Let’s discuss two peculiar 90s action RPGs that continue to captivate players with their stories, gameplay and music. These timeless classics offer an unforgettable experience that resonates deeply, even decades later. Here’s why.
Games are just entertainment, right? Well, I would argue that this is mostly true, more so than for other mediums. However, there are certain titles that clearly transcend their primary purpose, etching themselves into the fabric of our memories.
Illusion of Gaia and Terranigma, two action RPGs developed by Quintet and published by Enix in the 90s, are perfect examples. Nestled within the unofficial, only thematically associated ‘Quintet Trilogy’ after Soul Blazer — which has similarities, but, unfortunately, doesn’t come close to the quality of its successors —, these games have much to offer even decades later.
(Fun fact: Quintet used a trademark font for their games which you will probably instantly recognise if you’ve actually played these games: Gaiatype.)
My personal connection to Illusion of Gaia (or Illusion of Time, as it’s called in Europe) and Terranigma runs deep. As my all-time favorites, they’ve influenced not only my taste in games in general, but also my appreciation for the medium’s potential for storytelling and philosophical exploration. The magic of these games lies in their ability to combine engaging action-RPG gameplay with stories and themes that provoke thought and emotion. They also feature an excellent soundtrack. This is a blend that remains as compelling to me now as it was when I first experienced these masterpieces as a child.
In this article, we’ll delve into what makes these games stand out and why they continue to resonate with players after all these years. Whether you’re a fellow fan or never heard of the titles, I invite you to join me on this journey.
Stories and Themes
Illusion of Gaia and Terranigma captivate players with storylines that are unlike most other games, even most RPGs, in that they are – despite the occurrence of magical elements – not completely set in a fantasy world.
Of Comets and Continents
In Illusion of Gaia, players follow the story of Will, a teenage boy who embarks on a journey to save the world from an impending comet. In an interesting twist, it’s not the comet itself that’s the source of danger, but its light, which has strange effects on Earth and its creatures. During his travels across the world, Will uncovers ancient ruins, meets a diverse cast of characters and awakens his own hidden powers.
Terranigma, on the other hand, tells the story of Ark, another teenage boy who is given the monumental task of resurrecting the world from a dormant state. This journey takes him first through the underworld, where he raises the sunken continents of the overworld to the surface again, then up to the overworld itself, where he triggers and witnesses various stages of Earth’s evolution – from bringing back plants, animals and humans to fighting robots, discussing genetic engineering and dealing with authoritarian mind control.
Philosophy plus Mythology
Both games delve deep into philosophical themes. Throughout their journeys, players experience exchanges between characters with very different perspectives and situations of moral dilemma. Even the antagonists might sometimes have a point.
The theme of development is central to the games, both in terms of personal development and the evolution of Earth: While the protagonists acquire items and abilities that enhance their powers, the worlds they inhabit undergo substantial changes too as the story unfolds. In Terranigma, for example, you can actually support the growth of cities with certain actions and decisions, which changes the look and layout as well as the people inhabiting them.
Another interesting aspect of Illusion of Gaia and Terranigma is the combination of elements from mythology and actual history. Both games feature locations inspired by real-world landmarks, such as the Incan ruins and the Egyptian pyramids, but also mythological places like the legendary sunken continent Mu. By blending reality with their own unique brand of fantasy, Illusion of Gaia and Terranigma create immersive worlds that feel both familiar and fantastical.
Both Illusion of Gaia and Terranigma fall under the action-RPG genre, featuring gameplay elements that combine real-time combat, exploration, finding treasure and solving puzzles. Over the course of the games, players navigate through various environments, encounter different types of enemies and overcome obstacles by utilising items or the abilities of the protagonists.
In Illusion of Gaia, Will has a standard and a jump attack (which deals more damage). He gains special skills like telekinesis and a sliding move as well as the possibility to occasionally transform into powerful alter egos, the dark knight Freedan and, much later, a strange being called Shadow (which, ironically, seems to be an amorphous being of liquid light). These transformations grant Will new skills and are often necessary in order to progress through the dungeons.
