the artistry and psychology of gaming


Building a Game: SaGa Frontier

Building a Game: SaGa Frontier

The complexity of game design is very commonly overlooked, and to most players, it should be; if a game is well-designed, it flows well, and the player focuses on the experience, rather than on how it is put together, just like I don’t usually truly hear the music in an intense Action game while I’m playing it. Of course, if you’ve spent any kind of time writing code – even if it was just a year in high school and a semester and a half failing out of the computer science program at my college – you can’t help but begin to ponder the process when you’re playing something. My programming knowledge combined with my synaesthesia cause lines of code that I understand to visually manifest before my eyes, like I’m a low-budget version of Neo from The Matrix, so it’s even harder for me to avoid thinking about such things. Any game is comprised of a set of rules to be followed, whether that game be something like Hopscotch or Cards Against Humanity, and video games are no exception, though for some reason, we tend to forget that. Maybe we’re caught up in the story, maybe we’re absorbed by the intense action, or maybe we’re just staring at all of the shinies – which are even shinier, now that a blinding level of bloom is a requirement in most mainstream titles – dancing before us on the screen; whatever the reason, we overlook the fact that the fancy, multi-million dollar project we’re playing is really just a set of rules with a goal to achieve.

Every now and again, there is a game that doesn’t make your analytical eye glaze over; a game that forces you to think like a programmer. These are the games that are so complex that you have to spend a great deal of time figuring out how they work in order to even play them. SaGa Frontier is one of those games; if you approach it with the attitude that it’s just another standard RPG, I can almost guarantee that your party will be hopelessly slaughtered within the hour. It should come as no surprise to anyone who’s ever played any of his other games that SaGa Frontier was designed by Akitoshi Kawazu, who is best known for the oddball Final Fantasy 2. Kawazu has little interest in making good games – and has admitted in an interview that none of his games are any good – but he does love to tinker, and from a programming standpoint, he makes some of the most fascinating games around. Despite being one of the most brutal RPGs that I have ever played, and a set of rules that would make any first-time player’s head explode, I think that SaGa Frontier has a very solid design. It’s hard to say whether it’s a masterpiece or a trainwreck – and maybe, it’s a little of both – and because of that, it is something that absolutely every budding game designer should play as both a solid example and a solid non-example of how to design a game.

Build a Party

In most RPGs, you have a predetermined list of party members, and all you need to do is raise their experience and buy them equipment. SaGa Frontier has the most complicated growth methods for each of the four different species. Humans are the most basic species in most any game, but here, they are one of the most complicated. Like in Final Fantasy 2, characters’ stats level independently of each other, but unlike Final Fantasy 2, the growth system is done extremely well. No matter what you do, it is possible to gain in any stat after battle, but different kinds of actions have a greater proclivity toward the growth of certain stats. For example, using magic can make you stronger or faster, but you have the greatest chance of increasing your intelligence and justu points (MP for magic). Likewise, using a sword can increase your intelligence, but is more likely to increase your strength or waza points (MP for physical skills). Each individual character also has his or her own leanings, so while you can build any of them in any way that you want, they will grow more efficiently to be what they were intended to become. Most importantly, though, is that this independent stat growth encourages building your characters through actual combat, rather than having them just beat the stuffing out of each other.

Perhaps more important than stats, though, are skills. Sword skills and martial arts both work the same way: you attack, and if you’re lucky, a little light bulb will flash over your character’s head, and instead of the intended action, he or she will execute a brand new move, permanently learning it in. It is a very random process, but there are plenty of things that you can do to increase your chances. Fighting stronger enemies makes you more likely to learn something, and each move can only be learned from certain other moves, each one having a different rate of success. Of course, it couldn’t be that simple; each character has a different set of affinities for both sword skills and martial arts, having “talent” for some skills and not others. Each enemy also has a “spark value”, as does each individual move from the move to learn it. For example, Sky Twister has a spark value of 33 if you’re trying to learn it by using Triangle Kick, but a spark value of 40, if you’re just trying to learn it by punching. The idea is to get the highest possible enemy spark value and the lowest possible skill spark value. Well, most of the time; there’s a sweet spot if you match the two numbers exactly, so if the enemy’s spark value is 1-3 greater than the skill spark value, you actually have less of a chance than if the numbers are the same. Oh, and if your character has no talent for the move, your chances of learning it are 1/256, no matter what the spark value, so good luck. By the way, that’s the abridged version; fully understanding how sparking works is far more complicated.

The most exciting thing you will ever see in SaGa Frontier.

The most exciting thing you will ever see in SaGa Frontier.

Humans also have two other kinds of skills: gun skills and magic. These skills are another pair of sorts, because they work similarly to each other. Enemy spark values still apply here, but each skill has its own innate spark value; you can learn any gun skill from any other gun skill, and you can learn any spell from any other spell in the same school of magic. Gun skills can be built from the ground up by simply firing a pistol – not a cannon, which has the same menu icon, mind you – but with magic, you must both buy at least one spell from that school and have the gift for that school. In order to acquire the gift, you have to complete a side quest, some of which are very lengthy, and some of which are pathetically short. Each school also has an opposite, and they cannot mix, so if you have Light Magic, you cannot have Shadow, nor can you have the gift for both. Once you’ve gone through everything to make it possible, all you need to do is tell your character to use a gun or a spell, and whether or not that character even gets to do so, you have the chance of learning one skill or spell at the end of battle, when stat increases are being handed out. You might hope to coast through the game just training your humans with guns and magic, but that will never happen, because their offensive capabilities alone are insufficient to winning any of the seven scenarios.

