Ranking the top 101 Nintendo games: No. 101, Illusion of Gaia
The SNES classic is not without its problems, and yet...
I’m ranking the top-101 Nintendo developed/published games of all-time, and you can read about the thought process behind game eligibility and list construction here.
Quintet is a developer that I miss having around. The Japanese dev had a close relationship with publisher Enix — now part of the Square Enix behemoth — in the 1990s, and released six different titles for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System between 1990 and 1995. The first of those might be why you remember Quintet even if you’ve forgotten their name, as it was a classic game that remains essentially unique to this day thanks to its balance of platforming action with civilization building: ActRaiser.
Not all of those games were published in North America by Enix like ActRaiser was: 1994’s Illusion of Gaia was one of the exceptions, as it released in Japan under the Enix banner, but in North America (and Europe, and Australia), Nintendo took the reins themselves, and even promoted the title in Nintendo Power to give it that extra bit of pre-release marketing.
Illusion of Gaia is a weird game. Not just because the localization is, oftentimes, distractingly iffy, but because it would be weird even if it had been perfectly translated and localized. You’re a teenager named Will, and your father has gone missing after an expedition to the Tower of Babel. You end up involved in a search for your missing dad (or at least, answers as to his fate) on this Earth-ish planet with Earth-ish locations and landmarks, and your primary defense is a magic flute. Which, outside of the few times in your adventure that you need to actually use it like a flute, is instead mostly used in place of a sword.
Image credit: MobyGames
You can teleport to a dark space between worlds where an ancient god explains that you can occasionally change form into a long-haired dark knight with a sword that has more reach than your flute, and, later, into a being of pure energy who is the ultimate warrior, capable of repelling the demon living inside of a dark comet that will speed up evolution in such a way that it would bring about an Earth that humanity as we know it was no longer a part of.
Quintet might have occasionally had trouble getting some dialogue across in a way where you could figure out what was being said, but when it came to big story beats on creation, death, and evolution, they were neither sunny nor subtle. In Illusion of Gaia, time is the theme that gets the most play. Even in Will’s success, time was there to take something from both him and the world, but in the process, something new was created as well.
Oh, and also, the approaching comet hyper-evolved your childhood friend into a fish who could still speak to you across time and space. Normal comet stuff.
I have a soft spot for Quintet’s penchant to look at humanity, the soul, and the world, which all comes across well in Illusion of Gaia, but the gameplay isn’t lacking, either. It’s one of the top action RPGs on the entire console, which is an impressive feat considering the existence of Square’s offerings in the genre (like Secret of Mana), Nintendo’s in-house offerings (Link to the Past), and Quintet’s other work on the system, one of which we’ll get to later in this project.
There is little in the way of collectibles, and no broad exploration of the world necessary. The lack of those elements doesn’t detract from the game, though, as the relative linearity instead allows you to focus on the task you do have at hand: defeating every enemy in every area of the game so that you end up strong enough to defeat the dark god living inside that approaching comet. You see, defeating every enemy in a room/area brings you an increase in your health, strength, or defense. The only way to tackle later enemies with ease is to have been thorough in your defeat of earlier enemies: otherwise, that flute you’re swinging around like a sword is going to do just about as much damage to the demons you’re fighting as you might imagine a flute to normally be capable of.
Figuring out how to access every nook and cranny in a given room/dungeon/whatever becomes its own sort of puzzle that helps add to the enjoyment of the dungeons themselves. Combat itself is simple enough: unless you’re using one of the special powers you earn as the story progresses, you typically are just pressing the A button to swing around a weapon for most of the quest, a la early Zelda titles. Also like in those games, your focus is on trying to avoid being hit by the same enemies you’re trying to hit, which helps keep combat from feeling repetitive, especially as enemies cause more and more damage and become more difficult to avoid.
In addition to leveling you up, total defeat of the enemies helps you earn additional lives. Enemies drop gems, typically one or two at a time, and you need 100 of them to earn an extra life. Those extra lives keep you from having to restart from your last save, which in turn keeps you from having to fight enemies a second time or solve a puzzle you’ve already solved. Enemies don’t respawn in Illusion of Gaia: you defeat them and then they’re gone, which means there are a limited number of upgrades you can receive and lives to be stockpiled. Knowing you need to be careful, that sloppy play early can make life more difficult for you in later, more intricate dungeons, helps keep you on your toes and combat exciting.
With one mortifying exception, the enemies you’ll face are all monsters and demons. Quintet, philosophically, wasn’t into violence for the sake of it, or human-on-human violence. They liked to show the dangers of a world obsessed with that kind of violence, to warn against it. Even the monsters you defeat typically need to be defeated for a reason other than “are dangerous to you,” as, in a few of their titles, the monsters and demons are warped, twisted creatures housing the soul of some innocent. Defeating them frees the soul: nothing is lost in defeat, only gained. I might not have the same direct opposition to violence in games that Quintet did, but I can appreciate the stance and the way they compellingly resolved it while producing some great games that still featured violence to make them work.
This gameplay from the mid-90s remains tight today, and again, the themes and story do pull you along even if the localization can occasionally make you wonder why you’re doing something or even who is, at that moment, speaking. Quintet’s approach to story telling and the themes they focused on — especially in this title, where evolving too quickly is warned against and what time takes from us all is a constant focus — continue to resonate today in a world that is literally on fire, one where the kind of tech we’ve spent decades focusing on is unlikely to save us the same way Will was able to save his own version of Earth. It’s an impressive game, even in 2020, and one you should revisit both because of, and in spite of, the things that make it weird.
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