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Quintet: Heaven and Earth

Peklo

Oh! Create!
(they/them, she/her)
Outside of the select few video game companies that can claim to being a first-party developer for a particular platform of their own making and production, video game systems and consoles are often defined by their most successful, or most prolific supporters. Numerous examples abound in the medium's history: Activision on the Atari 2600; Konami on the MSX; Rare on the NES; Namco on the PlayStation; Capcom on the Dreamcast. Names like these for the high attach rates or critical acclaim achieved on their targeted platforms ensure their places in games history, and many are industry juggernauts still active today, maintaining a name cachet and in some cases safeguarding their own history and occasionally repurposing and reintroducing it for subsequent generations. But not every definitive work is so celebrated into perpetuity, nor are they always recognized for their efforts in shaping a platform. Developers like KID on the NES or AKI on the Nintendo 64 left an indelible mark on the systems of their choice in their day, but any impact they might have had in the long term is left for the enthusiasts to discern, by the small but loyal audiences they cultivated. Even then, the creative imprint of a single development group would often extend beyond the borders of a single system, because of longevity of involvement in the business or their scope of development in it. That is where a development house named Quintet comes in, as an exception to these trends.

Truthfully, the details of Quintet's existence and history have to be fudged to fit into the above narrative: while a single-platform developer for most of their existence on the SNES, and certainly for the most lauded and public years of their tenure, the company went on to transition into the new 3D age of video games, where they hung on for a select few years doing work of little publicity or renown, often as work-for-hire development support instead of the previously well-honed group professing a distinct creative voice. The studio fell into uncertainty and ignominy just as they could have been seen as having reached their stride after years of constant work. The rumour mill surrounding the company's ailing fortunes reached new heights, or lows, in the years since, as studio founders and creative leads Masaya Hashimoto and Tomoyoshi Miyazaki had seemingly fallen of the face of the earth, unable to be located or contacted by anyone willing, their former peers unaware of their present circumstances.

There's a sensationalist fall-from-grace bent to Quintet's arc as a video game developer; the rise-and-fall curve that we so often fixate upon and can create whole cloth to suit our storytelling needs. As no one but the people directly involved can know the answers, all anyone else can do is offer conjecture, and the more mundane the resolution the more likelier it appears. Quintet's history was brief, but full of intense, focused creation of themes and concepts that defined their place in the history of video games. At the end of that sprint, the developers themselves expressed burnout and exhaustion from their massive undertakings in that period. As that time and place coincided with a generational and unprecedented technological shift in the medium, is it any wonder the studio struggled to find their footing again? So many other studios simply ceased existing in transitions like this, unable to cope with the new standards or lack of resources required to catch up to the giants. If anything, Quintet lingering on and making a go of it as long as they did after their heyday is something to be remarked upon. Not everyone gets even that chance.

Grasping at the silver lining even more, perhaps the ephemerality of Quintet is to be coped with and understood through the lens of the ethos and philosophic underpinnings their games were so committed to imparting upon their audience: that life is transitory, full of change, and those that seek to consign it into stillness and stasis are ultimately the only true enemy. Quintet's heroes fought for creation in every instance, and there is no doubt that for half-a-decade or so, Quintet were a force of creation unparalleled by any other.

Who were Quintet?


To understand Quintet requires knowing the circumstances leading to the company's inception and founding. In the late '80s, home computer developer Nihon Falcom had reached heretofore unseen popularity thanks to their strong line-up of genre-codifying array of RPGs, usually with a prominent real-time action element. Of these, Ys was the most famous example, starting out with a top-down to-be-duology that was both an epic serial in structure and a presentationally and narratively ambitious encapsulation of an RPG experience adapted into a compact action game milieu. The project's leads were overall team head, programmer and designer Masaya Hashimoto and scenario writer Tomoyoshi Miyazaki, while Koshiro siblings Ayano and Yuzo worked on the graphic design and soundtrack, respectively.

As the decade was drawing closer to its end, the Koshiros departed Falcom in the first waves of an oncoming exodus of talent who would later reconvene under the auspices of a different developer. Within the company's culture, there was a stirring desire to make the move from computer to console development, to ply the staff's expertise at action games on platforms that were seen to be on the rise compared to the computer scene. Falcom's conservatism prevented such plans from materializing, and after development concluded on 1989's Ys III: Wanderers from Ys, series leads Hashimoto and Miyazaki departed the company to pursue just what had been denied them by their former employers, and so Quintet was founded. Recent Falcom hire and graphics designer on Ys III, Kōji Yokota, had wanted to join his team members for the same reasons, but for reasons of financial security would only do so by 1991, working thereafter on practically the entirety of the company's output in a graphics and programming capacity. Neither Koshiro were employees of Quintet in the years to come, as they had started a family business of their own as the company Ancient, but thanks to the connections formed at Falcom, were both hired as contractors to work and collaborate on the new studio's games.

Many other names encompass what the studio did in their time, and several more reoccur as staff across the oeuvre, but it's important to recognize that especially the core of Hashimoto and Miyazaki were always present throughout the company's output, for an unbroken sequence of iterative work where they had the opportunity to hone their craft, develop their own signatures and conventions, and riff in reaction to the same. This was a creative group that achieved a level of tonal, thematic and mechanical consistency so strong and unified in their voice that the lack of a central series designation came to matter not much at all, and in a way freed the developers to pursue those concepts outside of the limitations of rigid serialization. It was not the letter, but the spirit of the text that came to define what Quintet was and meant to people invested in their work, to an extent that you can either wind the clock backwards and see those elements in play in the earlier Falcom output, or incorporate studio Shade's later work into the whole without missing a beat. It's for those strong undefined but undeniable ties that connect the company's works that a representative name after one part of that collective has been coined for them: the Creation of Heaven and Earth.

Chapter 1: Descent of the Master



"Hey, if we’re going to develop for the Super Famicom, we’ve got to do something really SUPER!" - Tomoyoshi Miyazaki​

Quintet's debut work portrays the first of many such tales to follow in the dualistic struggle between good and evil, the Master and Tanzra, God and Satan. Localization mandates of the era in their way served to obscure the direct theological connections in the game's story, though it's the thinnest of veils to see through. The multitudes of names for the adversarial forces in fact sets up, unintentionally, one of the longstanding themes in Miyazaki's writing and thematics, where the deific conflict eternally reoccurs, but under varying names for the opposing forces. The details are never important, but the morality play's messaging is.

ActRaiser released in mid-December 1990 in Japan, less than a month after the debut of its system, the Super Famicom. This is notable for several reasons, not the least of which is the leg up that Quintet had on any potential competition in getting in at the earliest possible opportunity in claiming a place on the newly ascendant platform, as well as leading by example: the (apocryphal?) legend goes that after hearing Koshiro's work on the orchestrated, sampled soundtrack, Nobuo Uematsu was freshly motivated to meet the new standard in his ongoing work on Final Fantasy IV's music. The comparisons between the two need not end there: while both debuted in English in November 1991, FFIV's Japanese release had only occurred in the July of that year, which might go on to explicate the degree of localization quality differences between the two, as Kaoru Moriyama's team had only a few months to adapt a much larger script to another language. Because of the more concise narrative, its single-minded way of presenting it, and the relatively ample year of time to work on it, ActRaiser stands as an early example of a localized video game where the actual script quality of the writing, in combination with the subjects discussed, is a point of interest in its own right and a credit to the game's aims, instead of a muddled detriment.

