Shade: A Brief History

This time around, we’re taking a close look at a couple of games from a specific company. The two games aren’t directly related to one another, but they’re both from the same rough “era” of gaming, and I thought they both looked interesting.

The two games are Gun Gun Pixies and Bullet Girls Phantasia from Shade Inc, and I wanted to explore these games not only because they were appealing to me, but because I found the fact that they were developed by Shade to be fascinating.

Not sure who Shade is? That’s what today’s all about. Let’s have a little history lesson.

Shade’s story begins in 1989 with the formation of a game company known as Quintet. The founding members included Tomoyoshi Miyazaki and Masaya Hashimoto, two alumni of Nihon Falcom’s Ys series, and the name was drawn from the term for a five-piece musical group. The reasoning behind it was the concept of there being five distinct pillars of game design: planning, graphics, sound, programming and producing, all of which are required to make a modern game a success.

Quintet’s inaugural title was 1990’s ActRaiser, an unusual game that combined side-scrolling platform action with strategic building simulation and god game elements. You play the role of “The Master” (or literally God in the Japanese original) as He attempts to rebuild the world after Tanzra (Satan) divided it into six lands and corrupted the hearts and minds of the people.

ActRaiser is doubtless a game we’ll explore in more detail another time as it’s a remarkable work in many ways, but suffice to say for now that it is very well-regarded for a number of reasons. Not only was it a technically impressive game that demonstrated the graphical and audio capabilities of the then-new Super Famicom, it remains a really solid, enjoyable and intriguing game to this day. And the soundtrack is one of legendary gaming maestro Yuzo Koshiro’s most enduring, beloved works.

For many people, Quintet really came into their own with what has come to be popularly regarded as the “Heaven and Earth Trilogy”, a series of four games (yes, I know) that, much as ActRaiser did in 1990, explored themes of the death and reincarnation of both people and places, usually expressed through the juxtaposition between an entity that brings creation and its counterpart that brings destruction.

First of these games to arrive was 1992’s Soul Blazer. In this game, you’re once again tasked with rebuilding barren wastelands into thriving towns and villages, but unlike its spiritual (no pun intended) predecessor, here you take a much more “on the ground” viewpoint on things, delving into dungeons to seal monster generators and rescuing lost souls.

As you rescue lost souls, various things happen. Some simply allow access into deeper areas of the dungeon, while others recover NPCs, their homes and their places of work. Naturally, once these people have been rescued, you can then interact with them once you return to the surface in order to get clues as to what to do next and helpful items. And cats. And dogs.

Soul Blazer is, among other things, noteworthy for having a really weird soundtrack by Japanese singer-songwriter Yukihide Takekawa. While the overworld themes resemble Koshiro’s work on ActRaiser to a certain extent, the bizarre ’80s synth pop soundtrack heard in the dungeons is… something of an acquired taste, to say the least. It certainly gives the game a unique audible identity if nothing else, and is just one of many ways that Soul Blazer is a highly memorable, if frequently overlooked, part of the Super NES’ library.

Soul Blazer was followed up in 1993 with Illusion of Gaia, known in PAL territories as Illusion of Time for some reason. This was a game that focused more on the action gameplay rather than rebuilding as in ActRaiser and Soul Blazer. Unlike many other similar games at the time Illusion of Gaia (as we shall refer to it hereafter) eschewed a free-roaming aspect in favour of tightly controlled linear progression that kept the story flowing constantly forwards. The game is still fondly regarded today for its strong emphasis on narrative and solid handling of weighty philosophical themes.

From a gameplay perspective, Illusion of Gaia was noteworthy for an interesting character progression system. Rather than levelling up through experience points, Illusion of Gaia instead presents you with a gem that permanently increases one of your base stats whenever you completely clear a room of enemies for the first time. In this way, the game still encourages you to engage with the combat system, but alleviates the need for grinding.

