The Jackal in Us All: A Critical Analysis of Illusion of Gaia
The Super Nintendo was home to any number of masterpieces. Chrono Trigger, Super Metroid, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Final Fantasy VI, and Earthbound are merely the first few to come to mind. As a kid in elementary school, one of my favorites was Illusion of Gaia. It was one of a rare few games that I felt the need to play over again periodically, and eventually, I realized the game was my all-time favorite, even ahead of Chrono Trigger and Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete. It was a game that just resonated with me on a very profound, very nerdy level.
As an adult, a while back, I decided to revisit that view. The result was a lengthy critical analysis of the game, covering every aspect of its design and execution. What did I discover? And is it still my favorite video game? Read on, dear viewer, if you want to read the most intricate dissection ever written about a video game that no average person has ever heard of.
[This is an updated and revised version of an article originally published by the sweet people at this page.]
Illusion of Gaia, also known as Illusion of Time in Europe, was developed by Quintet and published by Enix in 1993, arriving in North America in 1994. This game is generally considered the second game in a trilogy of titles that goes by various names, but I will refer to it as the “Soul Blazer Trilogy.” The first game in the trilogy is, unsurprisingly, Soul Blazer (1992), and the final game is Terranigma (1995, Japan and Europe only). The cult classic ActRaiser (1990) is sometimes considered a predecessor to the trilogy, and the largely forgotten The Granstream Saga (1997) is sometimes considered a continuation. All of these games share themes of creation, death, rebirth, and evolution in one way or another, especially as it pertains to the Earth as a living entity.
While Soul Blazer and Terranigma are both action RPGs that have relatively open worlds à la the Zelda series, Illusion of Gaia is an extremely linear affair. The player can abruptly be pulled ahead to a new town or dungeon and permanently lose access to old locations, and there are absolutely no sidequests whatsoever outside of the general hunt for items called red jewels (which, objectively speaking, are the only reason you would ever want to return to old locations in the first place). Puzzles are generally very basic and are often solved by the acquisition of one new item or ability that is never far off. The time for talk and the time for combat almost never intertwine, and the village-dungeon-repeat motif of early RPGs is represented well here. Although it is easy to criticize the game’s linearity as demonstrating a lack of effort on the developer’s part, the fact remains that the game is extremely easy to pick-up-and-play as a result of its linearity. This game was clearly constructed with a very meticulous hand, and since there is essentially no “fat” to the game, it is 100% meat all the time. I have played the game too many times to give a fair estimate of its length for the average person, but I would say it offers around 15 hours of gameplay. So that’s 15 hours of Grade-A meat, baby.
Another thing that separates Illusion of Gaia from its cousins is its prestigious pedigree. For a game that tends to go unremembered outside of its hardcore fans, Illusion of Gaia packs some heavy-hitters. The character designs were done by Moto Hagio, whom according to Wikipedia is considered a “founding mother” of shōjo manga and “the most beloved shōjo manga artist of all time.” That being said, I have only ever found one official piece of art for the game, the Japanese cover box art. A few so-so illustrations in the US instruction manual were most likely created much later. Still, you can credit the inspiration behind many of those pretty little sprites in the game to Hagio.
Equally impressive is that the story was conceived by Mariko Ōhara, a novelist known primarily for her award-winning science fiction writing. Illusion of Gaia is almost in no way a work of science fiction, and Ōhara’s views of the vampirism of motherhood are nowhere to be found in this game that upholds the giving, nurturing nature of a “Mother Earth” figure. Ōhara was clearly given a general framework of the type of story she was to create when she accepted the job, but one is left to wonder whether she took the job only because it was a paycheck or because she considered it an artistic challenge.
In contrast, the soundtrack was composed by Yasuhiro Kawasaki, who appears to be almost a complete enigma as far as anyone attempting to research him on the Internet goes. All available resources conflict on the projects in which he has or has not been involved. The bottom line is—I have no idea where this guy came from, and I have no idea what he has done with himself in life since Illusion of Gaia, but his soundtrack is superb. More on the sound in a while.
Constructing the Earth
Illusion of Gaia follows a wedding approach to its design–something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue. Earth is the blue thing, so that’s easy. The something old or borrowed pops up in a lot of places, but it is well complemented in most cases by the something new.
Ōhara’s story in Illusion of Gaia is full of ideas that are pretty new as far as 1993-94 video games go. All of the protagonists, including Will (the only playable character), are teenagers or slightly younger. That may be the norm now, where being 20 years old in a JRPG makes you a decaying corpse, but this is back when US Final Fantasy II and III were still featuring old guys like Tellah and Strago in prominent roles without having to be Auron-esque badasses. Will is tasked by the spirit of his father, Olman, and the spirit of the Earth, Gaia, with collecting the six Mystic Statues (below), the MacGuffin that drives the narrative. What the Mystic Statues actually do is never really specified, but it sounds like they are essentially batteries that will empower Will for the final battle. His ultimate goal is to do something about the living comet hurtling toward Earth, which has the power to rapidly evolve all life on Earth so extremely that it will bring about Earth’s destruction.
As hinted by the title, Earth itself is the definitive star of the show. The narrative frequently takes Will and friends to distinctive locations that can be found in one form or another in real life today, both to display the breadth of geographic diversity in the world and the differences between cultures that live in these different places. A sense of unity is ultimately established amongst these places though; the game makes the strong point that all people want is to feel content and comfortable together, but ambition gets in the way of solidarity. This overarching unity is further established by the fact that the world map is literally a map in Illusion of Gaia (see above), with all places being connected through this functional metaphor. At the same time, an impressive degree of individuality is impressed upon people and places in various ways throughout the game.
Firstly, the NPCs go above and beyond the call of duty to make the towns in Illusion of Gaia feel like genuine microcosms for the world. In South Cape, where the game begins, one NPC picks up a pot in one location and places it in another location. A group of girls (pictured above) play a game very similar to “red light, green light.” A fisherman picks multiple different locations at which to fish (wait long enough, and he’ll fish up a red jewel). This all happens in just the first town. Freejia has a man who breathes fire, which goes horribly wrong (pictured below). Dao has snake charmers, and there is a man with a kruk (basically a camel) scripted to disembark town after you have spent a bit of time walking around. Illusion of Gaia does not skimp on the details.