The early release date in the context of the system also frames the game's accomplishments on the visual front as a sign of the developers' ambition and expertise. The flash of the warping and rotating title sequence and the Master's swirling descent into the monster lairs are synonymous with the game, but beyond such technological showcases the level of craft in the locales themselves is noteworthy in its diversity: no stage in the game resembles another on a visual basis, nor in the specifics of its topography; the layouts are always in contention of some new permutation or a new platforming challenge to overcome, and they do this while staying very brief in scale, never threatening to overstay a concept or locale.



art by pao

It's important to note the strengths of ActRaiser's action platformer sequences because a common rhetoric that's applied to the game retrospectively is that it's "more than the sum of its parts", as defined by a common idiom. Ostensibly it gets at both the action and simulation segments being lacking on their own and only reaching a desirable balance when combined, but as ActRaiser 2's omitting of the simulation elements lead to an uncompromising rejection of the game on a fundamental basis among the previous audience, one must conclude that whatever affection exists for ActRaiser is more in due part to the simulation elements, not the platforming. It's a disappointing outlook to witness because the platforming here, in context or out of it, is very satisfyingly put together, and each movement of the animated statue inhabited by the Master carries with it much nuance and precision in how they're deployed by the player. There is a need to learn the arc and reach of a sword swing, the trajectory of jumps and how to manipulate them, and the little idiosyncracies like the momentary crouch after landing from a large fall. The level design supports the learning process in turn, always placing enemies in interesting combinations and in ways that are dangerous but plausible to surmount while thinking on one's feet. While linear, the scale of the level design supports the occasional out-of-the-way corner where restoratives are doled out to ensure the completion of a stage without too much difficulty, and the spells acquired throughout the game serve as another powerful equalizer. The kind of stiff precision that it exemplifies is perfectly suited to the conceptual base of the avatar inhabited, and speaks strongly of the thought that went into realizing the vision.

The need for an enjoyable core in a cross-genre game such as this is paramount, as the simulation segments are not designed to carry the experience on their own as a mechanical exercise. As they are, there is no particular strategy to them and they have no failstates to be threatened by, and their importance to the game is as a palate cleanser, a moodmaker and a vehicle for narrative experimentation. All the game's dialogue is delivered in them, primarily by the people communing with god, who listens to their woes and tribulations in a world beset by demons. There are no uncertain outcomes in the tales told, but the way they are conveyed, through the pacing of the player's direction in developing the communities they're overlooking, imbue them with a sense of tumultuous unpredictability where in reality none exists. Seeing the miniature representations of people under your divine care scurrying about on the map, desperate to live their lives is an altogether strange and occasionally touching sensation, as one narrative reaches its bittersweet end through the anonymous ordeals detailed in matter-of-fact but sincere narrations. Developing a civilization carries with it mechanical benefits, but it's not the main motivating factor here: you simply want to see what happens in this divine antfarm, while worrying after the believers who are constantly threatened by something beyond their control. When the game closes with the realization that people have abandoned worship, belief and appeals to god in a world made much safer and prosperous by the same heavenly hand, it comes not as a stinging betrayal but a sad and foregone conclusion, a climax fashioned inadvertently by a deity eager to shelter and look after their people, shaping the nature of faith in too direct a fashion for it to persist.

ActRaiser is a launch game that signaled at the possibilities of a new era in the medium, and wielded idiosyncracy to paint an image of a potential future that may have taken. Its successors' unwillingness to copy its model wholesale should not be read as a mark against them, nor to exclusively elevate this one work by contrast. It's a moment in time of a developer pouring out so many ideas at once that they formed the suggestions of several games at once. The works to follow picked and chose aspects from it to elaborate upon in greater depth, leaving ActRaiser's legacy as foundational and secure.

Chapter 2: Terranean Animism



"With the story of Soul Blazer, we didn’t want to make a typical character story, but rather something that would be told from a different perspective." -- Miyazaki​

ActRaiser could be seen as a follow-up to Hashimoto and Miyazaki's work on Ys III, which was born out of wanting to do a sidescrolling action game along the lines of Nintendo's Zelda II: Adventure of Link. Knowing that influence could lead one to conjecture the cross-genre presentation as having roots there as well, in how Link traversed his world from a top-down, abstracted perspective and scale, and shifted to a more realistically proportioned close sidescrolling view for the platforming and combat sequences, empowered by accrued experience points and attained magic spells. That is ActRaiser's model, and easy to extrapolate as still having inspired Quintet at the time of developing their debut title. With their creative voice established in a concoction that mixed pre-existing elements to form into something trailblazingly fresh, the studio would turn to something even closer to home for the follow-up: they would return to their roots.

1992's Soul Blazer is Quintet doing an Ys-style lite-RPG action game they codified with the Falcom series. The tells are all there: protagonist Blazer echoes the Adol Christin archetype of a young and lithe swordsman adventurer that the genre at this point was so full of as the leading figures of stories. He meets a girl whose role is to largely suffer emotionally and passively and be freed from her torment through the hero's actions (Miyazaki, for all his exceptional qualities as a writer, tends to default to these thematics with any prominently featured women in his writing). The inventory system bursts with incidental, one-time use items that provide texture to the narrative gruel, and easily understandable equipment that mostly climb up in effectiveness in an entirely linear, progressively stronger sequence. Even the bump combat made famous by Ys is represented here, in spirit if not literally replicated: the arc of Blazer's sword swing favours a diagonal approach to the enemy, as the off-center angles of attack in Ys, and a shoulder button allows Blazer to hold the sword in front of him, enabling to simulate the ram and slam rhythm of battles that Adol became a veteran of in his own series.

As much as the resemblance to Ys is present in Soul Blazer, ActRaiser is the natural connecting tissue between the two even as the presentation differs by about ninety degrees between them. The details again tell it: the style of sound effects are closely akin if not entirely repurposed at times; the HUD stands as the same segmented lifebar so characteristic of the earlier work. These signifiers could be seen as a developer working pragmatically with their assets, but they go a long way in establishing the signature throughline in all of the studio's works where the connections between the individual games are always felt by players even as the literal sequel status escapes most of them. It is in the premise of the story, where the player again takes on divine tasks on the earth below, only this time through the actions of an agent of god, with the Master remaining a distant authoritative figure. The similar outset results in a story that is very different in the telling, thanks to a particular shift in narrative priorities between the two games.


ActRaiser engaged in a lofty observational perspective on faith and its practices and rituals, a downward gaze at the humans struggling below. It's not to be misconstrued as a condescending outlook, just communicating the remove at which the Master existed from their subjects, with one-sided prayer and a servant cherub's patter as the only channels of connecting with their people. More importantly, it was entirely human-centric in focus: the world was made desolate for the lack of human life, and imperiled only in context of human culture and human civilization's development. Soul Blazer abandons these trappings, as while the monotheistic figure of a god still presides over the world, it's not the belief in them that's at stake in its setting or how its people understand their lives. Instead Soul Blazer adopts animistic belief systems to model its worldview after, as the crux of its narrative tone and its mechanical core.