Illusion of Gaia is regarded as something of a Zelda clone, despite lacking its apparent inspiration’s open-world exploration aspect. The dungeon designs feature puzzles and obstacles as well as combat, and progressing through the game unlocks various skills that protagonist Will is able to use to continue onwards. Most noteworthy of these is the ability to access “Dark Spaces”, which allow Will to turn into one of two other forms: either a dark knight named Freedan, or a… blue thing called Shadow. Each of these have their own unique abilities that can (or must!) be used under various circumstances, so it’s not just a case of picking your “favourite”.

The final Quintet game for Super NES was 1995’s Terranigma, also known as Tenchi Souzou (The Creation of Heaven and Earth) in Japan. This game marked a return to the emphasis on “creation” seen in Soul Blazer and ActRaiser, and this aspect was deliberately emphasised as a contrast to the destructive tendencies seen in other action RPGs of the time.

Terranigma features a considerably expanded “sim” aspect when compared to Soul Blazer in particular, featuring a variety of sidequests and activities in the villages and towns you’re trying to rebuild which, in turn, will allow you to boost their respective economies and connections with other settlements. The payoff is, as you might expect, better items and services in the various establishments.

While Terranigma is a much sought-after game for Super NES collectors today, it originally released so late in the lifespan of the 16-bit console that it went largely overlooked, and didn’t get a North American release at all. To put this in context, Sony’s PlayStation hit the market in September of 1995 in both North America and PAL territories, and Terranigma wasn’t released in PAL regions until 1996. A lot of people had moved on by then, dooming this game to relative obscurity until the Internet provided the ability for people to screech about how good it was and how you’d all missed out on it by being early adopters of new platforms. Or something.

Anyway. You may well be asking at this point what all this has to do with Shade, who we haven’t actually mentioned at all yet. Well, they enter the picture right about now, as it happens.

Shortly after the Japanese release of Terranigma in 1995, graphic designer Koji Yokota left Quintet to form his own development company, and took a number of key Quintet staffers with him. Probably the most notable of these was Quintet co-founder Tomoyoshi Miyazaki, who had designed and written the three prior “Heaven and Earth” games.

This was a noteworthy event because although Quintet continued to operate up until the early 2000s — their last game was a PS2 adaptation of the InuYasha manga and anime series — the company had somewhat struggled to recapture the glory days of the Heaven and Earth games. Apparently having seen the writing on the wall long before this happened, Yokota and Miyazaki formed Shade and immediately set about creating a spiritual successor to Terranigma for the new PlayStation platform.

That game was known as The Granstream Saga, and is a vastly, vastly underrated action RPG that we’ll have to explore in more detail some other time. Suffice to say for now that it is absolutely old-school Quintet at its core, featuring themes of creation and destruction, a compelling narrative with some highly memorable characters and some solid gameplay.

The Granstream Saga is historically significant for a few reasons, perhaps most notably for being one of the earliest RPGs to feature a fully polygonal environment. It also featured real-time combat rather than the more typically seen turn-based battles, and this featured a strong emphasis on timing and careful blocking. In many ways, The Granstream Saga’s combat felt very much like an early incarnation of the methodical combat now primarily associated with From Software’s Souls series.

Unfortunately for The Granstream Saga and Shade in general, circumstances conspired to keep the game relatively unknown. Reviews from the period very obviously didn’t spend much time with the game, comparing it unfavourably to predictable mainstays of the era such as Final Fantasy, Suikoden and Breath of Fire, and as such it came to be regarded as rather mediocre by most outlets — with the notable exception of GamePro, who awarded it a perfect 5 out of 5, noting it was “one of the most enjoyable new role-playing games of the year”.

There was another factor, too: while in Japan and Europe the game was published by Sony Computer Entertainment’s respective local branch, in the US it was localised and published by THQ — a company who anyone that has been involved with gaming as long as I have will know is a brand that has had a lot of “ups and downs” in terms of reputation over the years.

As it happened, 1998 was a bit of a “down” period for the company, with its catalogue at the time consisting primarily of mediocre wrestling sims, licensed platformers and ports of FIFA to platforms that no-one played FIFA on. Oh, and Quest 64, which was not at all well-received at the time and thus didn’t particularly fill anyone with confidence that THQ was a company who could “do” RPGs.

