character shown on the battle map actually represents a team of four, and each of these parties is accompanied by a dragon. These dragons are never directly controlled by the player, but they can be given one of three basic orders that effect their behaviour on the battlefield, and decide whether they’ll stick close to their human team, stay put, or fly off on their own and probably end up in a heap of trouble.
There are two ways of doing damage to the enemy – direct combat plays out much like a regular JRPG, with individual party members given one turn to attack, defend or use their spells and skills. But Bahamut Lagoon’s really interesting ideas come into play when you use “field” skills instead.
Field skills are where a little bit of real-world logic creeps into the game. It’s always been a bit strange that RPGs are happy to let you summon fiery death upon your foes without leaving so much as a single blade of grass out of place, so it’s very nice to see Bahamut Lagoon bucking that trend and allowing you to freeze lakes with ice magic or burn down forests with fire spells. It’s not just for show, either – frozen water can be walked upon, bridges can be destroyed to stop your enemies chasing after you and ending a turn in the middle of a blazing inferno is definitely not good for your health!
Coming so very late In the SNES’ life certainly brought some issues – both the Sega Saturn and the PlayStation were at least a year old at the time – but on the other hand, it’s easily one of the most visually stunning SNES games of any genre, with virtually every single screen featuring some pastel-coloured “Mode 7” effect or a translucent overlay, if not both together. The lavish visual polish continues through every aspect of the game, with player and enemy battle sprites being a particular highlight with their exceptionally wide range of animations, even going so far as to have characters panting with exhaustion when they’re low on health – a small detail that’s not to be taken for granted, even today. Spells and battle effects are another area where Squaresoft flexed its impressive artistic muscle, starting big and only get bigger as the game progresses. It’s easy to dismiss these details as nothing more than a developer arguably at its peak wanting to show off, but this visual feedback does help to add a feeling of accomplishment to your dragon-raising efforts beyond the expected stat sheet increases
An entire game where half your forces are controlled by unseen game AI sounds like the stuff of nightmares, but Bahamut Lagoon handles it well. Your dragons are tough enough to take a few knocks, smart enough to heal themselves if needed and not use elemental attacks that would do more good than harm to whoever they’re attacking. Out of battle, their stat growth is entirely down to them player, who has the option of feeding them whatever spare items and equipment they've got to hand to tailor the stats almost exactly how they want them. Want to give a dragon more HP? Just feed them a few healing items. Want to boost their attack? Get them to eat some weaponry. Stat changes are immediate and obvious, giving some sense of control back to the player over these unpredictable beasts.
Some older games are best left as pleasant memories, as the experience of playing them years later can often reveal flaws that we've gladly left behind long ago. Bahamut Lagoon is not one of those games. Even today — eighteen years after it first hit Japanese store shelves — the game is still a joy to play and to look at. Bahamut Lagoon is a very welcome addition to the Wii U library and an RPG more than worth any genre fan’s time. Any chance of an English translation, Square?