Kawazu: The man, the myth, the legend
Akitoshi Kawazu may be my all-time favorite video game auteur. He’s not your typical Hideo Kojima or David Cage, though — no film-obsessed designer whose predilections revolve around the synthesis of two forms of media. Kawazu’s quirks, his specific flavors of madness, reside purely on the mechanical side of things. He stands apart as an auteur because of his obsession with the game element of video games.
Perhaps more than any other single designer, Kawazu fixates on the relationship between video games and tabletop or pen-and-paper games. Sure, other people make video games based on tabletop brands and concepts, but Kawazu takes a different approach. He attempts to marry the unpredictability and complexity of those formats — the randomness of dice roles, the labyrinthine rules of a bookshelf full of Dungeons & Dragons manuals — into console RPG, a medium defined by its drive to simplify, to reduce, to automate, to streamline.
No work better represents the mad passion of Kawazu than 2003’s Unlimited Saga, a game that (I’ve been told by people in the know) he created even as he openly admitted it would be wildly unpopular. Unlimited Saga was the defiant last attempt of an old-guard designer to exert his singular perspective on the medium even as he was being pushed out of development and into management. The work of a man determined to burn the currency of a decade and a half of seniority within the company he helped build on his own personal expression.
Unlimited Saga is a mess of a game. It makes little sense, and makes even less effort to explicate its workings to the player. It’s bewildering. Befuddling. And yet, beneath the opacity of it all, you can see certain mechanisms at work — consistent rules and reliably chaotic operations. Unlimited Saga makes a twisted sort of sense, if you understand its foundation.
And this is that foundation: The Final Fantasy Legend. Or, as it’s called in Japan, Makaitoshi Sa•Ga.
Actually, Final Fantasy Legend could be seen as the foundation for a lot of things. Not only for the long-running SaGa series, but also for portable role-playing games in general. Before Legend, handhelds had never seen such a deep, complex video game. Nintendo’s Golf was about as dense as it got… and while that was a pretty meaty piece of work, especially considering it was a portable sports title, it had nothing on Legend.
The sprawling world of Final Fantasy Legend encompasses half a dozen different lands, all contained in a mind-bending fashion inside of a tower which simultaneously is contained within each world. At the top of the tower, the Creator — you know, God — waits to meet the intrepid heroes who can climb to its pinnacle. Along the way, though, the party discovers a twisted and contradictory universe: Though Paradise is said to be at the peak of the tower, the first realm you discover beyond the realm of Continent at the tower’s base appears to be Paradise: Its residents gush about how they have no need to work or labor, because they live in a care free land. And yet immediately above this seeming perfection is a pitch-black realm where the residents are forever flagellated by immortal demons. Far beyond that, you discover the World of Ruins, which swipes Etrian Odyssey’s big plot twist nearly two decades early: The ruins are those of Tokyo, and you go scavenging for old computer parts in “Akiba Town.”
It’s a strange and surreal take on the RPG, a bizarre hybrid of science-fiction and fantasy, mixing technology and spirituality. This mixture wasn’t exactly unheard of among JRPGs; by the time SaGa launched in Japan in 1989, Atlus and Namco’s Megami Tensei had already made its debut, bringing magic and demon-summoning into modern-day Tokyo. But if Megami Tensei was modern-day cyberpunk, Final Fantasy Legend was more far-future post-apocalyptic, throwing together a motley array of influences into a stew of monsters, psychic warriors, and punk-haired soldiers wielding swords and bazookas with equal aplomb. It was a defiantly weird RPG… and not just because of the setting.
The Final Fantasy Legend played as bizarrely as its story read. Whatever kind of characters you decided to go with, each had its own unique set of mechanics that would alternate empower and embitter you.
Humans, they’re nice and steady. They can equip anything you want, be it armor or weapons or just consumable items to use in battle. They can use the best gear, and you can mold them to suit your purposes. But all the great weapons they could take into combat will break down over time — yeah, even punches and kicks, for some reason. The more devastating the gear, the more quickly it degrades, culminating in the amazing Glass Sword that shatters after a single crushing blow.
Oh, and humans don’t level up. To make them stronger, you go to the local market and buy consumable potions that confer permanent stat boosts. It’s the original pay-to-win situation, with the vast majority of your party budget going toward turning your human character (or if you’re feeling like a big spender, characters) into an absolute beast of battle. It’s expensive and inconvenient thanks to the soft caps on level boosts, but it allows precise control of your character growth. Do you generalize across the three adaptable stats (strength, hit points, agility)? Or do you double down on one trait to the expense of all else?