Every monster lair in the game has the capacity to free a soul from within once its denizens are defeated. This not only forms the rhythm of progress through the levels, but becomes the carrot on a stick that carries the entire game on a fundamental level: a soul can belong to anything at all, from living things to inanimate objects or otherwise nonverbal creatures. You no longer raise entire populations by the hundreds or thousands from nothing to blanket the earth, but instead may restore a flower pot, a cupboard, or a snail to life, and commune with them as equals. What does a door want out of life? How does it experience it? What are its sorrows and joys? Soul Blazer is one of the few games that has ever broached these topics despite animism having worldwide roots in human existence and systems of faith. As in the real world analogues, none of this is ever explicitly termed or laid out as a set of rules to follow--it's simply how the world is interpreted by the people who live in it. It sidesteps the human exceptionalism inherent to most stories told by us to each other by allowing the perspective of other forms of life and never taking away that dignity from them, casting each entity as equally important as the next, without relying on anthropomorphism to bridge that divide to make the concept palatable to the human-centric view. As a result, it's Quintet's most intimate game, the most keenly personal of the stories they told exactly because it draws the player in to empathize with and interact with who are otherwise not counted as persons at all.

Soul Blazer's greatest strengths are not in its mechanical craft, which is always reliable, capable and enjoyable. It's to be found in the storytelling it pursues and the atmosphere it invokes through it: a palpable melancholy hangs over its world, but not as a crushing weight; instead the pathos is navigated with a light, wistful touch that tends to leave one uplifted as the myriad stories are witnessed through the revival of its world. As a complementary equal counterpart to ActRaiser's thematics, it could not be better conceptualized or executed, and as a video game narrative, it remains heartbreakingly singular.

Chapter 3: Ordeal of the Master



"It's extremely hard... but if you just master the character’s movements, you’ll find you can progress at a brisk pace, and that the game has a lot of depth." -- Naohito Suginaka​

There is much significance that a release like ActRaiser can carry for a company's debut work. For one, it sets a precedent in what the audience associates from then on with the name "Quintet" if it is their first exposure to them, and thanks to the game's early appearance on a system everyone had their eyes on and the novelty of its structure and concept, those associations became inherent to the burgeoning brand that the game and its creators now were seen as. And whether a project was received well or worse--all the years since have shown that ActRaiser was and is beloved--the qualities it possessed would become inextricably bound to the nature of that reception. All of this is to say that any claimant to ActRaiser's legacy would have an uphill battle ahead to prove itself a worthy successor in the eyes of an audience so attached to the specifics of the first game.

There will always be people to whom 1993's ActRaiser 2 stands as an unequivocal failure to recognize what made the earlier game interesting and worthwhile. It all rests on the former's reputation being largely centered around what set it apart from the million other platformer action games of the time, in the city-building simulation sequences. ActRaiser 2's power move is to remove those aspects from the game altogether; the Master now simply maneuvers their skybound castle atop the game's many stages through a map screen, and descends immediately to fend off the demons. The resulting interplay between tension, release and a recharge period is absent from the sequel's makeup and rhythm of play, instead focusing only on white-knuckle action, which highlights another perceptible contrasting flaw: while ActRaiser could be challenging, 2 is just brutal. Many who have curiously set out to try the game based on fond feelings for the first installment find themselves unable to finish a single stage. What happened with ActRaiser 2, and where is the game I loved?

ActRaiser 2 cannot be made into something it's not, but its nature can be explicated upon. Game tester, debugger and Quintet staff member Naohito Suginaka corroborates the circumstances of the game's creation that might have been guessed from context, representing an all-too-familiar phenomenon at the time: the game was specifically created for the American market upon Quintet's regular publisher Enix's American branch's direct request, and so was made as steep a challenge as it is as a result. What is left unsaid in the account of the telling is what primarily motivated overseas releases of Japanese games to be made hard or harder still in localization in those days, which was the existence of an active rental market, a factor absent in Japan. ActRaiser 2 is a perfect case study of the ramifications of this divide and in designing games with it as an active shaper of the creative process: lacking the sense of scale from the first game, 2's otherwise brief running time was extended and for many people, made completely unfulfillable through the increased demands of its level of play, in accordance with the perceived demands of the market.

The shift in nature of the formal content and the woes of the difficulty are the crux of what holds ActRaiser 2 back, and the tragedy of it is that they are the only thing preventing it from taking its place among the greats. For those who are willing to invest of themselves the perspicacity and fortitude to weather the game's trials, they may find an altogether improved game in every way from the first, when compared to what can be fairly compared, and unique in its appeals still. This increase in relative quality may be partly attributed to the returning Ancient folks, the Koshiro siblings in particular. They had at this point lead the development of and released Streets of Rage 2 earlier in the year, a work that can be seen as definitive and genre-best for both of their individual creative talents. As there, Ayano Koshiro had an integral role in making ActRaiser 2 what it is, holding a triple credit of art director, scroll designer and even scenario writer for the game; it is among the most varied and prominent development roles she has ever had in her career on a single title. Under her direction also worked one Hitoshi Ariga as an object designer--past SoR2 team member, frequent Ancient collaborator and future Mega Man and Pokémon contributor of high prolificity. Outlining the people responsible in brief is warranted if simply for the reason of ActRaiser 2 standing as one of the most beautiful audiovisual experiences on the platform, from the execution of its concepts which range much more imaginative and experimental--the descent into a giant anthive; the exploration of a sunken, petrified city; the grim march through a battlefield and the traversal across a fleet of airships; the voyage into the possessed mind of a king; the ascent of the Tower of Babel itself--to how those setpieces are scored by Yuzo Koshiro's soundtrack, in a returning, matured tone and approach to composition; less preoccupied with dazzling with immediate melodic content and more comfortable in allowing the pieces to weave themselves into intricate tapestries punctuating the visual output and matching it in spectacle.


Should one spend time with ActRaiser 2 beyond even that, then its other, less immediate strengths begin making themselves known with extended play. By necessity, it's a game that professes repeated play and mastery over its mechanics, only tuned here to an extent where such accomplishments aren't bragging rights and bravado but the basic requirements for survival. Anyone who gets anywhere in ActRaiser 2 invariably becomes proficient at its inner nuances, as the game demands nothing less. That is the perverse delight in coming to terms with a game that even its own developers affirm as having overdone in regard to challenge: there is no upper skill ceiling to be reached which leads to a learning process that never ends, which is its own particular slice of heaven for those attuned to that. Just learning the mentality in how to play can be difficult here, thanks to the multitude of options available to the Master's second coming at any time; the mentality of a fighting game needs to be adopted here in knowing the hit and hurtboxes, how to capitalize on invincibility frames, and how to attack safely.

Eventually I conceived of a mental designation for the outlook the game wanted me to parse it through: "slow and daring." The first half of that comes from the Master's default stride and pace; it is one of the slowest of any comparable action game, and a contrast to the constant running gait of his previous incarnation. The initial limitation begins to unravel itself as it's made apparent that the steady pace is required in order to not be overwhelmed by what the game regularly throws at the player, and is made newly welcome as a literal pacemaker in that context. The second part of the puzzle is the necessity to push onward, with all of the Master's abilities, at all times: a shield can block but only while still, and a glide may avoid what stymies on the ground, while a dive pierces through enemies and magic decimates when properly applied. The self-contradictory nature of ActRaiser 2 is that it requires the confidence to play it slowly and self-assuredly throughout, and the game provides the tools to do just that once one learns how to apply themselves to the task. I don't know if "high-level play" is the operative word for my own experiences with the game, but it gets at the incredible sense of accomplishment when the game is interacted with to the fullest of its capabilities and the player's own, the depth of expression inherent in its play mechanics making themselves manifest in the process.