Predictably, the game bombed, but remains well worth checking out if you ever get the opportunity. Shade survived the game’s commercial failure, however, and has continued to develop games to this day.

A notable example from the company’s history is 2000’s Orphen: Scion of Sorcery, a PlayStation 2 launch title published by Activision in both North America and Europe. This was an adaptation of Yoshinobu Akita’s light novel series Sorcerous Stabber Orphen, and in many ways can be seen as a highly appropriate title for ex-Quintet developers to work on thanks to its rather dark tone and themes.

Much like The Granstream Saga, Orphen: Scion of Sorcery had rather mediocre reviews at the time, with GamePro once again being one of the only publications to praise it, giving particular attention to its interesting plot. It was a cool game, though (and one of the first I personally played on PS2), combining platforming, exploration, puzzling and an unusual combat system that resembled a traditional turn-based setup, but actually unfolded in real time.

From hereon, Shade kind of faded into the background somewhat, but continued beavering away working on a variety of games on a contract basis for many different publishers. This included contributing to Sakura Wars V Episode 0 alongside Overworks, as well as a number of licensed games based on properties such as Ah! My Goddess, the Haruhi Suzumiya series and A Certain Magical Index.

Shade continued in this way for a while, quietly contributing to games that other companies took the majority of the credit for. In 2014, the company put out an original title via D3 Publisher known as Bullet Girls; while this remained confined to Japan and thus largely went unnoticed in the West except among the most hardcore of importers, it was well received on its home turf, netting a score of 30/40 from Famitsu and being the third best-selling game across all platforms in its week of release.

Bullet Girls concerns an all-girls high school founded on the principles of both duty and refinement. With the former in particular in mind, the school provides its students the opportunity to practice defensive military techniques, and explores the story of the Ranger Club and their various adventures over the course of their school life.

Being a 2014 release on PlayStation Vita, Bullet Girls followed the fashionable trend of erring on the side of ecchi, featuring a Senran Kagura-esque clothes degradation system, 1,600 different customisable lingerie patterns and a distinctly provocative “interrogation” minigame that is probably the main reason it didn’t see a Western release. Much like most ecchi games, however, the erotic content wasn’t its sole defining feature; a strong emphasis was placed on the characterisation of the core cast and their relationships with one another.

Bullet Girls 2 followed in 2016. The game was a direct follow-up to the first, featuring both returning characters from the original and newcomers, and promised systems “that users have been waiting for” including enhancements to the erotic interrogation scenes as well as a huge expansion to the costume possibilities, supposedly amounting to well over 14,000 possible combinations.

Once again, the game was well-received on its home turf, scoring 30/40 in Famitsu and charting in fourth place in its week of launch. And once again, the game didn’t even show a hint of coming West, leaving importers to check the game out for themselves if they so desired.

After contributing to the 3DS version of the excellent Puzzle & Dragons, Shade’s next standalone game was Gun Gun Pixies, which we’ll explore in more specific detail next time. This was originally released for PlayStation Vita in 2017 and initially appeared like it was going to be another Bullet Girls — forever confined to Japan, never to see an English script.

And indeed, it seemed like this would remain the case for a while, though an interesting happening in 2018 opened the doors for Shade’s original titles to return to the English-speaking market for the first time in quite a while: localisation agency Love Lab Japan translated the third Bullet Girls game into English.

Bullet Girls Phantasia, as the game was known, is a standalone game in the Bullet Girls series rather than a direct follow-up to its predecessors, making it an ideal title to explore new markets. With this in mind, Shade, Love Lab and D3 Publisher elected to release a dual-language Chinese and English version into the Asian market.

For obvious reasons, Asia is less beholden to the Western values that typically stop games like the Bullet Girls series from coming to Western locales, but with the region-free nature of modern consoles it’s a relatively simple (if sometimes expensive) matter for anyone to import these English language games. A number of publishers have deliberately eschewed the typical Western markets in favour of an English language Asian release, in fact, with probably the most notable example being Koei Tecmo and its “holiday sim, also there is volleyball” game Dead or Alive Xtreme 3.

