If I asked you what the golden age of the RPG genre was, there's a good chance you'll answer “the '90s”. With the increased popularity of console gaming came a demand for more mature and narrative-driven experiences that arcade cabinets couldn't supply. By offering a comfortable middle ground between the boundless freedom of a D&D session and the more contained but still dense experience of a CRPG that you’d get from titles like Planescape or Wasteland, console RPGs appealed to a huge crowd, transporting millions to beautiful fantasy worlds without the need for friends or complicated character sheets—virtual or otherwise—and there was no console that genre loved more than the SNES. Its library speaks for itself and holds some of my favorite games of all time: Final Fantasy VI, Chrono Trigger, Link to the Past (shocking choices, I know. I’ll give you a second to recover) are all fantastic games that marked and changed the lives of countless people, yours truly included.
But today’s blog isn’t about them. Between dragonic quests and fantastical stars, there were a lot of names that either fell into obscurity or never had a spot in the limelight, to begin with. When I read the theme for this month’s Band of Bloggers, I knew there was only one game I could talk about. A gem that was unfortunately never released on this side of the globe, robbed of the recognition it deserves. Today, let me tell you why you should play Terranigma.
Terranigma was developed by Japanese studio Quintet, and it’s considered the third part of the Gaia Trilogy, which includes Soul Blazer and Illusion of Gaia. The games aren’t direct sequels to each other, and thus aren’t required to fully enjoy Terranigma, but playing them will allow you to better appreciate the evolution of the gameplay and thematic elements that permeate the series. They’re action RPGs akin to Secret of Mana, but what set Quintet’s games apart from the rest is a willingness to experiment with traditional storytelling conventions, and a tendency to explore darker and deeper themes. Something far from being novel even for the time, but it's the themes of death, life, and resurrection, as well as the usage of Western religious imagery that you wouldn’t expect to find in a Japanese product that makes their games so interesting. This is especially true in the case of Terranigma, where the theme of duality is front and center from start to finish: light and shadow, day and night, creation and destruction. This idea of opposing elements that can't exist without each other forms the central thesis from which every single element of Terranigma revolves around. From presentation to gameplay, every part of Terranigma works to reinforce that message.
Home sweet home.
In that context, the monotheistic religion of the West is a better fit than the deity filled pantheon of Shintoism. After all, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better embodiment of the idea of duplicity than God and the Devil. The game isn't about religion, but the narrative does acknowledge that religion is partially responsible for the way humans perceive the world and ignoring that would be naive at best and willfully ignorant at worst. Something that hits even closer to home when you consider that the world Terranigma takes place isn't some made-up fairy tale land, but the very Earth we inhabit, albeit with the appropriate touches of fantasy sprinkled in.
“[...] another big theme for Terranigma is duality, or the idea that opposites are inextricably linked together as one. Destruction and creation would be a prime example of that.” — Tomoyoshi Miyazaki, Director.
But I'm getting a tad ahead of myself here so let’s go back to the start. Terranigma tells the story of Ark, a typical JRPG protagonist: young, troublemaker, ultimately kind, and possibly in love with his childhood friend. He lives his days goofing off in the town of Crysta, a place seemingly isolated from the outside world. Unfortunately for Ark, his peaceful days are shattered when he does the one thing no protagonist can resist: disobeying orders. He opens a door he’s not supposed to, then immediately opens a box he's not supposed to, which turned out to be Pandora's. The inhabitants of Crysta are turned into crystals, save for himself and the Elder, and Ark must now journey to five towers scattered around the land and conquer their trials. Each conquered tower brings back a little bit of Crysta and a different continent as well.
This whole section lasts about an hour and it is effectively the tutorial, getting you acquainted with the controls and mechanics of Terranigma. It teaches you how to jump, how to fight, how to interact with puzzles, and maybe if you're feeling experimental, how to use magic. I don't blame you if you never interact with the magic system in this game. It's a pretty underwhelming feature that's not properly explained and for whatever reason, it's also not allowed against the majority of bosses, with one extremely notable exception. There's also a block that can only defend against projectiles and the final boss' "I'm firing ma lazer" ultimate attack. There's nothing too challenging about any of this, it’s a fairly easy section. It's not gonna stay like that for long. Terranigma isn’t a challenging game but combat has a few issues. For one, some enemies have wonky hitboxes that will have you asking yourself “how the fuck did that hit me?”. Combine that with a very small window of invincibility after a hit and you better make sure you don’t get sandwiched between two or more enemies. There’s also the fact that leveling up increases your power exponentially, something that I affectionately call “Ys Syndrome”. What this means is that the difference between hitting an enemy for 1 or 10 points of damage is merely a single level. Thankfully this has an easy fix and it’s only really a problem on two occasions, but it is still worth mentioning.
