The Way Home
April 4, 2015 10:02 AM   Subscribe

Quintet were a Japanese game developer founded by Tomoyoshi Miyazaki and Masaya Hashimoto, the writer and director (respectively) of the first three games in Falcom's long-running Ys franchise. They are remembered primarily for a flurry of extraordinarily unique, creative and often surprisingly philosophical Super Famicom/Nintendo games such as ActRaiser, Robotrek and Terranigma, which share an emphasis on literal world-building, creation and invention.

Most well known and well regarded in Quintet's library are a thematically connected trio of games unofficially referred to as the "Soul Blazer" or "Heaven and Earth Trilogy." While each employs mechanics unique to that game, common themes of duality, creation, reincarnation, Platonism and altered history echo throughout the "series," which favor more ambitious and mature storytelling than their contemporaries.

Soul Blazer, the first in the trilogy released in 1992, appears at first glance to be a slightly more whimsical Zelda clone, but implements unique mechanics in which the player creates the game's world as they progress through it, reviving more and more characters and locales to transform a deserted wasteland into a living world. As an angel tasked with the resurrection of a world ravaged by technology, the player frees the souls of living beings (and ideas for inanimate inventions) over the course of the game, unlocking and recreating the world as they traverse it. Likened to Ultima for its holy avatar protagonist and spiritual and moral themes, Soul Blazer's story is abstract but more interested in portraying humanity and life than even many modern games, and includes moments of creative surreality such as a living painting, an intelligent race fixated on the brevity of their single-year lifespans and a Lilliputian city.

Music was composed by Yukihide Takekawa:

Seabed of St. Elles
Into the Dream
Lively Town

Covers and arrangements:

Tears for a Moonlight Knight (A Night Without a Lover)
by Israfel
Title Theme on guitar, by BMBGuitar

1994's follow up, Illusion of Gaia (Illusion of Time in Europe) completely discarded the world-building mechanics in favor of a more linear, narrative driven experience. Written by science fiction author Mariko Ōhara, Gaia follows a young man seeking his vanished explorer father across a Bizarro Earth in which history and geography have been rearranged like a jigsaw puzzle pieced together wrong. Instead of focusing on a larger continuous plot, Gaia is broken into shorter episodic plots connected by common themes: mortality, slavery and human trafficking, poverty and exploitation, wealth and corruption, moral awakening, the importance of queuing, evolution and growth. Many aspects of the game's plot show a subtlety and maturity rare to the medium, such as the expeditions of the protagonist's father corresponding to human trafficking routes, and characters leaving the group for mundane reasons like marriage and business. Unfortunately, its greater ambition means it suffers all the more from a number of clumsy mistranslations and plotting issues common to the era, leading to its most frequent confusions and criticisms. Gaia is also notable for featuring art and character designs by highly influential shōjo manga (rather than the shōnen more typical to games) artist (scroll past the final linebreak) Moto Hagio.

Music was composed by Yasuhiro Kawasaki:

In the Earthen Womb
Start a Journey
Itory, the Hidden Village
Freejia, City of Falling Petals

Covers and arrangements:

Itory Medley, by the Purps
In the Earthen Womb, by Famicom Guitar
Adrift guitar version, by the Destroyer of Video Game and Anime Songs
Town Remix, by Scott Coddington
Longing for the Past (Remix) by JD Harding

Terranigma, the third and final game released in late 1995, represents a synthesis between the previous games' two styles, reintroducing and greatly expanding on Soul Blazer's world-building mechanics while telling a more complex story in the vein of Illusion of Gaia. Written and directed by Miyazaki, the game follows a teenager cursed with immortality and tasked with the resurrection of the Earth after an apocalyptic event has rendered the planet sterile save for his own bucolic home. More meditative and deliberately paced than its predecessors, Terranigma centers mostly around concepts of time, loss, change and senescence while tying them into the common themes of death and rebirth. As with Soul Blazer, players free souls of beings, concepts of continents and ideas for inventions to alter the game's world, unlocking civilizations and steering the course of history late in the game. There is a stronger ambivalence to the renaissance, though; reintroducing complexity creates additional, sometimes heartbreaking, problems. Especially beloved by its fanbase is its bittersweet ending (illustration; obvious spoilers for both links), which many feel wordlessly evokes the emotions inspired by time and change well.

