Most of Quintet’s Super NES outings were good action-RPGs on their own, yet they were elevated further by director Tomoyoshi Miyazaki’s frequent searches for deeper themes. Soul Blazer followed a divine emissary as he rescued a kingdom’s worth of people, plants, and animals, many of whom delivered little homilies about their lives. Illusion of Gaia turned a world-trekking boyhood adventure into a steadily darker tale of sacrifice and cataclysm. Terranigma, Quintet’s crowning achievement, found its hero exploring the light and dark halves of a world and creating an entire civilization along his journey. The three games swing from the routine to the unexpected, dotting a melodramatic and simple RPG narrative with some intriguingly thoughtful moments.
One of those moments arises when saving. Like a lot of RPGs of the 16-bit era, Quintet’s titles let you record your game by talking to someone, who then asks if you want to continue playing. Other games reset to the title screen if you answer “no,” but some Quintet works don’t. They instead continue in an unbreakable loop, apparently thinking it rude to stop before the player does.
This was first seen in Actraiser, in which a godlike being raises a human civilization through omniscient overseeing and side-scrolling battles. After you’ve saved and told the game to stop, it brings up some comforting text from your little cherub sidekick, who flutters in mid-air until you turn off or reset the system.
Soul Blazer continued the trend, as its hero saves the game by speaking to his unseen master above (who very well could be the same deity players controlled in Actraiser). If you choose to stop playing, the hero disappears and you’re left to stare at an empty hall of heaven while the game’s save-screen music rolls. Perhaps you’re meant to contemplate the hollow regality of the realms above, which the hero will forsake at the game’s end. Perhaps you’re supposed to shut down the Super NES and go outside.
These post-save contemplations peaked in Illusion of Gaia, which may be Quintet’s best-known effort. It was published in North America by Nintendo itself, bundled with a t-shirt and an instruction manual that gave away a little too much. I’ve seen it labeled as a dull follow-up to Soul Blazer, but there’s something quite unique beneath Illusion of Gaia’s first impressions. Unlike the medieval fantasy grab-bag of many action-RPGs, Illusion of Gaia’s world is a bowdlerized take on the Age of Exploration, and its hero, Will, traverses burgeoning merchant towns and explores the ruins of civilizations past. The ancient labyrinths that Will treads range from Angor Wat to the Tower of Babel, and there’s a remarkable air of mystery about them. Illusion of Gaia ably captures that haunting, childlike fear of wandering through some lost and unnatural relic of history, where the statues and stonework nearly stir with forces beyond all sense of time. In Illusion of Gaia, those forces are very real.
Even the game’s save-screen is unsettling. Will first learns of his quest by walking through a door that appears in the air. It brings him face to giant face with Gaia, the guardian spirit of all life. Far from some Captain Planet cartoon, this Gaia is an enormous, tentacle-wreathed head on a pedestal, and it’s a wonder Will doesn’t recoil in terror. Throughout the game, Gaia aids our hero by letting him change forms and, of course, save his progress. If Will wants to continue his quest after saving, Gaia sends him on his way. If he chooses to stop, Gaia says “Then rest a while.”
Will then disappears in a blue flash, and the game leaves players to watch Gaia’s blinking visage against the backdrop of whirling stars. The standard music gives way to a somber little lullaby, and the game's panorama of galaxies continues indefinitely. Here’s where players might reach for the system’s power switch, but there’s something both relaxing and ominous about letting the game run. It gives a sense of vast proportion, hinting at a cosmic scope much greater than a kid who’s just looking for his lost explorer dad. It’s all foreshadowing the best moments in Illusion of Gaia.
Unfortunately, Terranigma did not uphold Quintet’s penchant for disconcerting save screens. Ark, the protagonist, chronicles his journey in books that he finds sitting on tables, inn countertops, and dungeon floors. There’s plenty of striking imagery to behold; the above scene occurs when Ark triggers some new breakthrough in world creation, complete with a dramatic tune. Yet Terranigma doesn’t afford you any post-save moments to stop and consider your place in a fictional world. And as far as I know, neither do any other games.