Moving on, we have mystics, which look like characters from late ’80s/early ’90s anime, due to their unusual skin and hair color. One would think that they work just like humans, because their equipment slots are relatively the same, but they have only four skill slots, as well as three unremovable skills: Mystic Sword, Mystic Glove, and Mystic Boots. Mystics are completely unable to learn sword skills, martial arts, or gun techniques, leaving them only with magic. There are only two points in their favor: the fact that they are the only characters that have the gift for the Mystic school of magic, and their mystic weapons. The Mystic spells are mostly worthless, sadly, and the only one that you can’t just buy is Mirror Shade, which is a less useful version of the Arcane school’s Magician, which isn’t terribly useful to begin with. The mystic weapons, however, can “eat” any enemy that isn’t a human, mystic, or mec. If you hit any other kind of enemy – even some bosses – with a killing blow with any of these three skills, that particular one will absorb it, giving you a boost in stats, and attaching a monster-specific skill to it. For example, if you absorb a Treant with your Mystic Sword, you will have a boost of 18 to your intelligence and psychic stats, and you will be able to use Magic Heal until you absorb another enemy with it, which will replace that. Had you used the Mystic Glove, your boosts would be the same, but you’d be able to use Feeler, rather than Magic Heal. It sounds convoluted, and it is, but learn to exploit the system, and you’ll have powerful attacks, finally giving you a way to spend your mystic’s waza points, and can grow to be very powerful very quickly. Learning which enemies are best to absorb is essential, because the only stats that grow naturally for a mystic are HP, JP, WP, and the utterly useless charm.

Left: A large number of mystics.

Left: A large number of mystics.

Mecs are very solid fighters; they’re powerful, durable, and can only be dealt status ailments by a select few attacks. As you might imagine, mecs never grow; their stats are determined by their equipment. Their slots have no restrictions, aside from a few unremovable items in most cases, so if you want to equip a mec with nothing but Powered Suits, you’re free to do so. Naturally, each piece of equipment gives mecs an additional stat boost that no other species gets, and they’re mostly logical, weapons boosting strength, and the like. Their skill pool is fairly limited, but what they can learn can be quite useful. Every enemy mec has a different set of skills that can be potentially downloaded after battle; when the battle ends, your mec will have the option of trying to download a skill from one of the enemy mecs that you just defeated. It’s just as random as learning spells and gun techniques, but you can get some decent skills. Where mecs really shine, however, is in self-development. Yes, mecs use spark values, too; there are 8 different types of mecs, and each one has its own set of skills that it can learn if none of the enemy mec’s skills are learned by downloading. There is a bit of overlap, and some types have more skills or better skills than others, but the neat thing about that is that it makes them a much more diverse bunch than any other species.

Monsters are the most complicated species, and if you ask me, the least worthwhile. Unlike the other species, monsters cannot equip weapons or armor; they have only four equipment slots, which can be filled only by accessories. They also cannot unequip skills, like other species, and whenever they learn a new skill, whatever is in their eighth slot will be lost. Like mecs, they acquire skills from defeated enemies after battle, but do so from all types of foes, except for humans and mecs. The game also keeps track of which skills that monster has absorbed at some point, and gives an additional 4 maximum HP for each, but you don’t ever get to see that list, and each monster comes with several skills pre-absorbed that you will never know about. It is neat to play around with them and absorb different skills, because your monster will change into different monsters each time, based upon the skills it has in its current set, and its basic stats are determined by the form that it is currently taking. It’s fun to see your little green fox thing turn into a flying sword, a triceratops, and a massive dragon, and it’s also neat to finally get to use monster-only skills in an RPG. The problem is that most of the monster skills are worthless in the grand scheme of things; they will almost never out-hit a human, and will rarely out-hit a mystic or mec, and the amount of time spent into building them up into a good form with a lot of HP is much more than the amount of time you’d spend building up fighters that will actually become competent in the end. Some people really like monsters; I avoid them whenever possible.

Yeah, and it'll be deleted the second another one is learned.

Yeah, and it’ll be deleted the second another one is learned.

As you can see, there are so many choices for species alone, and within those are choices as to how you’re going to build each individual member. The game does do a good job of telling you how to build your humans by starting them out with skills that double as hints. For example, if you decide to get Gen – and you should – you’ll notice that he’s loaded with sword skills, and unsurprisingly, he’s very good with swords. The only notable exception is Annie, who is loaded with sword skills, but is terrible with swords. It’s not a complete contradiction, though; she’s terrible at most everything, though I’ve found that she’s least awful with martial arts, so I usually go that route with her. The most interesting thing with Annie, though, is that while she has talent for learning very few sword skills, they are very carefully chosen in a way that funnels her into Rosario Impale. Rosario Impale isn’t the very best sword technique, but it’s up there, and watching her, you can start to get a vague idea of which skills lead where, especially if you’re like I was when I first played, and just use the strongest techniques that your characters have.

