What’s the difference between a hidden gem and unreleased curiosity? The answer lay in the difference between the unreleased (until now) SNES JRPG Romancing SaGa 2, and the over-released, nostalgia heavy Metroidvania game, UnEpic.
Both are RPGs in that you find equipment, fight enemies, and power up via stat points and ability upgrades. One is action focused, the other turn based. One developed during the 16-bit heyday of games like Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy VI, Earthbound, and the Secret of Mana – that was impossible to find until now. The other, deliberately paying homage to games from that era, is nearly impossible to miss – being released on Wii U, Xbox One, PS4, PS Vita, PC, Linux, MAC OS, Windows, and now the Nintendo Switch.
So when both Romancing SaGa 2 and UnEpic were released on the Nintendo eShop, and the developers were kind enough to provide a code for coverage, I couldn’t help but compare them…and notice their differences, how bizarrely related they are, and how they both relate to the singular question of nostalgia exploitation.
Thus far, Romancing SaGa 2 has been referred to as a ‘hidden gem’ by a few outlets; primarily because it was part of the famed ‘SaGa Frontier’ series, developed by Square, and never found its way to American audiences until a release on iOS (and now Switch, Xbox One, etc). Safe to say if you’re a Final Fantasy or Secret of Mana fan, this game hitting consoles for the first time is a delightful proposition. Can it deliver on the level of Square’s classics?
Well, no, and that expectation puts Romancing SaGA 2 in a tough spot. It’ll not only be judged against its contemporaries, it’ll be judged against the modern-day love for its contemporaries. So, to truly succeed, it needs to be better than the titles gamers have come to love and cherish from that era; else be viewed as a disappointment or mediocre also-ran.
Which is…how Romancing SaGa 2 feels. The remaster adds some shine and polish to various environmental sprites, and jazzes up the combat menu to an HD friendly aspect ratio. It clashes with the underlying sprite-work, but the clarity is helpful. The problem, however, is a lack of…spirit. Romancing SaGa’s draw is its legacy / heir system, where a character will die and you’ll have to select an heir to inherit your kingdom and powers; sort of like a precursor to Rogue Legacy – but it’s tricky getting there between the heavy focus on combat and permadeath. As you play you’ll make choices that affect your kingdom and those heirs, and you’ll take on quests to defeat seven evil ‘heroes’, and partake in turn-based battles until your thumbs fall off.
For 1993, there’s quite a bit of innovation as it pertains to non-linearity and creative concepts contained within Romancing SaGa 2, but if you’ve ever played and loved newer games like Suikoden II, SaGa Frontier, or the demo for Octopath Traveler, it’s hard to get hyped about Romancing SaGa II because what that game did, has been done better elsewhere. Plus, the control is stiff and battles overly common and familiar. There’s a cool jobs and formation system – including the neat notion of learning new spells in battle, but if you’re the kind of gamer inclined to play this game due to a casual fondness for JRPGs, you cant help but feel you have been here before in a more interesting way.
SaGa would have been well suited to include an easy-mode or something that would cut down on the difficulty and instead allow gamers to experience the unique systems without the stress. The things that make the game unique are buried underneath a lot of legacy systems that make it a chore to play in the modern day landscape, making it hard to recommend to general audiences.
Then again, that’s not the game’s fault – and maybe not a problem at all. It seems Romancing SaGa II is being released in the west as a sort of token of the past, not unlike Outcast: Second Contact or various coin-op arcade ports. This is, basically, artifact gaming; giving players an important piece of gaming history that was previously inaccessible in a modern (and legal) way – with a bit of extra content and polish to make it appetizing – it’s a rare B-side from your favorite band. For hardcore JRPG and SaGa fans, the notion of getting this game on your Switch is probably quite appealing; and the very things I think people would loathe – random battles and high difficulty, could be like playing a Beatles record on vinyl because it ‘sounds better’ for a certain kind of player.
Meanwhile, UnEpic is certainly a more enjoyable game to general audiences, if less ambitious. In 1993 the systems in Romancing SaGa were unique and ultimately trendsetting. In 2011 (and now 2017) side-scrolling action RPGs with capital L ‘Loot’ are a dime a dozen if you hit the right Steam sale. Good ones are admittedly rarer and UnEpic is absolutely a good one. The gameplay loop of exploring, opening up blocked pathways, light puzzle solving, and tough boss battles is timeless and familiar. UnEpic essentially mixes the chocolate of Metroidvania with the peanut butter of of self-aware gamer humor, and delivers a quality, ultimately derivative, Reese’s Cup of gaming bliss. Its silly, deliberately groan-inducing dialog will either endear or repel you, all-the-while delivering solid – if a bit unbalanced – gameplay.
It’s also shocking to see what an incredibly small design studio is capable of in this day and age. That a big budget 1993 game pales in comparison to a small-studio game like UnEpic in terms of animation and graphical fidelity is the kind of notion that makes your head spin in wonder: Look how far we’ve come.
As a result and on its face, nostalgia aside, a 24 year old game that broke new ground feels ultimately less ‘fun’ – but more interesting – than a 6 year old game that’s an iterative improvement on familiar tropes more than anything else. On a console that holds Mario Odyssey and Legend of Zelda: Breath of The Wild, I boot up UnEpic regularly for its enjoyable jaunt. I boot up Romancing SaGa 2 for a history lesson.
Both seek to exploit your nostalgia. Romancing SaGa 2 does it unintentionally as a relic of a bygone era, and UnEpic by referencing that era while utilizing modern gameplay conventions, and gaming specific references to be more appealing to mass audiences. Both are absolutely worth checking out for entirely different reasons. Romancing SaGa to see how far we’ve come, and UnEpic to see exactly where we are.