Speaking of detail, Illusion of Gaia has some pretty nice graphics for its time. Will, Freedan, and especially Shadow are very well-animated, and the rest of the character sprites (though, admittedly, there are really only a handful of NPC sprites that get reused constantly) are pretty decent. The monster sprites get the occasional palette swap, and I would not call any of the regular enemy designs to be particularly inspired, but they are passable. It is uncertain if any of this can or should be blamed on Hagio, since the full extent of her influence on the game’s art is unknown, but it is negligible on the whole.
However, the distinguishing feature of the graphics in Illusion of Gaia is not in the sprite work but in the realism employed in creating the settings; Illusion of Gaia gets pretty dreary at times, and the graphical style contributes to this. Compare this image of Illusion of Gaia with Secret of Mana, both of which were released in the same year:
The Secret of Mana style is lush with color and whimsy, but it also succumbs to the RPG convention of house proportions that are unrealistic relative to what is actually inside the structures. All in all, Secret of Mana looks appropriately like a fairy tale. The Illusion of Gaia style makes use of a darker, Earth-tone palette that is not as eye popping but feels much more true to life, especially because buildings are more realistically proportioned and feature more modern architecture. I would wager that these games have roughly the same quality of graphics on the whole (though Secret of Mana almost certainly has better enemy design), but the art direction divides them into entirely different beasts. Secret of Mana is a game that needs vibrancy. Illusion of Gaia is a game that needs reality.
That does not mean that Illusion of Gaia purposely excludes opportunities for embellishment unique to the video game medium. A particular detail worth noting is that the color of the text changes depending on who is speaking, a sort of visual clue to establish speaker and mood. Normal text is white with a blue tint, Will’s text is always orange, and the other main characters’ text color all corresponds to their clothing. Lance is green; Erik is red; Seth is purple; Kara is pink; Lilly is blue; Neil is gray. Special situations sometimes change the color as well. It is a very subtle feature that adds a bit of individuality to characters or events, which, admittedly, is needed. The characters often talk in similar language, without much in the way of distinguishing features outside of quirks that say “don’t forget, I’m still a teenager lol.” On the opposite end of the spectrum, the characters sometimes seem knowledgeable beyond their years, saying things that just don’t sound right out of the mouths of teenagers. I’m not saying the sentiment behind their words could not be possible at that age, but the language that is used to display the sentiment just seems a little off.
That seems like good foreshadowing to my next point: Clever text coloring is nice, but whether or not the text you’re reading is actually well-written or thought-provoking is another matter entirely. Ōhara’s story calls for all sorts of exotic situations that should get the emotions going one way or another, such as a brief trip on a Golden Ship, weeks stranded on a raft out at sea, and a last goodbye at the end of the game. The actual in-game dialogue unfortunately never rises to the occasion. Whether this is due to less-than-stellar writers on hand or if it has to do with challenges of localization, the fact remains that the script often underwhelms relative to what could have been achieved with such a terrific premise. Melodrama mars poignant moments in ways that went completely unnoticed when I was a kid but are painfully apparent now. Granted, I understand this is the 16-bit era we’re talking about, and most games developed today continue to have melodrama out the wazoo; the difference here is that Illusion of Gaia carries itself with such a seriousness of intent with regard to its themes by comparison to most games, where “theme” is frequently reduced to “good guys must vanquish bad guys.” In fact, Illusion of Gaia doesn’t give a crap about villains. Excluding the vampires and Solid Arm, the bosses in this game only exist for the one screen that it takes for you to kill them. The final boss is really only ever hinted at until you actually see her, and once again, you just kill her without ever saying a single word to her. There is not a single consistent villain in this game except for the Jackal, whom we will discuss in detail later in a couple of places.
Getting back on topic, the script is not all disappointment. In fact, the game carries a very strong sense of humor in spite of the impending doom that the comet represents throughout the adventure. Sometimes the humor gets to be a little heavy-handed or juvenile, but most of the time, it succeeds in being good, silly fun. Below are just a couple of examples, and don’t forget the guy above who set his hair on fire:
Having exhausted just about everything else relating to the game’s design, all there is left to discuss is combat, aka that thing that constitutes Illusion of Gaia being a video game.
Well, the combat’s okay. People frequently compare it to Zelda, but this is woefully inaccurate, because Link uses all manner of tools to defeat enemies and conquer puzzles. As previously stated, this game doesn’t have very many puzzles, and the ones that do exist are solved pretty simply. The combat also offers little variety. Aside from a basic slash attack and a lunge attack, Will gets three special abilities to use in battle. He can transform occasionally into other beings to gain new powers, but they too have limited abilities. Basically, you’re spending the game thwacking enemies in the same ways over and over again. The enemies themselves can often be defeated before they even have the opportunity to attack in the first few dungeons. The difficulty spikes in Mu due to the dearth of save points, and it spikes again in Ankor Wat (spelling according to the video game, not real life) where the enemies deal high damage, but it’s a pretty easy game regardless. The enemies themselves do, at the least, display nice variety in their mobility and attack capabilities.
Great art direction aside, the dungeon design feels similarly inspired at times. Will actually defies gravity to explore both the topside and underside of the Sky Garden. Mu requires a lot of thoughtful backtracking as Will progressively lowers the water level to receive access to new areas. The Tower of Babel, while not really a dungeon, still looks and feels pretty cool, and the ways you actually get up the tower relate back to the story, albeit confusingly.
In spite of everything, Quintet did one thing really clever in designing the combat–Will receives a power-up every time he clears a room of all enemies. Each time the last monster in a new area is slain, Will either gets a new HP, a new point to Strength, or a new point to Defense. This reward system, with its Pavlov’s dog approach, not only makes combat more satisfying but even manages to cover up its repetitiveness to a large extent. In my examination, Illusion of Gaia has only suffered a minimum of criticism for its highly simplistic combat, and I would bet the farm that it is thanks to this reward system.