Mystics, sadly, are not so lucky; you’d think that they’re excellent with magic, since that’s the only of the four skills that they can learn, right? Well, there are many factors that help with learning magic, but the most important ones are mastery, intelligence, and gun/magic talent. Mastery is simple: have at least 6 physical attacks and no magical attacks in your 8 skill slots to achieve physical mastery, which cuts WP cost by 1 point and makes physical techniques easier to learn, and the converse is true for magical. Oh, but mystics only have four skill slots, so tough luck. Gun/magic talent is an innate value that varies by character, ranging from 0-8. Every single mystic in the game has a gun/magic talent of 0. Well, when all else fails, fall back on intelligence, right? Yes, you can certainly absorb only enemies that boost your intelligence, but they’re hard to come by, especially early on. Mystics can become powerful allies, but they’re easily the biggest false positive that this game has when it comes to teaching you how to play it.

Perhaps the best thing about building parties in SaGa Frontier, though, is that you do have so many options. Don’t like mystics? Don’t use them; every single scenario has so many possible character choices that you’re rarely forced into cramping your own playstyle. You also have three separate parties, and don’t always have to use the one with your protagonist, unless you’re fighting certain bosses, so you’re free to experiment, and completely ditch one that doesn’t work. Humans and mystics also have four hand slots each, all of which are available in battle, so it’s very easy to switch from swords to magic to fists to guns on the fly, making battle strategy pretty deep. It’s a good thing that you have so many options, too, because this game is going to kick you in the mouth repeatedly until you’re spitting teeth, blood, and probably little pieces of your tongue.

Build a Story

SaGa Frontier‘s story is comprised of seven smaller stories, each centering around one single character. Many of these characters can be recruited in other characters’ scenarios, and considering all of this and how RPGs with this kind of story structure usually go, one might assume that it all overlaps and comes together in the end for one fantastic conclusion. To assume this, however would be wrong; each story is self-contained, and characters’ stories rarely overlap in any kind of meaningful way. You might consider this a missed opportunity to craft a grand story, detailing how it affects so many different lives. I, however, disagree; the result of eschewing the grand finale method is a set of short stories that have incredible depth and ground-breaking themes. Granted, they’re not all masterpieces, but at this length, it cannot be said that any of them Drag-on needlessly, like a certain 8th Quest with which you may be familiar.

In fact, Lute’s story doesn’t drag on at all; if you were to use a Game Shark and give yourself infinite HP and LP, you could finish his whole scenario in a little over an hour; it’d have two minutes of story, five minutes of the only mandatory dungeon, and an hour-long marathon of one of the most brutal final bosses I’ve ever encountered in a JRPG. So, why does this even exist? Well, you’d have to ask Kawazu, but I played Lute’s scenario first, and since it has likely the hardest of SaGa Frontier‘s final bosses, I did a lot of grinding and exploring. Lute’s scenario doesn’t just give you the freedom to wander around; it almost forces you to do so, which just might be the point, since it fits his character perfectly. This, of course, is a completely moot point if you don’t play his scenario first, but if you do, it’s a great way to see what the game has to offer, allowing you to use that knowledge to figure out where you want to take yourself in future scenarios. There’s nothing particularly special about Lute’s scenario – especially since you can recruit him in any other scenario – but he is the only character able to recruit the badass Captain Hamilton, and she’s worth the price of admission.

Riki’s scenario isn’t anything special, either. The premise is that his home region is dying, so the elder sends him to find the color-coded Magical McGuffin Rings (no, they’re not actually called that) to revive it. Each ring is acquired through a different quest, and they can be done in almost any order. This is easily my least favorite scenario, not only because you’re stuck with a monster as your main character, but also because the final dungeon has a room that is beyond infuriating; you have to follow a girl, who walks an invisible path over spikes, but you have to run into them to get your character to jump onto said path, and you’re never told this. Stepping even slightly off this path – again, unless you run full tilt at one of the also-invisible jump points – will cause you to get into a fight, and usually not an easy one. The boss of this dungeon doesn’t take damage, either; you have to pull off combos that impress him. Now, combos are made when certain moves are done in a certain order, and they form fairly automatically. The problems are finding out the order in which to use which moves, being faster than your enemy to prevent it from being interrupted, and the fact that you never know the order in which your characters will act; the quickness stat is more of a suggestion. Now, he does give you a free round, in which it is fairly easy to perform a combo with all five members of your party, but it takes two such combos to take him down, and even more, if you’re using combos with only three or four members; you’re unavoidably going to have to deal with potential interruptions.

