Illusion of Gaia (Super Nintendo)

It’s been a long, winding road to Quintet’s Illusion of Gaia. I covered Terranigma, the third entry in the late lamented studio’s so-called Gaia trilogy more than three years ago now and the first, Soul Blazer, last year. Perhaps I’ve been neglecting the saga’s middle entry simply because it’s the one I played the most back around the time of its initial release? In any case, I hope you enjoy the final chapter in my look at three of the most unique and compelling games of their kind.

“Gaia trilogy” is the unofficial name given by fans to three loosely related Super Nintendo action RPGs published between 1992 and 1995. While each has its own mechanics, setting, and cast of characters, they all share certain overarching preoccupations. The heroes are framed as the latest intermediaries in an endless war between twin deities of light and darkness. Their journeys often take them to fictionalized versions of real locations. Solemn rumination on human mortality is a recurring theme, as is the notion of reviving a dead or dying planet. As you can tell from this brief description alone, these are hardly your everyday swashbuckling fantasy romps. Players who encountered any of them during their formative years tend to recall the experience vividly and with reverence.

Illusion of Gaia (or Illusion of Time, as it’s known outside North America) is the story of a teenager named Will, whose father vanished on an expedition to the mysterious Tower of Babel. Will was also present on that expedition, but developed both amnesia and uncanny psychic powers in its wake. As if all that wasn’t enough, he soon stumbles into a trippy parallel dimension and is told by a being known as Gaia that he needs to somehow stop an oncoming comet before it devastates the Earth. The kid has a lot on his plate, in other words. And no, this isn’t one of those cases where I named the lead character in an RPG after myself. He’s actually called Will. I remember finding that pretty neat in 1994.

Tagging along is a sizable group that includes a few of Will’s schoolmates, local spoiled princess/love interest Kara, Kara’s pet pig Hamlet, and more. This motley crew doesn’t constitute an adventuring party in the typical RPG sense. None of them are playable. They’re just there to contribute to the ongoing drama and offer commentary on the many weird situations you encounter.

As mentioned, Will’s odyssey unfolds across a fantastical interpretation of the real world. It’s tough to pin down exactly what time period is being represented here. As Christopher Columbus is mentioned in dialog and one of the characters is an inventor responsible for devising an airplane, it reads as if the 16-19th centuries were heavily idealized and then compressed into a single moment. In addition, there’s a rather quaint ancient mysteries angle baked into most of the dungeon areas that recalls the ’70s heyday of Erich von Däniken’s “Chariots of the Gods?” and Leonard Nimoy’s “In Search Of….” You know, back when anything relating to the Egyptians, Inca, Maya, etc, was fodder for spooky hokum, usually with some combination of Atlantis, Lemuria, and Mu thrown in for good measure.

Plumbing the depths of all these monster-filled ruins is handled from the traditional overhead view, with Will dashing about solving simple puzzles and vanquishing the opposition with his weapon of choice, a flute. Yes, a flute, albeit a magic one he acquired on his forgotten first visit to the Tower of Babel. Imagine the inventory space Link could save if he ditched his sword and starting pummeling octoroks with his ocarina!

For those tough boss fights where woodwind instruments won’t cut it, Gaia provides Will with the ability to assume two alternate forms: Freedan the sword-wielding knight and Shadow the glowing liquid alien dude. Both their attacks have considerably better reach and damage potential than Will’s, so you’ll probably want to play as them whenever possible. Will’s base form does gain several abilities needed to solve puzzles, however, so using him at least a portion of the time is mandatory. No matter who you’re controlling, the action here is fast, smooth, and generally high quality. Like Soul Blazer and Terranigma, it’s easy to pick up and hard to put down.

The RPG bits in Illusion of Gaia have been pared down to the barest of essentials. There’s no currency, no experience points, no magic system, no weapons or armor to equip, and only one rare consumable healing item. Instead of conventional leveling, we have a system where defeating every enemy in a dungeon room will grant an instant, permanent boost to one of Will’s few stats (hit points, attack strength, etc). Apart from receiving the occasional new move directly from Gaia, that’s it. Since the rewards for clearing out each room are set in advance and enemies never respawn, there’s no way to overlevel Will. Nor will he ever be underleveled, unless you make it a point to ignore enemies as part of a challenge run of the game. In terms of mechanics, Illusion is the “lightest” of the trilogy by a wide margin. It won’t please the character optimization junkies among us, but it’s thoroughly unobtrusive. I appreciate the creators’ desire to maintain focus on the adventure itself.

