Still falls the rain – dark as the world of man
“The following is a contributor post by the Regional Exclusive Mage.”
Looking back on the Super Nintendo, one fascinating aspect of its library was that some major RPG releases were never brought to a global audience. Final Fantasy III was not released here in Europe until the PS1 era, Chrono Trigger didn’t reach this side of the world until the Nintendo DS version and Super Mario RPG is still Virtual Console and SNES Classic exclusive over on these shores. There were a few instances, however, where a strange reversal of fates took place: one of the more memorable ones being Terranigma.
This is, for those who aren’t aware, the third game in a loose trilogy of Super Nintendo games beginning with Soul Blazer and continuing with Illusion of Time (aka Illusion of Gaia – apologies but for the duration of this piece I’ll be referring to it by its PAL-region title) but the final act was strangely denied to an American audience. For gamers in Europe and Australia this was a rare treat, but it’s hard not to see it as a disservice to our friends in the States who missed out on this game.
Way back in the mid-nineties, the Nintendo 64 was riding the waves of public interest when a small selection of excellent Super Nintendo games sneaked under everybody’s radar and onto the shelves. What was not apparent at the time was that these would turn out to be some of those late-in-the-life-cycle games that really helped the console to shine: a glorious last-hurrah for Nintendo’s little grey box before the era of 32- and 64-bit machines. One company who took the opportunity to flex their creative wings for one last time on the SNES was Quintet, whose knack for storytelling had improved dramatically from game to game. Since their own ActRaiser had been one of the first games released on the format, it seems only fitting that one of the last major SNES releases allowed them to show what they had learnt, and so we arrive at their magnum-opus, Terranigma.
So, what is it? Well, this game doesn’t stray too far from what made Soul Blazer and Illusion of Time so playable: they are top-down action adventures in the Legend of Zelda vein with your playable character visiting varied locales, meeting interesting characters and generally becoming the hero who saves the world. Terranigma claimed a slice of Super Nintendo shelf-space of its own on this side of the planet by presenting to us an epic journey, a maturely designed plot, an antagonist who was interesting, and that overall feeling that you were participating in something bigger than just another game, something important. As such it’s a shame that US gamers didn’t have the chance to try it because it is an absolute diamond of the genre that is well worth seeking out.
What is initially striking about Terranigma is the design. Whilst Illusion of Time’s visuals were big, bold and clear in their approach, Terranigma took the basic framework of what its predecessor achieved, pulled the camera back out a little – just enough – and gave it all a good splash of that distinctly mid-nineties SNES polish. As a result, this game is stunning to look at: every new village, cave, castle and everything afterwards seems as though it has been designed once, then placed under an ‘anime-esque’ filter to give it all a uniquely Eastern and somewhat mystical feel.
The opening village of Crysta, for instance, is a joy to behold: the houses themselves look standard enough but the eyes are drawn towards tiny bubbles of colour floating through the air above the residents and their houses. A subtle touch, but one that draws the player instantly in to the world Terranigma inhabits. Additionally, there are one or two rooms that, just like the courtroom in Chrono Trigger, really stand out as quite striking for what was possible on the Super Nintendo hardware, giving a cool “Wow” moment when they arrive.
What this presents to us is a game that has a nineties anime vibe through and through. The game’s protagonist, Ark, is a spiky-red-haired rapscallion who wields a staff, wears baggy trousers and whose every move seems influenced by action sequences in Eastern animation. Even his walk-cycle seems to be designed with the brief: “make him look cool!” Attacks are smooth and stylish with Ark’s combo attack becoming a blur of swift strikes and his dash attack forming a curve of light ahead of him to strike the enemies down.
Unfortunately, this focus on the main character does seemingly try to disguise the fact that the NPCs have not had quite the same amount of care put into them. Some character walk-cycles seem stunted by comparison, where others stand around completely statue-like in their unblinking wait for Ark to acknowledge their presence. Whilst slightly irritating, this is not a major issue due to Ark being the primary focus on screen at most times. Not a game-killer but I feel that with another bit of polish the NPCs could have been given a dash more personality in their appearance to match the quality of their dialogue.
Right from the very beginning it is obvious that this game is going to take the player on a grand quest. Presented with the title screen depicting Ark standing astride a Stonehenge-like monument, gazing at a large crystal, his cloak billowing around him, as the main theme begins. With a solitary piano-synth it’s initially quite haunting in the way that a Final Fantasy intro is which sets the tone perfectly for what is about to come. Other instruments soon join in to create a what sounds like a glorious battle-march that screams the phrase “epic journey” quite blatantly through the Super Nintendo’s sound chip.