Red’s scenario seems a bit shallow if you take it at face value, but it’s really a satire. He and his father are attacked, and in the process, his father is murdered, his mother and sister are kidnapped, and he’s badly injured. In comes the superhero, Alkarl, to save the day and turn you into the superhero, Alkaiser! You spend the rest of the time fighting crime and vowing revenge against the organization that murdered your father; Alkaiser’s official artwork even combines the epic superhero crouch with the typical fist-shaking revenge pose. Each of the crime bosses has goons dressed up in differently colored Super Sentai – think Power Rangers – outfits, and that’s just the tip of the superhero-lampooning iceberg. It’s also pretty neat that in order to transform into Alkaiser – who’s much stronger, and has some unique moves that only he can perform, but cannot grow – you have to be fighting alone, with only mecs, or in a dark place, in order to protect your real identity. He’s also one of the only main characters to really interact with another main character; it seems that he and Asellus know each other. Again, not a masterpiece, but certainly a lot of fun to play.

T260G’s scenario doesn’t have my favorite story, but is my absolute favorite to play. It begins with an intense battle in deep space that goes poorly for you; you crash in the middle of an aptly-named region called Junk. Your core is found, and a body is built for you out of scrap parts, and though you like like you’re put together with cardboard and bubblegum – T260G even complains about it, and he’s the typical robotic personality – you’re actually a pretty solid combat model. After a little while, you set out to travel the regions, trying to find out what your mission was before you were blasted to scrap, an interesting twist in the usual deus ex amnesia plot crutch. The best part is that after finishing one of the earlier quests, you can change your body type; throughout the game, you can get different types of mecs to join you, but T260G gets to become any of them and more at will, which also means that he can learn all of their self-developed skills. It’s an absolute blast to build your ultimate walking (rolling, floating, whatever) death machine, and you can also build an all-mec party, but if you do, just hope against all hope that the final boss doesn’t use Magnetic Storm, or else your totally boned. What T260G’s scenario lacks in story depth, it more than compensates in atmosphere; you travel to such unique places, and the atmosphere in the first half of the final dungeon is nothing short of horrifying.

Gratitude!?  I look like a junkyard threw up on me!

Gratitude!? I look like a junkyard threw up on me!

Emelia’s scenario is where things start to get really interesting. She’s a supermodel, whose fiancee was murdered. Said fiancee was a cop, and she’s framed for his murder. Once she gets out of jail, she’s saved by an underground resistance to SaGa Frontier‘s corporate superpower: Trinity. It’s never really explained what Trinity is, but this is a JRPG, and they’re some kind of corporate… empire… thing… they’re bad. Anyway, she’s after this Joker character, who she saw fleeing the scene of her fiancee’s murder, and the resistance, Gradius, is a means to that end. The whole story is about watching her grow stronger – even her stats and skills are pathetic in the beginning – both physically and emotionally. A neat aspect is that in each mission, she gets a different outfit that is supposed to enhance her ability to learn different kinds of skills; one for each type. Emelia also has two endings, determined by whether or not you pursue Joker in the third mission. If you don’t, you’ll get the happy ending, which makes so little sense that it’s an insult to your intelligence that you’re holding a controller as it happens; it’s almost as though Kawazu is punishing the player for chickening out. However, if you pursue him, you’ll get the sad ending, which is this beautiful, emotional scene that perfectly ends the story of her growth into a very strong, independent woman.

Badass enough to take down a robotic Hindu deity in her wedding dress.

Badass enough to take down a robotic Hindu deity in her wedding dress.

The first time that I played, Blue’s scenario was my absolute favorite, and it still rates very high. The premise is that you’re a magician raised in the Magic Kingdom, and as such, your goal is to learn all of the magic that you can to kill your twin brother, Rouge. Now, Rouge is available in most other characters’ scenarios, but you know very little about him, aside from that he’s trying to learn magic and that he’s the only character with the gift for Realm Magic. In fact, you’ve probably used him quite a bit, because he and Blue are the fastest magic learners in the game, and are both pretty good with swords. If this is one of the later scenarios you’ve played, most of it will be old hat, since it’s just going through the magic gift sidequests that you’ve likely completed in every other scenario. The only thing that’s really new is the Region Map, which lets you instantly warp to any region you’ve previously visited through a beautiful menu that I used for the featured image in my Kyo article. Once you have your gifts, you and Rouge have your epic duel – and it is pretty epic – but since you’ve done all of this before, you, the player, get to thinking. “Hm… You know, Rouge has been my companion before, and I don’t know much about him; is he really evil?”

The battle concludes, and the results are awesome; whoever wins is the protagonist for the rest of the scenario, and has the gift for all of the opposing magic schools, and now, you also have a new school called Life. You’ve spent the entire game carefully choosing your magic, and now, you have it all! So, you return to the Magic Kingdom to find it in utter ruin. As you make your way into the smoking crater, you learn more about yourself; apparently, Blue and Rouge were always the same person, but were split at birth in order to obtain all opposing schools of magic, and merge to create the ultimate magician to protect the region from the horrific entity that lies beneath. Unlike in most RPGs, though, in this case, you’re too late, and that’d be kind of neat just to not have that happy of an ending, but you get no ending at all. You go down in, battle the evil big-bad, and as you deal the final blow, the screen just fades to sepia in the middle of your attack; you don’t even get to see the amount of damage you’ve dealt. It’s sad that one of the most interesting story premises is so greatly depreciated by such a crap non-ending.