Said adventure is presented with a combination of charming pixel art and thrilling music. The character sprites and animations are a big step up from those seen in Soul Blaze a year prior. Backgrounds are also more detailed, which serves to emphasize the strangeness of the various exotic locales you visit. The music pulls its weight in this regard, too. It’s appropriately eerie when exploring some deserted tomb and suitably bombastic when it’s time to put some baddies to the flute. Composer Yasuhiro Kawasaki seems to have really loved his kettle drum samples. When you hear those suckers start rumbling, you know you’re in for a scrap.

So far, so good. Unfortunately, there are a couple of less glowing factors that likely contributed to my decision to review Illusion of Gaia after its prequel and sequel. Although a well-made action RPG on almost every front, its structure and storytelling don’t grab me the same way Soul Blazer and Terranigma’s do. One of those games’ most memorable aspects was getting to see the world grow and change based on your actions. By contrast, Illusion of Gaia is a purely linear affair. Once you complete an area, you’re typically not allowed to return to it later. On the rare occasion you are, your window in which to do so is limited. This isn’t merely less satisfying on a narrative level, it has profound negative consequences for the game’s sole sidequest. Throughout your playthrough, you’ll constantly stumble across red jewels. Some are found in treasure chests, others are rewards for talking to specific NPCs, and more than a few are invisible, requiring you to interact with nondescript background objects to obtain them. Your reward for finding all fifty is access to an extra dungeon and boss fight. The problem, as you may have already guessed, is that collecting them in one go when you’re prohibited from backtracking is virtually impossible unless you play with a guide by your side and consult it every few minutes. After all, one missed jewel is all it takes to bar you from the bonus dungeon permanently. Fun!

A more severe sticking point for me is the story. It’s tonally disjointed and delivered with all the grace of an Emo Philips routine. A major sub-plot revolves around the slave trade, for example, yet the localization team clearly wasn’t permitted to call it such. The result is a lot of ridiculous talk about “laborers” (in chains?) and their “labor trader” masters. It  detracts from the gravity of the material and insults the audience’s intelligence at the same time. Still, it’s at least understandable in a Nintendo-published product. What’s worse is the truly bizarre way the lead character is prone to behaving. If you’ll permit me one solitary spoiler, Will at one point engages in a bout of Russian roulette with a total stranger. There’s literally no reason supplied for this. He isn’t a silent protagonist, so it’s odd that he’d have nothing whatsoever to say about it before, during, or after. Winning conveniently furnishes the group with the means to progress, but not in a way that Will could have conceivably foreseen. The game even has the nerve to twist the knife by emphasizing how the loser was only playing because he was desperate for money to support his pregnant wife. Jesus. What was the thought process writing this? You may say it’s a just silly old video game and I shouldn’t think so deeply about it. Fine. Ask yourself how you’d be inclined to view a book or movie character who did something like this, though.

In the wider context of the SNES library, Illusion of Gaia is well above average. It packs in a ton of great action and atmosphere, along with a few genuinely effective story beats. I recommend it to anyone fond of the genre. That said, it remains the least of the Gaia trilogy in my eyes. While all three have glitz and gameplay chops to spare, Illusion’s siblings both manage to weave their tales in more elegant, cohesive, affecting fashion. About all they skimp on is the sweet flute violence.

Soul Blazer (Super Nintendo)

The soul still burns!

I’m finally heading back to the Quintet well. It’s been far too long. I guess I had so much fun in 2017, playing through both ActRaiser games and the triumph that is Terranigma, that I instinctively hit the brakes before I could plow through their entire Super Nintendo catalog. There’s a sharply limited quantity of this stuff available, after all. Best to make it last.

My subject today is the studio’s second game, 1992’s Soul Blazer. Despite coming out hot on the heels of their highly successful action-platformer/God sim hybrid ActRaiser, Soul Blazer is not a sequel. Rather, it’s the first entry in a loose series that also includes Illusion of Gaia and Terranigma. Fans have dubbed these the Gaia Trilogy. Or the Soul Blazer Trilogy. Or the Quintet Trilogy. As if all these names weren’t confusing enough, some also point to a fourth release, The Granstream Saga for PlayStation, as a “spiritual successor” and the final entry in what’s more properly regarded as a quadrology.

