GameSpite Journal 10 | Terranigma

Terranigma | Dev.: Quintet | Pub: Nintendo | Genre: Action RPG | Release: Dec. 1996 (EU)

I might be mistaken, but does this sound in any way familiar? Nintendo slowly starts phasing a succesful piece of hardware out of the market. Games grow fewer and fewer, and suddenly the support seems to dry up, although there are still a few really good Japanese RPGs just begging to be localized. And while American fans are still waiting for a release, European gamers get lucky for once: A high-profile title is localized and only released across the pond while American gamers miss out. But wait! I’m not talking about Xenoblade, The Last Story, or Pandora’s Tower. I’m talking about Terranigma, the final Super NES game made by the Quintet, the team behind ActRaiser, Soul Blazer and Illusion of Gaia. An impressive line-up, yet Terranigma is probably the best of the bunch.

Back then, though, there was no huge outcry, no campaigning for a release, and certainly nothing comparable to Operation: Rainfall -- although Terranigma would certainly have more than deserved it. But back in December of 1996, most players were simply done with the Super NES. Many, if not most of them, already had shiny new PlayStations or Saturns under their TV sets, considered bitmap graphics boring and old-fashioned and preferred awkwardly stumbling though blocky, flickery polygon worlds to experiencing one of the best and most beautiful action-adventures ever made.

That is, to put it mildly, a real pity. Believe me, I’m speaking from personal experience. While my friends were hacking and slaying through the brownish, bug-ridden world of Nosgoth in Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain on the PlayStation and trying to convince themselves that the videos of Crazy Ivan were a step forward for video games in general, I savored every minute of Terranigma’s delicous gameplay; loved the colorful, detailed graphics; enjoyed the fantastic score; and often found myself surprised at the actual depth of the story.

Terranigma captivates the player from the first minute. You begin, normally enough, by exploring your quaint little hometown. You enjoy the responsive controls of main character Ark and are lulled into a nice sense of false security by the beautiful colors and the soothing music. But suddenly, everything goes wrong. You open a literal Pandora’s Box and your home and all its inhabitants freeze. The only way to help them is to visit five mysterious towers, solve their riddles, and defeat their masters. So far, so good and familiar. But when first leaving the village, you suddenly notice that there’s no sky above your head. Ark has spent his whole life in the underworld; apart from the village, there are only rocks, streams of magma and weird, crystalline structures. So what happened to the world?

After conquering the first tower, you learn more: You don’t just unfreeze some of the villagers, you also discover that you raised one of the continents of the outside world back to the surface of the sea. From there on, your course is set: You raise continent after continent and finally travel to the still-dead and hostile world. This is where the adventure really starts: You fight to bring back plants, animals, and finally humans. You help them develop their culture and prosper. You come across horrifying relics of a past civilization, and, ultimately experience one of the most fascinating and powerful plot twists in videogame history.

And there it is again. Like many Quintet games before it, Terranigma is more about creation than about destruction, the last proof being the game’s Japanese title: Tenchi Sōzō, officially translated as The Creation of Heaven and Earth. Needless to say, Terranigma spins a powerful yarn, raises a few ambiguous questions, and tells many smaller stories that often leave a slightly bitter aftertaste. It’s not only the culmination of Quintet’s earlier work gameplay-wise but also in terms of plot and storytelling. Where Terranigma’s indirect predecessor, the equally fascinating Illusion of Gaia, was often criticized for its extreme linearity, Terranigma embraces a more open structure. The game has far fewer points of no return. You can often travel back to previously visited locations and see the results of your earlier actions and the changes you caused.

Hero Ark is developed by a classical experience level system combined with a nice assortment of equipment you can buy, trade, or find. Hit monsters to grow stronger, equip new spears to hit harder, and put on new armor to grow more resilient. As already mentioned, Ark’s weapon of choice is a spear, which is a nice contrast to all the sword-wielding heroes out there and also feels quite nice gameplay-wise. Ark has a varied arsenal of attacks at his disposal, although most of them pale in comparison to a move that might be called his “running slicer”. This is a quick and extremely powerful skill -- so powerful, in fact, that it’s the maneuver that will get you safely through most of the game. A little more balance in favor of Ark’s other attacks would have been welcome. Many of them look flashy and feel nice when you pull them off, but why bother when the slicer takes care of almost every sort of enemy?

There is another downside: The magic system is a bit of a drag, and few people, myself included, fully understood it in their first playthrough. Again and again, you find magirocks which can be charged with certain spells if you pay the price. These can be used once. What the game doesn’t explain: After using a spell, the magirock reverts back to its original form and can be charged up again. While this is better than being completely expendable, it’s still cumbersome and not really intuitive. On the other hand, it is no problem finishing the game without ever using magic. I’m just not sure if this is an advantage or a letdown.

Still, these are minor complaints and hardly taint the overall experience of Terranigma. It’s really a shame it was never released in the U.S., was never ported to GameBoy Advance, and (so far) never made its way to the Virtual Console: Although Terranigma had relatively little exposure due to its limited and late release, it stands toe to toe with the great latter-day SNES-adventures like Seiken Densetsu 3, Tales of Phantasia or even Chrono Trigger. Too bad Quintet was never able to pull of a worthy follow-up; after the forgettable Granstream Saga on PlayStation and the mysterious Solo Crisis on Saturn, Quintet slowly faded from existence. But while Quintet may be gone, their best games will certainly not be forgotten: ActRaiser and the loosely connected trilogy of Soul Blazer, Illusion of Gaia, and Terranigma fascinate today just as much as they did in the ’90s.

By Thomas Nickel? | May 12, 2012 | Previous: Street Fighter Alpha 2 | Next: RPGs and Europe?