I don’t know whether Blue or Asellus has my favorite story in SaGa Frontier, but it’s a close call. Asellus is run over by a carriage and almost killed, and wakes up in the dark region of Facinaturu to find that although many years have passed, she hasn’t aged a day. It turns out that the lord of the region, a mystic named Orlouge, gave her some of his blood, turning her into a half-mystic; she grows and learns like a human, but has the mystic weapons and the gift for Mystic Magic, so she can become insanely powerful. She escapes with a mystic named White Rose, and returns to her aunt’s house, only to find that her aunt is terrified of her; White Rose is now all that she has left in this life. What makes this interesting is that she and White Rose are more than just friends; they’re also lovers. It is likely the best lesbian love story in a game to date, because it’s about love and discovery; not just blatant fanservice to the horny teenage male crowd to whom most video games are purportedly targeted. In fact, it’s so subtle that you might not even catch on the first time you play, if you’re not paying attention. Asellus also attracts the attention of a budding bisexual named Gina in Facinaturu, and no matter which of the three endings you get, you get a glimpse of Gina’s self-discovery of her sexuality. In fact, in the half-mystic ending, Asellus and the mystics go to visit an aging Gina, whose son or daughter (the sprite is ambiguous) refers to Asellus as “the love of [her] life”. Being a half-breed of two groups that don’t get along – or at least didn’t while I was growing up – I could really identify with Asellus, and each of her endings made me want to cry for different reasons.

An interesting thing to note is that if you make your way to the Debug Room in SaGa Frontier, you can see a few sprite sets that didn’t make their way into the final game. Among them are naked sprite sets for both Asellus and White Rose. I know what you’re thinking, and this does lead to a missing scene, but as it turns out, the text from it tells a very different story. Originally, to leave Facinaturu, Asellus and White Rose jumped into Kurenai, the eternal flame, which burnt their clothes to a crisp. So yes, they did get to see each other naked, but immediately thereafter, they went to Mosperiburg, where Virgil gives them some new clothing. Naked sprites in a lesbian love story that isn’t sexualized; so it can be done!

Build a World

SaGa Frontier‘s proudest feature is the Free Scenario system; it even says so on the back of the jewel case. So, what is it? A fancy way of saying that you can go pretty much anywhere almost anytime you want. I suppose that one might call it the prototypical Sandbox, but it’s not nearly so unstructured; you can go anywhere at anytime, but you can’t do anything that comes to mind; it’s still a JRPG. So, what’s the point of freedom to explore without freedom to do? The very point that an open world should be: it is a world worth exploring.

Each different area is called a region, and while it isn’t quite clear exactly what they are – they could be different countries, different planets, or even different dimensions – you travel across a blue, ripply void in space-age flying ships to get to them. There is no free travel, like in typical RPGs, in which you get a ship to traverse the water or air; you go to the port, choose a region, and watch a cutscene of the flying vessel traveling the void. I’d say that there is maybe a little lost potential here to make a Wind-Waker-style ocean of sorts to explore and find all sorts of tiny, well-hidden regions, but it’s not a huge loss, especially because 3D technology in the Fifth Generation was pretty lousy. If you think about it, most RPGs have really boring scenery; it’s just grass, grass, grass, a couple of mountains, grass, a forest, grass, a desert, grass, a snowy area, sometimes underwater or underground, maybe some sort of evil-looking death field, oh, and grass, grass, grass, grass, GRASS! Yes, I get that it’s supposed to be a cohesive world, but just think of how many towns exist in grasslands in a typical RPG; I’ve typed the word so many times that I had to look it up to make sure the spelling was correct! With these regions being separated the way that they are – whatever that is – they can exhibit some real diversity without worrying about making a game world that looks like a fingerpainting 3-year-old sneezed onto a canvas. We have enough RPGs that take place (please read the following quotation in Don LaFontaine’s voice) “in a world much like our own, but with monsters and impossible hairstyles and zippers and stuff”; there should be more that are designed like this!

Koorong is a good place to start your adventure. Granted, not every character is going to actually begin there, but this blazing neon nightscape is a good first goal to reach. It’s a sort of hub area in that you can travel from here to regions that you cannot reach from anywhere else; the only main region that you cannot enter from here is Nelson. Koorong has a wealth of information, tons of different specialized shops – many selling the best equipment that money can buy – and even a few characters to recruit and sidequests to undertake. It may seem a bit cramped – and it is – but it serves as a great place to get your footing in your main quest, especially if you need to head to the sewers and grind for a little while.

It's funnier if you DON'T explain the chicken.

It’s funnier if you DON’T explain the chicken.

The best, but hardest, places to grind are Yorkland and Shrike. In the rural Yorkland, you can enter the dreaded swamp, which has countless amphibians that are two ranks above what you’re supposed to be fighting. Shrike is a bit more suburban, but in addition to several vital sidequests and the only robotics shop in the game, there is the Bio Research Laboratory, which is like Yorkland’s swamp, but with many different kinds of enemies and the brutal guardian of one of the best shields that you can find. The sunny suburban atmosphere of Shrike makes it one of my favorite “normal regions”, though Manhattan’s equally sunny urban – though not quite as urban as Koorong – landscape is nice, too.