Humans are by far the most sci-fi class in the game, too. While they start out wading into the fray with a sword or dagger in hand, eventually they’ll start to find handguns, then grenades, then laser swords. And a chainsaw, for some reason.
Monsters, on the other hand, they’re much trickier. While their stats are even more fixed than those of humans, monsters grow according to a fixed formula whose inner workings are utterly opaque to the player. It works thus: When you defeat a (non-humanoid) monster, you may have the opportunity to eat the meat it leaves behind. Grim, yeah, but if you try to feed that meat to your party members, nothing will happen… unless the party member in question belongs to the monster race. When a monster eats meat, the fun begins.
Monsters take the phrase “you are what you eat” to a literal extreme. When a monster devours a fallen enemy, it immediately mutates into some other breed of creature. Precisely what kind of creature results, however, may be the single most complex inner working of The Final Fantasy Legend. Each kind of monster falls into a different category, and within each category the monster types are ranked by level tiers. Consuming the meat of a specific type of enemy doesn’t simply turn you into that creature; instead, the resulting form your party member takes depends on your own monster’s current category and level as well as the specifics of the species you’ve devoured. You could mutate into a far more powerful form, or you could drop back down through the monster ranks. It’s not fair to say that the process is entirely unpredictable, because there are extensive charts and FAQs that lay down the very consistent rules that monster transformations observe. But it’s not wrong to say the process is inscrutable, even with charts in hand.
Provided you can make sense of these arcade effects, monsters hold fast to the principle of “what you see is what you get.” Each form of monster has a fixed set of skills, stats, and uses for its ability. Monsters can’t carry or use items, and they can’t equip any gear. If you stumble upon a powerful monster form, awesome! But you have to take great care when feeding a monster, because there’s always a chance you could rank down or end up stuck with some creature that’s only good for 10 attacks before needing to rest at an inn.
Teenage mutant ninja mutants
Meanwhile, the final race in the game, mutants, are legitimately as unpredictable as monsters appear to be. Where monsters have fixed stats and skills, and humans are exactly as useful as the investments you make into their abilities, mutants can vary wildly from battle to battle. The first four of a mutant’s eight inventory slots are dedicated to innate skills — not magic spells, exactly, but rather psychic powers that generally work the same as spells (mutants were, incidentally, called espers in Japan).
The thing is, the player has zero control over a mutant’s skills at any given time. They’re a total lottery, and they have a chance of changing after each and every battle. Besides obvious spell-like capabilities such as Flame and toxic Gas, mutants can also develop passive esper powers such as a resistance of vulnerability to elements, the ability to grant the party a higher likelihood of first-strike attacks, and more. The volatile nature of these powers means a mutant party member can suddenly become far and away the deadliest person in your team… and just as quickly be rendered useless by a whim of the random number generator.
That said, mutants change in other ways, too; unlike humans, their stats naturally grow over time. And unlike their spells, a mutant’s stat growth can be affected by your choice of actions in combat. Use spells and a mutant will become more a powerful mage as their mana stat skyrockets. Use a weapon based around agility and their agility stat will grow, making them more effective at wielding that weapon. Take damage in battle and their HP and defensive stats will improve.
If this sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because the mechanics of mutant growth derive largely from Akitoshi Kawazu’s previous project, Final Fantasy II. The mutability of FFII’s underpinnings make it by far the least beloved game in the series, and it seems either Kawazu or Square management realized his ideas about nurture-vs.-nature in RPG design didn’t fit with the mainstream, accessible ambitions the company had for its flagship RPG series. So Kawazu hopped over to Game Boy and created The Final Fantasy Legend instead.
But Legend is a more approachable and less frustrating game all around, because it greatly increases its sense of player agency over FFII. Yes, you never know what a mutant will do next, and monsters are a pain to try and predict… but at the same time, you have total control over your party makeup. You start with a single party member and add more at the local guild office, and can retire your heroes and roll new characters at any time. You can build a party consisting entirely of any one race, or any combination of races. You can choose the gender of your humans and mutants, too.
On top of that, you can exert some finite control over mutants beyond their stats. Since their inventory slots five through eight never develop innate powers, you can load them down with items to determine their specialization. Want to make them more durable? They can use the same armor as humans. Want them to become heavy-hitters? Give them human weapons and watch their proficiency with the relevant stat rise along with their damage output. Prefer them in a support role? Give them consumables to use in combat. Or you can buy magic tomes that have set numbers of uses and ensure your mutants can always use those powerful group-attack skills or healing spells.