Music was composed by Miyoko Takaoka (née Kobayashi) and Masanori Hikichi:

Crystal Blue
The Way Home

Covers and arrangements:

Blue (Shooting Star Mix) by Ziwtra
Terranigma guitar medley, by BMBGuitar
Crystal Blue on piano and flute, by Lauren the Flute
Peaceful Ports on guitar, by CalebElijah
The Way Home acoustic guitar version, by Matt D
Aquamarine (A Place to Return to / The Way Home) by mv
Original tracks written by Frederic Krassowka in tribute to the game's sentimental, melancholy style (video contains lots of ending spoilers)

Though still dotted with uniquely strange work, the turn of the new millennium saw a decline in Quintet's output, culminating in a vague staff post on the company's message board stating only that the board would be shut down. Quintet's website remained online and unchanged until 2008, when it simply went offline. No announcement of the developer's disbanding was ever made. Miyazaki and other former Quintet staff have been credited in a number of licensed games since 2002, presumably in contract positions. Some consider the early PlayStation title Granstream Saga to be a thematic continuation of the trilogy, but consensus seems to favor treating it as its own separate work.

While largely forgotten outside fan communities, Quintet continues to quietly influence other developers. Mechanically, Level 5's Dark Cloud series owes much to the world-building gameplay Quintet employed, as well as to a lesser extent Squaresoft's Legend of Mana. Narratively and aesthetically, the work of indie designer Kan Go (To the Moon, A Bird Story) strikes similar chords and follows Quintet's tradition of ambitious, mature and emotionally affecting storytelling.
posted by byanyothername (20 comments total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
I intended this to be done last month in time for WomensMarch, but it took a lot of time and effort to put together so it's a few days late. Also, Illusion of Time will be twenty years old in Europe this month! Happy almost not-really birthday, Illusion of Time!

PS If you're overwhelmed by the number of links, my advice is to read everything. If you really must have a starting point, try this article. It totally nails it, in terms of explaining the appeal and why Quintet's games are still important.
Most RPGs have recurring villains. In Illusion of Gaia, this villain is the human willingness to harm others... There is a final boss, but it isn’t nearly as memorable a persona as, say, the slave trade that Will encounters several times throughout the adventure. Each time, he ends up disrupting the trade’s operations, but he can never eradicate it completely, nor save the lives that have already been destroyed by the trade. Ultimately, the impact that Will has on the evil of mankind is minimal and fleeting...

...Whatever the reasons, Will finds himself more and more left alone to face the realities of humanity. Will’s reaction to the world’s problems are the same that most of us might have. He feels pain when he sees things that are painful, feels hope when he sees people living their lives to the fullest, is grateful when his friends can find happiness, and is saddened when he cannot find happiness himself. By the time Will reaches his final destination, he has traveled the entire world over and seen the full breadth of human emotion. He has seen the mysteries of love and the realities of death. He has seen humans hurt each other with barely a tear shed but has also seen them give enormous sacrifice to save a family member or a friend. It leaves him feeling in awe of the sheer vastness and complexity of the world.
You could also try Terranigma's music. You can't go wrong there. Here's one I left out of the post. It's a secret to everybody!
posted by byanyothername at 10:03 AM on April 4, 2015 [3 favorites]

These sound interesting but I don't think I have the time to play three JRPGs what with being an adult with a job and a love life and all that sort of thing.

If I was only going to play one of these, which one should it be?
posted by egypturnash at 10:25 AM on April 4, 2015

Amazing post! I spent many nights in college in the early 2000s playing Illusion and Terranigma on emulators. Didn't know they were by the same developer. Great games, great write up.
posted by kittensofthenight at 10:27 AM on April 4, 2015

I played the shit out of Actraiser. Are any of these games like the world-building portions of Actraiser?
posted by infinitewindow at 10:37 AM on April 4, 2015 [2 favorites]

Actraiser's cover and box screenshots made me think it was an action game, and at the time, that's all I wanted. But then they sprung world building on me, and I liked that stuff better. Not easy to pull off!

Sounds like that was the tip of their studio's iceberg. I hope to at least try a little of this trilogy!
posted by ignignokt at 11:07 AM on April 4, 2015

I remember Terranigma being one of the most delightful discoveries of my emulation days, right up there with Seiken Densetsu 3 in terms of games never sold in the US. It's amazing that the SNES had an incredibly deep library even with all the games that didn't make it.
posted by selfnoise at 12:13 PM on April 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

egypturnash: "If I was only going to play one of these, which one should it be?"

Terranigma, easily. If you play it, don't make the mistake of thinking your emulator is broke at first. It is not.
posted by pwnguin at 12:15 PM on April 4, 2015 [2 favorites]

ActRaiser! I'm so glad I'm not the only one who knows that game.

I had never heard of the other games. I wonder why. Thanks for the in depth look.
posted by shmegegge at 12:22 PM on April 4, 2015

Wow, amazing post!
posted by Pope Guilty at 12:53 PM on April 4, 2015

Nice post yes! Although I have to admit that I really didn't like the US localization of Illusion of Gaia, and also with the gameplay were, hmm, a bit more substantial? It's been years since I played it though. Ah well.
posted by JHarris at 2:05 PM on April 4, 2015

I enjoyed Act Raiser, LOVED Terranigma, and didn't really care much for Illusion of Gaia. Never did try Robotrek though, maybe I'll have to give it a go.
posted by mrjohnmuller at 2:27 PM on April 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

Also, between Hayao Miyazaki's movies, Tomoyoshi Miyazaki and Quintet's games, and Hidetaka Miyazaki's Souls games, I'm starting to wonder if there's some special magic to being named Miyazaki that causes you to make really interesting and startlingly original things.
posted by shmegegge at 2:36 PM on April 4, 2015 [2 favorites]

Illusion is the only one I really played but I loved it. There was a kind of aching beauty to it.