Combat is simple but entertaining.
Still, Ark is a joy to control, with a variety of actions that each serves a different purpose in combat: attack, jump, run, and block. The first three can be combined to make combat more interesting: attack while running and Ark will do a lunge attack that renders him invulnerable for a moment. If you jump while running and then attack, he'll perform a divekick with higher damage, but no invincibility. It's a limited arsenal, but every move has a function and it's up to you to figure out how to best deal with your foes. Just mashing attack will get you killed pretty quickly, so don't do that.
Terranigma is a slow burn, but it has to be that way for its message to properly land, and if you ask me that's one of its best qualities. Conquering the towers is merely the beginning: the landmass may be back, but there’s no life in it. After leaving the Underworld and his hometown behind, Ark reaches the surface world. Here, his personal story takes a backseat to the journey of resurrection ahead, and it’s not until the last quarter or so that it comes back to the pilot’s seat. Some people take this as a negative, but I think that’s missing the point. Ark is the protagonist and our POV into the story, but he's not the main character. The planet is, along with all the lives it contains. There's a reason the developers spent so much time getting the visuals of the resurrection scenes just right (these are some of the best animations on the SNES), and this smoothly transitions me to my next point: this game is fucking gorgeous. As you would expect from a title released towards the end of a console’s life-cycle, Quintet knew exactly how to make the most out of the SNES, and dear Lord does it show! Whether it is the ruins of an old castle, the lushness of a rainforest brimming with life, or an arid canyon during sunset, everything in Terranigma just feels right.
This is likely a result of director and scenario writer Tomoyoshi Miyazaki and his love for travel. You can tell there's a real attempt at making each and every place sound and look just like their geographical counterpart. There's a sense of familiarity that, even if you've never visited the places represented in-game, makes it easy to connect with them. Case in point, Terranigma's Liotto is clearly a representation of Brazil's Rio de Janeiro, so of course, the town is perpetually in a state of partying, complete with traditional Brazilian cuisine and a soundtrack that perfectly captures samba music—another aspect the game just nails. The compositions are consistently fantastic, with emotionally charged tunes and superb usage of leitmotifs, and you kids know how much of a sucker for leitmotifs I am! I strongly recommend you go listen to some arrangements after you’re done playing, especially the ending theme that just hits you right in the feels!
With open arms!
This approach gives you time to think about everything that happened and everything that will happen. Why Ark? How is this all connected? Why was the world dead to begin with? Terranigma does answer all of these questions and more, but not before letting them sit on your mind for most of the game, and it does that by giving you an incredible sense of loneliness. Whether he wants it or not, Ark is a sort of messianic figure on a quest to bring back the lives that the planet lost: first the plants, then the birds, then the land animals, and finally, humanity itself (add that to the list of Biblical references). It’s a responsibility that only he can fulfill, and a situation that no other character can fully grasp even if they wanted to. There’s a certain irony in the fact that even after bringing back humanity and helping so many people, Ark can never fully connect with any of them. His heart is back at Crysta, and nothing's gonna change that, but he's still working hard to save a world he doesn't understand or belong to, because he’s the only one who sees the full picture. It’s a good angle for a hero that I wish more games would explore.
“As the title Tenchi Souzou (The Creation of Heaven and Earth) implies, I really want players to enjoy the resurrection scenes, because I want them to think about the meaning of the idea that we create our own world.” — Tomoyoshi Miyazaki
Speaking of exploration, that’s another thing Terranigma just excels at. The Overworld hides a lot of secrets, some of which are mandatory for progression, and it’s up to you to find them all. This sounds boring, but the game always gives enough hints on where to go next without holding your hand, which gives you an incredible sense of discovery. Dungeons don’t fall behind either, and along with the bosses—that in true Quintet fashion, are almost always some sort of big monstrosity—they’re easily one of the best parts of Terranigma. They’re very Zelda-esque, in the sense that there’s always some mechanic unique to them, but unlike Zelda, they won’t always require a new item that you’re only gonna use in this one dungeon and then forget about it. Whether you’re venturing the insides of an ancient tree to free it from a parasite (this was three years before Ocarina of Time, by the way), or tactically evading vision cones in a stealth-only castle infiltration (no really), Terranigma will always keep you engaged and eager to see what’s next.
