Michael Iantorno PhD Candidate, Game Designer, and Writer

Dead Pixels: Soul Blazer

(Wherein Mathew steals his brother’s idea to deconstruct discontinued franchises and put forth ideas concerning hypothetical sequels.)

Soul Blazer

Soul Blazer is one of those games that is fondly remembered but uncommonly considered a classic.

Really, that’s a criticism you could levy against most Quintet games. Soul Blazer, ActRaiser, Illusion of Gaia, and Terranigma were all innovative and enjoyable titles at the time of their release, but odd game design choices and a lack of polish prevented them from achieving true greatness.

Unsurprisingly, when articles are nostalgically concocted on the topic of what games most deserve a sequel or a remake, these Super Nintendo titles immediately spring to the top of the list.

Out of all the Quintet games, Soul Blazer feels the least schizophrenic. The game isn’t prone to rapid shifts in tone and gameplay like Illusion of Gaia or ActRaiser. Although there is plenty of variety – changes of scenery, new towns to explore, and side quests – it’s mostly window dressing for Soul Blazer‘s core hack-and-slash premise.

It can be said that Terranigma is a loose sequel to Soul Blazer, but it departs from many of the core premises of its predecessor – and never saw a North American release. In my analysis, I’ll be focusing mainly on what makes Soul Blazer unique and how that could be cultivated into a direct sequel.

What to Keep

soulscreen1The Core Mechanic

Soul Blazer has one of the greatest core mechanics of any Super Nintendo game. No, really.

The player, an avatar of divine forces, is sent down to earth to free its inhabitants from Deathtoll, an oppressive demonic being. Every time the player destroys the lair of one of Deatholl’s monsters, a new aspect of the world is freed – whether it be a farmer, a dog, or simply the cottage they reside in. Accumulating a larger population opens up new paths in the overworld, new items, and new side quests.

This mechanic makes Soul Blazer’s otherwise lacklustre dungeon-crawling incredibly addictive. You aren’t just killing monsters for killing’s sake; you are constructing a town, piece-by-piece, with every victory. It might be a carrot-on-a-stick incentive, but it’s an incredibly tasty one.

Varied Locations

It’s downright endearing how thematically inconsistent the different realms of Soul Blazer are.

Although you begin your quest in a pastoral town typical of Japanese roleplaying games, before long you’re swept off to a forest full of talking animals, an undersea kingdom, and a miniature world full of animated toys.

Perplexing, maybe, but damned if it doesn’t keep things interesting. Too many hack-and-slash games fall into level design lethargy, following a grey-brown brick dungeon with a blue-brown brick dungeon and calling it a day.

I have to applaud Soul Blazer for being so bravely absurd.

What to Drop

soulscreen2The Item System

I’ve never liked the only-one-of-each-item inventory system. It haunted me in Quest 64, a game that had about one hundred other terrible game mechanics vying for my attention.

I understand that limiting curative items is a means of increasing difficulty, but the inventory system in Soul Blazer just feels obtuse. The player lives in fear of opening chests, lest they accidentally find a duplicate of an item they already have, forcing them to automatically use it.

I say ditch curative items altogether. Monsters should instead drop health and mana orbs (mirroring the hearts and magic potions of Zelda fame). This scavenging better compliments the rapid nature of hack-and-slash combat. A costly regeneration spell could be implemented as well as a last ditch lifesaver.

What to Fix

soulscreen3The Combat System

For a game where 95% of your problems are solved by swinging your sword, the combat system in Soul Blazer is limp and two-dimensional. Some strategy exists in the ability to strafe and ready your weapon, but it’s a pretty paltry bit of swordplay.

Consider that, at the same time, even Link was charging, twirling, and blocking arrows with his shield on the Super Nintendo.

A meatier combat system is a necessity, and Quintet provided one in their later foray Terranigma. However, I’d almost prefer suturing the combat system of Secret of Evermore onto Soul Blazer instead. Secret of Evermore had combat with mobility and timing, elements lacking in the cardboard fencing of Soul Blazer.

Soul Blazer would also greatly benefit from Secret of Evermore‘s precise magic system. Waiting for that damned orb of light to drift into the right position is maddening.

Vague Dialogue/Narrative

Badly written and translated dialogue is one of the more laughable problems of the Super Nintendo era. For every carefully prepared performance, there’s a spoony bard awkwardly rehearsing their lines in the wings.

Although I like the plot of Soul Blazer, I hate its execution. Any time you’re provided instructions to complete a quest, they are incredibly vague and poorly worded. This issue is compounded by the often surreal nature of the story. (Hopping into dreams, in particular, seems like a fluffy and unnecessary narrative device.)

There’s not much else to say except rewrite, edit, and get at least one person who speaks English as their first language to check your work.

Final Thoughts

soulscreen4Unfortunately to say, Soul Blazer hasn’t aged all the well. Although the game’s core mechanic was years ahead of its time, its combat system was old hat before the title ever hit shelves. Nowadays retro-styled rogue-likes and hack-and-slash roleplaying games are a dime-a-dozen on Steam, and most of them look and play better than Quintet‘s offering.

A proper Soul Blazer sequel could find a home on the Nintendo 3DS. Imagine handling the combat and adventuring on the top screen while watching your town grow and bustle on the bottom. Or targeting your spells with the touchscreen instead of waiting for that damn orb.

Check out Soul Blazer to enjoy a slice of Super Nintendo history, but don’t feel obliged to finish it. It is simultaneously brilliant and deeply flawed – the crux of all Quintet games.

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By Mathew
Michael Iantorno PhD Candidate, Game Designer, and Writer