Listening to the Earth
Sound functions in Illusion of Gaia with almost the same weight that would be demanded of a Final Fantasy title. The mysterious Kawasaki’s soundtrack almost always sets the mood perfectly for a given scene, and the tracks themselves range from good to spectacular. The song that most perfectly encapsulates the game, alternatively called “In the Earthen Womb” or “Memory Revealed,” plays during a sequence in which Will and friends go through a warp-speed playback of their lives so far. The generic yet accurate word that describes the song is “haunting,” but whatever you want to call it–I love it. Judge for yourself here. Someone at Quintet must have known how good the song was, because leaving the power to the SNES on after quitting the game causes this song to play after a duration.
More generally though, the soundtrack succeeds in being pleasant in towns, arduous in dungeons, and more arduous during the infrequent boss battles. The town and dungeon themes do get some repetition, but the town song particularly is so good that I never minded running into it time and again. Special dungeons receive unique themes that establish atmosphere in ways that the graphics can only hint at. Larai Cliff sounds old and expansive. The Sky Garden somehow sounds exactly how you would expect a dungeon in the sky to sound. The theme to Mu is especially ominous and oppressive. The Great Wall of China theme mixes the traditional sounds associated with oriental music with the driving energy that characterizes the other dungeon themes. There is definitely a world’s worth of music being represented here.
Each theme succeeds in setting mood even if the quality varies a bit from track to track. The boss themes feature a heavy sense of urgency without devolving into fast bleeps and boops, and the final battle theme especially gives you that “oh crap this is for all the marbles!” sensation that you want in an action-packed finale. There really is no bad song in Illusion of Gaia, only songs that are less memorable than others. Once again, considering that Kawasaki is a gigantic question mark, the soundtrack’s many successes become all the more impressive. For quick sampling of any song from the soundtrack, click here.
As for actual sound effects, Illusion of Gaia gets a little Milli Vanilli sometimes. What I mean by that is at least a few sound effects were clearly ripped off from Quintet’s then 3-year-old project ActRaiser. It definitely seems a little lazy that Quintet could not have just generated a few new collision sound effects, and it is indefensible. Buuut, the sound effects in Illusion of Gaia as a whole do a pretty decent job of fulfilling that “heartiness” quota. I think you know what I mean by that even if you’ve never heard it phrased that way before, but I’ll explain anyway: If you think about it, sound effects in the pre-PlayStation era very rarely actually sounded like the things they were supposed to sound like. It was always more about the “weight” or “heartiness” of the sound—whether the pitch assigned to the swipe, boom, blam, or scrape sounded appropriate and satisfying. When things get hit in Illusion of Gaia, they make a satisfying thud. When things explode, they make a more satisfying thud. That’s the long and short of it. If you forgive the blatant laziness on Quintet’s part, the sound effects in Illusion of Gaia are pretty hearty. I wouldn’t put them at the Final Fantasy IV or Phantasy Star IV level of sound effect heartiness, but Illusion of Gaia is still none too shabby in this regard.
“Will enjoys spending time with friends, but he also likes to explore with his father. He has yet to understand the importance of his unique abilities.” (Taken from US instruction manual)
Like most 16-bit era heroes, Will is strong, courageous, and somewhat devoid of personality otherwise. He lives in South Cape with his sprightly grandparents Bill, who was an architect, and Lola, a talented singer. He hangs out with his school friends Lance, Erik, and Seth in an admittedly awesome cave by the sea, and life is good… except that his dad, Olman the explorer, mysteriously disappeared during an adventure in the Tower of Babel a year ago. Will and others were with his dad when it happened, except Will is the only one who “somehow” got back to South Cape alive. In real life, you would pretty quickly conclude that Will is a murderous psychopath, but this is video games, so it’s totally cool that Will just “somehow” made it home alone. At some point, Will’s mother died or disappeared too, but how and when this happened is never explained. Oookay.
Although Will is (supposedly) not a psychopath, he does have psychic powers, which are described as his sixth sense. He can move certain objects with his mind and has a precognitive ability to discern differences between seemingly identical objects (picking the Ace of Diamonds out of a card deck or detecting poison in a drink). When not fighting enemies with psychic powers, Will uses a flute as his basic weapon. It functions just like a sword or can be twirled to make a shield. Sometimes Will plays special music on the flute, such as Lola’s Melody, to advance the plot. Olman also talks to Will through the flute, telling him he must travel the world to collect the six Mystic Statues.
When Princess Kara comes sneaking into town to escape her parents and commandeers Will’s home in the process, the story kicks into full gear as soldiers retrieve Kara and present Will with a letter from the king to bring Olman’s crystal ring to the castle. Nobody in the family knows anything about a crystal ring, and when Will says as much to the king, Will is thrown into jail maybe for forever. Yeesh. The irony is that the dungeon was designed by Bill, and Olman himself once occupied Will’s cell. Kara and Hamlet (and then Lilly) help Will break out, and then Will helps Kara flee the castle. Shenanigans ensue.
Over the course of the journey, Will displays consistent bravery and a willingness to help others, but the only character development that he really undergoes is physical; Will says at one point that his body has been changing into the body of a warrior ever since his first visit to the Tower of Babel. Although Will does develop feelings for Kara, the romance is largely a because-it’s-convenient-for-the-plot affair. Lance and Lilly’s paper-thin romance is much more believable. Nonetheless, since Will fulfills his function of world savior in spades, I cannot fault him too much for not being more like Peter Parker.
Psycho Dash: A charged attack that smashes obstacles and deals extra damage to enemies
Psycho Slide: Used to slide through narrow openings or attack enemies
Spin Dash: Basically turns Will into a tornado that can deal damage or help him up steep hills
Freedan is a Dark Knight and the first of Will’s two transformations. He introduces himself with, “I am Freedan. I am eternal.” That’s about all you need to know in order to identify Freedan as the coolest character in the game. He deals and receives damage better than Will and has longer reach, since he uses an actual sword for combat. Dark Friar and its upgrade make Freedan a certified killing machine, and even after Shadow is acquired, Freedan is still the all-around best selection for boss battles.
