I first played The 7th Saga (1993) when I was 7. My grandfather bought it for me because I had loved Final Fantasy 2* (1991) so much. It was probably recommended to him by the clerk at Toys R Us. I really hated it.
[*Note: It’s really Final Fantasy 4, but I’ll be calling it 2 in this post since I’m using the SNES version for contemporary comparison]
As a child, I found The 7th Saga frustrating and severely lacking compared to my beloved Final Fantasy 2. The graphics were ugly, the controls cumbersome, and the game punishingly hard. It didn’t have a beautiful story with fascinating characters, and I died. A lot. And by the Super Nintendo, I rarely died in games anymore. I think I probably played through the second dungeon and gave up.But my grandfather poured hours into the game, and it had always lingered for me as a game grown-ups like. Maybe I would understand when I was older.
I finally returned to it this past weekend, and in a way I was right: I do understand it more now that I’m older. And while I’m not sure that I like it more, I can at least understand the appeal.
The 7th Saga is a masocore game.
In many ways, The 7th Saga was ahead of its time for an RPG. The graphics were going for a more realistic style: the visuals are dark, and the monsters are actually creepy. The Mode 7 animations between the top-down map and the over-the-shoulder combat is very technically impressive for the time. Small details like the ocean actually creating a few pixels of foam on the shore give real depth. The music is generally great, and the sound effects are very satisfying. Every time I heal myself, I can’t help but imitate the “wowh wowh wowh” sound, much to my boyfriend’s annoyance.
The game features turn-based combat instances, similar to Final Fantasy. Players can choose from 7 different characters of the usual RPG classes, and some are clearly better than others. As a child I usually played the sole female character, a glass-cannon mage, but this time around I opted for the balanced demon character. The early game is drastically easier with the fighter characters (the mech tank, the warrior, etc), but character balance levels out a bit a few hours into the game when you’re able to take on a companion and build a party. Those first few hours can be really punishing for squishier characters until they level enough to get the good spells.
For as innovative as it was, The 7th Saga was also behind its time in other ways. Many parts of the game feel like hollow extensions of text adventures. For example you can always “Search,”—by which the devs really mean “examine”—but the Search option actually yields an interesting result very infrequently. The character dialogue feels very efficient in directing you to your next objective, but it’s missing the soul and depth needed to turn villagers from signposts into characters, a missing piece that I craved as a child coming directly from Final Fantasy. With such a similar battle system, I wanted as rich a story as Final Fantasy, and it just wasn’t there.
You and the 6 other chosen characters are looking for runes that will make you powerful. The other 6 may join you, fight you, or steal from you. These aren’t your happy-go-lucky party companions; these are characters who will gladly put a knife in your back for the king’s favor. Yet while the characters’ narrative actions were interesting for the time, the rest of the world is hollow and flat. There are glimpses that there might be more—a lost civilization, a mysterious bounty-hunter hired by another character—but the depth of the world is nowhere near what other games of the time were doing, and was especially disappointing as a kid coming directly from the game that pioneered the deep RPG story as we know it.
But The 7th Saga doesn’t seem like it was trying to be Final Fantasy 2. While the turn-based combat and battle encounters look similar, the feel of the battle system is much closer to DnD. Where Final Fantasy 2 offers a smooth leveling curve such that—new spells aside—each level feels mostly the same as the one before it, The 7th Saga’s level modifiers feel huge. You really feel the difference between level two and three. A new weapon might raise your attack by 1, but that 1 is felt severely in combat.
So with such discrete levels, it would suggest that grinding should feel satisfying, but it doesn’t. It’s very difficult to stay ahead of the difficulty curve, and The 7th Saga never gives you the kind of trash fights that make you feel powerful. Even once you are powerful, you end up handicapping yourself by not using magic or potions to save resources for boss battles. And if you die, it’s back to the nearest town with half of your gold gone as a penalty.
The 7th Saga is still to date one of the most unfairly difficult games I’ve played on the Super Nintendo, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
My first instinct is to liken The 7th Saga to a proto-Dark Souls (2011). Both games offer dark, gritty fantasy worlds and punishing difficulty curves and boss fights. But even giving The 7th Saga a generous benefit of the doubt for being released two decades before Dark Souls, the core aesthetic is drastically different. Where Dark Souls offers seemingly insurmountable difficulty, the greatest weapon is knowledge. The level of the player characters is not nearly as important as mastering the choreography of a given fight. Sure, bosses might kill you in one shot and you might die to inconsequential enemies if you let your guard down, but you always have a sense that death is your fault: why did you think running up to a dragon from the front, sword drawn, would end any other way than with your charred corpse staining the cliffside?
Bosses can also one-shot you in The 7th Saga, and in some unfortunate cases even trash can kill you before you get a turn. But because the system is turn-based in contrast to Dark Souls’s real-time action combat, these moments feel drastically unfair in a way that Dark Souls manages not to. In The 7th Saga, there’s generally little else you could have done to prevent your death besides grinding more before entering the dungeon.
Yet both games manage to tap into a similar tenacity in me. “Overcoming an unfair system” is its own kind of power fantasy. In some ways it feels like pitting me directly against the developers; it’s more adversarial, but in some ways the victory is also sweeter.
Or maybe it’s just Stockholm Syndrome.