Each game casts the player as a divine intermediary in the latest chapter of an endless conflict between two Manichean deities representing light and darkness. Much of the appeal for fans is based on the distinctive scenario design and writing of Quintet co-founder Tomoyoshi Miyazaki. There’s a strong focus on religion, death, and rebirth throughout the series. Miyazaki’s overarching thesis, or at least my best good faith take on it, seems to be the need for us humans to reject hubris and greed in favor of humble compassion for our fellow living things before our unchecked ignorance drives us to destroy both ourselves and our world. It was the unflinching way Quintet presented this material, their willingness to confront their audience with somber notions clearly meant to resonate beyond the games’ surface melodrama, that was so electrifying nearly thirty years ago and has since secured all three titles perennial cult classic status.

All this isn’t to say that the Gaia Trilogy is dour or depressing. There’s no shortage of fast action and tongue-in-cheek moments. It’s not even all that preachy, as there’s a remarkable degree of subtlety and restraint on display in light of the simplistic writing and brute force localization practices characteristic of the period. What these games are, however, is affecting. Haunting, even. They get under your skin in the best possible way.

Soul Blazer casts the player as an angelic being known as Blazer (or Blader in the Japanese original). Don’t feel too wedded to this moniker, though. You’re free to re-name him whatever you like. Taking human form, Blazer is tasked by The Master (aka God) with nothing less than restoring life to the world. It seem that Magridd, power-hungry ruler of the Freil Empire, coerced a brilliant scientist named Dr. Leo into creating a machine capable of summoning Deathtoll, “the King of Evil.” Against all odds, this proved to be a poor decision and Deathtoll promptly imprisoned the souls of the empire’s inhabitants in monster lairs, leaving the land deserted. It’s almost like you can’t trust the King of Evil or something.

Blazer’s mission is presented as a mechanically basic overhead view action RPG of the sort that will be instantly accessible to anyone who’s ever played an old school Legend of Zelda before. He can move about in the four cardinal directions, strafe with the shoulder buttons, swing his sword with B, and fire off whichever magic spell is currently equipped by pressing Y. It’s an adequate setup for the hours of hack-and-slash ahead, but only just. Those that end up playing the series out of order won’t find nearly as much to sink their teeth into here compared to Illusion of Gaia or Terranigma. Soul Blazer’s solitary stab at innovation in the combat department largely falls flat. Spells don’t actually emanate from Blazer himself. Instead, they’re fired out of a glowing sphere that orbits him at all times. While this does look cool, it’s a right pain in the ass to aim sometimes, considering that the sphere is constantly spinning with no way to lock it in place. This is proof positive that different isn’t always good. I generally ignored the magic and stuck to the simple, effective sword for the majority of my playthrough.

So the action here isn’t really anything to write home about. Fortunately, its consequences are. Soul Blazer has a simple, powerful core gameplay cycle wherein every Gauntlet style monster generator destroyed actually grows the game world by freeing the soul of the NPC trapped inside. That soul could belong to a human, an animal, or even a plant and each one will typically advance your quest in some way, large or small. Being an angel with the ability to communicate with anything living means that Blazer has no problem chatting up dogs, goats, fish, and even the occasional tree or flower. Visiting a new area for the first time and finding it completely empty, only to then gradually build it back up into a thriving settlement one inhabitant at a time as you slash your way through the local dungeon is immensely satisfying. I’d even call it addictive. If you’re not careful, the drive to take out just a few more monster lairs in order to see what sort of character pops out of each can get the better of you. Then, before you know it, hours have passed and you’re rushing off to the next area to do it all over again!

This theme of your hero’s actions somehow resurrecting a ruined world echoes throughout the trilogy. It would also inspire other developers, as seen in Level-5’s Dark Cloud series. Even in its embryonic form here, it’s a potent example of the positive feedback loop in game design. The action drives the narrative in about the most literal sense possible. Simultaneously, that narrative urges the player to dive right back into the action at every turn. The result is an experience more like its predecessor ActRaiser than meets the eye. On paper, each contains no spectacular gameplay per se, but the almost uncannily graceful interactions of their disparate elements induces a flow state in players that renders both much more engaging than the sums of their parts.