You might expect some kind of casino area with this many regions, and you’d be right: an entire region, Baccarat, was dedicated to filling that void. It’s a nice, extravagant nightscape that has a bit of a retro vibe to it, though you can’t actually gamble on anything. Apparently, the developers decided to focus on the main game, rather than wasting precious time on a bunch of minigames. Didn’t they, modern game developers? Speaking of nocturnal retro vibes, another favorite region of mine is IRPO, the Inter-Regional Police Office. Now, IRPO is a single screen, aside from a second screen that appears briefly during the Arcane Magic sidequest, and a title card, but it creates this neat atmosphere. IRPO is so ’80s that just thinking about it makes me feel like I’m sitting in my old house on the worn orange shag carpet, watching Night Court. It doesn’t quite rival Mother/Earthbound Zero, but it’s just as strong, for what little traversable real estate it has.

If you look really close, you can see Marsha Warfield through the window.

If you look really close, you can see Marsha Warfield through the window.

Devin is a strange place populated almost entirely by different types of fortune tellers. This is where you begin the Rune and Arcane sidequests – note that both runes and tarot cards are methods of fortune telling – but you’ll also find more off-the-wall “psychics” that tell your fortune via methods like the stains left behind after you’ve finished your coffee. My favorite thing about this region is that when you leave the port, there are a ton of signs telling you where to go, but they’re all pointing in the same direction. There is also a very beautiful section at the top of the shrine with lots of deep red leaves falling to the ground. While the main part of the region is just grass, there are enough little quirks to make Devin stand out.

I don't know where to go!

I don’t know where to go!

Owmi appears to be a small harbor town; while it lacks a lighthouse like the harbor town I used to visit in South Carolina in my early childhood, it does have a lovely atmosphere, crafted mostly by the warm, emotional music that plays there. This is where you wind up when you leave the aforementioned dark, foreboding, yet beautiful region of Facinaturu via the plane hidden in the cave beneath the bar. Owmi is also the only port from which you can reach Nelson, another port region that has a few unique items for sale. Nelson is supposed to be a very unsavory place with lots of pirates and other criminals, but the atmosphere just looks like a stylish old town, like you’d see in detective movies, and the music really helps to paint that picture. It’s kind of a hidden region, and within it is a hidden secret called Takonomics, which you can exploit to make yourself absurdly wealthy, if you have the patience.

There are a few regions that are not very exotic in biome, but have an interesting culture. Shingrow is a jungle region, but has ruins and an East-Asian style palace that wouldn’t look out of place somewhere like Indonesia. Wakatu resembles Feudal Japan, but is in complete ruin, so it has things like ninja ghosts. Also interesting about Wakatu is the well-hidden Blade God statue in the basement; it does have a purpose, but I have the official guide book, which doesn’t even mention it (surprise: it’s by Brady Games), so it was a good 15 years before I figured it out. Kyo, which I have discussed before, is a lovely Autumn landscape that is vaguely reminiscent of World 6 in Yoshi’s Island. What you may not know, though, is that the region is so beautiful that it actually changed my life. I was going through a pretty dark time in my life, and when I got to Kyo, the beauty combined with its mellow atmosphere just overwhelmed me. The sunset was so soothing that my personality almost immediately began changing into a much more laid-back one. So yes, a well-thought-out landscape can be just as deep and life-enhancing as the stories to which so many modern RPG developers love to cling.

Can you discover the mysterious secret of the Blade Chamber?

Can you discover the mysterious secret of the Blade Chamber?

Some of the regions are truly unique in nature. Luminous is a dark, mountainous region that glows in the moonlight. The residents of Luminous live in caverns, which are furnished like normal houses to look surprisingly cozy. Mosperiburg is another mountainous region, but is far more foreboding; though the ground is eternally covered in snow, the skies are eternally on fire. The only place that you will ever see, unless you’re after the Shield Card, is a dark mansion, through the windows of which, you can see only the black sky and burning flames, making a pretty horrific scene. Perhaps even more horrific is the lost scene from Asellus’s scenario; after jumping into the flame and having their clothing burn to ash, she and White Rose land naked in a snowfield under this flaming sky. I’ve walked barefoot through deep snow, and I hope to never have to do that again; I cannot possibly imagine doing so completely naked with a flaming night sky above my head. Those poor girls must have been terrified; most anyone would have been.

These regions are just a taste of the main ones; there are several other incredible places to go in SaGa Frontier, many of them scenario-specific. Just hearing about them, though, don’t you want to get right into exploring them? Beginning your first game of SaGa Frontier is a very overwhelming experience. However, you are always free to experience as much or as little as you want; I didn’t even know about the Time and Space Magic sidequests until the last scenario of my first playthrough, so even by the end of the game, I was still exploring, and there were still things I’d completely missed!  I’m still discovering new things fifteen years later! Do you just want to blast through the game? You can. Would you rather take a break and just wander for a dozen hours or so? You can do that, too. No matter whether you like a completely on-rails experience or a more open-ended one, SaGa Frontier has you covered.

