With the release of the Romancing SaGa 3 remaster on Switch on 11th November, the game is finally getting a western localisation 24 years to the day after the game first launched on Super Famicom. With a choice of eight characters, a deep battle system and an expansive adventure defined by player choice, it's a classic JRPG that unfortunately remained in Japan - until now.
The remaster on Switch gives the pixel art of the SFC original a lick of HD paint, adds new scenarios and a dungeon and gives many of us in the west our first opportunity to get to grips with an innovative game which was arguably well ahead of its time.
We were lucky enough to have original Final Fantasy designer and SaGa series director Akitoshi Kawazu and series producer Masanori Ichikawa answer our questions about the original SaGa games on Game Boy, the reasons why the Super Famicom 'Romancing' branch wasn't localised for the west and how the series has influenced the non-linear, open-ended games of today.
Nintendo Life: The original SaGa games (known as Final Fantasy Legend in the west) on GameBoy were very popular – all three ranked on our reader-voted Top 50 Game Boy games list – and proved that the handheld system could handle ‘proper’ RPGs. Looking back on that time, what do you think was the most challenging aspect of developing those games on that modest hardware?
Kawazu - We made the original Final Fantasy on the Famicom / NES, which was able to render visuals in colour, which allowed us to really show a lot of variety in the game’s locations and graphics. However, the Game Boy only had monochromatic graphics, so we were unable to show things using colour, which I would say was the biggest challenge, as we still wanted to present a vivid and interesting fantasy world for players.
The latter two games in the Game Boy trilogy received Japan-only remakes on Nintendo DS. With remakes all the rage these days, would a radical Final Fantasy VII Remake-style overhaul on today’s hardware be something you’d be interested in seeing?
Kawazu - I think it would be really good if we could remake a game from the SaGa series in a modern style like this. However, since there’s not infinite time in life to do everything possible, I would prefer to spend it focusing on a new title created entirely in that modern style, rather than remaking something from the past.
Jumping from the Game Boy to Super Famicom hardware with the Romancing SaGa trilogy must have been liberating in many ways. From a developmental perspective, what excited you most about working with the more powerful console?
Kawazu - The most fun I have when working on a new, powerful console, is when I can think about the possibilities for using the new hardware’s technology to create totally new game design. I get really excited when I come up with a good idea for a new design that could only work on these new platforms.
After two games on Super Famicom, how did Romancing SaGa 3 evolve the series?
Kawazu - I think that diversions from the main narrative path in an RPG are a big part of the fun players have in these games, and it was from Romancing SaGa 3 onwards that I was more proactive in thinking about how we could make it easier to detour into that side content and really emphasise player choice within the narrative like this.
Romancing SaGa 2 released on Switch at the end of 2017. Does the Romancing SaGa 3 remaster make any significant gameplay changes to Romancing SaGa 2?
Ichikawa - Since The Final Fantasy Legend (“Makai Toshi SaGa” in Japan), the SaGa series has had numbers in the titles, but each one is a completely separate game. That does not change for any game in the series, whether it is Romancing SaGa, SaGa Frontier or any other titles in the expansive SaGa series. In that vein, even though Romancing SaGa 2 and Romancing SaGa 3 are consecutive numbered titles, they are separate games in their own right. In Romancing SaGa 2 we told a story of a single protagonist down the generations, whereas in Romancing SaGa 3 we have eight individual characters whose stories are interlinked, making it a very unique game in comparison.
Given the excitement surrounding Super Famicom games in the west – and the popularity of JRPGs on Super Nintendo – it seems odd that the original Romancing SaGa games were never localised back in the early ‘90s. What was the reason for that?
Kawazu - At the time, the concern raised about localisation was that perhaps Romancing SaGa was just a bit too complicated. Even from within Japan, it was clear that the stories of the 8 protagonists were so interwoven, that there was such a variety of choices and so many stories – in short, the sheer amount of text was so massive – that it would be incredibly costly to localise and difficult to understand. This is why we decided to pass on releasing it for the NA/EU market at that time. I could see the problems that had been pointed out and felt that it would be an unusually difficult game to localise, which is why I didn’t recommend it back then. Looking back, I think it was the wrong choice, so although it’s only in English right now, I’m really glad for the chance to expose the world to this game.
Player choice is a running theme in your work, and the more open-ended, non-linear gameplay pioneered in the SaGa series could be said to have influenced many games nowadays, RPGs and otherwise. What is it which attracted you to this style of gameplay, and why do you think it has become increasingly popular in recent years?
Kawazu - I don’t think that anyone really likes being told to “go and study” or have specific instructions of what to do in life. Back when games were a new medium and less common, people were happy to just play games, even if they had really specific conditions and commands on how to play and win. I think that’s why SaGa games became so popular – they had free space to allow players to have more choice in how they approach situations, both within the game’s story and also the battles.
These days, many games and genres have more freedom in how to play and win like this, but I think SaGa still shows a lot of flexibility and freedom without ever being so specific in telling players what they should or should not do. This is the reason why the more open-ended, non-linear gameplay like SaGa is becoming increasingly popular.
Your games used to have a reputation for not explaining everything to the player and letting them discover things themselves. When developing battle systems, how difficult is it to strike a balance between giving the player freedom to experiment and signalling so they don’t miss something fun or important?
Kawazu - For battles in particular, I always want to make all the rules clear to the player. There is always a need to create games that are still fun even when all the rules are known. After all, there are no “hidden rules” in Football or Baseball, are there?!
The fun comes from how you handle each situation and can pre-empt the opponent or outperform them with superior play. We have achieved that within Romancing SaGa 3 by including some elements that are out of the player’s direct control, such as the system where characters are inspired to learn new moves and the combo systems. I have also included elements that automatically adjust the gameplay balance by making it easier for the player to grow and enhance their characters if the enemies are powerful.
After years away, you returned to the Final Fantasy series with the Crystal Chronicles games and then on Final Fantasy XII. There must have been some dramatic differences between the development environment on the originals and the modern games, not least in team size. Did it feel strange returning to a series you helped originate that had evolved over time without your involvement?
Kawazu – Although there are no specific reasons, I never thought that I would be involved in the Final Fantasy series again after moving on to SaGa and other series. I just thought that I would not have that opportunity again.
However, it wasn’t that I did not want anything to do with the series, so things were not particularly weird for me when I returned to the team of Final Fantasy series. Although the development environment had changed in that time, it didn’t make me uneasy or uncomfortable to come back to it.
Switch has become something of a haven for RPG fans and there also seems to be an appetite for games that evoke classic 16-bit style through gameplay and graphics – we’re thinking about things like Octopath Traveler. Would you enjoy returning to that style in a full console RPG again? Given a blank canvas and sufficient time and money, what would you personally choose to make in 2019?
Kawazu - I am definitely more interested in VR technology recently - I would love to use VR to produce something. It’s just a totally new piece of technology, so I want to look at how I can incorporate it, as I think that there are great opportunities to design truly unique games with it.
Finally, we heard you’re a fan of boardgames – they’ve certainly seen a resurgence in recent years! When you get free time, what games (video or otherwise) do you enjoy playing?
Kawazu - I play card games and Monopoly with my child, which we both really enjoy - I don’t really get much time to play other games though. I really wonder how I had so much time to play games back when I was a student!
Our thanks to Mr. Kawazu and Mr Ichikawa for taking time to answer our questions. Will you be sampling this classic JRPG for the first time on Switch? Have you played it before? Let us know in the usual place.