It’s entirely fair to deem this inaugural entry the weakest of the Gaia Trilogy. It’s also a mistake to dismiss it as such. Sure, the graphics have that flat early Super Nintendo look to them, the sound effects were lifted directly from ActRaiser, and the characterization of Blazer and the rest of the cast is pretty minimal compared to what would come later. Illusion of Gaia and (especially) Terranigma manage to nail most of the same beats with the added benefits of deeper combat, more confident and ambitious storytelling, and glossier coats of paint. This is all to be expected, of course, as Miyazaki and the rest of Quintet continually honed their craft over the console’s run. Regardless, Soul Blazer is a brilliantly conceived and paced adventure with a brooding, apocalyptic atmosphere that will satisfy genre veterans craving something more than another “save the princess” errand. Play it before its sequels, if possible, but play it. It’s a fascinating game in its own right as well as an auspicious start to a saga like no other.

ActRaiser 2 (Super Nintendo)

He’d damn well better live forever after everything he’s been through!

ActRaiser was a hit for Quintet and Enix, with surprisingly strong sales in all markets. This includes North America, where it was feared we coarse gaijin were all about the action and would be reluctant to embrace the game’s slower-paced simulation segments. This was emblematic of the shocking amount of cultural chauvinism present among Japanese game companies at the time. The ironic fact that the Japanese mania for RPG and sim games was sparked by classic Western-developed titles like Ultima, Wizardry, and SimCity in the first place was apparently lost on the leadership at Enix and many other major publishers. That the Super Nintendo saw as many great international RPG releases as it did is a bit of a miracle in light of this pervasive prejudice.

All this is to say that 1993’s ActRaiser 2 is a very different beast than its predecessor and it’s precisely because it was developed with this philosophy in mind. Gone completely are the menu-driven simulation maps from the first game in favor of a deeper, more challenging action-platforming experience. This change was not well-received by most, to say the least. It’s not uncommon online to see fans of the first ActRaiser hurling outright abuse at ActRaiser 2. They’re not simply cold on the game, they’re still mad about it. There’s a real sense of personal betrayal that still comes through almost a quarter century later.

Robert Jerauld, a former producer at Enix USA, had this to say in a 2014 interview: “ActRaiser 2 – This was one of my first – and most important – mistakes in my career. At the time, I was convinced that players wanted action…I pushed Enix away from retaining the sim part of ActRaiser and toward a more challenging action title. I made that decision because I believed I knew what the consumer wanted…I removed the soul from ActRaiser and that was a really tough lesson to learn, but it’s one that has really helped me along the way.”

So that’s it, right? Game’s a disgrace. It sucks. Case closed.

Not quite.

The way I see it, “black sheep sequels” come in a couple distinct flavors. The first either alters or discards much of what made the earlier installments in the series so beloved and is just a godawful excuse for a video game in general. For a good example of a legendary turd like this, look no further than the dire Rastan Saga II, the follow-up to Taito’s Conan the Barbarian-inspired arcade classic. It not only lacks the tight controls, thrilling action, and grand audiovisuals of its predecessor, it’s generally one of the worst side-scrollers ever made and would remain so under any other name.

The second type also gleefully slaughters series sacred cows, but still manages to be an all-around quality title on its own merits in spite of it. Zelda II, anyone? It’s in this latter category I would place ActRaiser 2. It’s simultaneously a failure as a sequel to ActRaiser and one of the best action-platforming titles for the Super Nintendo.

The plot is once again as simple as can be: Satan/Tanzra is a back with an army of hellish minions and it’s up to God/the Master to take up his sword and vanquish the Prince of Darkness yet again. The twist this time is that Tanzra’s seven main demon lieutenants are each based on one of the seven deadly sins (pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth) and this is reflected in their forms and in the various nasty ways they plague the Master’s helpless subjects. The gluttony demon, for example, sends a hoard of monster ants to steal all the food, leaving the people to starve. There are also some nice touches taken from classic literature. The final encounter with Tanzra depicts him partially encased in the ice of a frozen lake, mirroring Satan’s predicament in Dante Alighieri’s Inferno.

The level structure of ActRaiser 2 is fairly open. You can guide your sky palace over the map and complete the game’s stages in any order you want, but your angelic assistant will suggest a particular order which will make for the smoothest difficulty curve. While the choice is yours, I would recommend first time players take the angel’s advice and complete the stages in the “correct” order to minimize frustration.