Dark Friar: A charged attack that unleashes a powerful projective; can be upgraded so that the projectile explodes
Aura Barrier: Creates a protective barrier; completely useless on the whole
Earth Quaker: Allows Freedan to plunge his sword into the ground during a fall, causing an earthquake that stuns all nearby enemies
Shadow is described as the Ultimate Warrior.
He is derived from the light of a comet. He says he is a consciousness without a defined body, and his body only appears when the human consciousness evolves. Shadow is the only form that can confront the comet approaching Earth. Upon meeting Shadow, Gaia bestows the Aura upon Will, which is literally Shadow’s mind. When Shadow holds up the Aura, his body becomes like water. In terms of combat ability, his basic attack does good damage and has great range, but that is the only attack he has until the final battle. For all the hype, Shadow’s not really that special, aside from his gimmick of falling through floors that must be used to get through the Pyramid. And the Pyramid is where you get Shadow to begin with, which is more or less the last full dungeon in the game. Shadow is too little, too late.
Aura: An item that liquefies Shadow when used, allowing Shadow to avoid enemy attacks or sink through the floor to lower levels.
Firebird: Turns Shadow’s normal attack into a projectile attack shaped like a bird
“Lance’s father was also lost in the Tower of Babel. Now Lance is determined to find him. You and Lance are good friends and work well together.”
Lance is arguably the second-in-command of the group after Will, but unlike Will, he did not go on the adventure with his dad and Olman. He lives at home with his frail mother and is generally even blander than the others at first. He later bangs his head and loses his memory, prompting Lilly to take care of him until Will finds a way to bring his memory back. Although it is not stated outright or even hinted, one can assume this is the point where the romance between Lance and Lilly begins.
In Watermia, Lance finds his lost father, who appears aged and has developed some form of dementia. Lance takes it upon himself to go to the Great Wall of China to seek a cure for his father’s condition, prompting Will to follow after him and do all the physical labor. Along the way, Lilly finally reciprocates the feelings Lance has been feeling, and they profess mutual love after Will kills a giant bug.
Afterward, Lance and Lilly leave the group to settle down in Watermia with Lance’s father, who begins to recover from his condition. Their story ends there in a rather cozy manner. Lance finds his father and Lilly finds a kindred spirit in someone her own age. Certainly more could have been done with Lance as a character, but the minor role he plays is well handled on the whole.
“Shy and skinny, Seth is not very active, but he is very intelligent. He hangs out in the secret cave, playing games all day with his friends.”
Seth is the nerd of the group. He claims he is more interested in adventure than girls, which probably means the only woman calling him handsome is his mother. Speaking of which, his parents fight constantly, apparently over the way his father spends the family’s money. His mother says she would have left long ago if not for Seth. Although this bit of information adds realism to the narrative, it is never expanded upon or revisited. Seth just has a bad home life, plain and simple.
As a nerd, one would expect that Seth will become the group problem-solver, but that doesn’t really happen so much. Aside from aiding in exposition to explain the possible origin of Will’s powers, Seth doesn’t do much of anything aside from get swallowed by a giant fish called Riverson. Sure, getting swallowed by a giant fish seems a little out of left field, but it’s not half as weird as when Seth inexplicably becomes Riverson and uses Morse Code to communicate with Will and friends. He tells them that the light of the approaching comet is affecting evolution, and Will and friends must figure out the connection between the comet and the Mystic Statues.
After that, Seth only makes one brief appearance at the end of the game as a spirit, which seems a little odd considering he is supposed to be a fish now. Seth adds only minimally to the narrative of the game.
“Erik is a few years younger than the others, but he wants to help. Unfortunately, his youth may cause problems. He is the son of the richest man in town.”
Erik lives in the biggest house in town. People are jealous of his family’s wealth, but his father says the only reason they have the biggest house is because they moved to town first. Even Will envies rich people like Erik. After Will and friends leave South Cape, however, this plot thread is dropped completely. Erik apparently has a crush on Kara before they even meet her according to Lance’s banter, but this too amounts to nothing.
For the rest of the game, Erik does not do very much. His most heroic moment occurs off-screen when he tries to free three slave laborers, but he fails and gets kidnapped, prompting Will to smash a door down to save him. This event prescribes Erik with newfound somberness considering the state of the world, but only briefly. After that, Erik manages to get captured by vampires, prompting Will to save him again. Otherwise, Erik is a big letdown. When the adventure concludes and his friends have all undergone some sort of character arc, Erik is the only one in the group who just goes home to South Cape. His single accomplishment is that he becomes brave enough to go to the bathroom at night by himself.
One of his friends saves the world, another friend finds true love, and one of his friends becomes a freaking fish. Erik learns how to take a dump at midnight. This is both a total cop out and a missed opportunity. As the youngest kid in the group and the second-most privileged, Erik could have offered a more unique perspective on the adventure. Instead, he’s the party pooper.
“Kara, Princess of Edward Kingdom, has led a sheltered life. She is stubborn, and insists upon doing whatever she wants. Kara sometimes causes trouble with her spoiled ways, but she can actually be helpful in some situations.”
You can’t blame Kara for being stuck up, considering her parents–the king and queen–are willing to let Will die horribly over a piece of jewelry. That being said, Kara actually only acts stuck up for approximately the first forty seconds that we see her: She bosses Will around a bit and calls his clothes shabby, and then that’s basically the end of her being spoiled. Kara butts heads with Lilly pretty often over Kara’s supposed selfishness, but it feels empty because Kara is practically a saint in how emotional she gets over others. We only ever hear about Kara sympathizing with others, whether it is Will’s grandparents or ancient skeletal remains on a ship (although, to Lilly’s credit, Kara proceeds to steal a ring off the skeletal remains). All in all, the conflict between Kara and Lilly just doesn’t really work, but you have no choice but to agree that Kara is selfish because the story says so.
