Who doesn’t love the Super Nintendo Entertainment System? Its excellent library of games cannot even be counted on all fingers and toes: that ever-present plumber alone crops up with Super Mario World, Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island, Super Mario Kart and Super Mario All-Stars. Other top notch SNES showings include The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Super Metroid, and Rareware’s Donkey Kong Country trilogy. RPGs your thing? Take a look then at Chrono Trigger, EarthBound, Secret of Mana, Final Fantasy 4 and 6 (and a fan-translated 5), even Mario shows up again in Super Mario RPG. And all of this is even before we get onto the Capcom and Konami showings.
Those games are must-haves of the SNES, with many of them made by development powerhouses (in this case Nintendo, Rareware, Squaresoft, Capcom and Konami). Of course, with almost 800 official SNES releases in PAL regions and the US, there was bound to be a few lesser known games, even by the well-known developers. You might have played Capcom’s Street Fighter II Turbo: Hyper Fighting and Mega Man X, but have you played U.N. Squadron? Probably Konami’s best known SNES outings are Super Castlevania IV and Contra III: The Alien Wars (Super Probotector: Alien Rebels in EU), but have you ever given underrated platformer Sparkster a shot? There are probably dozens of games on this beast of a console just waiting for you and I to fall in love with, so far-reaching is the console’s appeal and the genres of games created for it.
Who are Quintet? They are a heavily obscure Japanese video game developer who were active in making games during the 1990s. Or should I say “were” a video game developer? For even that bastion of knowledge Wikipedia states “the current status of Quintet is unclear”. This sounds like a pity, as Quintet were responsible for the development of four heavily underrated and loosely connected games for the SNES: ActRaiser, Soul Blazer, Illusion of Gaia (Illusion of Time in EU) and Terranigma, all later published by Enix (now part of Square Enix). The latter three of these games have the strongest connection with each other, and are sometimes called the Blazer or Gaia Trilogy, but ActRaiser itself created some Quintet trademarks and signature darker themes that were further established in the latter three games. Now brace yourself for this history, it’s difficult to keep it all brief.
In ActRaiser you play as a deity who first eliminates monsters from areas in an uninhabitable world before building towns, making it part-sidescroller and part simulator. It’s a fun and quirky game, but not particularly compelling. Challenging though. It’s probably the game that has been played the most out of the four, though it didn’t feature many particularly dark moments. What it did feature, however, is the idea of creation and/or resurrection of life and the earth, which would become a common premise in the three latter games. I speculate that ActRaiser had more of Enix’s input than the other three, hence its presence as a downloadable item on the Wii’s Virtual Console service, with the other three conspicuously absent.
Soul Blazer came next, featuring a lesser-deity named Blazer who was tasked with defeating monsters and fighting through dungeons in order to restore villages and citizens, who had been made to disappear by the villain. This was really where the resurrection of life design started gaining speed. By the game’s end, more mature themes of seduction, sacrifice and greed are explored, along with a Quintet-esque emotional ending. Soul Blazer was released in all regions, but was a little more obscure than ActRaiser, especially in Europe, where the only English PAL release is the incredibly rare Swedish SCN version.
Following that, we had Illusion of Gaia/Time, in a period when many people were still clamouring for a game that could rival A Link to the Past. Illusion did not do this, unfortunately, nor could you say it came particularly close, but it did have some interesting and unique ideas and is worth a play. It is a fairly straightforward action-adventure game where the protagonist, Will, travels around many real world locations with friends. As their exploration is aided by a sometimes haunting and always atmospheric soundtrack, it is reminiscent of a Saturday morning cartoon in its plot. Or it would be, if deaths and other depressive themes weren’t so frequent. It appears often on lists of underrated or underground games on the SNES. Zelda it ain’t, and its story does get a little hogtied by Quintet’s typically Engrish localisation, but it’s not bad, and the strongest of the three games mentioned so far.
And now, after all that build-up, we finally arrive at Terranigma. And speaking of lists of underrated SNES games or ‘The Best SNES Games You Never Played’ etc., this fella appears time and time again. If it’s supposed to be that good, why have so many people not even played it? There is actually a variety of reasons: most famously, Terranigma did not receive a US release, something that was quite rare – usually, of course, it was the other way around, with Europe being deprived. The real reason for this non-release is officially unknown but it’s usually proposed that it was because publishers Enix had closed their US subsidiary offices by the time Terranigma was translated into English and ready for release. In fact, Europe received Terranigma as late as December 1996 – the Nintendo 64 had been out in the United States since September of that year, and it would arrive in Europe in March 1997, showing just how late in the SNES’s lifespan that the game finally made its appearance.