ActRaiser 2 will be seen as a mistake and the early self-destruction of a series that barely lived. It's an inescapable estimation of it as it's always remembered in context of its elder sibling, and faulted for not adhering to its principles. I understand the kneejerk rejection and from where it stems, but I also highly value what ActRaiser 2 went on to become, and in its own way it is as unique and worthwhile as any other game in Quintet's catalogue.

Chapter 4: The Gaia Chronicle



"It might sound a little strange, but one of the things I drew inspiration from when making games was travel guides." -- Miyazaki​

ActRaiser 2's late 1993 release did not signal the totality of Quintet's efforts since the January 1992 coming of Soul Blazer. In addition to the ongoing localization processes required to meet global demand (and as an exception to a rule, nearly all of Quintet's games received European releases), the company despite its modest scale was creating two game projects at once, on a similar schedule: the high-execution action platformer follow-up to their first hit, and what was informally and initially conceived as literally Soul Blazer II. The reliance in this period for a known quantity is up for anyone to guess at--pure marketing spin, or the desire to really commit to a set of guiding thematics even beyond the studio's established voice? Whatever the case, the plans to unify the branding did not come to pass as publisher Enix wished for an added promotional hook to be introduced for the burgeoning action-RPG sequel. Enter Mariko Ōhara and Moto Hagio.

Personal experience at this point fails me because the context I have for Ōhara is only what can be easily gleaned from basic biographical information. Around 1993, she was in her early thirties with a career more than a decade long as a science fiction writer and novelist, with several industry awards under her belt. On the game that would now be known as Illusion of Gaia, she provided the outline of the setting and story, which was then worked on by Miyazaki and others, incorporating ideas from the Soul Blazer II concepts into the final game. Hagio is a different matter for me personally. If I had to really strain myself to pull such a declaratory statement off, I might count her as my favourite author. Part of the onrush of influential shōjo manga artists who emerged in the '70s, Hagio is a creator who along with her peers can claim as to having revolutionized a medium, with an unprecedented air of dramatic propulsion, psychologically complex subject matter and raw and uncompromising emotionality to her stories. This aptitude combines with her mastery of the visual aspects of her craft, full of billowy and fanciful framing, hyperdramatic expressiveness and an emphasis on light and shadow to bring out the best and the worst in all of her portrayals, and here she was called upon to use those talents to design the central characters. Even if these are just names to the observer, from context it is easy enough to glean that they were introduced to the project for just that: the value of their names would hopefully uplift the profile of the game on its own, even outside of the creative services provided.

Whether it is because of the unique challenges of the production or the creative circumstances Illusion of Gaia came out of, it is the first Quintet game that to me appears compromised to its detriment, or uninspired in its makeup. Pointing out examples of such is more complicated than it seems as on a base level the game is constructed and executed aptly, and the issues one might have with it usually only expose themselves after being contrasted with what consistently works about it. A good starting point is the playfeel of how movement occurs in the game and what kind of relationship it has with the surrounding environment. Protagonist Will and his transformed guises move at a sufficient clip by default, but the majority of the time increased travel speed is required or preferred, and the only way to accomplish this is by double-tapping the directional pad. A non-issue when stated outside of context, but in practice it becomes a persistent hindrance to navigation as the majority of the game's layouts favour hard ninety-degree angles, necessitating constant resetting and revving of Will's proverbial wheels. Such navigational annoyances mount as they make one look at other aspects of the surrounding design with more scrutiny, in how the scale of the environments is extremely bloated seemingly to accommodate the uncommonly large character sprites, leading to the opposite of the compact experiences previous Quintet offerings boasted and delivering not enough of interest to justify the increased mileage. Several dungeon environments even require backtracking the entirety of the way back out of them, not for any narrative reason or to satisfy particular pacing... they're just one puzzling dropped thread in a game that seems uncharacteristically full of them, extending from the well-assembled core.



art by 柏まとみ

The game's narrative is also a grab basket of potential and might-have-beens failed by the execution of the concepts. Unlike past Quintet games, the anonymous, silent and ultimately figurative hero is abandoned in favour of a named, solidly defined individual with a sense of interiority and interpersonal relationships to define them. That is not to say that Will's portrayal contains within it much dimensionality but the pretense is given, and things like his gawked-at telekinetic abilities and the unconventional use of a flute as the tool and weapon of choice set him apart from other Adol-come-latelies in a pleasing and novel manner. Will is teetering on the brink of archetypedom which is certainly bolstered by his counterpart, the outspoken princess Kara who becomes his companion, friend and inevitable love interest. There is as much stock predictability here as there is sudden shock and captivation inherent in the events that transpire, from the famous scenes of a long raft dereliction Will and Kara endure or the noble self-sacrifice of Kara's pet pig Hamlet to provide food for a starving village, in a play that's equally sincere and sincerely silly for the over-the-top sentiment that it reaches for. As a travelogue shared between a group of kids, the game sidesteps the otherwise epic suggestions of its narrative theses concerning evolution, systemized slavery, and courtly intrigues. It is as all over the map tonally as the global trek it takes the player on, with equal failures and successes brought on by those high concepts.

What becomes a central factor in how the game meets its stated narrative goals is something that's informed every Quintet release up to this point, but never so crucially dependent on the work being in order: the quality of the localization and script. The narrative shift that exists between pre- and post-Gaia in Quintet's storytelling is something that underlines this new need for a consistent standard, as the previous games largely concerned themselves with direct, declamatory and above all, one-sided narration; the player was regularly talked and monologued at by a single entity or person or privy to private musings, largely allowing those prior games to read better than they otherwise could've knowing the working conditions of localizers had to work under in that time, where context and nuance were not easily gleaned and implemented under the deadlines the staff were subject to and the material they had or likelier, had not access to. Soul Blazer remains a genuinely well-written video game because it could benefit from these narrative peculiarities, in addition to the touching melancholies of its characters. Illusion of Gaia cannot be shielded from these pitfalls anymore, now that its cast regularly have conversations amongst themselves, responding to each other at will in a way that's supposed to carry reciprocal meaning and reactions. The game completely crumbles at this task as no conversation flows as it ought to, and the specifics of the conceptually complex narrative are left murky in ways that are not intriguing but sloppy and unsatisfying. It becomes difficult to discern whether the material in Japanese is at fault or whether the localization is simply failing it, and so antipathy toward the work holistically can fester as a result.

That's the sad takeaway in what Illusion of Gaia offers: glimpses at a more interesting work than it could ultimately become, anchored by the strength of its guiding concepts but tripping in the execution. For a company that had set themselves up as exceptional on some level from others, an unfair standard had risen up to meet them where merely competent had not the luster it may have had elsewhere.

Chapter 5: The Creation of Heaven and Earth



"ActRaiser, Soul Blazer, Illusion of Gaia, Slapstick… it’s been a wild ride for us at Quintet, developing for the Super Famicom for these last 6 years. Terranigma is the culmination of all our efforts and expertise." -- Masaya Hashimoto​

Quintet's next work entered development shortly after the twosome of ActRaiser 2 and Illusion of Gaia were released in late 1993, but it would not be their "next game" at all. Instead that position went to the turn-based RPG Slapstick, known in English as Robotrek, a break from the common motifs and themes of the studio and even their nominal standard genre in melding numbers to twitch action. The incongruity is not accidental: according to Kōji Yokota, a particular staff member at Quintet at the time had previously been at Falcom, as so many of them had, where she'd worked on the dark fantasy roleplaying game Dinosaur. As a deliberate change of pace from her prior work, she pitched the lighthearted and comedic Robotrek, whose tone is better encapsulated in its original title. From context we can only assume this particular staff member was Reiko Takebayashi, a Falcom veteran and a consistent participant in Quintet's games up to now. Robotrek would be her most central development role as game designer and scenario writer both, but it would not be the last to be heard from her as she also wrote for the other, unnamed project.