(It’s quite interesting how light and dark are framed in this game, by the way. Since the light of the comet is an evil force, the protagonist is associated with dark. There are exceptions, though, which admittedly confuses me to this day.)
The gameplay mechanics of Illusion of Gaia and Terranigma share similarities, but Terranigma builds upon and refines the foundation set by its predecessor. It extends the protagonist’s standard moveset with more fluid and versatile combat mechanics. (There’s also a magic system with one-use items casting spells, but it is not exactly a strength of the game.) In addition to more combat abilities, Ark also has a wider range of movement options, such as (actual) jumping, balancing and even swimming. This opens the possibility for some relatively challenging platforming sections here and there.
Graphics and Music
Illusion of Gaia and Terranigma were visually impressive at the time they were released. The art styles mixed vivid fantasy environments with darker tones that reflected the narrative themes.
For example, in Illusion of Gaia, you visit the beautiful hidden town of Itory, but later, you have to explore a diamond mine full of slaves and monsters. In Terranigma, you experience the overworld of South America both as barren lands as well as lush green plains and forests.
The soundtracks of Illusion of Gaia and Terranigma belong to the best ones ever composed, no doubt. Yasuhiro Kawasaki composed the music for Illusion of Gaia, creating a captivating score with a focus on brass instruments that beautifully accentuated the game’s epic moments. It’s worth playing the game for the pre-credits track alone.
The OST for Terranigma was composed by Miyoko Kobayashi and Masanori Hikichi. It contained a diverse range of themes and instruments that evoke a wide range of emotions: A spirit of adventure, danger in the face of monstrous creatures, intriguing mystery, joy, melancholy, nostalgia, catchy character themes — it’s all there. Check out the arrangements by Roman Heuser.
Despite being developed in the 90s, Illusion of Gaia and Terranigma continue to hold some — although not nearly enough — relevance in today’s gaming landscape, particularly in the realm of artsy and/or emotional RPGs. This isn’t just due to nostalgia or the rose-tinted glasses of retrospective appreciation, but because these games encapsulated timeless themes and an atmosphere unlike any other game. (The only game that remotely resembles the ‘Quintet Dilogy’ in terms of real-world references and thoughts about humanity would be Mother 3. I don’t think Earthbound came close enough.)
To me, Illusion of Gaia and Terranigma represent the pinnacle of the 16-bit era. The level of quality in regards to the technical aspects — graphics, gameplay, sound effects — and the artistic expression — music, themes, plot – continues to set a high bar for the retro games of today, regardless of the advancements in technology.
If anything, my appreciation for the ‘Quinted Dilogy’ has only deepened over time. The more I came to appreciate art, the more I realised what these games actually accomplished. There are very few games I would call works of art without a moment of hesitation — you would certainly have to make up your mind about the definition of art before including, like, a jump’n’run or a shooter —, but Illusion of Gaia and Terranigma definitely are works of art. They are not just games, they are profound experiences that have shaped my personality to some extent as well as my perspective on many things in life. And that’s what art is really for, right?
In summary, Illusion of Gaia and Terranigma are must-play games. These two action-RPG classics weave epic narratives with deep philosophical themes, offering players a journey that extends beyond the screen.
From their high-end 16-bit graphics, diverse environments and engaging dialogues to their masterfully composed soundtracks, every element of these games demonstrates an exceptional level of artistry and craftsmanship.
The enduring appeal of Illusion of Gaia and Terranigma not only for me — a game developer who has played basically all the good games on Nintendo consoles and many good ones on PC —, but also for so many others who keep posting about these games in 2023 are a testament to the quality and the profound impact they’ve had on players young and old.
Therefore, I encourage you to experience these classics for yourself if you don’t know them yet! Immerse yourself in their vivid worlds, engage with their thought-provoking themes, and appreciate the immense effort that went into their creation. Only then will you truly understand why Illusion of Gaia and Terranigma are the greatest games of all time.
Have you played Illusion of Gaia or Terranigma? Do you agree with my evaluation? What are your all-time favourites and why?