Having already established that Quintet and even Enix specialised in the obscure, we can see that releasing a lesser publicised game to a limited audience on a console that was just about finished really doomed Terranigma to the shadows. Consequently, Terranigma had a limited print run in Europe and Australia, making it not just next to unknown but difficult to obtain as well. One more nail in its coffin – it’s a text-heavy, story intensive game, and the game’s tale is actually one of its strongest points. Therefore, suffering through the game in Japanese etc. is not a great option.
You must also remember that, in conjunction with the already short supply of PAL EU copies, many of them were localised and released in Spain, France and Germany as well. This only makes a PAL UK version with that hallowed English text that much more uncommon and desirable, and something to look out for when purchasing a real copy of the game. The Australian version doesn’t carry this danger of course, they’re obviously all English, but it requires people who want the real thing to look just a bit harder and be surer. English versions aren’t so rare that there isn’t almost always one or more on eBay at any given time (unlike that PAL English text Soul Blazer) but expect to pay some corn to secure it. Other, cheaper copies of the game look similar but are usually the Deutsch version. The internet has increased its exposure, years too late of course, and when something’s not just rare but becoming increasingly sought after, that’s when the collectors develop their migraines.
All of these factors put Terranigma in chains from the start, ensuring that even SNES enthusiasts like myself would not have played it on release, or indeed until years later. ROMs and Emulators may attract some bad press but we can’t doubt them as wonderful tools for discovering older games that may have passed us by. When hunting for SNES ROMs of games that I hadn’t heard of, the name Terranigma had popped up an awful lot, with various dorks online advertising it as being next to God Himself in terms of video gaming and artistry. Well! High praise indeed, which always has me sceptical. I gave the game a whirl and was not immediately stupefied. I got stuck early on and dismissed the game. That was until I saw a complete copy of the game being sold for a good price, but still not inexpensive. What better way to ensure you give a game a proper chance than by paying a relatively princely sum for it? People online were talking the talk about this game being able to compete with all those brilliant games I mentioned early on. Could it really walk the walk alongside grand adventures like A Link to the Past and Chrono Trigger? Or would it be another near miss like Illusion of Time?
Do you like story in your games? I do, even if the vast majority of them actually fall in on themselves, or don’t have the characters to carry the narrative, or the whole story is terrorised by poor scriptwriting or voice-acting. In fact, unless you have absolutely no problem suspending your disbelief (which you shouldn’t if you’re playing video games, let’s be honest) then one could argue that there’s only a handful of games out there that boast anything near to a gripping story. Some Legend of Zelda titles just about make it. The Metal Gear series can be thrown off course by ridiculous elements but at least has a wide cast of engaging characters and some convincing dialogue. Final Fantasy titles can be hit (VI in particular, and IX) or miss (VIII, which suffers a spectacular collapse midway through).
It would be a travesty for me to spoil Terranigma’s story, so a summary of the game’s objectives would be better. The game takes place on a version of Earth which on the surface looks exactly like our own. The interior of this earth is actually hollow, meaning that there are two faces to this Earth, the overworld and the underworld. Life does exist on this underworld, the inside of the Earth’s sphere, but only in the confines of a small, idyllic village named Crysta.
The game’s protagonist, Ark, lives in Crysta alongside the village Elder and several friends. These friends include Ark’s oldest companion, the bubblegum pink-haired, kind-hearted Elle. Despite being away from Elle for much of the game, there is a heartening semblance of a love story between the two, which is an achievement considering how ham-fisted love stories in games can be (see Final Fantasy VIII again).
Ark himself is a marvellous protagonist as well. A cheeky and laidback lad, full of back chat and mischief, but not a bad guy. Silent protagonists like Crono, Link and for the most part Samus were en vogue at the time, but Ark not only comes out with some genuinely funny stuff but is the single driving force behind the game’s grandiose plot the whole way through. Games like A Link to the Past certainly don’t suffer by not having a hero who speaks, but if you’re going to include a single central character who talks, you’d better get the character right. Ark moulds into a strong and likeable hero, most unlike, say, the obnoxious non-entity from Secret of Evermore.