Once you’re actually in control of the Master, the first thing you’re likely to notice is he’s very, very slow. Dude makes Simon Belmont look like Carl Lewis. There is a way to get around faster and it involves the second thing you’ll probably notice: Your brand new set of shiny angel wings. Tapping the jump button a second time while in the air will launch the Master into a forward glide. Don’t overdo it, though, because there’s no end of deviously-placed enemies and hazards designed to prevent you from abusing your wings to rush through the stages. In order to avoid this, you can halt a glide in progress in several different ways. Tapping the jump button a third time will simply drop the Master straight down, pressing down and attack will launch him into a sharp dive with his sword held out that will deal triple the normal attack damage to foes in the way, and holding up will cause him to slowly drift to the ground and is great for nailing precise landings. You’ll need to master glide cancelling if you hope to get past the game’s many pinpoint platforming challenges, since continuing a standard glide all the way to the ground will cause you to momentarily lose control of the Master and probably skid right into a waiting enemy or death trap.

The changes to the controls don’t stop there. The Master can now swing his sword above and below him and he carries a shield that can block projectile attacks originating from both straight ahead and above. Magic has also received a major overhaul. Instead of selecting a single spell to use at the start of each level, you charge up your magic by holding down the attack button and releasing it when the Master starts to flash red. This will produce one of seven different situational effects depending on whether the Master is standing, crouching, gliding, and so on.

It’s honestly all a lot to take in. For a character in a 16-bit action game, ActRaiser 2’s Master is about as complex as they come. This is in stark contrast to the last game, where his moveset was incredibly basic: Just run, jump, sword, and a single magic option. Here you have upwards of sixteen different actions available to you at any given moment and each one is useful at one point or another. This essentially means the game has one hell of a learning curve to it, which I believe is a major factor contributing to its reputation as one of the most difficult action titles for the system. It is a tough one, no doubt. The enemies are numerous and can take many hits to dispatch, while the stage layouts demand your gliding and jumping be on-point at all times. Even so, a lot of ActRaiser 2’s challenge is front-loaded into the first couple of hours, when the player is still coming to grips with the elaborate control scheme. Once you start getting the hang of how to advance with caution, attack, defend, and (most importantly) use your wings, the game really does open up and become a lot more approachable. You still have some rather fiendish stages to reckon with, but a little confidence in the Master’s abilities goes a long way. There’s also an easy difficulty mode for new players. Just be aware you won’t be able to access the final stage or see the ending if you’re playing the game on easy.

One thing even the most embittered fan of the first game can’t deny is that ActRaiser 2 looks magnificent. The level of detail and animation in the character sprites represents a high water mark for any Quintet game, rivalled only by Terranigma. The stage backgrounds are true works of art, very nearly as far above the original ActRaiser as that game’s were above its NES contemporaries. If I had been shown this game and told it was a 1995 or 1996 release for the system, I’d probably have believed it. It looks that good. The audio doesn’t fare quite as well. Many sound effects seem to have been directly recycled from the first game and returning composer Yuzo Koshiro’s score is very technically proficient in that it features high quality samples and intricate arrangements, but it lacks the stirring melodies which made tracks like “Fillmore” and “Birth of the People” so unforgettable the first time around. Still, the soundscape isn’t terrible here and easily exceeds the average game. It’s just not up to the sky high standards set by the visuals.

By the time I’d made my way through all fourteen stages of ActRaiser 2, I was convinced I was dealing with a true misunderstood gem of an action game. It’s true that the loss of the simulation mode from the original results in much less in the way of immersion and quality narrative. These segments may have been simplistic and easy, but observing your followers from a bird’s eye perspective as they prospered under your protection and working miracles to reshape the very land itself really did help the player get into the role of a benevolent deity. These story elements are still present in the sequel, but with no reinforcement from the actual gameplay, they’re window dressing and nothing more. Although the action here is challenging, thrilling, and nuanced, the Master could just as easily be any old musclebound fantasy warrior and it wouldn’t affect the experience all too much. The lack of sim interludes also affects the pacing, since it doesn’t allow for the first game’s hypnotic sense of rhythmic yin-yang flow between contrasting play styles.

All that said, I still feel compelled to judge ActRaiser 2 on the basis of what it actually is instead of what it was never really intended to be at all. What we have here is an extremely high quality action-platformer with a wholly unique feel to it. It’s deliberate, exacting, very technical, and a total blast to play once you’ve mastered its fundamentals. Seeing it all the way through confers the feeling of exhilarating accomplishment only a truly demanding game can, which is one edge it has over its older sibling. As a nice little bonus, it’s also one of the prettiest Super Nintendo games you’ll ever lay eyes on.