As derivative as that might make it seem, this sets the bar unnaturally high for the rest of the soundtrack, which is perfectly functional and, in some places, certainly hummable. However, there’s nothing quite as stand-out as the map music. The underworld map theme echoes gently to give off a sense of light claustrophobia as you explore the cavernous realm below, whilst the overworld map has a soundtrack that feels… empty, isolated, lonely. These tracks certainly help to enhance the mood of the world created and are certainly worth hearing as part of the overall experience.
Gameplay is broken up into the typical RPG framework: go to a village, find a problem, go to a monster-lair, fight a boss, solve the problem. However, Terranigma brings much more to the table. What is particularly impressive is that Ark’s combat move-set seems heavily inspired by that same anime styling mentioned earlier. With his staff, Ark can perform simple strike attacks, lethal dash-attacks, the rather striking X-block and a repertoire of other neat tricks. With this super-cool array of skills, Ark progresses through a standard levelling system gaining in strength, vitality and the usual fare along the way. Nothing too deep in terms of character customisation, just the higher the level the harder you hit. In honesty, that’s all that’s needed. There are magical attacks too, although without the MP system typical to the genre: Ark collects items known as Magirocks which can be made into magical items and spells. It’s not an easy system to get your head around as the game doesn’t explain it as clearly as it could, but with a little experimentation the spells can complement Ark’s physical attacks smoothly and in style.
There is light puzzle-solving present in each of the game’s dungeon-stages, though nothing that would keep a player up all night pondering over a solution. Mostly it involves going to specific places, finding specific items or pushing buttons in a specific order. There are, however, optional side-quests that are seemingly inspired by Quintet’s own ActRaiser to help certain civilisations grow. When certain criteria are met, the player is informed of the growth of the village in question. It’s a very interesting and exciting proposition to see the development of the towns Ark has saved, but sadly it seems like an under-used mechanic as it does not seem to have any long-term benefit other than advancing side-stories and witnessing how some of the secondary characters’ stories develop. This does give the game a little more openness with a little brain-work required on the player’s part, and it should certainly be recognised for its attempt.
The game itself takes a similar approach to narrative as Soul Blazer and ActRaiser: the hero must resurrect the world and all of its inhabitants. However, this time there’s a much more intricately designed purpose to events. The world of Terranigma is presented as a hollowed-out sphere, with the surface world on the outer shell and the underworld on the inner side. The surface world is barren and lifeless, whereas our hero Ark lives in the singular village of Crysta in the underworld. A unique enough idea to begin with, that shows a powerful divide between light and dark sides, with a beautiful use of the Super Nintendo’s trademark Mode-7 technology on the respective world-maps.
Together with a father-figure in the village elder and next-door to his love-interest Elle, Ark lives a seemingly content life in Crysta until he chooses to open a forbidden door in the elder’s house. This brings him into possession of a magical box (utilised as a walk-in inventory) and a pink winged creature known as Yomi who accompanies him on his journey. Unfortunately, opening the box has the effect of freezing all the villagers except for Ark and the Elder. Here begins Ark’s quest to bring back his friends and, whilst doing so, resurrect the surface world.
This opening chapter eases the player into the game mechanics gently with a mysterious figure known as The Guardian curating the journey through five subterranean towers that function as the game’s tutorial stages. Once these are completed the Elder informs Ark that his destiny is to travel to the surface world, resurrecting all forms of life on the planet. Upon reaching this second chapter, the game really presents itself as the grand adventure it promised to be.
To tell much more about the story would be unfair to those who have yet to experience it, but one aspect worth noting is the character of Beruga. I’m moderately sure it’s not too much of a spoiler to say that Beruga is one of Terranigma’s main antagonists, but I genuinely feel that the build-up to his introduction, the way in which he presents himself, and his eventual downfall are some of the finest character-writing of the SNES era. This was a villain whose ambition and madness were closely linked and who accomplished his maniacal goals so easily. To a region denied Final Fantasy III, this guy was the closest thing we got to Kefka! Oh, and in addition, the plot does take some very unexpected twists and turns: some of which I can safely assume very few will see coming in advance!
