I really think SaGa is largely not a crowd pleasing series, but one that is interesting from a theoretical standpoint. It’s a pity, since people focus on more glitzy unusual RPG systems, like Chrono Cross, instead of the SaGa series. Then again, the first three SaGa games are Gameboy games, followed up by three SNES games (of which, only one is translated and one has been remade and translated.) The next game in the series was SaGa Frontier, which was translated, along with the sequel. Finally, there was Unlimited Saga, which is a trainwreck of a game with fascinating ideas. Since the SNES games were really where the SaGa series flowered and showed a lot of interesting potential, it feels like the heart of the series was never offered to US players. For another person’s overview, please try Rorshacma’s article at Hardcore Gaming 101.
Why do I say these games should be explored? Well, I think the shortest way to explain that is that the SaGa series is a series that has different design goals in almost every element of the game. Levelling up? Many SaGa games don’t have anything resembling a typical “level” and instead use a stat gain system. Skills? SaGa games often have a randomized skill system which can drastically change the potential of your party. Grinding? SaGa games some times encourage no grinding, and other times change how you need to grind. Equipment? Some of the SaGa games have breakable equipment. Quests? Some SaGa games close off and unlock quests dependent on various factors.
The first game shows some of these unusual elements. Unfortunately, it also shows some of SaGa’s weak elements. There’s bugs in various skills. There’s confusing systems that aren’t really explained to the player. A good example of this would be the Mutant’s stat growth. Many FAQs tell you to equip certain weapons to change their stats. According to someone who looked at the code, the stats are purely from a randomizer.
Final Fantasy Legend / SaGa has a weird feel to the game. The translation does not censor out things like someone being dead. In fact, a plot point of the first area is that a steward kills his king. You confront the steward for the murder, and end up fighting a very weak human. Your party then says simply, “You are scum,” to the dead body and continues the quest.
I think a good summation of the first SaGa game is that it feels like a rough edged experiment. It’s not a smoothly polished experience, and it can feel confusing or just not fun (especially if you want a “perfect” party) but it’s still quite playable. The plot, particularly the ending, stands out as a unique story even if the translation / text space can’t really fill it in that well. The unusual levelling mechanics aren’t necessarily better or more fair, but they do stand out from the crowd.
Why do I think people should at least try the SaGa games? I think seeing other ways of handling things can show the strengths and the weaknesses of convention. For example, the random stat growth and skills of a Mutant in Final Fantasy Legend / SaGa can make them feel utterly undependable. On the other hand, you’re encouraged to use their skills, since you don’t know when that attack skill, or that defense skill will vanish. Another reason to play the games is a more nebulous “feel” to the game. If you know what you’re doing, you can progress pretty quickly in Final Fantasy Legend. This means that you notice things like the curt and blunt feel to the plot, and the rougher elements of the game may not be so noticeable.