The first game on this list falls in the tenth position not because it lacks quality, but rather because its qualification for this list is dubious. Released in Japan in 1987, the relationship between Quintet and Legacy of the Wizard is unclear: some credit the company for simply porting it to the Famicom and subsequently localizing it to the United States on the NES. Developed in the late 1980s in Japan, the truth behind it is likely lost to history… or, at least, history written online in easily accessible format in English. So, it's lost to the history that I can consult, at least.
Regardless of Quintet's actual role in the game's creation, however, Legacy of the Wizard remains one of the more underappreciated godfathers of several modern video game genres. Released at the time when the video game industry was just starting to mature into the advanced genres we saw throughout the 1990s, Legacy of the Wizard had a little bit of everything. Its open-world layout was an achievement for the time, and it was one of the earliest examples of an action RPG that actually bore some resemblance to modern instantiations of the genre (unlike Tower of Druaga from last week, resembling modern action RPGs only through several layers of interpretation and development). The game can also be seen in some ways as a predecessor to some of the later action-adventure platformers that would become one of the biggest pillars of gaming throughout the 1990s.
From Quintet's earliest history, we jump to the very end of its history. Released in 1999, Planet Laika was arguably the last game that Quintet ever released; later releases, like Orphen: Scion of Sorcery and The Granstream Saga, were released after the company transformed into Shade, a studio retaining remnants of Quintet's development shop that ultimately never found any real success. Planet Laika was not all that different; the game was only released in Japan, and met underwhelming sales. It marked arguably the last breath of Quintet's descent into irrelevance after its heyday in the early 1990s.
So, if all that is true, why is the game on this list? Quality comes in many forms, and in the cases of Planet Laika, the quality of the game comes in the form of how genre-bending and unique the game is. From the premise of the game – navigating the main character's psychological disorders to solve puzzles – to the bizarre dog-themed motif, everything about it was instantly recognizable. In my opinion, though, the most unique thing about the RPG (if you can even call it an RPG) is the battle system. No turn-based battles, no active combat, but rather the battle system is based on a minigame most reminiscent of Brickbreaker. Gameplay footage is hard to find, but if you want an idea of how unique the game is, check out the intro movie on YouTube. The game also had some very advanced graphics for its day, but for obvious reasons, those aren't the most memorable parts.
Writing about smaller companies like Quintet is simultaneously the most difficult and most rewarding part about writing this list series; it is only in writing these entries that I even become aware of games like Solo Crisis and Code R. Solo Crisis is a very rare game released by Quintet for the Sega Saturn. Suggestions for its release date vary, although GameFAQs cites it as a 1998 release, a surprisingly recent date considering the scarcity of information available about it.
The genre of the game is best described as a strategy RPG, but even that is a bit of a misnomer. No other strategy RPG I've seen provides quite the same gameplay as Solo Crisis. The gimmick of the game is a heavy emphasis on terrain manipulation; although you still battle on tiled battlefields reminiscent of Tactics Ogre and Final Fantasy Tactics, and although direct combat is still possible and necessary, a significant amount of the game is spent on constructing landscapes and defenses. It's one part Final Fantasy Tactics, one part Warcraft, and one part SimCity. Imagine a version of SimCity in which you were tasked with defending your city against invaders (not unlike Age of Empires, I suppose), or imagine a version of Warcraft where you take turns building structures and moving units rather than doing so in real time. Such a dynamic is rather unique, especially in the strategy RPG presentation of Solo Crisis, although I would not describe it as particularly ahead of its time given the ubiquity of games like Civilization.
#7: Code R (SAT)
Although I do have a personal affinity for RPGs, it's mostly a coincidence that most of the lists in this series have been RPG-centric companies; prior to writing their list I was unaware of how much Monolith Soft and tri-Ace focused on RPGs. Quintet is no different, although its RPGs from the early 1990s bear little resemblance to the RPGs of today. Like those other companies, though, Quintet eventually got an itch to branch out from its wheelhouse and experiment with other genres. The result of that itch is another little-known title, Code R.
Like Planet Laika and Solo Crisis, not much is known about Code R outside of Japan. Released in 1998 for a console that had peaked long before that release date, Code R was not only Quintet's most ambitious project to date, but arguably one of the most ambitious endeavors of that console generation. Even giving the game a genre is difficult to do because of how it combines so many different genres; its core is a racing game with significant RPG elements, but it is augmented by a large and important simulation mode arguably similar to a classic Japanese dating sim. With such a variety of genres being mashed up into one release by a developer inexperienced with this type of game development, it is no surprise that Code R never reached a big audience or found a North American release. Still, the scope and uniqueness of the game makes it one of Quintet's most interesting products.
