Have you ever been introduced to something that you knew right then and there that you would HAVE to own? Nevermind how out of reach it seems. One day, you KNOW you’ll have possession of it. For many people this might be a boat or a nice watch. For me, it was Terranigma, the mysterious third game in Quintet’s Soul Blazer trilogy. Though I only had a passing acquaintance with the series through Illusion of Gaia, I was instantly in love with the concept the moment I read about it in Super Play Magazine.
The only problem was that NOA passed on localization due to its themes, meaning this game showed up in all territories-all except North America. But as I said, dreams DO come true, and a few years later I would discover the means to play this on my North American SNES, and in English to boot! So now, I ask that you come with me just a little further, so we can see if it lived up to the impossible expectations built up by the imagination…
You begin this epic as Ark, a young boy living in the town of Crysta, which is the last bastion of humanity on the planet after a long ago cataclysm killed off all other life and sank the continents into the ocean. This is also the moment you begin to realize that you are playing something special. Ark is not your typical silent RPG protagonist. He is a mischievous young boy full of curiosity, with a smart mouth and a reputation for being a troublemaker. Naturally he gets more than he bargains for when he opens a door that is forbidden by the village elder. From this moment on, it is up to Ark to save his doomed home, and fulfill an ancient prophecy in the process.
I am often rather harsh on video game storytelling. Storytelling is an art form that must be honed over time, and requires much dedication and life experience to provide interesting concepts. And it is in this endeavor that Terranigma exceeds expectations, giving us one of the most meaningful yarns ever to grace a video game! Understanding that the most impactful stories are often inspired by the real world, Quintet did their homework. The result is a tale that revels in small details over the course of the story, all of which expand the game’s overall themes. Take the first steps of your journey for instance. Sure you want to save your village, but the quest is given a quiet urgency due to an established friendship the player has with one of the villagers. A foundation of cause and effect is also built early on, because as you complete the first five towers in the underworld, you are also raising the continents on the surface world above.
The next step of your quest involves resurrecting the various life forms that perished in that long ago calamity. Starting with plants and ending with humanity, it becomes clear just how much religious and philosophical content went into this game, as several touching scenes serve as a commentary on various belief principals. The different plants and animals talk to the player, and the values of life and death are brought home in a night you spend snowed in with a mountain goat. Even in a game full of overwhelming emotion, this one is a show stealer. You’ll know it when you see it …
The third chapter is all about building up human civilization, and this is where an otherwise linear adventure opens up to endless possibilities. Though you still have dungeons to conquer, it is here that the world really opens up as Ark attempts to build civilization by connecting scattered communities and aiding individuals with beneficial discoveries. Depending on your actions you will either see cities grow and intermingle before your eyes or remain isolated and primitive. One of my favorite aspects of this is the numerous NPCs that mirror some of the great minds and creators of our own world. See how many “real world” folks you can find!
It’s not all fun and games, though. Quintet packed this chapter full of the effects of human growth, and not all of it is good. A doctor complains that he has more patients as a result of the stress of modern life. The animals you aided and befriended end up prisoners in a zoo! Terranigma seems dedicated to presenting the drama of life and change from every angle, and it seems less intent on teaching an ideology. Rather, it is trying to tell us that nothing is without consequence, least of all things that may seem beneficial at first.
In the end, it all fits into place, and I will not dare spoil it, except to say that it may be the most bittersweet and heartfelt thing I have ever seen out of a game. Though closure is reached, nothing is wrapped up, and I couldn’t think of a better thing to say about it , considering the subject material. See for yourself.
As well told a tale as Terranigma is, good gameplay is needed to match it, and in order to do this Quintet has seen fit to arm Ark with the greatest ARPG combat system ever devised. Terranigma’s battle systems are a glorious mix of sound mechanics and weakness exploitation. Ark uses a spear which changes its attack based upon what other actions are being performed by the player at the time. Standing still will illicit a standard poke, but jumping and attacking results in a swipe, running and attacking produces a lunge and so on.
That’s not all! Each of the myriad of enemies carry resistances and in some cases IMMUNITIES to certain attacks. So swipe may not do anything to a burrowing mole, but a jumping dive bomb will do double damage to him! As the adventure continues, you will begin to acquire more spears that can be used in the same manner. Ice enemies may be weaker to your Firelance, and it might be beneficial to equip the spear that regenerates health slowly in your off-time! The possibilities are numerous, and each player will likely develop their own favorite strategies.
Aside from your lances, Ark will have access to magic spells via different crests and pins he will collect. These pins, while useless on their own can become powerful aids to the player, but only if you are diligent and collect the crystalline Magirocks strewn throughout the adventure and then take them to a Mage for charging. Each pin will require such a charge, ensuring gameplay balance by limiting these otherwise overpowered spells to extreme situations.
In another example of Quintet’s player first design philosophy, the inventory in this game is a box that you acquire early on in the adventure. You literally enter and walk around inside to change weapons and armor, use or equip potions for field use, and check your stats! It is a fun spin on an otherwise tedious task, and doing it this way gives us something else to explore. About the only thing that can be said against it is that it is easy to get lost, or to overlook some mundane detail that you missed, thereby barring progress in the game. But this is really pretty quibbling since a majority of players will enjoy exploring this world to its full extent.
The game looks as good as it plays, using SNES hardware effectively in almost every instance. The places you go are interesting, though arguably less iconic than Illusion of Gaia’s locales, and the sprite sizes are not as large, but the critiques end there! Colorful and chock full of detail, the visuals do an excellent job of bringing the world to life. The world maps are a joy to behold, with great Mode 7 effects that make you “feel” underground in the underworld and traveling on a globe when on the surface. Fog and sandstorms showcase the system’s transparency effects. The art assets also nail the multicultural experience that Quintet was intent on delivering. A Buddhist monastery and a Christian Church are all represented with exquisite detail, and every region and part of the quest feels distinct.
Then you have the music. Listening to Terranigma is akin to a feast of the auditory senses, and it stands toe-to-toe with the Squaresoft heavyweights. Every piece fits the moment, making this one of the 16 bit era’s most cohesive efforts. My personal favorites include the quiet serenity of Evergreen and the Underworld map theme that imparts a sense of the journey ahead. You would not feel the same way about the emotional moments without this score.
In the end, everything in life comes full circle. This is true for Terranigma, and for the trilogy of games as a whole. With Soul Blazer they took their first tentative steps into the Action/RPG arena with a proof of concept. Illusion of Gaia showed that they could tell a story and evolve said concept. And with Terranigma they combined and evolved these concepts into a perfect state. It will cost around 60 dollars to play Terranigma on your NTSC SNES, but if you have any interest whatsoever in ARPGs, DO IT!!!!!!
This game is a Triumph.
Five out of Five Stars