the artistry and psychology of gaming


The Spirit of Zelda – The Link to the Past Era

The Spirit of Zelda – The Link to the Past Era

Adventure of Link changed a lot about Zelda, but A Link to the Past was a return to form. This installment was overhead, and the sidescrolling Action-Adventures, what few of them remained, were going to begin following Super Metroid, instead. More importantly, designers had had plenty of time to ruminate, and as a result, these kinds of games became much more polished, though it certainly helped that the SNES was a much more powerful machine than the NES in every conceivable way. There were little improvements that we now take for granted, such as the ability to slash to hit off-center targets, and using NPCS or visual cues to give you hints as to how to solve puzzles and find secrets. You were also back to having active items, rather than spells, though the magic meter did stick around as a sort of ammunition for certain items. This game, despite being the 2D last console release, is what likely cemented the use of the term “Zelda Clone” to describe any overhead Action-Adventure.

As an aside, I really wanted to talk about Operation Logic Bomb on the SNES in this article, but it doesn’t follow the same structure as Zelda. It’s part of the Ikari no Yousai series (better known to North American players as Fortified Zone), and it’s a great overhead Action-Adventure. It has a nice variety of weapons, one continuous level that flows very well, and tells a very interesting story without using a single word of text. If you’ve ever wondered what it’d be like if someone were to slam Zelda and Contra together – and no, it doesn’t play like the overhead sections in Contra 3: The Alien Wars – then you should definitely check this one out!

Spoiler warnings should be pretty obvious, and this is the 16-bit era, where stories really started to develop and become more complex in games, so you may want to think twice before proceeding if you ever plan to play any of these games.  I will be discussing A Link to the PastCrusader of CentyGanpuru: Gunman’s ProofBeyond OasisSoul BlazerIllusion of Gaia, and Terranigma.

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As you already know, my favorite Zelda games are Wind Waker and Adventure of Link, but A Link to the Past comes in at a very solid third. It began the tradition of having an introduction in Zelda games, but here, it actually made sense. Rather than waste several hours on the pointless exposition to a weak narrative, this tosses you into a large playground and lets you figure it out on your own. This playground is called the Light World, and it represents Hyrule as you know it. It might not seem like an introduction, but considering that there are eight full-length dungeons that take place after you’ve finished it, I’d say that it’s fairly safe to call it that. The Light World features four dungeons, each of which gets you used to different elements of the game’s world, one of which, Hyrule Castle, is so large that you leave it behind to tackle the second half later. You collect the pendants representeing Courage, Power, and Wisdom, and use them to acquire the Master Sword, and take on the evil wizard, Agahnim, who serves as the game’s antagonist. You conquer him in a very clever battle, and as you stand triumphant… the world dissolves around you, and the real game begins in a horrifying place called the Dark World.

This is not your first taste of the Dark World, either. As you scale Death Mountain, you discover a strange tile with blue patterns rippling through it. Touching this tile warps you to the Dark World for the first time, and the event is nothing short of absolute brilliance. You’re shown the very final area of the game early on, and transformed into a bunny, which is one of the most innocuous creatures on the planet, unless you’re you’re a pile of hay. Lightning cracks over the dark, twisted landscape below, as you stand atop a shadowy mountain; if you wander down the mountain a bit, you see rivers of magma running through the chasm, as well as over a few rock formations. Worst of all, your lose the use of everything that you have; all that you can do is walk around, talk to the few mutated creatures that you find, and lift up those strange purple things that replaced the bushes from the Light World. Looking at the overworld map leads to even more confusion: you see a strange hut on the mountain, a gigantic ziggurat where Hyrule Castle used to be, some rectangle in Lake Hylia, some… plaid thing, and just what is going on in the desert area!? In this new world, you feel helpless and terrified, both of the unknown and your inability to fight against it, and this demonstrates, better than any amount of text ever could, why you need to care about stopping Ganon from returning to the Light World.

I think that what stands out the most about A Link to the Past is just how huge it is; not only are there a total of twelve dungeons, but the worlds in which they exist are so deep. There are so many secrets to find, so many items at your disposal, and so many sights to see that even though the actual size of the world might not seem like much, the sheer number of discoveries will cause you to spend much more time in it than you would in a cheap imitation. The more open design of the Light World is brilliant, because it goads the player into exploring and experimenting with every strange thing that he or she sees, so that when you reach the Dark World, and those oddities now have significance, you are already intimately familiar with them. This allows the game to require some really outside-the-box thinking, without seeming like it’s relying on moon logic, and I think that’s something that Hyrule Fantasy lacks, though one can certainly argue otherwise if looking at the Second Quest as a second world. Zelda is often praised for its engaging puzzles, but like Super Metroid and its own formula, it didn’t really start until its third entry on the SNES.

