It has been a long time since I've played through Illusion of Gaia, so I don't really remember the intricacies of the game, but there are a lot of moments that are very memorable. I am having a hard time judging how well the game is known. It seems that anyone that has played it remembers it well, but I don't think it is as widely known as other similar SNES titles. I have a lot of fond memories of the game, but for some reason I've never went back and replayed it. Illusion of Gaia is just a strange game in a whole lot of ways.
For one, there is the setting. It takes place in a fictionalized version of our world from a few centuries ago, and through the events of the game the fictionalized version somehow becomes the real world, or something like that. The game is based around the exploration of real-life ruins, such as Angkor Wat, the Egyptian pyramids, the Nazca Lines, and the Tower of Babel. Basically everything Giorgio A. Tsoukalos will tell you was made by aliens, but that's neither here nor there. Since the game is an action RPG, this framing makes sense, as the various ruins around the world that are traveled to serve as the game's dungeons. As a kid, this game made me more interested in world history at school because it gave me a point of reference. It may not have been the most accurate representation of things like the Inca or any of the ruins of ancient civilizations in the game, but it was enough to provide a spark of interest.
Illusion of Gaia's dark story is one of its most distinctive features. Throughout the course of the game all manner of fucked up things happen to the main character, Will, and his friends. Before the game event starts, he is taken on an expedition that ends with the father of one of his friend's father dead or missing. There is a point when he's captured by a village starving savages, and a companion's cute pet pig jumps into their fire to feed them in order to stop the villagers from cannibalizing Will and his friends. He gets shipwrecked and drifts aimlessly at sea for a long time before getting scurvy. One friend is devoured by a giant fish, another is sold into slavery, and you even get to participate in a game of Russian Roulette, not with a revolver, but with a series of cups of wine or juice or whatever. The most messed up part about that, besides a child playing Russian Roulette, is that Will happens to be psychic, which means he can't lose, which means that by playing he is condemning the other participant to death. And that's just the stuff I've remembered after 15 or so years.
The game plays similar to a Zelda game, but it is structured very differently and it has a lot of fresh elements included. It is very story-driven, so instead of being exploratory, it is quite linear. This does move the game along at a good pace, but it also causes annoying things, such as the existence of points of no return where the red jewel collection side-quest can be easily failed forever. At first the dungeons themselves are linear as well, but as you get further in they become more complex and labyrinthine. Unlike Zelda, there is a big benefit to clearing a room of enemies. Instead of occasionally get a key, every room that is cleared of enemies grants the player with a stat increase, such as extra health, damage, or defense. On top of that, unless you completely leave the dungeon, dead enemies stay dead, which I like. No, you can't go in and out of a dungeon and grind stat increases, they keep track of that.
Combat is a lot of fun. At the beginning of the game there isn't much to it, Will can either bash enemies with his flute or run, then bash them with it. The ability to run and the lack of a shield to deflect attacks makes the flow of combat quite a bit different from Zelda, with greater emphasis on dodging and acting quickly. Things get more interesting when progressing through the game as new skills and forms are obtained. The two other forms are Freedan, a dark knight, and Shadow, a. . . well. . . shadow. Will, Freedan, and Shadow all have different skills that are built up through the course of the game, and it is important to switch between them to progress through dungeons. The skills, such as fireballs and spin attacks make combat interesting, as well as add complexity to solving puzzles in dungeons.
The dungeons in Illusion of Gaia are alright. Sometimes they are really intuitive and lead the player in the right direction without just spelling things out, but other times they can be very frustrating and confusing. The level designs are very interesting and really nice to look at. There is a degree of complexity in where you can go and what you can do that has not been achieved many times in a 2D game. Particularly, the dungeon based on the Hanging Gardens of Babylon is really neat, allowing the player to jump off the side and land on the reverse, where doing something on one side affects the other. It doesn't make much sense as far as gravity goes, but neither does a garden flying in the sky.
Illusion of Gaia is just a wonderful game, which makes it weird that I've never played its sister titles. The connections between the titles are kind of weird, but they are definitely related. The game was developed by Quintet, the company behind Actraiser, and the NES version of Legacyof the Wizard. They also made Soul Blazer, another action RPG, that is considered the first in the “trilogy.” The second game is Illusion of Gaia, which contains a hidden boss that was originally in Soul Blazer, and the comet, which is a driving force of the plot, is in some way connected the first game as well. The third game is Terranigma, though I am not sure how it is connected to the first two. I don't really have a good excuse for why I never played either title. Though Terranigma never saw a North American release, it was released in Europe and the ease of emulation these days I could easily give the games a shot. I'll get around to them eventually.