The world was in an age of exploration.
Before the great Squaresoft blunder of The Spirits Within and the subsequent merge creating Square-Enix (though not necessarily directly related), Enix offered its fair share of pretty solid RPG titles in America. When I was a child, I remember fervently watching as my aunt played through Illusion of Gaia and Super Mario World. I was about six years old when Gaia released in North America during 1994. We visited or stayed there often, and I’m pretty sure I demanded she play more (or, when I became old enough, asked if I could play). You could intuitively presume that this is where my love of gaming originated.
Games like Super Mario World or Porky Pig’s Nightmare Adventure were fun, but none could shape me like Illusion of Gaia or Zelda: A Link to the Past. Once I obtained my aunt’s Super Nintendo, which she ‘sold’ to us for about 25 cents – and games for about a nickel each – I had both Zelda and Gaia within my hands. And you better believe I played (and have continued to do so) quite consistently. This is a game that has stood the test of time in my heart, and it ranks as one of my top five RPGs of all time.
Illusion of Gaia is one of three Enix RPGs that revolves around a similar world. In fact, rumor has it that the original prototype of the game was actually called SoulBlazer: Illusion of Gaia. As a point of reference, Soul Blazer was the first game in the ‘trilogy’, which Enix had released before Gaia (in 1992). Terranigma would be the title released after Illusion of Gaia. I will review these two in the near future.
Gaia centers around the story of Will, a young boy who lives with his grandparents after his parents disappeared on while exploring. He dreams of Gaia, a being who explains to Will that he must leave his home and protect the earth from a coming evil. Of course, Will doesn’t quite take the advice, instead being arrested and thrown into the king’s dungeon. Once sprung from jail, Will takes flight with his new comrade and begins his journey across the fictionized world of our planet Earth.
Gameplay is pretty simple in Gaia. The game serves as an action RPG. You play as Will, who, as the story progresses, is capable of transforming into the Dark Knight Freedan or, later, an energy entity known as Shadow. Each character plays relatively the same, but each also has its own unique aspects. For example, Freedan is easily my favorite – he has extended reach, larger strides, and can deal more damage than Will. Will wields a flute (which he also uses in puzzles), but he has a much smaller step. Will also has a pretty mad dash, which comes in handy during a few dungeons. Shadow, for as briefly as you can play as him, is also a nifty character, utilizing his energy to attack. Shadow deals more damage than Freedan.
There is no experience system in Gaia. Instead, the player finds or is rewarded with jewels, which permanently increase stats (depending, of course, on whatever emblem is on the jewel). Jewels can generally be earned by defeating every monster in an area, taking down a boss, or being found or purchased. Saving, also, can only be done in the dark world, the interim room where Will can transform into Freedan or Shadow or speak to Gaia (saving is done by speaking to her).
The setting of Gaia is pretty cool, too. The game takes place on an alternate Earth of sorts. Places like the Incan ruins or the pyramids, for example, are dungeons or areas you can explore. You can surmise, then, that the game takes place during the approximate 16th century (again, this is a world of fiction, and, when following the plot, you could understand how the numbers may be skewed). Along the journey in this world, however, Will meets and makes a number of friends. Each character plays an important role, and, actually, symbolize or allude to some pretty neat things.
For its time, Illusion of Gaia offered gamers an awesome escape from reality in a world that was so similar and yet so different from their own. With a crisp combat system, some interesting characters, and a plot that keeps the player intrigued, Illusion of Gaia really is one of the SNES’ greatest successes.