Perhaps most importantly, though, is that A Link to the Past is exciting. Open exploration is wonderful, but if you’re going to give me a sword, I just might want to use it. From the very beginning, you step out into a heavy storm to search for your uncle, and within minutes, you find him, take his sword and shield, and start fighting castle guards. As soon as you enter the castle, a pulse-pounding song starts up, and you’re battling through legions of powerful soldiers, culminating in a battle with a seemingly invincible knight with a gigantic flail. Sure, between the ability to slash and your new spin attack, not much in the game is likely to kill you, but it still remains very engaging; how many games let you storm the castle and rescue the princess before the first hour concludes? From there on, you continue to encounter intense situations and battles against absolutely massive bosses; again, not too many are difficult, but the are still very imposing. Beyond even that, every little cavern that you enter has the possibility of a new item or piece of heart inside, and the pieces of heart are brilliant, too, because they provide a greater number of significant items to find, even if they did get absurdly carried away with it in later installments. Even the actual dungeons have an item called the Big Key, which provides the thrill of knowing that you’re about to score the great new item in that massive treasure chest that the game’s been use to tease you for most of the dungeon. As early as the Light World, you see wooden stakes guarding some very alluring areas, so just the prospect of maybe finding a hammer makes the mystery even more gripping. Let us not forget, either, the hours that those of us not using a walkthrough spent throwing things into that mysterious pond behind the waterfall, wondering which of our treasures could be upgraded, and what incredible new things they would be able to do.

What hammers it all home, though is the attention to little details. There are fake Master Swords all over the Lost Woods, and you can pull them out for a moment of triumph before the game says, “Nope; you have to earn it!” Archers that pop out of the tall grass to shoot at you in the swamp. Little spiders that drop rupees hide under large rocks. In Lake Hylia, you find a pond where you can throw in money to expand the number of bombs and arrows that you can carry; not only are you allowed to throw in larger amounts after your first upgrade, but you also get an expansion of ten, rather than five, to subtly know when your cache can expand no further. You can even bring certain items to the merchant in Kakariko Village, and he’ll give you money, bombs, and arrows for them. Some are also subtle nods to earlier games in the series, like how the boss of the Village of Outcasts releases heads that spit fireballs, much like the Gleeock or Helmet Head. Speaking of bosses, the chamber of every boss in the Dark World has a little carpet just outside the door with an insignia resembling said boss painted on it.

The game is not without its flaws, however, and some of them ripple even into the Zelda games of today. I’ve you’ve ever head me talk about Zelda before, you already know that I’m going to label the presence of minigames as the worst of these. Some of them aren’t too bad, but the digging minigame might even be one of the worst in the series; the heart piece hidden here is randomly placed, and even abusing the ability to save and load state, you might spend an hour or two on this one. The thieves are obnoxious, too; you can’t kill them, but if they bump into you, your arrows, bombs and rupees go flying, and they can pick them up, causing you to lose them permanently. You always dread finding bombs in a chest, too, because every time, you have to read through two text boxes worth of a description about an item that you already know how to use; this, of course, gets much worse in later installments, but it began here. You also get a sword beam when your health is full, but not until you find the Master Sword; the problem is that it is only as strong as the weakest sword, and often, when you want to hit an enemy, the beam gets in the way, causing you to deal less damage than you would have without it.

This game is a bit ambivalent as to whether it bears the spirit of the original Zelda. The Light World is an excellent evolution of Hyrule Fantasy, explaining and guiding you just a little, but leaving itself almost completely open from the beginning. The Dark World, on the other hand, is a bit more like Super Metroid in that you use some of the items that you find in dungeons to make it further into the game. I know that in his discourse, Egoraptor mentions that the game tells you to complete the dungeons in a specific order, but I’d argue that it doesn’t matter, because Hyrule Fantasy plasters the oh-so-subtle “Level 1-9” right across the screen the entire time that you’re in the dungeon; there’s no difference here. I do, however, agree that what pushes it more toward a Zelda status is that the items that you find in dungeons are useful almost everywhere. It also has, and even expands upon, the discovery of unexplained oddities, like that exploding pregnant beetle or the Light World cave on Death Mountain containing denizens exclusive to the Dark World. While the game does guide you, it also doesn’t treat you like an idiot; dungeon hints come in the form of telepathy tiles, which you are more than welcome to completely ignore. I think that the biggest overall difference, though is how you think about approaching the situations that you encounter. For example, you still have your trusty boomerang, but with your new sword skills, it becomes fairly useless. I believe that A Link to the Past mostly houses the soul of Zelda, though, even if the way that you actually play it is different in nature.

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Where better to start with comparisons than the game that was advertised as “Better than Zelda“? I’m not even entirely inclined to disagree; though it has a very poor start, the story reaches depths far greater than any Zelda that I’ve ever played. The gameplay is interesting, too, and interwoven with this story, giving you animal friends that enhance your abilities, rather than tools. Zelda makes you think about the game’s world and how it functions, causing you to develop your problem-solving skills. Crusader of Centy, on the other hand, makes you take a step back from the whole mess, and makes you think about what you’re really doing as an adventurer, and as a human being.