The story begins with Ark in deep trouble for causing damage to works at the weavers’ house, for which he is forced to apologise by the Elder. On his return he is goaded by fellow villagers into breaking down a door which the Elder had decreed must never be opened. Beyond the door Ark finds and opens Pandora’s Box, releasing a playful spirit named Yomi, who serves as Ark’s helper throughout the game.
Opening the box also sets off a massive chain reaction which destroys all life on the earth’s overworld, sinks the continents under the sea and freezes all of Crysta’s villagers, bar the Elder. To unfreeze his friends, Ark is told to leave Crysta for the first time and visit the underworld’s five towers, destroying monsters in order to unfreeze Elle and his friends and resurrect the overworld’s continents. When the continents are resurrected, Ark must leave the underworld and journey to the overworld in order to bring back the plant life, the birds, the animals, the human beings and finally the genius who will bring the world forward. You needn’t worry about there being nobody to talk to until Ark resurrects the humans, as he’s a regular Dr. Dolittle, able to talk to any living thing. It’s a divine pleasure to be playing through the game and receiving assistance from the creatures you’ve given life to, even if sometimes some of them don’t meet a great end (the mountain goat being the most disconcerting example).
This kind of interaction really adds to the story and makes it more unique, as all throughout you can see the little effects that Ark’s actions has on the world that he alone sculpts. Later in the game, when it comes time to resurrect the humans and the genius, you can see the negative impact that these have on the world, and the conflict in the plot begins. Once the humans come into the story, a few strange supporting characters are sort of clumsily foisted onto Ark, and he’s almost forced to interact with them. That’s not to say that once the humans populate the world that the game or the plot takes a nosedive but the secondary characters might have been written a little better.
Some game stories suffer from not having a villain who makes their malevolent presence felt throughout much of the game. Or worse, has a villain crowbarred in at last orders. Terranigma’s final boss is a bit out of nowhere, or at least initially appears to be, but the chilling preamble to the fight and the game’s emotional ending are unforgettable. It is more Ark’s story than the story of the world, even if the game’s title, Terra + Enigma, or mystery of the Earth, suggests otherwise. When the time comes that Ark has resurrected everything, and then finds that he is now surplus to requirements, you are playing on to see what resolution is in store for him. True to Quintet’s style, the game holds nothing back.
It is one of the deepest and most emotionally charged stories I have ever played in a game, so much so that the ending played on my mind for days, even weeks. Almost worth playing for alone, although understandably not everyone would be prepared to suffer a game on the chance that it has even an excellent story. As it is now, and as it always will be, stories are quite secondary to the gameplay.
One thing that can’t escape comment, or indeed criticism, is the game’s translation. Previous Quintet games, particularly Illusion of Time, are riddled with all sorts of spelling mistakes, grammar clangers and awkward sentences. Terranigma’s translation probably doesn’t descend into the murky depths that Illusion’s does but it is fairly dire stuff and elements of the story can get lost through it, particularly at the end. The translation might require two playthroughs of the game, or at least of the final chapter (for comparison’s sake, it’s easier to follow than Final Fantasy VII’s). Terranigma’s starts off poor and in the latter half of the game you can almost see the localisation team really going out of their minds. Considering it took over a year to bring this from Japan to English speaking audiences, you do have to wonder just how much these guys were slacking off. Seeing random punctuation marks and missing commas occur in the middle of dialogue intended to be serious is a bit jarring, but I do think it adds a little charm to things anyway. What kind of high level workmanship do you really want from the 16-bit era anyway? Professionalism! Bah!
This game is an Action RPG, with a little bit of development from the Illusion of Time system. In that game, you engaged all enemies in real time in a combat system similar to Zelda. Defeating all monsters in an area granted you a health, attack or defence upgrade, and that was the only bit of stat building present. In Terranigma, it’s a little more RPG-like, whereby defeating enemies gives you experience points. Get enough of them and you level up, increasing your health, attack, defence and luck (used for occasional critical hints, twice as strong as regular attacks). So if RPGs make your eyes glaze over, you needn’t worry. After all, doesn’t Zelda feature ways of increasing your maximum health, attack strength and defensive capabilities as well?