Robotrek's release in July 1994 marked a divergence in the company's output that they were now for better or for worse locked into in the minds and hearts of their fanbase. It also resulted in an inauspicious exit from the American market, as it would be the company last game published in the region, in a stunningly short turnaround of less than three months between the original Japanese release and the localized title. That is no time at all to adapt an extensive, dialogue-heavy game, much less with the infrastructure or lack of it in the early '90s, and might go a long way in explaining the infamous localization that preceeds the game's reputation, overshadowing all of its other merits and aspects. Illusion of Gaia showed the company's material struggling to be conveyed, but Robotrek was the total dissolution of any kind of expectations Quintet had earned for themselves through their releases--such was its incoherence. The other project in the works since late 1993 would not see a worldwide release, as Enix's American subsidiary shuttered its operation in late 1995, due to ongoing poor sales. It would be left to others to bring it out of Japan.


The tragedy of 1995's Terranigma is that it was denied the platform its predecessors benefited from in securing a loyal following outside of its home country. As an European attempting to speak of often Japanese media products, communicating in a language not native to me, the cultural cross-pollination in the hobby and industry of video games is not lost on me, but it is safe to say that the dominant and pre-eminent shapers of how the medium is parsed, understood and remembered are primarily North American, at least in this language. Nostalgia is a force, and it's a powerful one as childhood encounters become formative and guiding. Terranigma has all the makings of a genre-classic, a system-defining hurrah that eclipses the competition and its platform's limitations, but history has left it in a more marginal position as a rare reverse import from an American perspective, something Europeans were privy to at 100:1 odds from the usual norm; an intriguing curiosity. It's loved by most that seek it out, but it's never going to possess the kind of deep-seated foundational adulation that many of its peers in that generation enjoy, and it's through no fault of its own.


Terranigma is the culmination of all of Quintet's work in developing their voice, their thematics, mechanics, and the mastery of their platform that they'd spent half-a-decade honing as one of its most consistent supporters. It is a melange of the concepts explored in prior games that unravels so gradually and so gracefully that the stench of forced artificiality comes nowhere near it; whatever is included is here because it's right for this game, not to satisfy a self-referential quota. On a base level, the game concerns the adventures of a rambunctious village boy named Ark, played from a top-down perspective as had long been the Quintet norm. Stepping out into the sleepy introductory village already betrays some of the game's enduring qualities: it looks absolutely astonishing in every instance, in ways that supersede the ostensible limitations of the hardware through the sheer craft applied to its every facet. Protagonist Ark is a central representation of that, as one of the most subtly nuanced and diversely animated realizations any comparable game would ever see, full of incidental goof-off reactions to the world around him and innumerable transitional frames to naturalize his movement in any scenario. The variety of actions feeds directly into how the game is played, as Ark's toolset is integrated to his innate verbs, in an extension of how ActRaiser 2 presented its arsenal of magic as contextually applicable answers to particular threats; the difference here is that Ark is not limited by a magic pool but his unique acrobatic physicality forms the core of how the game is played and how threats are answered via his repertoire. It makes every moment of controlling him fun on a base level, and the previous blemishes like Gaia's double-tapping repetition have been addressed with more thoughtful control configurations. If the ambiguous virtue of "polish" in video games is what sets one's heart afire, Terranigma is one of the shining beacons in the most-improved category that one could ever think of.

Such reassessment of prior works lives strongly in what the game does at every turn. The long but ultimately simplistic dungeons of Gaia are replaced with the restoration of compact play spaces more suited to the also reduced scale of the player character and his foes. In fact, the mindfulness with which the game addresses its roots can be seen as being quietly summarized in the opening hours of the game, as Ark ventures forth in the underground realm he calls home into a succession of towers littered about the underworld, tasked with restoring the very continents on the planet's surface. In just a few key moments the game has managed to call back to the overarching themes of restoring life and limb to the world around oneself, the abstracted overhead worldview and Biblical trials of ActRaiser, the straightforward gated dungeon environments of Soul Blazer, and the large-scale travelogue nature of Illusion of Gaia, after which the game truly begins building its own distinct voice in dungeon and world design, and only after addressing its own past. These are associations that are never made anywhere but in the hazy liminal space between game and player, audience and text, and that they are a result of such interplay is nothing but a credit to the game's grasp of its own history and the willingness to explore what kind of weight the continuation of those concepts can carry when pushed further.

The thematic resolution in Terranigma is to incorporate the whole of Quintet's oeuvre into itself, and the first of those steps is taken through the reinstating of creation and destruction as the central dualistic motifs. This is one of the ways in which Illusion of Gaia did not quite work out in my eyes; the game in both play and narrative structure seemed to encompass a world tour where nothing much was created in the protagonist's wake--Will's adventures in the end were defined by the things he met and killed during his travels, which is probably more biting a commentary on the age of exploration than intended by the game, and only at the end do you passively listen to someone else vaguely lecture about evolution to you. Ark is positioned from the start as a messianic figure, one of an Earth but maybe not the one you know, and his accomplishments are highly dramatized restorations of entire ecosystems as a direct result of his actions. The responsibility of reviving an entire planet is one that he falls into as if by accident, but there's a definite pathos and loneliness communicated through the audiovisual component in what the writing itself says less about, as the defining visual of the game may very well be his tiny cloaked form walking the earth unerringly and unendingly.


It's part of the game's concept to present itself as an RPG of the time, with a world map to directly explore with one's representational avatar. A stock concept in relative terms, but Quintet had blazed their own trails to such an extent that this was really their first go of it, give or take a Robotrek. In doing so, they landed on an unique juxtaposition of different genres as action-RPGs usually do not feature abstracted world map scenes such as this, as they prize and emphasize directness of action and directness of scale in presenting themselves to the player. Terranigma is one of the few that does both, and it results in, again, a sensation of desolation and isolation as the whole of the world is open to the player, but at no point will a random encounter interrupt them. Exploration is thus not measured and structured by the steady stream of the opposition encountered, but through the oblique corners of the world and what they might hide: a meadow may suddenly present itself, unmarked on the map, containing little but a chest or some other item in an anonymous location, and that is all that's there. These tiny moments are hand-crafted as they're always in the same places, held together by the same spatiality, but they come off as so unpredictable that they lend an air of mystery to the world that otherwise would not be there.