A few hours into the game, Kara and Will get stranded on a raft out at sea, and Kara supposedly becomes humbled and accustomed to simpler things as a result. During this period, she and Will also begin to have romantic feelings for each other. However, taking the selfishness out of Kara (even if that selfishness only exists arbitrarily) basically reduces her to the same level of heroic blandness that characterizes Will. This seems intentional though, as it is revealed toward the conclusion that Kara is the Light Knight, the counterpart to Will as the Dark Knight. More on this later.
It is worth noting though that, during the Undersea Tunnel section, Lance complains of being tired of days’ worth of walking, and Kara basically tells him to suck it up. Yet Lilly sides with Lance on the matter! It is a nice role reversal and an indication, however ephemeral, of Kara’s character development. Then, just a short time later, she accidentally gets herself turned into a painting, prompting Will to sprinkle some dust on her and kiss her portrait to bring her back to life. She finally learns her lesson about not wandering off afterward. Kind of.
“Oink oink” is the full range of Hamlet’s personality throughout most of the game. As Kara’s pet pig, Hamlet serves no function other than to be pink and cuddly, although Kara does claim that Hamlet has some “strange pig power.” After disappearing from the narrative for a long time, Hamlet reappears just in time to be relevant to the plot. Things take a severe and poignant twist when Will and friends find themselves in a village of starving natives. These people, pushed to their limits, opt to eat up Will & co. to survive. After giving Kara a silent goodbye, Hamlet takes it upon himself to literally walk into a campfire and roast himself alive. The spirit of Will’s mother Shira appears to explain Hamlet’s sacrifice to everyone, as if the implications of his death aren’t already completely obvious. Hamlet–a more honorable pig than his namesake.
“Lilly is from Itory Village. She has special knowledge and can turn into a dandelion. Your grandmother has asked Lilly to help you in your quest.”
That summarizes Lilly completely, actually. In her dandelion form, Lilly helps Will on a number of occasions and, aside from potentially Erik and Kara, is the only person to see Will in the form of Freedan. She knows Bill and Lola because they are also originally residents of Itory Village, a village protected by a barrier that makes it invisible to outsiders. Although Lilly is reportedly the only person her age in the village, Lilly is seemingly well-adjusted and chastises Kara for her ignorance of the world. This seems like another missed opportunity, as it could have been very interesting to watch Lilly and Kara become a duo of social outcasts, learning the ways of the world together.
Aside from realizing that she is a coward for not helping Will slay vampires, Lilly’s only real character development comes when Lance professes love to her on her fifteenth birthday, to which Lilly responds by freaking out and flying off. One trip to the Great Wall of China later, it turns out she just doesn’t want Lance to see her cry, and Lilly is happy that Lance loves her. Aww. *Cue credits*
Neil is Will’s cousin and an inventor who lives like a hermit in a cottage. As a result of working tirelessly in isolation, Neil has a ragged appearance and apparently stinks pretty good (not unlike the Working Designs version of Myght from Lunar), but his personality does not suffer for it. Neil speaks and acts as inexplicably normally as Lilly does, which is another disappointment. But personality aside, Neil is still pretty impressive. In his cottage, he just happens to have invented scuba gear, the telescope, the camera, and the wings of a plane. He very shortly after builds the airplane itself, which he uses to save Will as he falls out of the Sky Garden. Then, of course, the plane breaks down and crashes. Neil is basically a low-budget nutty professor for the first half of the game.
In the second half, Neil comes home to Euro after three years and reunites with his parents, the owners of the large Rolek company. The Rolek company is largely responsible for all of the goods flowing in and out of Euro, but Will discovers Rolek has become involved in human trafficking. Will acquires a teapot that reveals true forms and discovers the people posing as Neil’s parents are really Moon Tribe spirits, and the spirits mock them with the coming of the end of the world before leaving. Neil’s real parents have long since become skeletons.
Neil realizes the importance of his parents and misses them, and then he says he needs to be alone a while. Will oddly responds that he is ashamed to hear Neil talk like this–hopefully a product of poor translation. At any rate, Neil decides to take control of the Rolek company in order to stop the human labor trade. He attempts to replace the labor trade with… “pepper imports.” Wut? This ridiculous oversight aside, Neil is the one who gets Will to the Tower of Babel with a second airplane for the game’s conclusion.
The Jackal is a hunter hired by Kara’s mother to track Kara down and bring her home. He is generically ruthless and evil, but it is worth noting that you never actually see him in person till very late in the game at the Pyramid. (In fact, the above sprite only appears in the game for a fraction of a second. The rest of the time, he is facing in other directions.) This lends him a dangerous mystique up till then, as we only have our imaginations to visualize him.
Instead of having a climactic showdown with him, the Jackal appears before Will at the Pyramid with Kara already as his hostage. Will uses a trap built into the Pyramid to set the Jackal on fire, and he burns to death slowly and horrifically before your eyes. Kara, who is present for the exchange, asks rhetorically why humans hate each other so much. This confrontation does bring to light the point that Will never physically fights a human being in the game. This fact lends an abstract quality to the conflict of the game, in that the failings of human nature are frequently cited, but humanity itself is ultimately redeemed by the slaying of monsters and not humans. The Jackal is more important symbolically than literally.
The Jeweler Gem
Also called Gem the Jeweler, this guy claims to control the Seven Seas and is a master of disguise, never appearing in the same form twice. He collects all of the red jewels Will might come across in his journey. Will can redeem these jewels for various gifts, and if he collects all 50 red gems, Jeweler Gem reveals his “secrets.” Jeweler Gem takes Will to a secret dungeon full of strong enemies that do not offer any reward for being defeated, and Jeweler Gem himself turns out to be the secret boss Solid Arm*. In fact, Jeweler Gem reveals that he started the slave trade prevalent throughout the game as a means of mining and collecting the red jewels, which are the source of his power. Who would have thought Will’s biggest benefactor was humanity’s worst enemy?
*Solid Arm was also in Soul Blazer as Metal Mantis. After being defeated, Solid Arm says that Blazer was strong, but Will is stronger. Incidentally, Solid Arm is very challenging, and even when you use cheap tactics, he’s no slouch.