Build a Game

Whenever an unusual mechanic is introduced to a game – whether it be uncommonly utilized or actually new – the developers walk the innovation tightrope, with gimmicky and underutilized on either side. It’s a difficult line to tread, because the slightest misstep can cause critics and players alike to destroy your game. So, how does one stay aloft; safe from the pit of ravenous gamers? The answer, quite simply is focus; you build your game around that mechanic. You don’t advertise something that makes your game stand out, and just throw it in on top of what you’ve already made; you start by implementing the concept, and then building the game around it.

SaGa Frontier does an absolutely fantastic job of building itself around the Free Scenario System. Though it is as much of an attention-catching buzzword as Blast Processing, it truly is one of the things that makes the game stand out to those who’ve spent enough time with it. With the Free Scenario System at the very core, the game world, the character stories, and even the game’s battles were built onto it, all making a cohesive package. On the surface, the game looks like an absolute mess, and to be fair, that’s not entirely unwarranted. However, beneath that mess is a very well-designed core; it’s like making a tiny dollhouse inside of a plastic Easter Egg, closing it up tightly, and piling all sorts of grass, dirt, and other detritus on top of the egg. To appreciate it, though, you’ll have to learn to play in an unorthodox manner.

I’ve lived in or near the woods my entire life, so I know very little about the urban lifestyle. I’ve been told that it’s actually a bad idea to lock your car, because if someone wants to steal your stereo, it’s going to happen; leaving your car unlocked at least prevents your doors or windows from being broken. Several aspects of playing SaGa Frontier are like leaving your car unlocked in a bad section of town; despite seeming like a terrible idea, they’re actually the best course of action. For example, if a character has no talent for learning a skill, the best option is to achieve the minimum possible value to spark it, in order to save your WP and to save the stronger enemies for those who do have talent for what they’re trying to spark. It took me quite some time to train myself to have my talentless characters slack off, even after having studied the algorithms presented by someone who has spent much more time with this game than I have, and objectively asserting that to be the best option. It’s almost like befriending a weird person; once you get used to our quirks, you’ll find that we can be pretty good company.

Titanic: Isla Mujeres Edition.  Starring this guy as Rose.

Titanic: Isla Mujeres Edition. Starring this guy as Rose.

Now, I’ll not deny that the game is extremely buggy. The algorithms that govern Asellus’s endings don’t work at all like they’re supposed to; you can actually develop her Mystic Glove and still get the full human ending. Emelia starts her scenario getting one of the runes, and despite not having actually accepted the Rune Magic sidequest, she cannot trigger any of the Arcane Magic sidequest events until she finishes the Rune Magic sidequest. Her costumes don’t work the way that they should, either; the martial arts one gives you the spark tree of Liza (who’s good at everything), the sword one gives you the spark tree of Annie (who’s terrible at everything, especially swords), and the magic and gun ones don’t actually do anything at all. There’s the aforementioned sweet spot in the sparking algorithm that really shouldn’t be there, and if you don’t have mastery for the skill in question, will actually be the greatest probability for learning something. These issues are just a small sample of a very large pool, and that is why this game gets a bad rap from a lot of people. Many are tempted to just write the entire game off as a buggy mess, when it’s mostly just quirky. It’s hard to blame them, though; when you encounter so many bugs, it’s easy to confuse quirks for more bugs, especially when you’re so frustrated from having your head handed to you so many times.

As I have said, the difficulty in SaGa Frontier is absolutely brutal. People love to complain about the Shin Megami Tensei games’ difficulty so much that ATLUS Hard has become a term. I’ve played through several ATLUS games, both old and new, and I can say that without a doubt, not a single one of those people have played SaGa Frontier; Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne gave me trouble in exactly three spots – two of which were optional superbosses, so that’s to be expected – and I still had a lot of trouble with SaGa Frontier. The point of this little rant? SaGa Frontier uses this difficulty to its advantage. Pop quiz: What do you do when an RPG is kicking your face so hard that you need plastic surgery just to avoid frightening small children? You grind like a professional skater, and that comparison is fairly apt, given that you might slam your mouth on a few rails just from regular battles in SaGa Frontier.

Those Dullahans get me every time!

Those Dullahans get me every time!

“But Alice,” you implore, “grinding is really boring. I don’t mind grinding a little bit here and there, but to spend most of my experience grinding doesn’t seem fun at all!” I’ve played Vay on the SEGA CD, and I totally agree with you, but SaGa Frontier isn’t such a slog. One thing that helps a great deal is that your progress isn’t measured only in levels – in this case, stats – and credits (gold); you also have a ton of different skills to learn, regardless of which path or species you’ve chosen. That alone makes a huge difference, but do you know the best way to keep grinding interesting? Disguise it as something else. Think about it: would you rather just pace back and forth until something attacks you over and over again for a few hours, or would you rather do something exciting, like battle your way through a ruined city filled with ghost ninjas? The beauty of SaGa Frontier is that it has quite a lot of sidequests, so when you need to grind, but don’t quite feel like it, you can just go on an adventure that’s separate from your main adventure. So, not only do you have the sheer satisfaction of finally learning that move that you’ve been wanting for hours, but you can also explore the vastness of the regions, collecting very valuable rewards in the process.