I haven’t mentioned it yet, but this game is divided into chapters. The first one, “The Outset” ends after the five towers, and the second, “Resurrection of the World” ends after humans are brought back. Chapter 3 is called “Resurrection of the Genius” and is by far the longest. Humanity is back, but the story is far from over. Ark must now guide them through history and "resurrect" the knowledge that was lost. This is where the themes of duality start to shine, which should come as no surprise given that humans (arguably the most paradoxical existence ever) just returned to the land. The most notable effect of this change is the fact that for the first time since you started the game, you’ll encounter forces actively opposing you. Up until this point, Ark only interacted with plants and animals that are just minding their own business. They help Ark because they know it’s for the betterment of everyone involved. In direct contrast to that, humans won’t always be nice to you. Many will stand in opposition to Ark, whether directly or not, and I think it was really smart of the developers to only now introduce the first hints of a villain. Although you’ll meet some cold, selfish, and uncaring bastards, there will also be warm, kind, and autistic people ready to aid you and the world.
This is also the point in the game where we gain a certain degree of control over the way we influence the world. By completing certain quests, you can help certain cities grow and develop. As they change, so do the lives of the people you’re helping. I loved to watch how these mini character arcs play out, and I think it’s impressive how Quintet managed to make me care about these people without giving them a lot of screen time. Let me give you an example: Marily is a girl you can agree to help fairly early into this chapter. She’s a tailor, and she wants to make clothes that are both pretty and affordable, but her boss is all about that expensive stuff for rich people only. So you agree to sell some of her dresses in another town, and by the end of the game, she managed to leave that job and open her own shop. It’s such a simple tale, and completely optional to finish the game, but when that town expanded and I saw her shop open and booming, I couldn’t help but smile. Even cooler is the way that pivotal figures in the game make nods to real-life inventors: you help a man named Eddy invent the light bulb. Another by the name of Bell invents the telephone. Columbus spreads the knowledge of navigation far and wide after you rescue him, and a dude named Will builds an airplane. The growth portrayed in Terranigma mirrors that of our reality, and the fact we get to play to a role in it shows how much care Quintet put into the details.
New technologies means new areas to explore!
While some of these quests are indeed optional, they’re by no means filler. As each city grows and expands, they change the surrounding landscape. In real life that’s a pretty obvious thing to see: progress more often than not comes at the cost of nature. A lesser game would’ve painted the growth of civilization as a solely positive thing. Terranigma instead points out both sides of the coin and never attempts to judge your actions. One of the towns you help opens a goddamn zoo that may or may not contain animals you previously interacted with. You can talk to one of the inhabitants, and they’ll point out that with the increase in tourism she can no longer hear the sound of waves crashing when she goes to sleep. We’re left to wonder if technological and economic progress is worth the inevitable environmental cost and to contemplate the results of our actions. Two years before Final Fantasy VII, by the way.
“This way, the player is always complicit in the outcome, whatever they choose. If you don’t want to destroy nature, then you have to face the consequence of an underdeveloped city, and so forth.” — Reiko Takebayashi, Scenario Writer
When everything was said and done, I didn’t want my time with Terranigma to end. Not because I wasn’t satisfied, but because I came to care about this world that neither Ark nor I belong to. The stories it told, as mundane as they were in comparison to the epic journey of our protagonist, won me over and I wanted to see where they would go next. Very few games left me feeling this way, and this is probably the highest compliment I can give Terranigma. By the time the credits rolled, so did the tears. Terranigma has a poignant and hard-hitting finale that reminds us that this world is exactly what we make of it, and if we don’t like what we built, it’s never too late to fix things. I'm not gonna lie, this left me melancholic for a whole week.
Unfortunately for us, Terranigma never saw a release on this side of the world. Just after the Japanese release in ‘95, Enix shut down its American branch responsible for the localization process of their games due to poor sales of the Dragon Quest titles. At the same time, the Nintendo 64 was already a reality and with everyone making the transition to 3D, Terranigma was relegated to obscurity in the US. Something that, in hindsight, might actually be a blessing in disguise. I doubt Terranigma would’ve made it through the jaws of localization intact, not with its themes of life and death, and allusions to religion. Toning those down would be a huge disservice to its message, so I’m thankful we got a PAL release in Europe that’s pretty much intact from the original Japanese, minor localization changes aside. Even if it did get a release in North America, there is no guarantee its history would’ve had a different ending. This was Quintet’s last game before disappearing from the world. The company never officially closed its doors, but nobody has heard from most of the team in over two decades, and I can only hope they're doing well, wherever they may be.
Though Quintet’s fate was an unfortunate one, the fact remains that Terranigma is a special game, and to this day I have never played anything like it. It knows exactly what it wants to do, and its story can only be told through its medium. Though its presentation dates it as a product from the ‘90s, its themes and messages remain relevant even today, 24 years after its original release, and as long as humans exist, they will continue to resonate with us forever. It’s a story that uses its fantasy to explore and comment on our reality, asking us to consider our actions and to become the best we can. I'm not the first to praise this game, and I'm sure I won't be the last. Quintet's final and brightest dream is a timeless masterpiece, and a journey worth taking.