GameSpite Journal 10 | SoulBlazer

SoulBlazer | Dev.: Quintet | Pub: Enix | Genre: Action RPG | Release: August 1992

Nintendo managed to deliver The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past about a year after the Super NES launched -- an impressive turnaround by any definition. If there was a single down side to Zelda’s speedy release, it’s that the highly anticipated blockbuster adventure arrived so early in the Super NES’s life cycle that for most people it completely overshadowed a superficially similar but nevertheless worthy title by Japanese developer Quintet: SoulBlazer.

The main appeal of SoulBlazer wasn’t that it was a 16-bit game that hearkened back to Zelda while incorporating many of the RPG elements seen in SNK’s Crystalis?, though that certainly didn’t hurt.

No, for those of us who had grown weary of barely coherent half-English scripts in their games and wondered if Final Fantasy II? had been banged together by a dozen monkeys at a dozen typewriters, Soul Blazer’s real revelation was its story. Not only was it presented in accordance with the actual rules of English grammar, it dared to delve into something beyond “Princess abducted, save world.” There was no small amount of world-saving to be had, of course, but Soul Blazer’s script dealt with the idea of spiritual conquest rather than physical domination.

Sure, these days the dialogue seems a little like it’s trying too hard to plumb depth out of an ultimately superficial tale, but in the early Super NES days it impressed. Soul Blazer trafficked in themes and messages typically reserved for the better breed of PC RPG, the Ultimas of the world. Players took the form of a holy avatar—establishing a spiritual if not narrative link to Quintet’s other early Super NES masterpiece, ActRaiser -- tasked with the mission of restoring life to a world whose souls had been captured by a demon called Deathtoll.

Admittedly, the game’s definition of “soul” did animism one better; not only were you rescuing humans, but also animals... and plants... and the occasional bit of furniture. Overly generous spirituality aside, this structure created an interesting back-and-forth game design. As the Blazer liberated souls by defeating monsters, the restored beings (and end tables) would repopulate the nearby towns or forests; by returning to talk to them, the player would acquire new powers, pick up hints, unlock progress, and open up interesting side quests.

It was the creatures (and wardrobes) of the world that lent the quest so much interest. Much of the story revolved around the brave inventor Dr. Leo, but there was far more to Soul Blazer’s world than the main plot for those who took the time to look. Small tales of romance and longing formed interlocking narrative arcs across regions, and a pervasive sense of melancholy loomed over the entire affair as characters contemplated the nature of mortality. Particularly striking were the short-lived gnomes who invested much of their brief lifespans watching a single months-long snail race. It could have been ridiculous, but the game’s earnestness and 16-bit abstractness helped mitigate the goofiness into something genuinely sweet and even thought-provoking.

Soul Blazer’s highly finite world design—there were only as many enemies as there were souls to be rescued—made for a much more linear and limited adventure than Zelda. But you never felt like you were being pushed down a constrained path as in its sequel, Illusion of Gaia. Even today, Soul Blazer’s mournful narrative themes and atmospheric music lend its relatively simple top-down action a kind of gravitas lacking even in contemporary games, let alone works of that vintage.

By Jeremy Parish? | Dec. 9, 2011 | Previous: Turtles in Time | Next: Super Mario Kart