The story starts out typically enough with a boy coming of age, and being handed a sword to slay the evil monsters, and as Corona enters the castle, he sees the hero, Amon being given the Holy Sword, which is the kingdom’s greatest honor. You have the option of playing at the playground – complete with working slide! – or going to the Rafflesia Training Ground, where you can develop your skills; finish all three courses, and you’ll earn your own Holy Sword. Before you get too far, though, a mysterious curse is placed upon you, making you able to speak only with plants and animals; not humans. You don’t understand what it all means, but you continue your adventure, regardless. You eventually reach the Palace of Peace, which is a magic hippie space garden, where all forms of life live in perfect harmony with each other. The music here is very solemn, but you continue through this place, hitting switches to alter the terrain as you go. Once you reach the end, you slay the boss, and a booming voice echoes through the clouds, telling you that you’ve royally screwed up, you’re a completely hopeless sack of meat, and that the Crusade of Centy is over; this was a quest for the ages, and you totally blew it.

“But… but… I’m the hero…” Yes, and in your “noble” quest – mind you, you didn’t even know why you were doing all of this – you were the atomic bomb that totally wrecked the one place in the world where peace had been achieved. You had your adventure, Mr. Hero, and for what? The voice had hoped that by forcing you to listen to other lifeforms, you would drop that stubborn human bravado, but now, the body behind the voice has decided to completely wreck the world, and that becomes immediately apparent, when you return to a formerly lava-filled area and see it covered in snow and ice. From there on, you travel back in time to witness various events, and right about the time that you see a scene right out of the Salem Witch Trials, you begin to see the cruelty of humans. The next scene shows humans brutally slaughtering monsters in your own home town, despite the fact that they meant no harm.

This all comes to an incredible conclusion, in which you visit the very night that monsters entered the world. They were sucked through a portal with no way to return; they have all tried fighting the forces that keep it sealed, but they are not strong enough. Corona finally realizes that the monsters got the short end of the stick, and vows to send them home. From there, you battle representations of the five senses, and then with the spirit energy, symbolizing the process of completely destroying the very essence of everything that you are, so that you can be rebuilt; reborn with a greater wisdom and harmony with the world. Brad Evans from Wild Arms 2 puts this beautifully into words, “The path of self-doubt and confusion may have its failures, but it can never be wrong.” What he means is that so many times, your confidence causes you to push onward, so sure of yourself, when you could very well be wrong; this is how terrorism perpetuates itself. It was Corona’s confidence, perhaps even his arrogance, that caused him to continue his destructive quest despite all other outside forces trying to tell him otherwise. So yeah, far beyond any themes that Zelda puts forth.

So, what about the gameplay? Well, I won’t say that it’s better or worse than A Link to the Past, but it is certainly more action-oriented, and the music does an excellent job of accentuating this with one of the best soundtracks on the SEGA Genesis. It has its puzzles here and there, but usually nothing too deep or complex. The actual mechanics are much looser, and this is most obvious when throwing your sword like a boomerang, which is the game’s central mechanic. Your animal friends, who act as your tools, often enhance this, adding fire or ice to it, increasing the speed of your regular swing, or even allowing you to grab distant objects with it. You can combine any two of these, occasionally resulting in combination effects, so there are a lot of potential solutions to many problems. The Rafflesia Training Ground also puts your skills to the test, causing you to learn a lot about the game’s mechanics, but forcing you to figure it out on your own, so you don’t feel like an idiot. So, if you like to challenge your reflexes, and prefer action over puzzles, then you might indeed find Crusader of Centy to be better than Zelda.

But is it a better Zelda than Zelda? Absolutely not; while the actual areas are fairly sizeable, they’re still not terribly complex. The overworld is also eschewed for a map with points on it; it has more in common with Super Mario World than with Zelda. Most importantly, the sense of mystery and wonder isn’t in the world, but in the plot; that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it absolutely isn’t Zelda. This is why even though I like several purported Zelda Clones better than the Zelda of their respective eras – not even necessarily the case here – Zelda is still not something that is so easily replaced.

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Ganpuru: Gunman’s Proof is an absolutely shameless spoof of A Link to the Past and all of the tropes in its wake. It goes so far as to lift area construction and even tilesets wholesale from its source of inspiration. This odd little game takes place in the Old West, and establishes itself as goofy from the get-go with a plot about aliens taking over the body of a little boy. Seriously, this is almost on par with Parodius in terms of flat-out lunacy, but with a little more cohesion, because that just wouldn’t work in an Action-Adventure. Perhaps my favorite aspect is the blatant disregard for the fourth wall, like when one of the townspeople says, “You know that map that comes up when you push select? I’ll bet that mountain in the middle with all the clouds is the Demiseed headquarters.” You even interrupt the final boss in the middle of his “I am so evil!” speech by throwing a bomb at him, causing him to become enraged and call out for the boss music to start up.

The game could have gone no further and still been an enjoyable experience, but it tried some unusual things. For one, as you clear dungeons, you unlock power-ups that randomly drop from enemies; you can temporarily replace your pistol with a machine gun, shotgun, flame thrower, and more, and your fist gets a few, as well. You also get two different types of bombs, but they’re less like tools and more like the screen-clearing bombs that you’d see in a Scrolling Shooter; man, they really did have Parodius on the brain, didn’t they? After the first dungeon, enemies might also drop carrots, which summon a magic flying space donkey for you to ride, temporarily rendering you invincible. The bosses are very unique, as well, both in theme and execution; they never get too samey.