ActRaiser 2 may indeed be a child of a lesser god, but it’s more than worthy of salvation.

ActRaiser (Super Nintendo)

You don’t step to the big G.

Here we have the fabled ActRaiser. This idiosyncratic action-platformer/simulation hybrid from 1990 was the first of six Super Nintendo releases from developer Quintet and still seems to be the best known of the lot by far. It made quite a splash at the time of its release due to its innovative gameplay structure and some amazing graphics and music for an early 16-bit title. Since I picked up a copy of the very different ActRaiser 2 recently, I wanted to go back and experience the original again before I tackled its more obscure sequel.

The premise of ActRaiser is straightforward: You’re God and you have to save the world from Satan. Old Scratch has been wreaking havoc all across the land ever since he wounded you in a great battle, forcing you to retreat to your heavenly palace and sleep for several centuries to heal your wounds. Now that you’re finally awake again, it’s time to clean house. Of course, we’re talking about an old Nintendo game here, so publisher Enix was compelled to change God to The Master and Satan to Tanzra for the international release in order to skirt controversy. Make no mistake, though: You are absolutely a sword swinging, ass kicking Yahweh in this game. It’s not often that you get to say that.

As mentioned, ActRaiser sports an unusual gameplay structure that I have yet to see replicated anywhere else, including in its own sequel. You start out controlling The Master (technically a stone statue animated by The Master’s spirit, but close enough) in a very traditional side view action-platforming style. The Master’s moveset in this mode is limited. He can run, jump, and swing his sword. Later on, he’ll gain the ability to perform some limited use magical attacks that can deal heavy damage and are best saved for boss fights. Defeating the first boss will transition you into the game’s other mode: Simulation.

ActRaiser’s simulation mode presents you with an overhead view of the planet below your hovering sky palace and tasks you with guiding your tiny human followers in six different regions and protecting them from rampaging monsters while they rebuild their civilization. It’s important that they spread and multiply, since a bigger population nets you a bigger health bar for the action stages. You don’t control The Master himself during these segments, but rather one of his servants: A tiny, cherubic angel with a bow. This portion of the game is often compared to SimCity, Civilization, and other such “god games,” but I’m not convinced that these comparison are very accurate or useful. Unlike in those games, you have very little control over what your people build and how they develop. Instead, your responsibilities are mainly limited to using your various acts of God (lightning, earthquakes, and so on) to clear away obstructions and indicating which section of empty map your followers should colonize next. The rest is basically automated.

This wouldn’t be very engaging on its own, so each of the six simulation maps also includes several monster lairs that will constantly disgorge a stream of flying baddies to harass your followers and smash up their newly built real estate. Unless you keep your little angel buddy busy zipping around the map and shooting them down as they spawn, that is. Thankfully, you don’t have to do this indefinitely. Once you can direct your people to build over a monster lair, they’ll seal it up and stop the flow of enemies from that lair permanently. Seal up all the lairs and you can then take on a second side-scrolling action level before returning to your sky palace and moving on to the next region.

Once you’ve pacified all six regions, it’s off to hell (aka Death Heim). There,  you’ll re-fight enhanced versions of the previous area guardians back-to-back in a classic boss rush before squaring off against Satan/Tanzra himself.

That’s pretty much all there is to ActRaiser. It may sound like I’m selling it a bit short, but it’s just not a very deep game for the most part. Both gameplay modes would be hard to recommend to anyone as standalone experiences. The action segments are short, simplistic, and devoid of any real challenge. They were actually made considerably easier here than they were in the original Japanese release. The simulation mode allows for little in the way of choice or customization, outside of the option to use natural disasters to raze older structures so that your followers can rebuild higher capacity ones in their places and increase your total population. You couldn’t even lose the game in simulation mode if you wanted to. Your angel avatar can’t die and even allowing the monsters to kill off your entire population (or doing it yourself with lightning and earthquakes) will only set you back a bit temporarily until it rebounds.

So why then is this game considered to be a timeless classic by so many gamers, myself included? The real brilliance of ActRaiser and the secret of its lasting appeal is the unique synergy between its two halves. It’s all a matter of pacing. Switching back and forth between a frantic hack-and-slash combat stage and a slow, methodical town building exercise doesn’t seem like it should work at all, but somehow it just does. The result is a game that’s deeply relaxing to sit down and play without ever becoming boring.

