Wednesday Column

1998-1: SaGa Frontier (Mysteries, Unknowns and the Undiscovered)

InfernalMage “The following is a contributor column by the Infernal Accountant Mage.”

I mentioned in the entry for Final Fantasy VI a little bit ago that I absolutely adore video game strategy guides. It’s not even about learning how to win, it’s about plumbing the depths of a game and getting the most I can out of it. It’s about discovering every hidden secret a game has and finding it for myself. At times, it’s even about hyping myself up for a game before I have the chance to play it.

As I grew older, though, I came to appreciate mystery just a bit more. We are at our best when we’re faced with the unknown, and the most wonderful surprises are those you didn’t see coming. It’s because of this, then, that I really appreciate SaGa Frontier and its absolutely horrid official strategy guide.

BradyGames did their best, don’t get me wrong, and the guide isn’t entirely unusable, but SaGa Frontier fascinated me as one of the first games where I wasn’t able to discover everything by reading about it. The guide will get you a long way, but it won’t get you everything. There’s still plenty that you’ll have to find out for yourself.

Case in point: SaGa Frontier has a turn-based combat system. Your characters can wield various weapons and learn various special attacks. You learn new special attacks by using regular attacks in combat, causing them to randomly “spark” into existence, like a flash of inspiration. What causes this? Who knows? The game doesn’t say anything. The guide doesn’t say anything. It’s a mystery. Actually, it’s an algorithm modified by the character, the weapon they’re using, the move they’re using and an estimate of the difficulty of the enemy pack you’re fighting…but nowhere in the game does this come up. You’ll have to figure it out yourself using trial and error to determine what causes “sparks” more often. Eventually, with enough time, it becomes clear that some characters are better at certain things than others – Gen the drunken swordsman is obviously great with a blade, for instance, but it might not be so obvious that your best mages are also likely to be fantastic gunmen and vice-versa.

Let’s take that a step further: your characters can use their special attacks together, producing combos that do additional damage, have special effects and are in one case required to defeat a boss. What causes a combo to trigger? Who knows? Naturally, it turns out that certain moves are more likely to combo with each other than others, but the exact mechanics of this are a mystery. It’s just something that you’ll pick up on as you play. The act of playing develops a sort of intuitive sense for how the mechanics work even if they’re not explicitly laid out for you. That’s delightful.

Combine all this with an environment, plot and settings that don’t really fit into a logical framework, even with the guide at hand, and SaGa Frontier feels a bit like an RPG crafted by aliens who only vaguely understand the concept of RPGs. Since young me approached it from the perspective of a Final Fantasy fan who’d mostly played games similar to that series, it required a significant shift in perspective. The answers weren’t always there in a guide. Sometimes you’d have to work them out for yourself, and even without a formula in front of you, the act of experimentation could lead to a general understanding of what was going on. Likewise, there’s a strong implication that the world of SaGa Frontier is actually a set of islands or worlds separated by what’s either a void, a magical expanse or an ocean. Who knows? The game doesn’t say. It’s up to you.

It’s a game with a vague setting, vague plot and vague mechanics that, at the time, was kept vague by documentation that didn’t really have everything 100% worked out either. I kind of loved it. I still kind of do. This concept of learning as you go proved to be valuable over the years both in gaming and in reality. There’s not always going to be a guide, after all. Sometimes you just have to leap in and find your own answers.


The Infernal Accountant Mage believes the pen is mightier than the sword…well, depending on how sharp the pen and sword are. A child of the ’90s and a prolific writer, he strews his work about like Legos made of words, just waiting for your brain to step on them. He enjoys a devilish challenge, so when it comes to talking about some of the more difficult games out there, you might just run into the Infernal Accountant Mage. Some advice: hold on to your soul around this guy, and don’t sign anything. Read more at


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1 reply »

  1. This. The joy of discovery is such a powerful thing. It makes a piece of entertainment, a book, a game one’s own. I love games that set aside telling you every aspect about themselves and simply welcome you to explore and find things out for yourself. Love it!


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