Ganpuru also has more than its fair share of problems, though. Each dungeon concludes by giving you a ranking based upon how quickly you finished the dungeon and how many of the otherwise meaningless treasures you found, both requiring and punishing exploration at the same time. Worse still is that the first few dungeons have nothing of real value, but later ones give you valuable weapon upgrades; since it was established early on that dungeons have worthless treasure, you don’t even know that you’re looking for them, and can quickly find yourself outclassed. You can jump down ledges, but it’s very inconsistent as to which will let you hop down and which will not. Swimming is also agonizingly slow, but thankfully not something that you have to do very often.

So, is it Zelda? No, but I don’t necessarily know that it was trying to be, because a spoof is only likely to tackle the elements that fans will notice. The world is a decent size, but you are required to finish the dungeons in a certain order. The presence of temporary power-ups, such as weapons, invincibility, and even 1-ups pushes it even further off the chart. Ganpuru can be very awkward at times, and has a number of glaring design flaws, but I can’t tell whether that’s because it’s a bad Zelda knockoff or a brilliant parody. Either way, if you’re looking for a humorous adventure, this one might be worth a look. Yippie ki-yay, motherf

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Beyond Oasis was a bit of an acquired taste for me, but upon revisiting it, I came to realize how special and innovative it really was. It functions pretty well as an Action-Adventure, but it’s also part Brawler, and that makes the gameplay really shine. Not only can you perform combos and special moves, but you can also pull some slick maneuvers, like kicking an enemy’s bomb right back into his lap. Add to this a diverse arsenal and elemental spirits that act as your tools, and you have an experience with a wide variety of situations, both in terms of combat and puzzles. This is an adventure in which you really have to think about your environment and how to use it to your advantage. All in all, it has a very unique theme and feel that hasn’t been matched, as far as I’m aware, though admittedly, I haven’t played the sequel.

The adventure starts right off with Ali coming ashore from a treasure hunt into a village with refreshingly thick-bodied women, and within minutes, soldiers and monsters come storming in. Very quickly, you learn the basics of combat, which can later be refined when visiting the castle library. Combat remains engaging as new enemies are gradually introduced, and the old ones are always growing stronger. When your knife isn’t quite going to cut it, you can dip into your stockpile of swords, bombs, and crossbows, each of which has several varieties, but finite uses. You can find five new weapons with infinite quantities, and while they are very effective, they are difficult to find, and even more difficult to reach, as they are at the end of lengthy feats of platforming, combat, or… a weird racetrack, but at least that’s the only minigame. That said, while your knife is the weakest weapon in the game, it has the largest moveset, so it can sometimes be your best bet, no matter how many Atomic Crossbows you have stockpiled. Yes, that’s a thing, and it’s just as awesome as it sounds.

Though not as useful in combat, the four elemental spirits also play an integral part in your adventure. They are the spirits of water, fire, shadow, and plant, and can be summoned from their respective element once you become their master. For example, if you see any kind of fire – be it a torch, a campfire, a bomb explosion, or even a flaming enemy – you can summon Efreet from it. This freeform summoning obviously has its limits, but requires some creative thinking on the part of the player, which leads to some very clever puzzles. The spirits grow more powerful as you find well-hidden gemstones of corresponding colors, which also increases the amount of Spirit Points that you have to summon them.

The design is very tight, but there’s also something to be said for the feel of the game. You’re Prince Ali, and the game is called Beyond Oasis, but you’re not stuck in a desert with sitars strumming in the background as you ride on a magic carpet with your faithful genie; the game doesn’t get hung up on or really even address the old cliches of the Arabian theme. Instead, you’re battling through forests and strongholds, and the music has a weird orchestral sound to it that’s really hard to describe at first. The more you get into Beyond Oasis, though, the more it comes into focus: it has the feel of one of those old movies about high adventure; it’s a wonder that the ghost of Errol Flynn doesn’t come swinging in on a rope during the big battle scene on the enemy’s ship. It makes a very muted soundtrack that’s anything but memorable, but all put together, it crafts the adventure of a lifetime.

Beyond Oasis has its fair share of frustrations, though, especially for those seeking the infinite weapons. There is a hundred-floor dungeon that is fight after fight, and doesn’t allow you the use of items, and that’s one of the easier ones. Though the Secret Waterfall – a rapid current with items to grab on the way down, and a tedious climb back if you miss any – is an undeniable source of hypertension, my vote for most outright infuriating is the Secret Cliffs, a very long string of moving platforms in a very windy area above an endless abyss. A less creative writer might suggest a drinking game for this sort of place, but my challenge to you, dear reader, is to see if you can match the pitch and tone, but exceed the volume of Ali’s screams by the end; if you can’t, then you’ll at least reach the volume quota when you realize that you have to go back through it all over again on the way out. Of course, the Secret Islands are pretty rage-inducing, too; imagine battling your way through an intense gauntlet of soldiers, ogres, and anthropomorphic velociraptors that have a 4-stripe black belt in Tang-Su-DEATH, and that’s just for starters. The path is littered with treasure chests, all of which are empty, and if you break any open, you’ll miss out on the infinite weapon at the end. Mind you, not only can these be broken by enemies, but you also haven’t the slightest hint that breaking them will cause any ill effects. The infinite weapons are magnificent – aside from the Infinite Metal Crossbow, which is useless by the time you get it, unless you haven’t gotten other infinite weapons – but you have to earn them.