“Gaia, the guardian spirit of Earth, is your protector.”
Gaia resides in Dark Space, the location in the above image that seems to exist in some sort of pocket universe that only Will can enter. She is the source of all life, and beyond providing Will with tips, new abilities, and the forms of Freedan and Shadow, there is little concrete to be said about Gaia. She appears to be the embodiment of the Earth itself, just as the final boss of the game is the spirit of a comet called Dark Gaia. In this sense, Will and Gaia experience a symbiotic relationship. Gaia provides Will with power that he in turn uses to defend her from outside influence. Gaia also heals you and saves your game, making Dark Space your central hub.
While some locations in Illusion of Gaia appear to be pure inventions created for the narrative, many other locations have some basis in real life. In this section, I will very briefly connect locations with real life counterparts in order to demonstrate the lengths to which the story attempts to make connections with the real world. I will also highlight a few locations that are particularly relevant to story or theme.
Already covered in various regards in previous sections, South Cape is an inviting little place in which the adventure begins. Due to its location at the southern tip of a land mass, it is probably a reference to Cape Town, South Africa.
Gorgeous rock patterns characterize the exterior of the Incan Ruins, which are of course based upon the Incan civilization that existed for a few hundred years in South America. The Inca Empire was the largest empire in pre-Columbian America (uuh, why no, I did not look that up on Wikipedia, *cough*). Will attains his first Mystic Statue here.
Although I cannot readily connect it with one specific place in the real world, Freejia is nevertheless an integral component of the game. This town, where the Freejia flower is always in bloom, has two sides to it. One is the picture on the left, beautiful, airy, and inviting. The other is the picture on the right, dangerous back alleys where crime against humanity is rampant. While a girl (the one pictured on the left) comments on the beauty of the Freejia, a grown woman expresses an evolved position, comparing Freejia the town to a rose with thorns. The deviants in purple on the right are involved in the slave labor trade that permeates the game. They convince people from starving lands to leave and work for them, not realizing they are agreeing to become slaves. In order to get one of the red jewels, Will must reveal the location of an escaped laborer to these people. If he does not, you will never be able to experience the secret dungeon at the end of the game. In order to fully complete the game, you have to do the wrong thing.
Nazca Plain, Will’s entrance to the Sky Garden, is a clear reference to the Nazca Lines running through Peru in the Nazca Desert. The real Nazca Lines offer hundreds of figures drawn into the sand by removing the red rock on top to reveal the lighter ground underneath. Will and friends explore a condor design representative of the Cygnus constellation of stars. It is generally not believed that the real Nazca Lines represented star constellations.
The Sky Garden is apparently the ancient Moon Tribe’s mode of transportation, though the reason why the Moon Tribe would ever have to travel anywhere is a mystery, since the tribe are just a bunch of spirits now. Will grabs a Mystic Statue here. The Sky Garden may be referencing the ancient Hanging Gardens of Babylon, of which no image survives, if they existed at all. (Credit due to Jason Tandro of the TerraEarth forum for this reference)
Seaside Palace/Land of Mu
In the real world, Mu is a legendary continent that never actually existed. Basically, some guy thought it would make sense if an extra continent existed at some point in the Atlantic Ocean, so he took it upon himself to convince others that it really existed. It doesn’t. In the game, Mu rose from the sea when Will’s adventure began, since it houses a Mystic Statue. A vampire couple attracts people to the Seaside Palace, where they turn them into monsters to seek out the statue. Naturally, Will kills the vampires and saves everyone. The spirit of the benevolent sun king Ra presents Will with a Mystic Statue.
The Angel Village is another location that fascinates. The angels are seemingly descended from the ancient people of Mu and are said to be the form into which humans evolve. However, angels exposed to sun will die, requiring them to live under the surface. Furthermore, angels have no emotion, and they dance (seen above) only as a vain attempt to remember their humanity. They play music for its functional utility as a reported means to heal. In one unexpected room, you can approach a woman standing in the light, and Will remarks, “She appears to be sleeping. It’s like the spirit’s drawn out.” The woman has apparently committed suicide, demonstrating the full frustration that comes with a life devoid of passion. I won’t be referring back to this in the Themes section below, so I will just finish my line of thought here. The game is basically saying humanity is destined to lose its passion for life in progressively greater degrees as logic and reason erase the frivolous aspects of human nature that make life enjoyable. I can’t really disagree with this line of reasoning, however grim an assessment it may seem to some.
Watermia is a gorgeous town on water. Like Freejia, it has another side. The gambling house foreshadows this other side; as it turns out, at night in a corner of town (you have to ride a lily pad to get there) they play “Russian Glass.” Russian Glass is the equivalent of Russian roulette, in that two players take turns drinking glasses in which one glass has fatal poison. Will, for reasons never specified, plays the game against an opponent who has never lost, and Will wins in part because of his psychic powers. When there is one glass left, which must be the poisoned glass, his opponent drinks it anyway against the express wishes of all spectators telling him to stop. He dies and leaves his kruks to Will in his will. As it turns out, this man was already dying, and he played Russian Glass to raise money for his wife and unborn child for after he was gone. He acknowledges in his writing that he made a living off of the misfortune of others, but he does what he has to do.
Great Wall of China
The Great Wall of China is a reference to… the Great Wall of China. In China. So, there you go. It’s worth mentioning that the actual Chinese people are never seen in the game. Will picks up a Mystic Statue here.
Euro is based on the industrious cities in Europe. The paved streets and thick clusters of buildings demonstrate the financial prosperity of the city. As mentioned before, however, the Rolek company is responsible for much of Euro’s prosperity, and Rolek is secretly a principal figure in the slave labor trade. This is yet another place that has two sides to it.
