There Are No Safety Nets

How SaGa 2 Tells a Beautiful Story

[Text by John Thyer. This article was funded through Patreon under the ZEAL project. ZEAL aims to provide high quality criticism of rarely discussed games, and showcase the talents of exciting new writers and artists. For details and information on how to donate, please check out patreon.com/mammonmachine!]

SaGa 2 is a Japanese RPG released by Square in 1990 for the Nintendo GameBoy. Square localized it in the United States as Final Fantasy Legend II. I’m going to refer to it as SaGa 2 because it has fewer syllables.

SaGa 2 has a beautiful shape. It has a strong dramatic arc and a natural narrative flow from start to finish. Its beginning is gentle. Its climax is grueling. And the journey between the two ramps up at just the right pace.

The direct storytelling is minimal; GameBoy technical limitations are strict and allow for little grand cinematic drama. Not only that, but the scenario actively resists player investment. The game is divided into a dozen worlds, each with wildly different settings, characters, and tones. The only consistent through-lines are the combat and character progression systems, as well as a handful of themes that recur in each of the world’s stories.

In this way, SaGa 2 draws attention away from its representational aspects — the dialogue, the places, the characters — by not giving you time to grow attached to them. This refocuses the game around its mechanical abstractions. Managing stats, healing at inns, equipping armor, battling monsters; these are the center of the whole experience.

This is a seemingly backward approach to designing a Japanese RPG. The abstractions are supposed to supplement the storytelling, not the other way around. Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, Mother, Chrono Trigger, and most of the other canonized genre-codifiers are about exploring a world and taking part in a traditional story. Experience points and levels are just a means to an end.

This is what makes SaGa 2, and the series as a whole, unique. The numbers are the whole point. They are the language SaGa 2 uses to express its ideas.

This was also the approach of SaGa 2's predecessor. The first SaGa, or The Final Fantasy Legend, is a bizarre, glitchy nightmare. It precedes modern offbeat arthouse games like Yume Nikki or Problem Attic. It’s kind of a masterpiece. And it shares its unsettling story with a minimal, powerful script and a razor-sharp design language.

It’s a story about rejecting authority. It presents you with cowardly kings, corrupt despots, and inhuman deities. You progress by slaughtering them mercilessly. It climaxes with a conflict with the Creator. He can be read as both capital-G God and as the game’s designer. Either way, it’s clear he is the ultimate puppet master of SaGa’s world. Your characters battle with the Creator, and take him down bit by bit with the reservoir of powerful weapons and spells gathered over their journey. That, or they effortlessly tear him apart with a chainsaw.

Completing the game grants your characters a gateway to claim the Creator’s power. They reject it. Rather than become the new authority, they climb back down the tower and join their friends. It’s a harsh, graceful ending to a harsh, graceful game.

SaGa 2 retains this anarchic spirit, but it’s softer and more mature. Rather than rejecting authority outright, the characters (and you, the player) undergo an arc. Instead of hating and killing those with power, it teaches you not to rely on them.

Like its predecessor, SaGa 2 diverges sharply from traditional Japanese RPG design in many ways. In SaGa, dying doesn’t send you back to a safe zone like the throne room in Dragon Quest, or the healing center in Pokémon. Instead you’re forced to restart from your last save point, or begin the battle again from scratch. This single choice makes SaGa 2 a more isolating experience than many of its contemporaries. You can’t rely on a king or nurse to help you up when you fall down; you’re forced to make due without that safety net.

However, this is true of many other retro Japanese RPGs, including the first Final Fantasy and Phantasy Star. SaGa 2 goes several steps further.

Weapons and magic spells have a limited number of uses. They vanish after you attack with them too many times, and need replacement. This issue is compounded by the severe inventory limitation. Because your weapons degrade over time, you’re encouraged to carry as many spares as you can. However, carrying too many prevents you from collecting more potentially vital treasure.

You don’t level-up in a straight-forward way like other RPGs. There are no experience points. Instead your stat increases are random. You gain — and lose — crucial combat abilities in the same way. Party members of the monster class don’t level up at all, and instead transform by eating the meat of other monsters. Members of the robot class grow stronger by equipping more powerful weapons, but equipping too many weapons consumes valuable inventory space.

And most damningly of all, you can save anywhere you like, outside of combat encounters. If that seems like a forgiving concession, consider SaGa 2's harshest lesson.

In SaGa 2, it’s possible to find yourself right before a climactic battle and have no way to win.

This is true failure in SaGa 2: being completely unable to progress. It can happen in many ways. Maybe you attacked with your most powerful weapons too many times and don’t have enough uses left to win. Since many of the strongest weapons are unique and not found in stores, this is very possible. And as you have limited inventory space, you may feel forced to use a rare item when it’s not necessary to make room for more treasure.

Maybe you randomly lost a critical ability shortly into the last dungeon. It could have been a powerful offensive spell, or an ability that heals the whole party. Either way, through no fault of your own, it’s gone.