The grand faux-orchestral score by Yuzo Koshiro reflects this dynamic perfectly, lending epic bombast to the action scenes and calm serenity to the simulation mode. A game music legend, Koshiro is on record as saying that ActRaiser represents some of his best work. I’m not inclined to argue.

There’s one more excellent reason to play ActRaiser, though it’s a little less tangible than the genius pacing and stellar presentation. It’s that certain special hallmark that Quintet also brought to several of their other Super Nintendo classics like Soul Blazer and Terranigma: Profound ideas presented in beautifully understated ways. ActRaiser is by no means as story-driven as Illusion of Gaia or Terranigma, but there are still some lovely little moments scattered throughout. Ask anyone who’s played this game about Teddy or the dying man in the desert and they’ll know just what you mean. Nintendo of America’s heavy-handed alterations also couldn’t completely erase ActRaiser’s explorations of spiritual and religious themes, as in the game’s ending, which offers up the notion that the best god of all might just be the one that nobody needs. Oh, and you get to stab the devil right in his big stupid face.

Amen.

Terranigma (Super Nintendo)

Wow. Just…wow.

I haven’t played an RPG in quite a long time and I’m glad I chose this one to ease back into the genre. One of the things I like most about the majority of 8 and 16-bit console games is that I can usually complete them fairly quickly and then move on to something else before things get too stale. This is not so much the case with a lot of traditional RPG titles which emphasize constant slow-paced menu-driven battles. Thankfully, 1995’s Terranigma is a breezy action RPG that only took me about 19 hours to complete at a fairly leisurely pace. The combat is stimulating and the game doesn’t spread itself too thin or take up fifty hours of your life just because it can. I really appreciate that.

Also known as Tenchi Sōzō (“The Creation of Heaven and Earth”) in Japan, Terranigma is the third game in a loose trilogy of Super Nintendo action RPGs from developer Quintet which also includes 1992’s Soul Blazer and 1994’s Illusion of Gaia. Though these three games don’t share any specific characters or plot points, they do include many of the same gameplay elements and narrative themes.

Terranigma had the misfortune to release just as publisher Enix was closing down its North American operations, which makes it one of the relatively few Super Nintendo games to see official release in Japan, Europe, and Australia, but not over here. It’s a damn shame. This game is a triumph and deserves more than the dubious honor (along with Seiken Densetsu 3) of being remembered as one of the North American SNES’s fabled “lost” RPGs. Luckily, it’s easy these days to track down a ROM file (or a reproduction cartridge, if you’re an unrepentant physical media snob) and experience this gem for yourself.

In Terranigma, you play as a mischievous teenage boy named Ark (or not, as you can change his default name to whatever you like) who lives in the peaceful village of Crysta, along with his adorable purple-haired love interest, Elle. Life is pretty peaceful until one fateful day when Ark breaks his way into a forbidden room in the village elder’s house and discovers a literal Pandora’s Box that he (of course) promptly opens. This causes everyone in the village to be frozen in place by a magic spell of some kind except for the elder, who tells Ark he must leave the village to seek out five mysterious towers and conquer their various challenges in order to restore the cursed villagers to life. Things escalate quickly as Ark soon discovers the shocking truth that the subterranean Crysta appears to be the last surviving human settlement following some sort of cataclysm which laid waste to the surface of the planet. Each of the five eldritch towers he visits causes one of the planet’s sunken continents to be restored to its former place. These revived continents turn out to be very familiar indeed: Eurasia, North America, South America, Africa, and Australia! Ark soon finds himself in the surface world, where he must serve as the catalyst for the resurrection of life and human civilization as he journeys far and wide across this devastated Earth.

Right away it’s clear you can’t accuse Terranigma of having a stock JRPG plot. There’s no evil empire to fight and there isn’t even anything resembling a true villain on the scene until well past hour twelve. Ark’s quest is a slow burn driven by the player’s own desire to piece together enigmatic events and is really more about the journey and the plethora of memorable people and places you’ll encounter along the way than the purposefully nebulous destination. It’s very similar to Dragon Quest VII in this sense, although it wisely avoids that game’s glacial pace and extensive backtracking. Ark is also not the standard “silent protagonist” you’ll find in RPGs from this era and his wisecracking, devil-may-care attitude adds a lot to the game’s charm. As a whole, Terranigma’s story is completely delightful and I won’t be spoiling it here. If you’re in the mood for a complex, unorthodox narrative laden with challenging themes and a blend of sparkling humor and touching warmth, Terranigma is for you.