And i labored under all its slightly screwed takes on world history and myth for quite a while. (I can't remember when I convinced myself Angkor Wat is a real place.)

I never did beat the final boss. The challenge seemed utterly out of step with the rest of the game.
posted by grobstein at 2:39 PM on April 4, 2015 [2 favorites]

I'm not really familiar with ActRaiser, but I think it's a case of same-but-different. Ravioli versus rigatoni. Lemons versus limes.

And yeah, if you only have time and energy to play one, make it Terranigma! It's the most well polished and realized of the bunch. I do have a lot of love for Illusion, though; partly because it tries to do so many things, partly because it's kind of the underdog. Don't worry, Illusion, I love you for being weird and different!
posted by byanyothername at 3:20 PM on April 4, 2015 [2 favorites]

Terranigma! Such an amazing game, and one of my favourites.
posted by tickingclock at 9:19 PM on April 4, 2015

Illusion of Gaia is an extremely "interesting" game. Really, it is lacking in a lot of ways, but it also explored some territory that was very novel at the time (and even today). The raft scene for instance is unlike anything I had seen before. Despite the dark themes and personal tragedy that fill much of the game, the presentation style usually gives the appearance of a generic cute & cheery JRPG. Some terrible stuff happens: you can sell out a fugitive slave for a gem, cause an NPC to drink poison on a bet, reveal that your friend's parents are imposters while his real parents are skeletons in the basement, etc. Sometimes the disconnect between the tone of the story and the cutesy presentation is effectively unsettling, such as when you are exploring beautiful towns with backstreet forced labor markets. Other times... well I'm not sure if this is really appropriate background music for a scene where a widow reads out the will of a man whose death you are mostly responsible for.
posted by Winnemac at 10:39 PM on April 4, 2015 [3 favorites]

I intended this to be done last month in time for WomensMarch, but it took a lot of time and effort to put together so it's a few days late.

No kidding, thanks for the post. Not too surprised to see its author either :) I was lucky enough to play Terranigma when it first came out even though PAL territories usually got the short end of the stick and it changed my life it was a great action rpg although plenty of it flew over my head. I got stuck in the Gobi desert and my level of English didn't help much. I borrowed it from a friend years later in the N64/PSX era and I loved every moment. The action was still as good, the themes resonated more and I got to see the conclusion of the story. I liked that the game's take on good and evil was a bit more nuanced and the music remained fantastic.

I played through most of Soul Blazer which had its poignant moments but could be a bit bland at times (the presentation reminded me of Ys). I found the concepts of Illusion of Gaia/Time very interesting, but the gameplay itself didn't click with me.

I don't know if its nostalgia speaking, but SNES rpgs did so much with so little material. Zelda:ALTTP, Chrono Trigger, FF IV-VI, the quintet games, Secret of Mana & Seiken Densetsu 3, the Romancing Saga games (the third game is a masterpiece), Bahamut Lagoon (first game I saw where the female object of desire ends up having agency, and a very fun SRPG), Tales of Phantasia, Star Ocean, Super Mario RPG, Earthbound, Lufia and my beloved Lufia II (not to be confused with that mess of a remake), Ogre Battle, the fantastic Dragon Quests III-VI, Ys III/IV, Breath of Fire I&II and Uncharted Waters 2 not to mention more action-y games like Actraiser, Demon's Crest or EVO or pc FPRG ports of varying quality of games like Eye of the Beholder, Dungeon Master, Wizardry or Might & Magic.

These were some very good years for gaming.
posted by ersatz at 4:44 AM on April 5, 2015 [3 favorites]

I did so love Terranigma.
posted by Peevish at 5:53 AM on April 5, 2015

Quintet made a lot of great games. While nowhere near as well-liked or remembered as the first ActRaiser, I've come to really appreciate ActRaiser 2 as well. If nothing else the art and music in that game are fantastic. Volgarr The Viking is in some senses a spiritual descendent of it (though Volgarr has other influences as well).

Here's a speedrun of it from AGDQ 2014, with commentary. PJ's continued to work on that game since then. His current personal best is 44:05, but he can probably cut that fairly significantly if he gets a good run.
posted by sparkletone at 8:09 AM on April 8, 2015

I loved Soul Blazer, and now that I'm getting back into retrogaming I feel like I need to make another try at Illusion of Gaia and especially Terranigma. I remember a mountain and a spear.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 6:41 PM on April 12, 2015

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