Nostalgia can be a powerful liar. When I think back to the RPGs of my youth, they were all filled with grand stories, satisfying battle systems, and great tunes that I could never get out of my head. I picture myself sitting four feet from my TV and absolutely losing myself in those worlds for hours on end, shutting out even the worst things happening around me with games that transported me away. As I grow older, I find myself trying to reproduce the same experiences, and with a few notable exceptions (Chrono Trigger, Lufia II) I find that my nostalgia for these games doesn’t match the quality of the experience anymore.
The three games in Collection of SaGa Final Fantasy Legend (respectively localized as Final Fantasy Legend I, II, and III to capitalize on the popularity of the Final Fantasy brand, despite actually starting the SaGa series) are no exception to this. While each game shows incredible ambition and quality for originally being Game Boy titles, they just aren’t that fun to play today.
First, let’s take a look at the package as a whole. When you boot up the game they tell you that the games are presented exactly as originally released, but there have been some adjustments to meet “evolving cultural and social norms.” I honestly have no idea what’s been changed, so I can’t tell you what’s been adjusted. Next, you’re given the option to choose one of the three titles, which you can play in either English or Japanese.
Each game is presented (as noted) exactly as it was originally. The game is in the original aspect ratio with a green filter applied to make it appear more like it would have on the original Game Boy. The screen is surrounded by a customizable border — I didn’t like any of them — and you can play in a “small” or “large” screen size. I generally went with the large screen size even though the pixels are a little more visible. Particularly in Final Fantasy Legend III, I noticed some screen tearing with the emulation at this larger size. One cool idea is that they give you options to adjust each game to a “horizontal” mode and hold your Switch like you would have the original Game Boy, with a virtual gamepad to control the game. This is a nice feature, but I found the controls were a little finicky, so I didn’t spend much time with it.
The most notable adjustment is the ability to play the games at double speed. All of these games, even the later ones, are very grind-heavy, and the combat is generally pretty slow. Even better, the music doesn’t speed up at all, just the combat. These three games might be presented mostly as originally released, but this one adjustment makes a world of difference in making these mostly anachronistic games more palatable today.
Now let’s take a look at the games themselves. First is Final Fantasy Legend (otherwise known, simply, as SaGa). The premise is quite simple: a group of heroes wants to climb to the top of a tower that supposedly leads to paradise. While they climb, the party encounters locked doors, causing them to go off into different worlds at different levels of the tower to locate items that will allow them to continue their ascent.
And…that’s about it. Even though all three of these titles show their age, Final Fantasy Legend undoubtedly wears it the most. Coming off of Final Fantasy II, this was SaGa creator and director Akitoshi Kawazu‘s first chance at directing a full game, yet you can already see his voice developing here. There’s the opportunity to play as three different types of characters: Humans, Mutants, and Monsters. Mutants develop new skills and stats in a typical SaGa-like fashion: randomly when they use those skills. Monsters can eat food and mutate into new monsters. Humans gain stats by actually buying potions, like HP200, or Strength, throughout the game. It’s not explained very well, and it can be difficult to know how to build your characters appropriately without a guide, but I can’t deny that I appreciate the ambition that Kawazu hones in later games.
Otherwise, this game just feels old, for good or ill. To figure out where you’re going, you need to talk to every NPC. If you die in battle too many times, that party member is permanently gone. If you target an enemy that has already died, you won’t automatically target another. It’s hard to know exactly how much you need to build your characters before going to the next area, and man, are there some intense difficulty spikes here. Ultimately, Final Fantasy Legend mixes the inscrutable leveling mechanics of a SaGa game with the opaque event flag triggers of early NES RPGs, which can make the game a frustrating experience.
Luckily, Kawazu sharpens his skills fairly dramatically in Final Fantasy Legend II. This time, the story is significantly more ambitious, impressively so for such an early RPG. The game takes you on a quest to find your father who left many years ago to seek the MAGI, crystals created by the gods containing powerful magic. You discover as you go that an evil force seeks to gather all the MAGI in the world to cause destruction. It’s a fairly basic premise, but there are a surprising number of twists and turns, and really, for a Game Boy RPG, I’m still impressed by its ambition.
The gameplay is also largely improved here. Similar to the original, you can choose your character class from the jump, but with the addition of robots, whose stats are entirely dictated by their equipment. Monsters are more useful throughout, and Humans now use the same leveling mechanics as Mutants from the first game. This brings immense replay value, since different party compositions require vastly different strategies. The locations for most events have been made significantly clearer. Permanent death has been eliminated, but there are still some intense difficulty spikes. Overall, Final Fantasy Legend II is not great by any means. Leveling is still needlessly complex, and a lot of the mechanics are not sufficiently explained. I honestly have no idea how I beat this game as a kid. Nonetheless, this game shows Kawazu beginning to perfect the systems he would later use in SaGa games, and it’s the best of the collection.
Final Fantasy Legend III, on the other hand, is a bit of an outlier: it’s not really a SaGa game. Sure, it bears the moniker and shares many qualities with the previous two titles, but Kawazu was off working on other things, so a new director took the helm. This time, there are standard leveling mechanics, skills aren’t learned (or forgotten) at random, and it’s generally a more linear experience than the first game. You don’t create a party this time; instead, the party is selected for you. Even the story, which involves time travel mechanics to prevent the world from flooding, is a little more “standard” JRPG than the sometimes very odd storytelling choices in the first two games.
For some, I’m sure this is a boon. Final Fantasy Legend III is a lot less stressful than the first two. I never had to worry about making sure I was wearing the right equipment to level the right stats or that I might lose a skill vital to my progress. Even the difficulty level is mostly smoothed out, with almost no noticeable difficulty spikes. I didn’t find myself grinding nearly as much this time around. After two unrefined SaGa titles, I was admittedly relieved. However, there really is something missing without those mechanics, frustrating as they can be. Instead of feeling like a game where a creator is really experimenting and pushing against the boundaries of a developing genre, what we have here is a pretty boilerplate early era JRPG. And it’s fine for that, but I’m sure some will be disappointed.
One thing that absolutely won’t disappoint anyone, though, is the incredible soundtrack of these three games. Nobuo Uematsu, of Final Fantasy fame, composed the entire soundtrack of the first game, collaborated on the second, and his influence is apparent across the series. The title track is an earworm that perfectly evokes the mystery of these early RPGs, and everything else is truly impressive work for a Game Boy soundtrack. It’s underrated work, and if you haven’t had a chance, you should go listen to at least the title theme on YouTube.
Collection of SaGa Final Fantasy Legend didn’t have the same impact on me this time around, about that there is no doubt. Once again, my nostalgia deceived me. I’d find myself getting distracted and annoyed at various turns through all three games. Nonetheless, with the clarity of time, the sheer ambition of these games is all the more obvious. For that, this package should be celebrated. Add to that the ability to speed up all three games, and Collection of SaGa Final Fantasy Legend is a package worth picking up for those who have an interest in the history of the SaGa series, or just want to harken back to a (sometimes) simpler time.