The thesis of Terranigma is to be found in the impression it leaves the player with through its world itself. As with some other RPGs, like famously Dragon Quest III, the world of Terranigma is patterned after our planet Earth, as Ark brings about its resurrection and the re-emergence of human civilization. While ActRaiser focused on organized faith and theology, Soul Blazer on animistically intimate perspectives, and Illusion of Gaia on human interpersonality, Terranigma makes sure to remember all those past explorations while also shifting its focus on what it truly is about: the planet itself as a lifeform and complete entity. The time spent on navigating and learning the connections of the world comes off as not an accidental thing, as if the game is committed to etching the whole of the planet into the player's mind and heart through extensive familiarization of it, whether or not they already have the real-life context to work from. The cultural basis of the world is underlined by the sometimes literal, sometimes analogous names of continents, regions and towns the player travels through, in a much more comprehensive form than Gaia's famous ancient civilizations allowed. It's a game that wants you to care deeply about the environment it presents, but not in a moralizing way, instead presenting the results of human encroachment and human "progress": if Ark aids humanity to uplift themselves through assisting several historically important geniuses, he will see increased urban development, segregation of communities, disillusionment in modernity's trappings and the destruction of nature. There is no punishment for the player doing this, but also no especially important reward in mechanical terms--just the results of a boy playing god, with the consequences staring back at him.

That's the undercurrent pervading all throughout Terranigma, in the text it presents and what kind of metatextual status it holds now. Quintet's games were about a deeply sensitive chronicle on life--for the environment, humans and everything else. Ark begins his journey with the ability to communicate with plantlife and animals, which comprise the camaraderie he experiences for a long time before humanity returns to the world. When that threshold is crossed, he can still try talking to his previous acquaintances and friends, but he can no longer understand them. The loss carries no mechanical weight, but it's heavily felt on an emotional level as an entire layer of the world is now closed to him in the way he used to interact with it before. Miyazaki, Takebayashi and others at Quintet regularly strove to depict this kind of bittersweet loss of something integral in their games even as the heroes nominally succeeded and progressed in their endeavors, and in doing so managed to capture something inherently existentially sincere. Terranigma is the definitive work by Quintet. It's also the work that took so much out of them that it closed the book on this chapter of their existence, and it's often the last page most will want to read.

~~~

"I wanted to write children’s books when I grew up, partly due to my parents’ influence. But I also loved games, and I wanted to do something that would make other children happy." -- Miyazaki​

Quintet diminished in a public capacity after Terranigma. Development house Shade had been initially set up as an offshoot of the studio for allowing them to work on projects outside of Nintendo's tight grip on their business. This resulted in projects that carried the Quintet spirit and staff, such as the informal final chapter to the Heaven and Earth games, The Granstream Saga for the PlayStation, but despite that game's virtues (I like it very much) acclaim and industry stature never recovered for the company after the 16-bit era came to a close. The leads of the studio in Hashimoto and Miyazaki veritably disappeared over the years, though occasional sightings and crossed paths continued for a time (Hashimoto worked at one point at Ancient, according to Yuzo Koshiro). There is, I think, nothing unusual about people leaving an industry altogether to do something else with their lives, to say nothing about receding from public life for a sense of privacy. It's happened before, and it will happen again, in this industry and others. The only exceptional factor here is what ultimately fuels the speculation after Quintet's founders and their wellbeing: people loved, and continue to love their work, which reflects back on its creators. We'll leave it at that.



~~~

First off: congratulations if you made it here! I'll be very flattered for each and every person who actually takes the time to read through all of this. I began playing through Quintet's catalogue on a whim, and it just fell into place to actually do something with it after the fact, since I had recently been delving into material about the company anyway, which I'll list below. Play Quintet!

Sources:

Koji Yokota and Yuzo Koshiro interviews conducted and transcribed in The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers
Quintet Interview Collection via shmuplations
Terranigma - 1995 Developer Interviews via shmuplations
 

Kazin

did i do all of that?
(he/him)
Oh, I am definitely saving this to read on lunch tomorrow at work - Quintet is fantastic, and there's still some of their games I haven't played yet - Terranigma and Soul Blazer, which as far as I know people think is their best work.
 

Mogri

Round and round I go
(he)
Staff member
Moderator
I'm surprised at the lack of regard for Illusion. I always held it up there with ActRaiser, where Soul Blazer has always felt a little bit stiff to me.
 

FelixSH

(He/Him)
I will read this and give a more useful answer later, but I want to say for now, that I liked all of Qunitets output. Thematically and from a gameplay standpoint. The Soul Blazer cover art is probably my favourite of the pieces you posted. It looks so much like 90s sci-fi Anime.
 

Kazin

did i do all of that?
(he/him)
I don't mean to demean ol' Talking Time, but this should be published somewhere, imo. This is exceptionally well-written and thought through, and has made me want to go back and play all these games while referencing it (again in some cases, and for the first time for others). Fantastic stuff.

I need to give Actraiser 2 another shot - I, like many others, was disappointed by the lack of simulation aspects and did find it crushingly hard, but that was a long, long time ago and I think I've gotten a bit better at games in the meantime. I have always liked the presentation and music in it, though.

Illusion of Gaia was actually the first Quintet game I played - my first girlfriend had it while she was growing up, and I played through her copy in highschool. I liked it well enough, but haven't gone and replayed it since then, and thus barely remember it (it was almost twenty years ago at this point).

I have vague memories of wanting to play Soul Blazer back in the day from - I think - Game Players magazine coverage of the game, but for whatever reason I've never played it. This post has shot it and Terranigma to near the top of my "to play next" pile since I am on a huge retro kick at the moment.

Again, loved the post. Thanks for sharing it with us.
 

Peklo

Oh! Create!
(they/them, she/her)
Thank you for reading!

I think it's justified that the Illusion of Gaia portion may raise an eyebrow because the tone otherwise for everything else is so adulatory, but that was how it had to be to reflect my feelings about the game; it was the only one I was relieved to have ended when it did. Even so, it's full of the little touches and details that make all of these games worthwhile, like the wind tussling Will's hair in certain spots to signal a draft from a breakable wall, or small interactions that occur maybe once or twice during the game, like a ledge-shimmying act with its own animation frames for Will and his alter ego Freedan both. The same non-sequitur nature of the narrative that bothered me in trying to find meaningful connections in the text also leads to the game being comprised of some truly wild individual concepts: a level may take place in the underwater lost land of Mu lorded over by a pair of inexplicable vampires, and one of the central kids is written off during the shipwreck scene by being thrown overboard, only to re-emerge later transformed into a sea monster and catching up with his friends via morse code. There are basically no limits to what the game will conceive of to hold the player's attention, and it's only in the telling where it falters.

I'll put in another addendum that another way Terranigma addresses those flaws is that it's also the best-reading English script of Quintet's games. The reason for that is that while it never received a North American release, localization staff from Nintendo worked on it to prepare it for its PAL release--among those was Dan Owsen, famous for basically every video game localization under the sun, but pertinently to that time and place in just having worked on Earthbound's stellar adaptation. Terranigma doesn't reach that kind of standout expression, but it's also notably free of the missed context cues that plagued the earlier Quintet games, and reads convincingly and in support of the drama at all times, and manages jokes too when it wants to.
 

Fredde

Let me rock you Chaugnar Faugn
The ending of Terranigma haunts me to this day. Ark walking around his home village one last time, talking to the citizens who are unaware that this is their last day alive, and then going to sleep, having one last dream... Truly heartbreaking, truly beautiful.
 

Beowulf

Son of The Answer Man
(He/Him)
This was an excellent read.

Slapstick/Robotrek deserved better. It's on the list of games that I always wished would get a fan retranslation (along with Paladin's Quest/Lennus) and suspect will never see it. (I mean, to be fair, a fan translation of Granstream Saga would probably be a boon to mankind, because the story of that took a turn for the nonsensical in the last chapter.)
 