Perhaps, you’re still not convinced, and I don’t blame you; the reason that newer RPGs have almost no grinding is that more than anything, they desperately want to tell you a story. If you’re eagerly anticipating the next event in that story, grinding seems like the biggest chore; the wait to get back into the inaction is absolutely torturous. Yet again, SaGa Frontier has you covered; each of the stories is broken into little self-sustaining bits that pertain to the mission at hand, but each of the missions’ stories comprise a part of the larger story. This is some of the best story design that I’ve ever seen, because not only do you have a bunch of smaller stories that both are self-contained and come together to form a cohesive greater plot, but the game also does this in every scenario. Okay, so there are two notable exceptions: Lute and T260G. Lute is an exception, because his story is about 2 minutes long, so there’s nothing to break up. T260G has one long continuous story, but he’s a mec; mecs don’t grow, and his story missions are filled with mecs from which to download and self-develop great new skills for him and his crew, assuming that you use a good number of the 4 other mecs available in his scenario, so in his case, you’re doing most of your grinding in the story missions.

So, if there’s a lot of grinding in each scenario, and a great deal of that grinding is doing the same sidequests each time, doesn’t it get a bit repetitive? Some might say so, but I’d be inclined to disagree, because not only does the brutal challenge keep things fresh, most of the scenarios also do something different switch it up a bit. Asellus has all of the best aspects of being a human and a mystic, so you can turn her into an absolute beast. Blue has that ultimate magician twist toward the end, allowing you to experiment with almost all of the magic in the entire game. Emelia is a supermodel, so you can try on different costumes with her, each of which enhances a different one of the four types of skills that humans can learn; my favorite is the dancer. T260G can have his body modified into any of the 6 types of mecs that you can recruit throughout the scenarios and 2 exclusive types (I am aware that there is a Type 7 character, but he’s dummied; you can’t use him without a Game Shark) only available to him! I never found myself grumbling about the scenario ahead… except for Riki; I hate that little Lummox. No, really; that’s the name of the monster form that he takes when you begin his scenario or first recruit him.

That's really what they call his type of monster.

That’s really what they call his type of monster.

SaGa Frontier has several deep, interesting stories that the developers want to tell you, but they’re patient about it; they don’t shackle you in, and that’s very important in a game that encourages you to explore at your own pace. If its desire for you to continue the story were so strong, they might as well have just trashed the entire Free Scenario System, because it’d be useless. Say what you want about storytelling in modern games, SaGa Frontier totally nailed it in a way that most games don’t, and that was back on the Playstation 1. They’re all short and self-contained, but they don’t suffer from it, and have little to no unnecessary padding as a result; if you’re exhausted from the one you just completed, it’s also quite reasonable to take a long break from the game before starting the next, because there’s nothing that you need to remember. They’re like that half-hour-long game on the NES that you love to death and back because it knows exactly what it wants to be, and doesn’t try to be anything more.

Even many of the dungeons have clever designs. Kylin’s Paradise has a maze that is extremely simple to navigate, but is so visually busy that it distracts the player into thinking that it is overwhelmingly complex. As much as I wish that the burning sky would fall onto it and reduce it to ashes, the mansion in Mosperiburg has a few rooms that have some fairly clever puzzles, like monster bowling. Mu’s Tomb has two different entrances, but the one that leads to an event for the Rune Magic sidequest is marked with a humorous sign, reading, “Danger! Gefaar! Peligro!” and when prompted whether or not to enter, the negative response isn’t just a simple no, but, “I’m too young to die!” Even more humorous is that the Dutch word for danger is actually spelled gevaar, and in the big ending that you get after completing each of the scenarios, one of the programmers says that he hopes “we didn’t mis and spellig erors.” The game is littered with all sorts of neat little ideas like these; some are noteworthy because they’re great, while others will make you grumble every time you have to encounter them. Either way, it’s hard to accuse SaGa Frontier‘s dungeons of being boring.

Not by Internet standards, you didn't!

Not by Internet standards, you didn’t!

In the end, SaGa Frontier has, at best, a cult following, largely because few want to spend the time necessary to understand it. It’s a bit sad and paradoxical that this happens while people complain about how stale the genre is and dump hundreds of hours into the latest Final Fantasy without blinking an eye. believe the reason for this to be that the difficulty curve is such a different kind from what the typical RPG has to offer. Most RPGs just have harder and harder battles to fight, where this has more of a meta-difficulty; it is the player that “levels up” by expanding his or her knowledge of how the game works. The only other game like this that comes to mind is the French indie RPG called OFF, in which the difficulty curve lies in interpreting the increasingly surreal and obtuse story, which is made out to be a fairly obvious satire at its beginning. While I cannot recommend SaGa Frontier to everyone, there is no doubt that it should be required material for anyone wishing to get into game development to understand just how to and not to design a game.

A big thanks to anyone involved in decrypting this game, but most of all, to Zaraktheus, who’s done an incredible job with it.  If you’re interested in reading the massive encyclopedia that is is work in SaGa Frontier, you can find it here.

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