Will travels to the sacred Mt. Kress almost on a whim to find a teapot. Mt. Kress might possibly be based off of Mount Kailash in Tibet, which is off-limits to climbers and is not known to have ever been climbed. (Credit due to Jason Tandro of the TerraEarth forum for this reference) Also, I don’t know about you, but does the above screen capture look anything like a mountain to you? It’s like someone at Quintet saw he had to design this stage, thought, “Mmmm nah, mountains are played!” and decided to make this hallucinogenic jungle of death instead. Not that I’m complaining or anything. It’s a neat maze, actually.
The basic significance of the Native Village was explained in Hamlet’s section. People are starving and dying, and the people resort to cannibalism until Hamlet sacrifices himself so the people may eat for a time. After this event, however, Will can interact with the natives. They do not speak the same language, but Will has the option, with different people, of staring into their eyes, holding their hand, or eating some presumably-not-great food. In each instance, if Will reciprocates the native’s action, Will and the native will sense that they understand each other on perhaps a more primal level. On another note, some villagers have been turned to stone by the evil influence of the comet. The danger of turning to stone is what propels many people to leave home and join the labor trade in the first place.
Will travels to Ankor Wat to retrieve the Gorgon flower (itself a reference to Greek mythology), which will allow girls turned to stone in the Native Village to become human again. Ankor Wat is of course an incorrect spelling of the real-life Angkor Wat, a sprawling temple in Cambodia that is apparently the world’s largest religious building. It was first dedicated to Hinduism and then to Buddhism; the above image indicates the Hindu influence in the video game version. Make sure to check out some images of Angkor Wat if you’ve never seen it before. It’s incredible.
Dao is the last town visited in the game and generally looks like a stereotypical town in Egypt. Dao cannot necessarily be called a town with two sides, specifically because nobody takes great pains to demonstrate a good side to this town. There are a whole lot of guys holding whips around here. The labor trade yet persists here because Neil’s efforts to end it have only just started. Merchants boast of the town’s spices and carpets, the latter of which take 40 years to make, but the carpets are made by women such as those pictured above. The man with them explains that some of the women have been stitching the same carpet almost continuously since childhood, effectively making these women slaves themselves.
The Pyramid is obviously a reference to the Great Pyramids in Giza, Egypt, the only one of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World that still stands. There’s not much else to say about this. Will slays the Mummy Queen for another Mystic Statue.
Tower of Babel
Excluding outer space and the comet itself, the Tower of Babel is the final location in the game. Time passes very quickly inside the tower, causing those who come (such as Olman) to age and pass away at a rapid speed. Will and Kara, as it turns out, are evolved humans, and thus are able to survive normally inside the tower. The crystal ring that Kara’s father asked of Will in the beginning of the journey turns out to be lodged inside Will’s flute. Kara possesses another crystal ring that she took off a queen’s corpse on the Golden Ship. Will’s crystal is dark blue and Kara’s crystal is light blue. In turn, they learn that they are descended from the Light Knights and Dark Knights, who created the Mystic Statues long ago to help guide the fate of Earth after violence broke out. The spirits explain that the light of the comet incurs dramatic evolution in all living things. The comets were once called the spirits of stars, but also the demons of stars. The comet headed for Earth is a demon and the highest form of consciousness. Before the comet was affected by evil, it was used as an ancient biological technology by humans to create plants and animals. When people learned to use the comet as a weapon, demons were born. The bosses Will faces for the Mystic Statues are demons evolved by the light.
Will, in the form of Shadow, battles the first five bosses over again. Afterward, the Sky Garden boss Viper (seen above) and one of the vampires of Mu help Will ascend the tower, which means either that they cannot truly die until the comet is cleansed or that there are other humans who evolved into the exact same type of monster roaming inside the tower. At any rate, after meeting the spirits of Olman, Hamlet, Seth, Neil’s real parents, and others, Will and Kara receive the final Mystic Statue, transform into Shadow together, and receive the Firebird power to combat the comet. Shadow goes to the comet, defeats the literal face of the comet, and then slays Dark Gaia, the evil component of the comet’s spirit, in final combat. Earth is then freed from its unnatural course of evolution that has occurred since the advent of the comet, and Earth rapidly evolves according to the course it should have taken. Earth becomes precisely like our present-day Earth with modern electricity and the continents in their familiar modern shape. Will, Kara, and their friends become normal children in a normal world, suggesting Illusion of Gaia may be the story of our own world. The Bible speaks of a legendary Tower of Babel, a place humans were constructing that was supposed to reach Heaven. God wasn’t so keen on humans having such power and control, so he confused their speech so that people spoke different languages, preventing completion of the tower. This relates back to the game’s version of the tower, in that both towers attempt with mixed success to unify peoples.
Duality of Human Nature, Luck of the Draw, and Caging Jackals
I’ve hit upon this theme about a dozen times by now, but now I will finally talk about it directly. Freejia, Watermia, Euro, and the Native Village (among others) all illustrate time and again that humanity is selfish and destructive just as frequently as it is altruistic and hospitable. Will himself succumbs to greed in revealing the runaway’s location to the slave traders in Freejia. Indeed, the labor trade is found at almost every step in Illusion of Gaia. On the historical list of humanity’s bad decisions, slavery seems like the worst of them, so it was an easy choice to present this particular failing in a video game about highlighting just how poorly humans can act. The slaves (This seems like a good, albeit random moment to note that I don’t think “slave” is ever used in the English translation, most likely due to Nintendo censorship; I could be very wrong on both counts though.) are always portrayed as sympathetic, often having been tricked by traders into a chance to escape the starvation and monstrous occurrences in their homelands. Will is warned on more than one occasion that the only thing separating him from the slaves is circumstance. In Freejia, he hears, “These laborers are the same age as you. Remember. There are people everywhere who live this way.” The man overseeing the women in Dao says, “Remember, little man. Some are born into misfortune.” One slave flatly says, “I’ve tried not to think. The more I think, the more empty I become.” This is an area where the game script genuinely succeeds in spades. If these moments in the game do not touch you in some way, you might not be thinking hard enough about their implications. Along that same line of reasoning, perhaps I was too quick to condemn Erik in my first analysis. Erik is the only regular human in the narrative who actively risks his life to attempt to save these people who have been condemned for their powerlessness. Erik may not make any personal self-discoveries in his part of the adventure, but perhaps he makes a much more important discovery about the world itself instead.