ShakeWell

Slam Master
(he, etc.)
I will need to come back and read this in full, as I only had time now to skim it, but part of what draws me to games of this era and the joy of doing research for my videos is that there's so much unknown about these developers. There are, as you say, so many that popped up for a few games, likely did some contract work, and functionally disappeared. And the secrecy surrounding the Japanese game industry means we know so little about all of them, it's fascinating.
 

Peklo

Oh! Create!
(they/them, she/her)
It always feels like a jackpot that hobbyists get to collectively all cash in and benefit from whenever an old, obscure interview gets unearthed or translated and some of that previously unknown or obfuscated context gets filled in going forward. Having that grounding and input from the people who were there helped me to commit to a studio like Quintet's catalogue because the work itself formed a story through the words of the people involved, in concert with what the games are about, and in turn elevated the interactions I could have with the games myself.
 
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conchobhar

What's Shenmue?
It took me entirely too long to read this. Incredible post @Peklo, a very thoughtful and incisive analysis of these games and the themes running through them. I never clued in to how much Terranigma owes to its predecessors, or how its opening section is so clearly a homage to them; but when you lay it out like that, it's undeniable.

I love Quintet's games, although I'm a bit of a spotty fan— it took me years and years and years to finally play Soul Blazer, and I've never actually finished ActRaiser (to say nothing of ActRaiser 2). But Illusion of Gaia and Terranigma are both games that mean a lot to me. Admittedly that has a lot to do with the timing: I played them in my mid-late teens, and they were some of the first video games with stories that really affected me. Gaia, especially, has so many memorable scenes and sequences… the long raft ride and Hamlet's sacrifice are the famous (or infamous) ones, but I would also point to the Incan gold ship and Angel Village as haunting and melancholy. Seth getting swallowed by a fish, and then becoming it, also messed with me a little, because I had no idea what to make of it (I still don't, really). It's definitely clumsy and awkward as an action game— so much tapping the d-pad, either to run or to do a lunging attack— but it's a game with so many fascinating and bizarre scenarios that it's stuck with me all this time.

Terranigma, meanwhile, is one of my absolute favourite games. While it lacks the stunning setpieces of Gaia, it more than makes up for that with a pervasive mood that's hard to describe— a mixture of warmth melancholy, hope and mystery. It's a game where even the smallest moments, the smallest interactions can nonetheless feel meaningful and major. One of the parts that's always stuck with me is when Ark runs into Leo, a lion, in the human age— and the two remember each other, but can no longer communicate. It's wistful, an acknowledgement that something has been lost, but without framing it as a tragedy exactly… it's akin to two friends who have drifted apart and become different people.

One thing that fascinated me about the game was how much it changed in each 'act': from the opening in the underworld where Ark tackles a series of towers, to the grand adventure on the surface as Ark resurrects life, to the narratively-driven encounters in human civilization (and some freewheeling exploration at the end). You've talked about this and how each neatly matches one of Quintet's previous games, but it's also struck me as the game evolving and expanding alongside its world: growing larger and more complex in tandem with the state of the world. It makes Ark's actions feel all that more bigger and more important, as if it forces the entire game to reinvent itself.

Also, this is again something you've mentioned, but I really need to repeat and emphasize that Terranigma is a game of incredible craft. It is no doubt one of the best-looking RPGs the system, and it has a stellar soundtrack to boot. But it's really the play control that impresses me the most: how responsive Ark is, how many combat options he has available at any given time just via how you combine his actions, and how well-realized all of it is. It's one of those rare games where simply moving your avatar around and seeing what they can do is fun in and of itself.

I've gotta say, this has really put me in the mood to revisit these games, and do so properly: marathoning the entire quintology, in order, and witnessing just how their approach evolved and changed from beginning to end. As someone who boosts Quintet at every conceivable opportunity, it's a little embarrassing how little a holistic understanding I have of their gameogprahy! I won't be doing that right now, but it's definitely something I'll be keeping in mind and making the time for. Quintet deserves it!
 
@Peklo

When replaying Actraiser, it eventually occurred to me that "creating a relationship with the townspeople that you are protecting" is the entire purpose and function of the simulation mode, rather than merely the result of it. Not that I feel as if I know what was really motivating Quintet's development process or anything, but I'm saying it is a mental shift I've made in how I look at and deconstruct the game.


Regarding Soul Blazer: I hadn't really considered before how rarely a game will place non-human lifeforms on an equal plane of intelligence / sophistication as humans, especially without anthropomorphizing them. Perhaps EVO: Search for Eden should be mentioned next as an admirable second example, although mostly with regard to animals and maybe just once or twice with plants (seaweed, namely).

(and don't think you are slipping the Touhou reference past me)

When you consider Quintet's game stories as a whole (wrapping together all vignettes and the full scale narratives), it's hard to avoid how heavily each game is about rather timeless human behavior and cycles of life. e.g. mistakes and follies, hope and suffering, family and home, loss and rebirth, sadness and carrying on. If each game story is a melody, then those are the fundamental notes and tones. Moreover, I cannot simply round this off by how, as we are always told to appreciate, every good story is about "the human condition" in some general sense.

The difference I get is that Quintet chose a really good canvass in order to give soul and worth to these ideas in an economical amount of plot and characters. They took a fictional game world and put that world's spiritual realm as a primary part of its construction. They also made the immortal, heavenly perspective the one by which you interact with and relate to the inhabitants. Which is all very unconventional but it's lovely and an effective way to make those notes and tones heard. With Actraiser and Soul Blazer another non-conventional trick they did is "widen lens", so to speak, from what normally would be your game's core cast of party members and side characters into the much more numerous, much more anonymous populace and life forms.

All these techniques are like manipulating the interpretation of a painting by emphasizing certain details, minimizing others, and swapping out the surroundings. I almost think Quintet's canvass lets them skip ahead a little bit to expressing what we ultimately appreciate about good stories, without having to spend as much focus elsewhere on the trip to get there.
 
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WildcatJF

Red After Image
(he / his / him)
This was a wonderful read Peklo! Thank you for writing such a passionate and detailed look into one of the SNES' undersung developers. Really appreciated the insights! I still hope Square-Enix will get around to a Quintet anthology of some sort someday...
 

Peklo

Oh! Create!
(they/them, she/her)
They put ActRaiser on Virtual Console, once! Fourteen years ago! Anything can happen!!

Realistically, I think it's only on the table if someone within the Square Enix infrastructure (or a particularly driven contractor) is personally pulling for these games to return and make the company realize they even retain the rights to them, as I assume they still do. Kawazu is still there to shepherd SaGa and has cultivated the staff under him to be as passionate about the series as he is, and Mana's unlikely return is probably also due to the fannish glee of someone making the pitch for it a good deal of time after Ishii's burnout and departure occurred... and M2 sure is helping to make a lot of that happen too, speaking of fans. If Quintet's catalogue ever experiences a resurgence, I think they would need a similar advocate within the ranks to facilitate it.
 

demi

(She/Her)
I've only played Illusion of Gaia and Terranigma to completion, though I've played the former a fair bit more. Back when I was young and playing it a lot, I found it to be very difficult due to various bosses (The demon face from Aztec Ruins and the vampires of Mu...) as well as sprawling, mazelike structures (also Mu, and that mushroom forest?) I think the difficulty I had at the time compounded with the general strangeness of the game to create a powerful sense of mystery.

