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Friday, February 23, 2024

I Revisited 'SaGa Frontier'—and My Bisexual Video Game Crush

Depending on who (and where) you ask, SaGa Frontier is either a little-known cult classic JRPG or a best-selling building block of a famous franchise. It's engaging, it's complex, it's repetitive. Now it's remastered, 24 years after the original release.

"We want more gamers, especially those from the West, to play games from the SaGa series, which has a long history in Japan," says Hiroyuki Miura, the producer of SaGa Frontier Remastered.

I played SaGa Frontier as an awkward, angsty teen in the late ’90s. I spent hours leveling up my characters, then getting mad at myself for failing to save before wiping again. I'd pause to switch over to the family computer, looking up game tips and painstakingly detailed walkthroughs on old-school forums. My devotion to the game was amplified by the fact that none of my friends had heard about it. It was my game.

As the years passed, I periodically returned to the world of SaGa Frontier. I took my empty PlayStation to college and bought a third copy of the game off eBay (my original copy long since scratched to hell, the second accidentally shattered). The game brought me joy, but the precariousness of the aging tech worried me. If this disc became unusable, too, how many were left in the world?

Concerns about limited availability resonated with the SaGa team. "We’ve received a lot of requests from players asking to be able to play these games again. We feel that it is important to fulfill these requests," says Miura. "These plans can only be carried out if there is demand from the players, so we are very thankful to be able to release this game worldwide this time around."

Before the remaster, fans made peace with the fact that some parts of the game would always be unfinished. The series creator did not share the same complacency. "This was an opportunity that we created ourselves," says Akitoshi Kawazu, the SaGa series’ general director. "For a little less than 10 years now, Producer Ichikawa and I have worked on various initiatives to reboot the SaGa series. I’m very satisfied we were able to get to this stage as a result of this work."

SaGa Frontier Remastered includes a major graphical overhaul as well as previously cut content and QoL adjustments—all amazing updates for SaGa fans. But SFR is still punishing in the way only a classic JRPG can be. You didn't bring the right characters to the right room to spark the right dialogue within the first fifteen minutes of the game? Well, you'll never receive a secret character three hours later, then.

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The arcane game architecture is a hallmark of Kawazu, who pushes the boundaries of storytelling and gameplay to original, sometimes incomprehensible levels. And it's in the name: SaGa Frontier was literally uncharted territory of gaming, with free-roam regions, level-scaling monsters, and attack combo systems. But again, every part of play is touched by inscrutability, that sense you are missing something.

You can create hard-hitting combos by playing around with your characters, but the rules governing those combos are not explained in the game. That's how SFR can be flashy and fun while simultaneously being an absolutely bewildering experience.

Though the mechanics might be baffling, the visual and aural dimensions are dazzling. Running around town involves a tiny sprite sprinting over a painted background. Settings range from the neon grime of Koorong to whimsical, Wonderland-esque Devin and the Gothic rose-glow of Facinaturu. Each Region has its own unique musical theme from renowned composer Kenji Ito, lo-fi beats looping endlessly like a pixelated Escher painting. (Another plus of the remaster: You can listen to the soundtrack from a media library on the main menu.)

The combat system is similarly striking. If you throw an enemy into the air for a Rising Nova attack, your perspective shifts with the sprite's motion. The view feels organic, like you're an active participant in a genuine battle. This technique helped the game age gracefully and added visual complexity that is simply fun to look at.

"The most challenging part of the development was setting a benchmark to upgrade the graphic resolution…for not only the characters, but also the field map, monsters, special effects, and UI," says SaGa Frontier director Naofumi Ueno. The team had a goal of making the game "beautiful, even by current hardware standards." And the remaster is beautiful; I was shocked at how the game seemed both new and familiar.

"After finishing the resolution upgrades for all graphics and seeing how it turned out on the game screen, I was certain that the quality would meet the expectations of the players," Ueno says.

Playing the remaster feels like playing the game with my glasses on. Old PlayStation games required imagination. Blocky pixel heads get translated to round. An arrangement of green-hued pixels turns into a sunny forest. It led to some unsettling moments of dissonance: a character I had believed to be a young girl turned out to be an elderly man; a vendor I assumed was a robot was just a guy in a hat.

Fundamentally, SFR is a game that asks a lot of you and doesn't show any concern if you need help. That's not everyone's jam. And maybe I'm looking at it through Facinaturu rose-colored glasses, because one of the main protagonists had a major influence on my life.

Let's talk about Asellus.

When SaGa Frontier came out, we didn't have queer representation. Instead, we had people campaigning to prevent gay characters from showing up on screens (transgender people weren't on mainstream radar yet). Baby queers like me consumed the same media alongside everyone else. But something would hit a little harder, connect a little deeper. We'd see something of ourselves in a character, a song, a person, a project, and we'd say, "That's me."

Asellus represented a very specific fantasy that resonated with me. The crux of her story is self-acceptance. "The main point of Asellus’ story is not her relationship with Princess White Rose, but that of her own personal growth. In that sense, her story is no different from those of the other protagonists," says Akitoshi Kawazu. "We did think it was a unique story that isn’t seen in traditional RPGs, but the same can be said for Red, Blue, or Lute’s story."

As a queer teenager in the ’00s, I was extremely sure of my own status. It was a great and shining light within me, something I pictured as flashy as a SaGa Frontier sword technique. My problem was everyone else. Vicious kids at school who treated me like a contagious outcast. The well-meaning but unhelpful gay therapist my parents sent me to. "I'm really great at helping people come out," he said. "But that's not what you need."

It was true. I had no issues coming out. My main problem was what everyone else did once I said I wasn't straight. Asellus' story was a wonderful fantasy where no one minded if she fell in love with girls. They only minded that she was taking so long to admit it.

At the same time, the hints about Asellus' identity could be read completely straight, the attraction to women and disdain for men explained by an infusion of mystic blood. Even her marrying Gina in the end could waved off as the influence of the Charm Lord's blood in Asellus' veins.

"I did not think that Asellus’ story was a LGBTQ+ one, but I did feel that there would be a possibility of it being perceived that way," says Akitoshi Kawazu. But he allows space for individual player's interpretations. "A game’s story belongs to the person who plays it, so if each player’s interpretation holds true, then it’s safe to say that the game is a success," Kawazu states. "I am grateful that Asellus’ story was well received and appreciated by all players, including that of the LGBTQ+ community."

Asellus was never intended to be a queer icon. But her story starts narrated by the town seamstress, Gina. Gina calls Lady Asellus beautiful and blushes during their one-on-one conversations. I sent a screenshot of this scene to my queer group chats and asked "Are these gals just pals?" "Absolutely not," was the resounding answer.

Asellus with her pink suit, White Rose in her floral pastels, Gina and her blush-colored dresses, and even Mesarthim with her flowing white hair and mermaid tail. They all presented a fantastic form of femininity that I had never previously equated with queerness. In the ’90s, there was a very specific idea of what a queer woman should look like, and it did not look like me. For decades, I held onto the talismans of Asellus, White Rose, Gina, and Mesarthim as a secret compass of possibility.

In the ending I chose, Asellus takes Gina as her princess. That's always been the beauty of SaGa Frontier: You get to choose how it ends.

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