As Ark travels the world bringing life to the birds, the animals and eventually the humans, it’s clear that the game’s Japanese title – literally translated to mean ‘The Creation of Heaven and Earth’ – means a lot more than was first apparent. That title is so grandiose that only a game of epic proportion could hope to live up to it. The European title, Terranigma, only becomes as apparent later in the story. To say that it is an ‘Earth puzzle’ is only half of the story but one that is perfectly appropriate. The inner and outer worlds of Terranigma are representative of light and dark, God and the Devil, and this is a major plot-point late on in the game’s overall narrative. Whilst this is taking place, Ark himself is sent as a form of messianic figure to resurrect life that was previously abundant but had been sealed away. This is, of course, typical fare for anyone who has played Quintet’s other games: it’s the same general premise. What Terranigma does to devastating effect is force the player to think about cause and effect, and how Ark’s actions affect not just those around him but the direction of humanity’s morality and – dare I say – evolution.
In one example: Ark is about to resurrect humans to the surface world when he stumbles into a cave alongside two mountain goats: one alive, one killed by the resulting fall. The surviving goat explains to Ark that the dead goat was her husband and that they should eat him to stay alive. Ark is initially disgusted by this, yet the goat explains that it is the cycle of life and death and that nature must take its course. This is just one instance where the writing truly stands out to craft a memorable scene: much like the raft section of Illusion of Time, I doubt anyone who has played Terranigma will forget the fate of the mountain goats.
Terranigma is certainly not the most difficult game, nor does it involve an awful lot of strategy, In fact, the only times you might get stuck in this game is if Ark’s character-level is too low. In which case, a jaunt to the nearest monster-inhabited area for a little level-grinding will be a huge amount of help. This, thankfully, is much simpler than in a game such as Secret of Mana where you must select specific weapons or spells to level them up. In Terranigma, all is takes is a little enemy-bashing and you should be back on the road in no time.
That is, until you reach the one main difficulty-spike in the game. Around half-way through the third chapter, Ark will enter Sylvain Castle to meet one of the toughest bosses in the game: Bloody Mary. She hits hard and takes very little damage. Many people on internet forums will claim bragging rights by saying she is easy to beat. She is not. In fact, even after severely over-levelling and exploiting her elemental weakness, I still found her tough. Thankfully, there are plenty of areas suited to level-grinding just prior to meeting her, which I would recommend taking full advantage of. This boss is a real progress-killer for a lot of people who played Terranigma, so be warned about her going into it. Afterwards most of the game is smooth-sailing, especially when you’ve power-levelled to beat the one unreasonably tough boss.
As a game itself, Terranigma is the culmination of everything Quintet tried to accomplish over the course of their SNES output. Some would argue that Illusion of Time is a more complete experience, whereas I myself would usually gravitate more towards Terranigma’s side of the argument. Either way, the setting and the journey land it somewhere part-way between Secret of Evermore and Chrono Trigger in terms of overall tone and presentation, and I mean that in a very positive way. To deliver a globe-spanning tale of resurrecting life and the responsibility that would come from doing so, I would say that Quintet have created a unique entry into the SNES canon that can stand alongside the giants of its genre.
Mechanically, less so. The controls are excellent and the combat fluid, if a little perplexing at first with the Magirocks. But overall, this is a game that plays a lot of things very safely. There is no real desire to innovate here but what the game does, it does extremely solidly without any need to drown the player in mechanics they will probably never use. This, of course, places the emphasis squarely on the story which, thankfully, is where it should be. This is a tale that deserves to be told.
There are several theories as to why this game was never released in the States: Enix’s American branch folded, or the religious undertones of the plotline were deemed too risky in a pre-Xenogears video game. Similarly, it has become quite a rare and expensive game over here too, with many gamers unable to play it due to the high price it currently commands and the lack of a remake or remaster. Whatever the reason, it’s certainly worth looking into if the opportunity arises.
My Personal Grade: 9/10
Terranigma is a solid Super Nintendo action-RPG that seamlessly blends a fun top-down Zelda-style adventure with a deep and complex plotline. The world it creates is one that deserves exploration and the more the player puts into it, with regards to engagement with the plot and the development of the villages and towns, the more they will get out of it. If you’re expecting another A Link To The Past, this probably won’t quite reach those dizzy heights, but if you enjoyed Soul Blazer or Illusion of Time, there is a lot to love about the closing chapter of the trilogy.
Aggregated score: 8.0
The Regional Exclusive Mage is an avid video-game collector and literature enthusiast. When he isn’t educating the younger generation, he can be found sharing a wealth of obscure gaming knowledge as TeacherBloke85 on Twitter.
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Categories: Game Review