Despite its small size, Quintet is a very famous video game company among aficionados of the early 1990s, and almost all of that success is owed to the top six games on this list. The gulf between the #6 and #7 game on this list is enormous: while games #10 through #7 are interesting releases that fell into anonymity, games #6 through #1 are all products that have been recognized in some places as among the best games to come out of the 1990s, if not some of the best games ever.
The sixth game among these is also the only direct sequel within this group, ActRaiser 2. ActRaiser 2, the sequel to ActRaiser from three years earlier, is a platformer, although in many ways it resembles RPGs of the day; the gameplay is a side-scrolling platformer, but the mood, tone, setting, and plot are far more reminiscent of RPGs of the time. Perhaps the most significant element of the game is the way in which it draws from established literature for many of its themes and ideas. Paradise Lost and Dante's The Divine Comedy are often cited as the two most significant influences over the game, and the entire game is framed from the perspective of a battle between God and Satan (although these were altered for the American release due to Christian sensitivities). Although the game did not quite live up to the praise and hype of its predecessor, it does represent a worthy sequel and a fitting entry into the firm motif Quintet established in the early 1990s.
Although they did not share an actual name, three of Quintet's releases in the early 1990s have been retrospectively regarded by fans as a trilogy. Although they lack the direct plot connections or shared characters that most direct sequels possess, these games all represent different instances of Quintet's signature dark and strong thematic elements, themes continued in ActRaiser and ActRaiser 2 (although these are not regarded as a portion of the same triology). The middle of these three releases was 1993's Illusion of Gaia.
In many ways, Illusion of Gaia is a simple and prototypical RPG, although it opts for a more simplistic level-up system than the ones favored by many other traditional RPGs at the time. The interesting element of the game, rather, is the plot and setting. Like many interesting Japanese franchises, Illusion of Gaia takes place in a half-real half-fantasy version of Earth; certain real settings are incorporated, but they are not knitted together into a realistic overall recreation of the world. One of the most significant settings in the game, The Towel of Babel, has obvious roots in Judeo-Christian literature. But like the rest of the games in this de facto franchise, Illusion of Gaia's most notable feature is its thematic elements. It deals with the immortal, God, and evil in a way most games are still unwilling to touch, and in a way that surely made American localization very difficult. Illusion of Gaia has gone on to receive more and more credit as time has moved on, including some attention for being one of the best RPGs of the 1990s.
#4: Robotrek (SNES)
Nested among the ActRaiser releases and the series later retconned as the Soul Blazer series was the 1994 release Robotrek, codeveloped with Ancient (a company I'd love to do a list on, but that sadly has not developed enough games on its own). Unlike the majority of Quintet's other releases around the time, Robotrek (titled Slapstick in Japan) was not a dark, gritty, metaphysical RPG; rather, it was somewhat more light-hearted, although it still managed to provide a rather epic and impressive plot.
As the protagonist, you do not do the battling yourself; rather, you are responsible for managing a team of non-human fighters. You keep these fighters in balls, and when a battle begins, you throw them into the field one at a time to fight. While they battle, you choose what skill for them to enact on a given turn and watch for the results. These fighters are highly customizable; their stats increase as they battle, and you can also modify the skills they have at their disposal and give them equipment to alter their abilities or strengths. If everything I just wrote sounded familiar, good: it should. That description could be just as easily applied to Pokemon, and in fact, many people regard Pokemon as a successor to Robotrek. Although the two are sufficiently different to say that the latter is not a rip-off of the form, I personally think it is very farfetched to imagine that Game Freak never even looked at the game when developing its now-famous series.
The game that gave the aforementioned de facto trilogy its name is the first in the franchise, Soul Blazer. Released in 1992, the game only has passing connections to the latter entities, Illusion of Gaia and a game to be referenced in a moment. The comet that represents a major plot point in Illusion of Gaia, for example, originates in the Soul Blazer universe. Released only after Legacy of the Wizard and ActRaiser, Soul Blazer was arguably the game that put Quintet on the map; for all of ActRaiser's success, Soul Blazer played, in my opinion, the bigger role in solidifying the company's reputation.