The gameplay also doesn’t disappoint, as this game features some of the most nuanced and well thought-out combat mechanics seen in an action RPG of its generation. Ark can walk and run in eight directions, unleash five different attacks with his weapon (a spear), block projectiles, and, most crucially, jump. While the variety of distinct attacks available is uncommon enough, the ability to jump is what really sets Terranigma’s combat apart from Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past’s, Secret of Mana’s, and even Quintet’s own earlier efforts like Illusion of Gaia. You’ll also unlock additional movement options like swimming and cliff scaling through the acquisition of key items during the course of the game. These are mainly useful for exploration and don’t impact the combat. Overall, fighting enemies in Terranigma feels faster, more dynamic, and generally more fun than it does in most other games of this kind.

Being an RPG, there’s also the requisite magic system. Regrettably, I can’t say I cared much for it. Terranigma’s magic is effective, no doubt, and the various spell animations look and sound awesome. The main issue I had is you simply don’t need any of it! The game is set up in such a manner that just beating down everything in your way with your weapons is both quicker and more enjoyable. Here’s a basic rundown: You find crystals called “magirocks” scattered throughout the game world. They work sort of like bottles for holding the spells of your choice until you decide to use them. You need to go to a magic shop, pay money to have them filled with magic, and then bring them back for recharging as they’re used. See the issue here? You can either trek back to the magic store over and over to spend money refilling your magirocks or you can just…not, since beating on the bad guys with your weapon is both more efficient and more exciting. Ultimately, I can forgive Terranigma for this rather lackluster system. Balancing the magic in an action RPG does seem to be one of the trickier aspects of the design process, after all. Look no further than Square’s Secret of Mana, where the most effective combat strategy involves repeatedly pausing the game to select attack magic from the menu over and over again until whatever you’re fighting explodes. Not exactly the pinnacle of great action gameplay. It’s far better for the magic in a game like this to be unnecessary than overpowering.

Terranigma’s final distinctive element is a bit of a distant callback to Quintet’s own ActRaiser: Town building. Doing sidequests for villagers will actually alter the game world by facilitating technological advancement and international trade. Villages can become towns and towns cities. While it’s a fairly minor aspect of the game in that it won’t alter the main storyline or ending, it’s still a lot of fun to see the results of your actions and choices take such a tangible form on the world map.

In terms of presentation, Terranigma is practically unrivaled on the system. Sprites are larger and animations smoother than they were in most earlier action RPGs, the backgrounds are lushly detailed, and the cinematic cut scenes accompanying the gradual resurrection of the world are some of the most elaborate and beautiful ever executed on a console up to that time. The breathtaking score belongs in the pantheon of all-time 16-bit greats like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI. It really is that good. The compositions are soulful and inspired, with some of the most effective use of musical leitmotif I’ve had the pleasure to experience.

There are a couple flaws worth mentioning, too. As I alluded to earlier, Terranigma is a pretty easy game. This might sound like a plus to some players, but I really do think the enemies could have been made just a bit tougher, as it would have bolstered the game’s underwhelming magic system by rendering it a tad more needful. It also seems the game’s best levels were concentrated in its first half, with later dungeons feeling markedly less detailed and innovative.

These are all trivial gripes, however. Terranigma is a resounding masterpiece and a must-play title. Quintet’s games always had great artwork and music paired with rock solid mechanics. That’s not why I think they’re remembered, though. No, I think it’s because Quintet was never afraid to introduce big ideas into their games in small, relatable ways. Death, rebirth, religion, the nature of good and evil, the paradoxical fragility and resilience of life, the dangers of greed and pride: Quintet didn’t just lecture us about these things, they actually showed us different aspects of them through meetings with unforgettable characters and then left us to draw our own conclusions. They didn’t hold back, yet still somehow managed to do so with restraint. They gave their audience credit at a time when games were widely considered mere child’s play.

Nothing illustrates this better than Terranigma’s absolutely heartrending ending. I wouldn’t dream of spoiling it here. I will say it’s the most pitch-perfect bittersweet coda I’ve ever experienced in a game. I actually shed a tear or two and no game has made me do that before in my 3.5 decades of play. It’s easily my favorite game ending ever.

This is why Quintet’s body of work will never be forgotten.