Some design elements aren’t so awful as they are lazy or just strange. The developers must have been very proud of the floating golem boss, because it shows up three times throughout the game; none of the other bosses are recurring, so why pick the most boring one to return? There are also hidden warp points that you cannot see unless you’re using Shade’s Doppelganger technique, which drains Spirit Points, not to mention that it’s tedious to just stop what you’re doing, drop into Doppelganger mode, and look around for these things; it’s like the X-Ray Scope in Super Metroid, but at least there, you have hints in the level design to tell you where to look. You gain levels by picking up hearts dropped by enemies, but this is entirely random, and the level cap is 200, so leveling is a lengthy as it is inconsistent. Even the sound effects are strange; some of the enemy screams sound like Pee-Wee Herman when they die, the nope sound is a loud buzzer, and the fanfares for acquiring gemstones and special items are just… off. The sound that it makes when you start the game sounds like the whistle you hear on Android devices; when my lady got her tablet, I said, “Oh, cool! You have Beyond Oasis on that thing!?” prompting a, “What’s Beyond Oasis?” Perhaps the strangest thing of all is the final area: The Shadow World, which isn’t dark or foreboding; it’s actually very serene, and the music really drives that home.

The game may be about communing with spirits, but Zelda’s is not quite among them. It definitely has a sense of adventure, and a nice big world to explore, but the dungeons are in an unbreakable sequence; the game is too attached to its plot to let go of that. It does come close, though, because once you’ve finished those events, you can revisit many old locations, and there are tons of secrets to find, including frustrating little worlds with glorious weapons hidden within them. It has the mystery and wonder in spades, but not quite the sense of freedom, though you’ll have that with any Action-Adventure that’s attached to its story; you can only have one or the other. It’s a shame, too, because while Crusader of Centy’s story is absolutely worth the sacrifice of freedom, Beyond Oasis’s is really nothing special. I think that if the layout had been more like that of the Light World in A Link to the Past, using the elementals more to find secrets than to progress further, Beyond Oasis could have been even better than it already is.

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Soul Blazer is a forgotten gem, likely because it was incorrectly billed as an Actraiser sequel, but had very little in common with it. It’s really more of a spin-off, though, and had its own spiritual sequels: Illusion of Gaia, Terranigma, and Grandstream Saga, all known loosely as the Heaven and Earth series. While it does share some thematic elements with Actraiser, such as resurrecting life on the planet by sealing demon lairs, and having a single god known only as The Master, it goes off on its own in strong enough a way that only its influence is really seen throughout the rest of the series. Actraiser did eventually get its own maligned sequel, but the Heaven and Earth series is well-respected in the gaming community. Perhaps the most unusual thing about this fantasy world is that it is our own.

Soul Blazer’s world seems like just another generic fantasy world at first, and maybe it was originally intended that way, but it does have enough in the way of subtle allegory to at least suggest otherwise. For one, the star of the show isn’t the protagonist, Blazer (fear not, fans of Wild Arms 2; it’s not that Blazer), but the world-renowned inventor and painter, Dr. Leo. Okay, so it’s not all subtle; they guy’s name might as well have been Deonardo LaVinci, especially since his daughter’s name is Lisa. The inhabitants of this world aren’t all human, either, but they all speak philosophy as though they’re intimately familiar with our world. There isn’t much when it comes to plot or character development, but most every NPC has something interesting to say from the cat that says that they don’t like to eat mice, and only do so to survive, to the odd look into what a dresser thinks about its place in the world. Some of it comes off as a bit silly, but the game gives you a lot to think about while you’re out in the wild, exploring the land and sealing monster lairs.

When you seal a lair, you will either alter the landscape in a way that allows you to progress further or you will resurrect one of the souls that was stolen by the evil big-bad, Deathtoll. The recalled souls will appear, sometimes developing the town a bit, and show you just where they are, so you can go back and talk to them. The really important ones will even say a little something to you upon their release, hinting at their significance. Maybe it’s the OCD talking, but there’s a genuine sense of satisfaction gained from sealing that last lair and going back to talk to those you’ve saved; it crafts a really nice sense of progression. You’re not just saving the world in the general sense; you’re very specifically saving individual lives, who’ve had time to ruminate in emptiness for a long time, and upon such reflection, many of them have developed a sharp sense of wisdom, so they have interesting things to say. Even if you don’t buy into the philosophy they’re selling, it will at least give you something to consider; food for thought, as it were.

Another strong theme within the game is that of dreams. Very early on, you get the Dream Rod, which allows you to enter a sleeping being’s dream. In that dream, you learn things about the world, and can often do things that change the physical world, granting you access to new areas. It’s a fascinating concept that wouldn’t work in just any game, but it definitely works here. As a side note, I’d actually had dreams about certain areas of this game many years before ever having played it; it was pretty strange seeing them come to life.