As in the ActRaiser series, Soul Blazer puts the player in the position of a deity, again a major shift and risk for the industry. Like most RPGs, the goal of the player is to save the world, but unlike most RPGs at the time, the act of saving the world takes on a dark and significant meaning. The implications of failure are presented right at the forefront to the player, and throughout the game the plot spares no expense in delving into darker territory. Main characters die, sacrifice themselves, or are sacrificed, pushing the storytelling of the RPG genre to new dimensions it has not yet seen. The dark motif of the game can easily be recognized as an influential factor over the tendency of the industry as a whole to tackle grittier and more mature subject matter in the years following Soul Blazer's release.
#2: ActRaiser (SNES)
Although I maintain that Soul Blazer is likely the most significant game toward solidifying Quintet's reputation in the early 1990s, I consider ActRaiser to be the better game. ActRaiser, unlike its sequel, is a genre-bending game combining action-adventure platforming elements with an interesting city-building simulation engine. Like its successor and many of Quintet's other releases, ActRaiser puts the player in the position of a deity, referred to with differing levels of reverence and power depending on the release's locale. The goal is again to save the world, although unlike many games, the world is not under threat of destruction: rather, it has already been conquered, and the player's goal is to free it.
ActRaiser is notable for a variety of reasons, not least among them the dark and more mature themes it presents, but in my opinion the most important element of the game is the unique combination of genres. Released at a time when city-building simulations were themselves also in their infancy, ActRaiser was remarkably mature; it provided the player with SimCity-like control over buildings, roadways, and city planning, but also preserved the deity abilities surrounding controlling the weather and protecting the city against monsters. The only weakness to this interesting amalgam of genres, in my opinion, is that they are largely disjoint; the platformer sections have little emphasis over the city-building sections, or vice versa. The game plays more like two different games with a random switch alternating the current gameplay mode, but for the time the game was released, it was still remarkably advanced despite this criticism.
The retroactively-dubbed Soul Blazer trilogy consists of three games: Soul Blazer, Illusion of Gaia, and Terranigma. In addition to being, in my opinion, the greatest game Quintet ever created, Terranigma also represents the pinnacle of the company's quality and fame; the company never again achieved any modicum of success or fame after these releases. Like its predecessors, Terranigma significantly leverages a good vs. evil, God vs. Satan motif throughout it, although in this case it manifests these in a significantly different world. The Earth of Terranigma is hollow, and those living on the surface represent growth and success, while the interior represents decline. For a momentary sidebar, I find there to be an enormous parallel between this dichotomy and the similar dichotomy presented in Square-Enix's Final Fantasy XIII.
Many things set Terranigma apart as Quintet's greatest product, and much of its quality is impossible to describe without spoiling its high points. The greatest feature of the game, in my opinion, is its scope: few RPGs I have ever seen manage to achieve the kind of scope that Terranigma provides. Nearly every RPG presents the player with the task of saving the world, and Terranigma is no different; but where the game diverges is in the immensity of the task, the state of the world before being saved, and the deep relevance of the main character to the plot. The time scale of Terranigma is breathtaking, and I venture to say no game I am aware of has ever come close to equaling the immensity of this game world.
Honorable Mentions: Kowloon's Gate, Granstream Saga, Orphen: Scion of Sorcery, Brightis.
So what happened to Quintet? To give a disclaimer, what follows is merely speculation; the only thing I know for sure is that the company has not been active in almost a decade. But if we rewind to the height of Quintet's popularity, we can see what seems to be a logical explanation for the company's fade into obscurity. While Terranigma was praised in Japan and remains a beloved game for all that had the chance to play it, it was released after Quintet's publisher, Enix, had closed their American localization branch. Without Enix, Quintet had no immediate way to localize their product to the larger American audience. Their later releases, including Planet Laika, Code R, and Solo Crisis, all might have benefited from an American release, but the company's continued partnership with Enix seemingly prevented such an effort (and, to corroborate this, Enix hardly released any games in North America during the time frame between Terranigma and Quintet's seeming disintegration). By the time Enix merged with Square, the damage was already done to Quintet, and Square's disinterest in further games from the company doomed it to obscurity. Today, Quintet is no longer known to be active, with its last couple titles under the company name Shade reaching no notable audience despite the involvement of stable publishers Activision, THQ, and Sony.
If you’d like to join in on the discussion of this list, I invite you to the Top 10 List discussion board, linked on this page. You’re also welcome to contact me directly via the information in my contributor profile, or to come by either of the web sites that co-host these lists, DDJGames.com or GamingSymmetry.com. If you have any suggestions for what company I should review next, please let me know!
List by DDJ (09/25/2012)
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