Kara is admittedly not too far off from Erik. Although her role as Light Knight comes very late in the game (frankly, a little too late), it seems to make sense. Will is the Dark Knight, and if we consider what that means in the context of the game, it means that Will is a warrior with the power to vanquish demons. Kara never kills a single demon, and as far as we know, she would die violently if she tried. Yet she is still the Light Knight. This is never really elaborated upon at all, so we are left to draw our own conclusions. I hypothesize that the role of the Light Knight is entirely passive, whereas the Dark Knight is blatantly active. (For argument’s sake, let’s chalk it up to coincidence that the passive knight is a girl.) Recall that Kara is almost excessively sympathetic to just about every group of people that she comes across in the journey. Will almost never verbalizes any such concern; he only acts upon injustices as he sees them. Kara may not have the might, but she has the compassion. I imagine that the Light Knights are the arbiters and the Dark Knights are the warriors who act upon Light Knights’ judgement. In this manner, Kara gets to rise above her generic heroine status to become a messiah in the same manner that Will does–by exemplifying virtue.
Illusion of Gaia makes apparent that humans are fallible, but that fallibility does not interfere with living well until humans try to take resources away from each other. Using the comet for weapons created demons, which corrupted the comet into using evolution to create dissonance rather than progress. Extrapolating, when humanity goes to war, all the energy and resources that could have been used for the good of society are squandered completely and forever. Only in completely altering our behavior to stop justifying selfishness and atrocities can we make the natural evolution to a better world. Of course, such a transition may be difficult to make in real life, but at least the game makes a solid case for attempting it.
The game also makes a solid case for why that’s so slow to happen in real life with the Jackal. If you think about it, the Jackal is completely irrelevant to the literal narrative of the game. He is supposedly a terrifying figure as he hunts and stalks Kara, but he is dead no more than two minutes after you actually meet him. This means that the Jackal is serving the greater messages of the game as a whole, rather than fulfilling the generic function of second-stringer villain.
Consider this. The Jackal is always looming over you as a physical threat, whether or not you can detect him. The Jackal is impersonal and unrelenting. The Jackal is named the Jackal. Taken altogether, the Jackal represents humanity’s general capacity for destruction. “But you just said the Jackal gets killed in no more than two minutes.” True! But consider the way he dies. Will cannot battle him outright, because Kara is his hostage; Will activates a trap that burns the Jackal alive instead, and even as he burns, he still reaches out to grab Kara. Strictly speaking, the Jackal wins their encounter, having captured Kara and rendered Will helpless in the process. Will hears a voice (probably Olman) that instructs him on how to set off the trap that stops the Jackal. Otherwise, Will would have had no idea what to do.
In other words, nobody can defeat the Jackal alone. People have to work together to stop him, because he is too unpredictable, too far-reaching to best alone. That the Jackal dies is irrelevant, as only a few moments before, he claims that Kara’s father who hired him is probably more evil than himself. Apparently the Jackal was tracking Will’s actions for the king in order to learn the secrets of his power. At any rate, the point stands that when the Jackal dies, somebody worse lives. If somebody kills Kara’s father, somebody worse than him will remain. Rinse and repeat. After this ordeal has ended, Kara asks, “Why must everyone hate each other?” Why indeed.
Illusion of Gaia suggests that humanity should stick together not just because it’s “right” but because it’s necessary in order to survive. The Jackal and all the things that might be associated with him cannot and will not be quelled entirely. Killing monsters, literally or metaphorically, will not solve the problem. One of the spirits in Babel says demons will always be present as long as evil remains in the human heart. The best that can be done is to keep monsters in check, and you can only keep monsters in check when society makes the commitment to stop growing them. In other words, it requires unity.
Not bad for a Super Nintendo game, huh?
Rebirth Is Just Another Road to Tomorrow
In Illusion of Gaia, for better or worse, everything is about evolution. The drive toward progress, toward building the future, is perpetually at the forefront. This desperate, constant race for tomorrow is so important that the Earth and its inhabitants destroy themselves trying to find it. And indeed, self-destruction sometimes becomes a valid option, if it cleanses the land for something better to be born. This is symbolized in the Firebird that Shadow acquires as the ultimate weapon at the end of the game to battle Dark Gaia. The Firebird is clearly indicative of the Phoenix that rises from the ashes. Dark Gaia represents final destruction. In defeating Dark Gaia with the Firebird, destruction is reworked as a tool to pave the way to the future.
When Earth is essentially rewritten in the course it should have taken before the comet affected it, life transitions from the fantasy-realist hybrid world it began as to the modern world that surrounds us now. The game begins with a schoolteacher warning kids to watch out for demons outside of town, whereas the game ends with a schoolteacher warning kids to watch out for traffic crossing the street. In spite of this cataclysmic change in the world, Will notes that there are still “smiling faces.” The point is that humans are resilient and spunky enough to handle the world in any shape it takes. Joseph Campbell (whose work, to sum him up too briefly, was largely influential in the creation of Star Wars) spoke of a World Redeemer throughout various mythologies that slays Holdfast, who represents the status quo. When Holdfast dies, his energy is released, revitalizing the world and allowing progress to continue. The World Redeemer represents progress always. This entire episode is very clearly acted out in the final battle with Dark Gaia. Will and Kara allow the future to take place.
Illusion of Gaia continues to be my all-time favorite video game, because it accomplishes an incredible amount in such a small package. The narrative, the graphics, and the sound all contribute in astounding harmony toward the game’s lofty and intricate themes. That these themes still resound with such clarity despite a clearly imperfect script make it all the more impressive. Sure, the combat doesn’t reinvent the wheel by any means, but the reward system still delivers a lot of satisfaction, however artificially it is achieved. I would be inclined to agree that, even after all of this analysis, I still wrote this article with some bias for the game. But it cannot be denied that this game accomplishes a number of things at which most games today still fail. This is a game that would be at home in anybody’s collection.