Blah blah blah, Super Nintendo review… let’s get straight to it. This time around, we’re looking at the 1993 RPG, The 7th Saga.
Released in Japan under the title “Elnard” (which sounds like the worst luchador ever), The 7th Saga was developed by Produce (best known for the Super Bomberman series), and published by RPG stalwarts Enix. The game is set in the fantasy world of Ticondera, where king Lemele has hit the ripe old age of one hundred, and is finally considering retirement. To choose a worthy heir, Lemele summons the seven greatest champions of the realm and sends them out on a quest to recover seven lost runes. Whichever hero manages to gather all seven Dragon Balls mystical runes will summon a wish dragon become the new king (or queen) of Ticondera.
See? Told you.
As the game starts, you get to choose one of the champions to take control of. There are the usual fantasy tropes of the human knight and cleric, dwarf warrior and elven spellcaster (the latter being the only playable female character), but there are a few cool wildcards thrown in for good measure, including a flame-throwing alien, and an unapologetically evil demon. I went with the five thousand-year old steam-punk robot, because who doesn’t love robots.
John Connor, that’s who.
You and the other six heroes – using that term loosely when it comes to the would-be-world conquering demon – are then summarily chucked out into the wilderness to start your search for the runes. As the game progresses, you’ll cross your rivals’ paths many times, forging alliances with some, battling others, and all the while trying to suss out the traitor who’s responsible for a bounty hunter nipping at your heels.
To aid you in your quest, Lemele equips you with a special crystal ball, which makes up one of the game’s more unique features. Whenever you’re outside the safe haven of a town, stomping around the overworld map like a meandering Renaissance Faire Godzilla, the crystal ball acts as a radar, tracking nearby locations, enemies and treasures. In theory, this should allow you to avoid wearisome random encounters, in a mechanic similar to the one used in Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. In practice, however, the enemy blips come so fast and furious, moving erratically but also somehow zoning right in on you, that they’re all but impossible to escape. You do get to see them coming, but when you’re miles away from town with no health potions, that might just be adding insult to injury.
The combat system is about as traditional and straight-forward as RPGs get. Each round of turn-based combat allows you to either attack, defend, cast a spell, use an item, or make a vain attempt to run for your life. There are a few odd quirks to get the hang of – for instance, you’re strongly encouraged to use Defend on your first turn, as it both reduces the damage you receive, and buffs your attacks for the next few rounds. Against multiple enemies, you automatically target whoever hit you last, which can be a bit annoying if you’re trying to burn down the biggest threat first. And strangely, whenever a fight finishes, instead of saying “You Won”, or some derivation of that, the game goes with “X Enemy Lost”, which seems oddly negative.
Although the overworld is far from spectacular, there’s a very cool effect whenever you enter a battle, where the screen spins and shifts from full-overhead to three-quarter perspectives, showing off the Super Nintendo’s much-vaunted ~Mode 7 Graphics!~ to their fullest. Where the game really shines graphically is the enemy sprites – the designs are fantastically creepy, even oddly gruesome at times, with detail way beyond what you’d expect to see from a game made in 1993.
The sound is really excellent too, especially the battle music, which has a great high-energy synthesized drum-line to keep things feeling fast-paced. The sound effects are good, although my robot’s clanging footsteps grew irritating pretty quickly, something none of the other character classes have to deal with. Such are the sacrifices one pays for siding with Skynet, I suppose.
One big issue with this game is its difficulty curve, which can be downright brutal. The differences between Elnard and The 7th Saga go further than some awkwardly translated dialogue and inexplicable PC names (I don’t know what those ghosts in the early dungeons were supposed to be, but they sure as hell weren’t chimeras). For the American version of the game, the playable character’s stats were significantly reduced, while enemy monsters have apparently been hitting the gym. The game also has its fair share of “screw you” enemies, starting with the first boss, a demonic ghost dog that’s about five levels too tough for you when you first encounter it – although once you die to fido once, you can find an item that can kill him instantly in the rematch, so cheapness goes both ways on that one. Not long after, you’ll come across a treasure chest in a tunnel, but unlike all the other harmless chests you’ve seen so far, this one turns out to be a ridiculously overpowered monster, who managed to annihilate my poor robot in a single hit.
The trade off to all of this is that The 7th Saga fully expects you to die, and likely die a lot. Unlike many RPGs, where death equals a game over screen, in this game you’re merely knocked out, and some unseen hand drags you off to the medieval equivalent of a Pokémon Center to stitch your dumb ass back together. Dying to a monster will cost you half your gold, but the game makes it clear early on that you can bypass that penalty by using your spare cash to buy gems, which can be sold back for the same cost you paid for them. The most feasible way to get through the hordes of enemies is to hang back and grind out levels, which naturally is a pain in the ass. I refuse to be defeated by tedium though – bitch, I play World of Warcraft, your drudgery means nothing to me. There’s a big problem with that strategy though – it’s a moot point as soon as you have to fight one of your rivals, because not only are they always the same level as you, they have stats equivalent to the Japanese (pre-nerf) version of your character, meaning you’ll always be at a huge disadvantage.
Despite its sometimes maddening difficulty, The 7th Saga is still a very fun game, with surprising depth to the story – if you can get past the basic fantasy fetch-quest set up, there’s a big plot twist half-way through the game, and the narrative starts going the way of Shadow of the Colossus. This is a game that exceeded my expectations in almost every way – even if it did make me want to throw my controller across the room a few times.
Final Score – 8.5/10