The actual combat has the usual sword slash, but you can also hold it out in front of you and crabwalk. The swords all have levels, too, and if you haven’t reached that level yet, crabwalking is all that you can do; it’s like a variation on the sword weights in Willow. As you crabwalk, you can draw items toward you through psychokinesis. These items, called Gems, act as your Magic Points, fueling one of the eight different spells that you find along your journey. They are fired from a soul that rotates around you, which seems awkward at first, but you can manipulate it to hit some very out-of-reach enemies. The only exception to this is the ultimate magic and symbol of the entire series: the Phoenix, which comes screaming from your blade as you slash. As someone who has burned to ash and had a glorious, blazing rebirth many times in my own life, the phoenix is a very special symbol to me, and a very significant theme for a series.

So, is it Zelda? Well, not quite, but it shares some of the same spirit of discovery. You visit many beautiful places, such as the Seabed St. Elles, an underwater area from which you climb up onto islands, like the dark, volcanic island Durean, or the rainy island Blester, and you never quite know where you’re going to end up. It also doesn’t spell things out for you; a character shouts out “DOK!” as a guard is slain by a spear, and the game trusts that you’re able to use context clues to figure out that Dok was his name, rather than giving such a minor character a full backstory. It’s entirely too structured to be like Zelda, though; each of the seven areas consists of a hub with warp tiles to break up the different parts, and they’re all very linear. This may not be Zelda, but it’s something wholly unique, and definitely worth checking out, especially if you like contemplating life’s little mysteries.

Illusion_of_Gaia T

Though it may not be inherently obvious, Illusion of Gaia is the sequel to Soul Blazer, and in North America, it got a lot of publicity. I remember this game being hyped beyond belief, especially for such a no-name title, including pop-up ads in Nintendo Power, t-shirts, coffee mugs; it went even more overboard than Earthbound. However, while Earthbound remained relatively unknown when it was new, but became a cult classic; Illusion of Gaia flopped so badly that its sequel never came to North America, even though it was released in Europe, and had an English translation. It has high production values, and some interesting concepts, but I also view it as the weak entry in the series, though admittedly, I haven’t played Grandstream Saga. It takes its predecessor’s tenets, and tries to expand upon them, but it focused more on that than the core, and what comes out is something else entirely.

The story starts out with some real promise; you’re introduced to Will and his friends, Lance, Erik, and Seth. You live in a small town, and it seems like the biggest cliche, but it actually feels like a small town, because you get a very intimate look at the boys’ home lives, and it’s pretty easy to figure out why they are the way that they are. Lance takes care of his sick mother, because his father disappeared years ago, and he’s the one to take charge of a situation; Seth’s parents are always fighting, so he turned to books and knowledge as an escape; Erik is a sheltered rich boy, who isn’t bratty, but isn’t very mature, either. School lets out for the day, and the boys go to their hideout: a cave near the shore. They talk, play cards, and whatever else it is that little boys do, until Will shows up, and they ask him to show them his mysterious power. Lance and Will’s fathers both disappeared when they went to the Tower of Babel; Will was with them, but somehow made it back, and has no memory of it. Upon his return, he had psychic abilities, such as psychokinesis and clairvoyance.

Most every character that plays more than a minor role in the story is developed very well, and has his or her own very distinct personality. The improved graphics from Soul Blazer really stand out; everyone is as detailed visually as they are in terms of personality. Unfortunately, this brings its own problem: with the stronger focus on the characters, you lose the focus on life in general; the focus on philosophy. Sure, a few of the characters throw out a few insightful phrases that make you pause to consider, but it’s too little too late; the story isn’t about life, but about its characters’ individual lives. On its own, Illusion of Gaia spins a good tale, but it’s as disappointing a Soul Blazer sequel as Soul Blazer was an Actraiser sequel.

The biggest themes in play here are reincarnation and evolution; the former is an interesting addition to a game that made it to a Western market, but the latter is handled poorly. Throughout the game, you keep hearing about this comet, but you don’t grow to understand its true nature until the end; it swings by Earth every few hundred years or so (I forget the exact amount of time), and when it does, those who bathe in its light suffer horrific effects. Early on, you meet a group of people who have already endured this, the mysterious Moon Tribe; they also appear in Soul Blazer, but as enemies in the Fire Shrine. Eventually, you hear the specifics: their skin melted away like water, and they gained their new incorporeal forms. At the very end, it is revealed that what the comet brings is evolution, and wrapped therein is the message that evolving too fast brings the world’s destruction. Dragon Warrior 4 uses rapid evolution as a similar plot device, and honestly, it’s a hack’s philosophy. Whatever negative effects that evolution and technology may have on our society don’t have anything to do with the “development of our souls” or any such nonsense, but our individual attitudes toward life.  Technology doesn’t make us lazy; our own sloth makes us lazy, and technology is nothing more than an enabler of that. We haven’t lost our souls; we’ve lost our focus.