Calm in the storm
Another massive boon for The Final Fantasy Legend is the inclusion of a battery back-up for save-anywhere flexibility. Recognizing the intricacy of the game and the needs of portable play, the Legend team threw out the idea that players should only be able to save in inns or towns; Legend lets you record your progress anywhere, so long as you’re outside of combat or a dialogue sequence. So if you’re worried about your monster becoming useless or your mutant losing their best skills, you can save frequently and reload as needed. Of course, like many other things about the game, this introduces the possibility that you can totally screw yourself over if you save with no resources and no health in the depths of a dungeon…
…but that’s part of Legend’s appeal. It operates on a combination of hands-off respect for player agency and enough randomization to keep you on your toes. It’s a remarkably complex take on the RPG, which makes its status as the world’s first portable RPG all the more surprising. It would quickly be followed by the much more traditional The Sword of Hope, but you have to respect Kawazu and his team for not making their creation toothless just because they were traveling in unexplored territory. If anything, I suspect they found the frontier nature of Game Boy enabling. Who could say what could and couldn’t be done with their game? What precedent was there? Whereas FFII felt like a betrayal in many ways of the original Final Fantasy, Legend — or rather, Sa•Ga — had no legacy to be accountable to.
Which, again, isn’t to suggest that the game went wildly off the rails. Despite all its unconventional elements, the physically impossible world, the weirdness of mutants and monsters, the blunt and often sarcastic comments by the player’s party members… despite these things, most of the game revolves around fighting enemies. And there, at least, The Final Fantasy Legend plays it straight. Underneath it all, Legend’s battles play much like those of contemporary Dragon Quests: Turn-based, first-person view, with groups of like enemy types represented through a single sprite. Standard role-playing mechanics apply, with totally typical status effects like blindness and poison showing up, single- and group-based attacks available, and stats determining turn order and attack efficacy.
And that, I think, is why The Final Fantasy Legend ultimately works. It anchors its unconventional ideas to time-tested industry standards, making it less some bizarre reinvention of the RPG and more of a variation on a theme. Certainly it stands out thanks to its place in history, but the game remains surprisingly playable 25 years later as a result of its innate normalcy. Who knows — there are probably some kids out there for whom Legend served as an entry point to the RPG genre, and they still wonder why other takes on the format seem so mundane by comparison.
In any case, The Final Fantasy Legend received two sequels on Game Boy, and the SaGa series continued with Romancing SaGa for Super Famicom and SaGa Frontier for PlayStation. And, of course, Unlimited Saga. Along the way, the conventions of the franchise were refined. Things like Life Points, which allowed for permanent character death, returned from time to time. Races continued to play a role, with the addition of the Mech race in later titles. Mutability and experiential growth took an even bigger part, with characters potentially learning skills on the fly (including attack combos) based on their combat actions. Legend even saw a remake in Japan on WonderSwan; that version remained faithful to the original, but offered a little more transparency (like giving players a better idea of what their meat choices would cause their monster allies to morph into).
But at no point has the SaGa series apologized for its own nature. It is its own creature, and it has been since the beginning. You don’t have to love The Final Fantasy Legend, but you have to respect it.
The Final Fantasy Legend
Japanese title: Makaitoshi Sa•Ga • 魔界塔士 Sa•Ga
Release date: 12.15.1989 [JP] | 9.30.1990 [US]
Super Game Boy: N/A
Previous in series: Final Fantasy II [Famicom, 12.17.1988]
Next in series: Final Fantasy Legend II [12.14.1990 [JP] | 11.1991 [US]]
Similar titles: Dragon Quest I & II [Enix, 1999], Pokémon Red [Game Freak/Nintendo, 1995]
The Final Fantasy Legend, packaging [U.S.]
The Final Fantasy Legend, packaging contents [U.S.]
The Final Fantasy Legend, box front [U.S.]
The Final Fantasy Legend, box back [U.S.]
The Final Fantasy Legend, cartridge [U.S.]
The Final Fantasy Legend, manual [U.S.]
The Final Fantasy Legend, fold-out map [U.S.]
The Final Fantasy Legend, fold-out poster [U.S.]
Makaitoushi Sa•Ga packaging, isometric shot [JP]
Makaitoushi Sa•Ga packaging, box front [JP]
Makaitoushi Sa•Ga packaging, box back [JP]
Makaitoushi Sa•Ga packaging, cartridge [JP]
Makaitoushi Sa•Ga packaging, manual [JP]
Makaitoushi Sa•Ga packaging, packaging contents [JP]