For many developers and publishers, it’s a best-of-both-worlds situation: there’s the freedom to produce the sort of content that is accepted in Asia but blocked by ratings boards or platform holders in Western territories, plus the opportunity to reach a whole new market through the English localisation. It’s pretty obvious at this point that a number of developers and publishers put out an Asian English version knowing full well that North American and European players are going to pick it up — and indeed retailers such as Play-Asia are more than happy to help such things happen.

It’s been a difficult time for games featuring sexually suggestive ecchi content over the course of the last couple of years, though, primarily thanks to Sony’s rather opaque recent policies on what they will and will not allow on their platforms any more. This has proven to be a particular problem for many Japanese developers, who had historically put out such games on Sony platforms thanks to how welcoming the Vita audience in particular had been towards them.

All is not lost, however. While Sony doesn’t appear to know what to do with the weird boner it gets every so often, Nintendo has very wisely taken the reins from the Vita and fully embraced the lewd. This would have been unthinkable back in the 16-bit era — Quintet’s games that we talked about earlier all underwent considerable editing in the transition from East to West because Nintendo of America had very strict guidelines on not only provocative content, but also things like religious iconography. But the Nintendo of today is a platform holder more than happy to let series such as Omega Labyrinth and Gal*Gun exist on its platforms — not only in Asia but also, where ratings boards allow, in North America and Europe.

Which brings us back to Gun Gun Pixies. While by the point a localisation was being considered the Vita had pretty much finally been killed off once and for all (not before being repeatedly declared “dead” on a roughly annual basis ever since its launch) it was obvious that, with Sony lacking a successor handheld, a lot of fans had jumped ship to Nintendo’s new hybrid system, the Switch.

The increasingly prolific (and ballsy) localisation company PQube saw an opportunity. While they were still reeling somewhat from the considerable setback of roguelike Omega Labyrinth Z being refused classification by the UK’s Video Standards Council, they announced out of the blue that Gun Gun Pixies would be coming West — not in its original Vita incarnation, but for the Switch. And this wouldn’t be an Asian English release, either; it would be coming officially to Western territories in uncut, enhanced form.

But that’s a story for next time!


More about Gun Gun Pixies
More about Bullet Girls Phantasia

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5 thoughts on “Shade: A Brief History”

  1. Interesting to read the history of this developer. I’d never have realised there was a connection to ActRaiser! Going to have to check out some of those other titles too.

    Given how easy it is to get an impression of gaming being a conservative industry, with developers conforming to rigid genre conventions and being averse to risk, it’s surprising how many weird, experimental and innovative games you can find even going right back to the early days. It’s sad that they seem to slip through the cracks.. on the other hand, I suppose it’s because the other games were successful that they became established as genres.

    With that last point regarding censorship and the contrasting approaches of Sony and Nintendo.. I was wondering what your thoughts are on the latest announcements regarding the FE Tokyo Mirage Sessions port for the Switch?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Your comment here is precisely why I wanted to do this whole feature in the first place! So thanks for that. So many people don’t know the strange story behind Shade, even if they’re familiar with Quintet’s work. I’ll be looking into the Quintet games specifically at some point in the future, too; there’s a lot to explore there.

      Honestly with Tokyo Mirage Sessions I don’t really know the game well enough to comment on the things that have been changed too much.

      My gut feeling is the same as always, however: is the game still good? If so (and the things people I know who played the Wii U version seem to indicate that yes, it is), I don’t really feel much about the content having being edited.

      Localisation changes — major ones, way more than the ones we get today — have been a thing since the beginning of time, and they have never once, in my experience, made a game less enjoyable or valuable to play.

      Would I prefer an uncut experience? Sure. Am I going to lose any sleep over something having bizarre edits that I don’t really understand the reasoning behind? Absolutely not.

      Liked by 1 person

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