There is also a message about the balance of light and darkness, but it gets lost somewhere along the line. When you first meet Gaia, the source of all life, she tells you that you are the chosen one, and that you have the Dark Power. This later manifests itself as an alternate form that you can take: Freedan the Dark Knight, though he is his own consciousness, and sort of takes over your body. He says that you will come to understand him in time, but the game completely forgets to follow through on this; the best you get is that the final dungeon, the Tower of Babel, has statues that resemble him all throughout its halls. Near the end of the game, you gain a new form known as Shadow, who is a being made of the comet’s light. When you do finally reach the Tower of Babel, Princess Kara shows you her light blue ring, and you find your father’s dark blue ring; Will tells her to stay close to him, because he understands what’s going on, but he never shares this knowledge with Kara or the player. They merge together to gain the power of the phoenix for the final battle in the Shadow form, and they battle Dark Gaia, who is either part of the comet or is the actual comet. Gaia and Dark Gaia are clearly the respective forces of good and evil – light and darkness – but Gaia was the one who chose you to wield the Dark Power, so it’s never really made clear what these forces truly represent.

At the very least, the gameplay is interesting for an Action-Adventure. There are plenty of puzzles, some of which involve figuring out which of your forms to take, and which of their techniques to use. In either form, psychokinesis moves objects, too, so this can be incorporated into solving puzzles, rather than just collecting the spheres dropped by enemies. Some even take place outside of battle, like when you visit the Nazca Line Drawings and have to find something, but you have no idea what it is or where to look. All of a sudden, you think back to the time that you and Kara spent on the raft, and the pretty new star that shows up in the Cygnus constellation, funny though it is to know that Kara made a wish on a star that has brought death and destruction to the world time and time again. There are stones in the line drawing that represent the stars in Cygnus, and the spot where the comet appears in the sky corresponds to a teleporter that takes you to the next dungeon.

The game keeps you hunting, too, ensuring that you thoroughly explore every single area. One way that it does this is by increasing your attack, defense, or life for every room that you clear of all enemies. This, of course, only applies to dungeons, but you still have to explore every area outside, as well, because of the Red Jewels. These mysterious objects are hidden anywhere and everywhere, and the more you collect, the more rewards the traveling jeweler will give you when you speak to him in any given town. If you find all fifty, he promises to show you his secret, and you’re not going to let that slip past you, are you?

Illusion of Gaia is even further removed from Zelda than its predecessor. There are dungeons to explore and treasures to find, but the world you explore is our own, as is evident from the places that you visit: the Incan Ruins, the Nazca Line Drawings, Ankor Wat, the Great Wall of China, the pyramids, and more are places that you can see in real life, if you so desire. It’s a neat idea, but it does take much of the mystery out of the world if you’re already familiar with it. What kills it as a Zelda Clone more than anything, though, is the fact that there are numerous points of no return; you will rarely be able to go back further than two dungeons. This does encourage exploration, because if you miss something, it’s forever, but it doesn’t make a big, seamless world; quite the contrary. If you enjoy a story that focuses more on the characters than anything, then you’ll likely enjoy Illusion of Gaia, just don’t expect to have much in the way of freedom.

Terranigma T

Terranigma is most people’s favorite entry in the Heaven and Earth series, and it’s no big surprise; it takes the best of Soul Blazer and Illusion of Gaia and creates a perfect union of the two. The story is rich and interesting, and the major characters are only as developed as they need to be; they go backstage long enough that the philosophical elements aren’t lost. This even applies to the protagonist, Ark, who is fleshed out very well, but shuts up long enough for the world to unfold around him. The best stories have a strong plot, characters, and message, but all too often, one or more of these are missing; Terranigma does an excellent job of balancing all three, while maintaining exciting and engaging gameplay. Combine that with mind-blowing visual effects and a strong, emotional soundtrack, and you have a masterpiece on your hands.

You start out in Crysta, a sleepy little village with prismatic bubbles floating through the air. As music so cozy it brings tears to one’s eyes drifts from your speakers, you are introduced to a mischievous young man named Ark. Unlike Grandia’s Justin, however, I don’t want to break his jaw; his laid-back attitude grew on me very quickly. Disaster strikes, as it invariably does in the quiet starting town in any game, and you step outside to see… darkness and magma!? Yes, you live in the Underworld, and the game starts with you visiting the five towers to bring life back to the villagers, a la Soul Blazer. Each tower is different in design and decoration, and has many different challenges for you, for both your body and your mind. You gradually learn how to use the different techniques available for your spear – Hey! It’s not a sword! – and you start out with the CrySpear, which gradually regenerates your HP while you’re in the Underworld, so it’s okay to get roughed up a bit. At the top of each tower is one final challenge, followed by an incredible scene of natural splendor, and a message that you’ve resurrected a continent.

As should be no surprise, resurrecting the world’s continents means that you will have to go topside, and from there, your task is to bring life to the overworld. It starts out a barren wasteland with skies as red as the blood in your veins, but you soon trigger the rebirth of plants the world over. At this point, plants are the only living beings, so they are your only source of conversation. From there, you bring back avians, mammals, and humans, but even by the end of the game, you’ll still find yourself thinking of cacti as NPCs, since you’ve gotten to know them as living creatures with their own thoughts. There’s even a bird who makes you feel guilty about the eventual resurrection of humanity – which you already know is coming – by saying how nice it is that they don’t have to worry about humans stealing their eggs.