The whole game feels like a vivid dream, where the experience is very poignant but then progresses to another chapter very quickly. The transition from the Aztec Ruins felt that way especially: with the resplendent, golden boat taking off, then its grand facade slipping away into ruin shortly before the whole thing is shaken up, somebody goes overboard, and everybody's in danger again. Also, the desert around Neil's place: wandering around, trying to understand the scope of the thing, realizing there are various patterns - tracing them - the comprehension dawning that they match constellations, and then... a ghostly voice that haunts Will, leads him, and then: an invitation to the Sky Garden! That sequence of events is pretty definitive of the experience as a whole, I think. By the time I have some terms for the scope of the current events, they slip away into something else. Will's form keeps changing through the whole thing, a mutable reflection.

As Peklo noted too, these kids get put into some pretty dire circumstances throughout the entire journey. Going overboard, stranded at sea, captured by vampires, a town built on slave trade, a kidnapping, "Hamlet ;-;"... there's a game of Russian Roulette too... this isn't the kind of adventure the kids set out on or agreed to have. It's just these bizarre circumstances they're subjected to, survive together, and occasionally enjoy together. Incredible beauty; mysteries of past and present, steeped in horror. There's usually some "eye of the storm" bit where there's a bit of resolution prior to the next chapter, and during that peace Will reflects on his journey and his friends and I really liked that too. The whole thing about being inspired about travel guides really comes through here: Will & co. were just students playing cards in a cove, Kara a princess for life. They could've stayed existing in these trappings forever, but when they go outside, experience the world, and get swept away by it... Idk, it leads to the kinds of formative experiences that Will can actually reflect on? I wasn't sure how to finish that thought.

Also, the music is pretty darn good with strong, wistful melodies or dramatic dungeon tracks. Other than that, I don't have too much else to say about the game, I really recommend it though!
 

Sarge

hardcore retro gamin'
I've had this tab open ready to read since it was posted, and I've finally given it the attention it deserved. I learned a lot through this, and I really appreciate you posting it!

I really like all of their work, even Illusion of Gaia, even if in hindsight I consider it the weakest of the SNES trilogy. But over time, I've really come to love Soul Blazer, just for how it cuts a blistering pace, keeping the player addicted in what they're going to see and experience next. Terranigma also manages to recapture much of that feeling, but manages to be one of the most polished ARPGs in existence. I went to the trouble of playing through it once in SNES9x, before it had transparencies, again in ZSNES with them, and then importing a copy from Australia and modding my SNES because it was just that good.

As for ActRaiser 2, I can definitely understand the ire it drew. As a sequel, it's pretty terrible. But taken for what it is - in my eyes a sort of very technical take on the Ghouls 'N Ghosts formula - it succeeds extremely well. And it really does have some very cool and impressive environs to play through. It's technically accomplished on both a mechanical and artistic level.
 

Peklo

Oh! Create!
(they/them, she/her)
Keep talking up Illusion of Gaia! I welcome it, because it clearly means a lot to many people, and my frustrations with it have less to do with disliking the game on some fundamental level than the disconnect I struggle with between me, the game, and its ideas and concepts; somewhere in that process there's a communication breakdown I can't reconcile fully. In a way I wish it had been a collaboration between Ohara and Hagio only, maybe a manga series, with the attention to the writing in localization it deserved--it's the parts about it that exist outside of that dynamic that I feel most conflicted about. I don't think it's any "lesser" of a game in the Quintet catalogue even if in my personal estimation I'm not that thrilled with it because it does still embody a lot about what made these things noteworthy tonally and for the subject matter explored.
 

Sarge

hardcore retro gamin'
No worries, I plan to! I do wonder what a relocalized version might look like - it definitely felt like some of the themes just didn't hit home because of some iffy translation work and probably some of Nintendo's policies at the time. It very much feels like a game that is on the cusp of true greatness. In my own rating vernacular, though, it's still a great game, like an 8/10 to Terranigma/Soul Blazer's 9/10 or 10/10.
 
Just been playing Robotrek recently as it's the one Quintenix title I've never really made the effort to get into. I feel like it has a lot of novel ideas and neat mechanics, which are unfortunately really poorly explained(or just not at all) in game. The capsules on the battlefield are a prime example, nowhere does the game tell you that these are essential as they sometimes provide bonuses that level up your robot's weapons. Nor that they can only be accessed by hitting them with a melee weapon, nor they don't always give you a bonus and most of the time just explode and damage your robot leading the casual player to assume they don't actually give you anything.

There's also nothing to explain how programming the robot's special attacks works and that you definitely need to do this to do stop battles being a frustrating struggle.
 

Peklo

Oh! Create!
(they/them, she/her)
Last October was Terranigma's 25th anniversary, and to mark the occasion the game's primary concept artist and character designer Kamui Fujiwara has been sharing various development materials presumably from his personal files over on his Twitter account. Included are design sketches, important promotional pieces, a .pdf of collected concepts for the game's cast and creatures, and so on--all in shockingly high quality, completely upending the state of archival material available previously relating to the game, with most of these never having been seen or limited to out of print artbooks never published very widely. It's a tremendous record of the game that can only increase its allure, directly from a primary source. I'll include much of it below but check out his feed for the rest.



From context, and additionally divulged information by Fujiwara, we learn that Ark's hair colour was originally this shade of blue, and only changed to a brownish, reddish blonde for visibility reasons.





 

Ludendorkk

(he/him)
That is some astounding concept art, shades of Moebius, Katsuya Terada, and Tomomi Kobayashi there. Great to see this stuff out in the wild
 

Peklo

Oh! Create!
(they/them, she/her)
Fujiwara remains active on his Twitter account, and the bounty we reap is a seemingly unending mass of Terranigma concept art pieces, whether unearthed and restored from the archives or newly drawn to commemorate the anniversary. Either way, they show a commitment to capturing all the things that made the game what it was, no matter how inconsequential at first blush--it was in those smaller moments that it in fact regularly excelled at, and they aren't ignored here.

Before the dump, it's partly through the recent 25th anniversary that fans and former staff on the game have reconnected and rekindled their passion for the game, resulting in a Change.org petition calling for its re-release by Square Enix who hold the rights to the Quintet catalogue. It's fan-organized, but backed and endorsed by Fujiwara himself as well as by the game's co-composer Miyoko Kobayashi. No one can really say what pull if any these kinds of movements can have in the eyes of a giant corporation, but as far as old and forgotten properties getting a second lease on life, often the first obstacle is just making people calling the shots aware that the material is cared about and that a demand for it exists.



Special highlight for the cleanest, most detailed version of the primary box art piece that's probably ever existed.















 

Sarge

hardcore retro gamin'
Just wow. Fantastic stuff. Thanks for posting all these! I'm just salivating thinking about what a version of the game could look like with this sort of artwork. Not that the original isn't a stellar game, but this artwork is gorgeous.
 

Regulus

Sir Knightbot
What's striking to me about this Terranigma art is that it appears to be a mix of traditional and digitally colored pieces. How common was that in 94/95?

It's almost nostalgic, because it reminds me a lot of learning to color my own scanned lineart a decade later.
 

Mightyblue

aggro table, shmaggro table
(He/Him/His)
Uncommon, but still happening fairly regularly; remember that you had a bunch of home computer/CD console hybrids being fairly popular in Japan at the same time and one of the ways they made use of the extra CD storage was splash art.
 

4-So

Spicy
If S-E somehow provided a Quintet collection, even if it's just Soul Blazer, Illusion, and Terranigma, I could not throw them my wallet fast or hard enough.
 
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