Maybe you saved right before the final boss, and you’re so low on supplies it’s impossible to retreat back to a safe place and regroup. Unlike the first SaGa, there are several save files, so it’s easier to take precautions to prevent this sort of occurrence. But it’s still easier than you would expect to get trapped.

SaGa 2 structures play so that every resource management and combat decision is important. It constructs a universe where you’re always under assault from powerful enemies and rarely given the best tools to handle them. And because of the reliance on random chance, you’re always getting caught off guard and having to make due with less-than-ideal circumstances.

The possibility of a permanent end state always looms. It’s never brought about by a single mistake, like triggering a spike-trap in Spelunky, but by the buildup of innumerable tiny miscalculations. Every fight matters.

This is why SaGa 2 has a beautiful shape. The consequences of your moment-to-moment strategic decisions reverberate through the entire game. It gives you a lot of room to breathe early on of course, and the first half of the game is fairly forgiving. But the import and tension inherent in the design is always present.

This tension is what gives SaGa 2 drama. It’s what makes the expression of its ideas resonate.

Ultimately, there are no safety nets.

This isn’t true at first: SaGa 2 gives you many tools to ease progress for large portions of the game. At the beginning of the story, you are charged with collecting 77 magical relics that, when gathered together, grant unimaginable power. Over the course of the game you collect almost all of them, and equip them to your characters to grow stronger. Some relics grant stat bonuses, others strengthen certain elemental attacks, and others provide healing moves for use in combat.

They’re invaluable items. Which is why it hurts when they’re stolen from you.

Not only are they taken away, but they’re used against you in battle by the villain who took them. It’s a meaningful, taxing moment — especially when, after you survive an onslaught of powerful attacks, the combined power of the relics overcomes the villain, and he melts away in front of you. He uses the relics as a shortcut to developing true strength. Thus, they consume him.

There’s another crucial tool you have for most of the game: the ability to retry a battle if you die. In the first SaGa, dying ends the game. The only option is to begin again from the last save point. In SaGa 2, you’re given the choice of ending the game OR retrying the battle from scratch and trying a different strategy.

This isn’t presented as a mechanical nicety, as in SaGa 3. It’s contextualized by the actual story. After death, there’s a short cutscene with the Norse god Odin, who offers to bring you back to life so you can one day face him in combat. Inevitably, your travels bring you face to face with Odin. He insists on battling you, even while your characters protest: “If we beat you, we won’t be able to revive anymore, right? We can’t do that!”

You fight and defeat Odin. He’s grateful to have fought such great warriors, and passes away happily. Dying in battle from that moment on sends you straight to the title screen.

There’s one last kindness the game shows you at certain points — before wrenching it away when it’s most needed. For many parts of SaGa 2, powerful allies accompany you in combat. The ally most central to the plot is your dad. He’s forced out of your party after beating the main villain — but before saving the world.

For the final dungeon, you’re accompanied by God. She’s nicer and more helpful than her incarnation in the first SaGa. But she immediately confesses to her lack of omnipotence, and leaves the party before the game’s last and hardest battle.

The game’s final battle against the Arsenal weapon is notable for many reasons. It’s an immaculate bit of cinematic staging in an 8-bit Japanese RPG. It uses three different music tracks, and segues into the most dramatic piece when Arsenal unveils its most devastating weapon.

But the real reason the fight resonates is that it pulls no punches. All your safety nets are gone. You can’t rely on relics, Odin’s revival ability, or your temporary allies. And it’s a hard battle. Arsenal’s ultimate weapon, “The Smasher,” hits each of your party members for tremendous damage every single turn. Surviving the onslaught is a monumental strategic challenge.

Winning feels transcendent.

The shape of SaGa 2’s systems forces you to use every tool you have. When it takes those tools away, it hurts. The thematic core of the story lives in our ability to succeed in spite of that hurt.

Relevant to this point is the soundtrack, assembled by Nobuo Uematsu and Kenji Ito. Uematsu put together the music for the first SaGa, while Ito went on to compose for most of the later SaGa games. You can hear Ito’s influence strongly in a number of SaGa 2's tracks. Contrast the hopeful melody in its boss theme with the more manic and intense pieces in the first and third SaGa games. This strength and heroism presents itself in many of SaGa 2’s tracks, and in some of Ito’s work in Final Fantasy Adventure.

Uematsu and Ito’s work on SaGa 2 embody the game’s spirit. In essence, it isn’t all that different from other well-made Japanese RPGs. It’s a story about strength, hope, and the power of resolute determination. You hear it in the music. You feel it in every small triumph while you play. It inherits its progressive edge from the first SaGa, but unlike that game there’s more than atheistic angst to your struggle — there’s beauty and dignity to it too.

When it comes time to descend into the planet and fight for its future, you don’t rely on your dad, you don’t rely on magic rocks, and you don’t rely on God. You don’t even rely on the kindness of the game’s designers.

You rely on yourself.