There is a bit of a lull when humans return to the Earth; not only does the story shift to something more traditional, but you also lose the ability to speak to plants and animals. The focus is now more on human matters, but it is no less philosophical, and the focus on nature is not even necessarily lost; in your travels, you will meet a nomad who says something so very true that it’s absolutely chilling: “By accepting nature as it is, it is nothing to be feared. I believe that people are much more terrifying.” Just when you think that things are about to become boring, human cities take on a sort of evolution of their own. Each of the major cities has its visionaries, and by helping them – often through trade with other cities – you will see the town develop, becoming larger and often more technologically advanced. Here, the idea that technology does not always make society better – a theme that has been present since Soul Blazer – is put forth, but Terranigma doesn’t have the arrogance to assert an explanation; it leaves that up to you, the player, should he or she choose to develop one. Ark is more like The Master than any other protagonist in this series, watching the world develop as he stays the same; I can’t help but imagine that he feels old and tired, observing it all as it happens before his very eyes.

The only place that the story really falls apart is in the introduction of the villain late in the game. Beruga’s personality is so devoid of subtlety that they might as well have named him Hitler von LeninStalin; his followers’ garb even bears a striking resemblance to that of the KKK, and that can’t be coincidence. So, what is the ideology of this horrid man? He wants to murder everyone in the world that isn’t “useful”, which is a nebulous and underdeveloped principle if I’ve ever heard one. He’s dead serious about it, though, and his first act as self-appointed dictator of the world is to wipe out Japan Neotokio, and he succeeds. In the end, he turns out to be just a pawn of Dark Gaia, who is none other than the village elder of Crysta, and you helped make it all happen; you were played like a cheap piano. It’s never totally clear what Dark Gaia hopes to achieve, but that doesn’t stop you from having an epic showdown, armed with a spear that looks like – you guessed it – a phoenix, and saving the life that you brought to the planet. Despite all of that, the ending is one of the saddest I’ve ever seen: you get one more day in Crysta, before it all disappears forever, its inhabitants never knowing that they were nothing more than puppets. The only thing sadder than knowing that your life and everything you’ve ever loved is going to end is having time to ruminate, and I think that hit me harder than anything.

Combat is excellent; you have a total of six different techniques that you can perform with your polearm, including the ability to block projectiles, and that makes fights very smooth once you master it. In addition, you can acquire many different rings and pins, each of which has a different effect, and acts as your magic for this game. Even though the game is very action-heavy, you still have a big world to explore with tons of secrets to find. Best of all, you grow through experience levels and new weapons and armor, so what you find are often just nice little bonuses, rather than a set number of life-expanding items that you systematically hunt down to reach that OCD-important life cap; you can just relax and enjoy yourself, because there is no such thing as 100% completion in Terranigma. There are minigames, but they only yield Magirock, which serves no function other than to let you buy more rings or pins, which aren’t even that useful to begin with. Besides, tell me you don’t want to play a minigame called Cream-a-Cat in what is this game’s version of Rio de Janeiro’s Carnaval.

If any of the Heaven and Earth games embody the spirit of Zelda, it’s Terranigma. The world is our own, but it’s different enough that it still feels like you’re exploring somewhere else, whereas Illusion of Gaia used more famous landmarks, and did nothing with them. In Terranigma, you can learn a lot about world history and world culture – you can even taste the local delicacies wherever you go for a very low cost – but doing so is fun; this is how Edutainment should be. There are tons of secrets to find, but you never feel like you have to find them all, and really, that’s better than most any Zelda game will give you; it’s more fun to explore a world when you’re doing it on your own terms, without a checklist. The only thing that really pushes it away from Zelda is that time marches ever forward, effectively giving you three separate world maps, and you can’t ever return to earlier ones, though this is also what gives the world its mystery; you can go to Brazil, but you can’t travel back in time to before plants existed. There are many parts that are extremely linear, too, even if it does really open up once you get the ship. If you’re any kind of Action-Adventure fan, though, you owe it to yourself to pick up Terranigma, if you haven’t already.


Time marches ever forward in our world, too, and as it did, video games became more complex, and new genres and hybrids were born. Zelda wasn’t the only hot franchise on the market, anymore, so, too, its imitators began to become fewer and further between. Even more than that, now that a game’s text wasn’t limited to “DODONGO DISLIKES SMOKE”, they began weaving more complex narratives than “Go kill evil big-bad for great justice!” as is evident by how many of the above examples have such a strong focus on story, whether or not the story is actually strong. This can be a good thing, but the possibility of having something as weird and dreamlike as Hyrule Fantasy gets further and further away. Games like Terranigma prove that you can have it all, making everything great without sacrificing one design element or another, but despite the freedom they may have, they are still very deliberate; the player’s role is becoming more and more relegated to that of a button-pushing overlord, and becoming less and less a part of the story. It’s like a choose-your-own-adventure book in that you have the freedom, and are making the decisions, but you’re still not the one telling the story. Is it better? Is it worse? That all comes down to personal preference, but what cannot be denied is that for all of their fancy graphics, refined gameplay, and deep stories, the one thing that they still cannot do is render Hyrule Fantasy obsolete.

A Link to the Past

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