Terranigma does require you to keep an eye on your level, but the stats are easy to keep up with. It’s even less stat-intensive and RPG-like than Secret of Mana, which is a fairly simple lark to understand. Playing through the game and attacking whatever monsters you see will see you through to the end just fine – the game never becomes too grindy. One thing to note however is how much difference a level-up can make. Ark at level 24 might deal only 1 damage per attack, whereas bringing him up to level 25 could let him do 20-30 damage in one blow. It’s often the case where, if you’re having trouble with enemies or a boss, one level-up swings things heavily in your favour. For that reason the game can be too easy, or sometimes too hard. The challenge is not always well-poised, but it does require and reward strategic combat and asks that you manoeuvre Ark well. The difficulty swings can be a small bit disorienting but you’ll be fine, so long as you don’t make a point of ignoring enemies. And anyway, there’s always a few hotspots for a quick grind if necessary.
And really you won’t be ignoring enemies much, thanks to the game’s enjoyable combat system. Illusion of Time had a ‘swing your weapon and get results’ system just like A Link to the Past’s, which is absolutely fine and deliciously simple. But to get stat boosts you had to hunt down and defeat every enemy around, otherwise you’d be fried by the bosses. With only one attack and limited other moves, Illusion’s system therefore became a little forced and tedious. Terranigma averts this by having the classic Action RPG trope of attacking common enemies only when you want to, to receive experience points and money all the time. And rather than having one simple move, Ark uses his spear (conspicuously not a sword) in a variety of ways: he can use a simple jab as his basic attack, or with repeated presses of the button initiate an attack where he peppers the enemy with a succession of quick jabs. If Ark is running, he can jump through the air, spear-tip extended, and attack an enemy, hopefully also getting behind them.
When Ark jumps in the air he can do two moves: if he is not moving in a direction while jumping he can somersault and swing his spear around in a defensive circle motion. If Ark does a running jump and attacks, he will descend on the enemy with the spear and then follow up with an evasive slide. Finally, pressing and holding the R button performs the X-Guard, useful for defending against projectiles. The combat is fun and you can mix it up a bit, which keeps things interesting. The way I see it, if you’re going to force the player into engaging enemies to grow stronger, then at least take pains to make it a fun job. That’s where turn-based RPGs can be a bit of a chore to get through, especially those ones that are grindy even with frequent random encounters. Even my precious Secret of Mana with its slower battle system doesn’t match up to Terranigma’s frenetic pace. So far, so good.
Defeating enemies also gives you money (Gems), which can be used to buy better spears and protective clothes. Again this is nothing too difficult to keep on top of, just make sure to seek out any shops you can whenever you reach a new area. Money is seldom a problem in the game either, so it’s usually just a formality that you’ll quickly undergo whenever there’s better gear for sale. Also buyable are items to restore your Hit Points when you’re near to death, and other items that can cure any status ailments you have, like poisoning. It’s simple gameplay, straightforward and not too far a stretch from the comfort zone of Zelda. Action RPGs happen to be among my favourite genres anyway, which isn’t much use for impartiality, but at least I can say that Terranigma is a great gateway into Action RPGs in particular and Role Playing Games in general.
In undertaking your grand quest of resurrection, you will visit several dungeons, infested with monsters, and usually ruled by a big bad boss. These dungeons can contain small puzzles, but nothing very Zelda-esque. You can also find a small number of key items throughout your adventure. Indeed, there’s a part early-to-midway through the game, when you are in the dungeon of Grecliff and finding your possible paths limited. Somewhere inside Grecliff you find an item that allows you to climb walls, which lets you delve further into the dungeon. It’s probably insignificant but it was the real zenith of the game for me: Terranigma certainly does its own thing, and it does it well, but it really felt like Zelda at that moment. For a glorious short while, it felt to me like it had succeeded where Illusion of Time didn’t. You need not expect to see clever dungeon-crawling and smart puzzles but you will fight your way to the end of several unique areas, often to challenge an imposing boss, which is the next best thing.
Outside of dungeons, the overworld is not one big traversable landmass but rather you will move Ark around the world map as a sprite, before actually entering large areas from the overworld – the same system as the SNES Final Fantasys. There are many little nooks and crannies in the world to explore, as well as many real world locations. These locations aren’t actually modelled after things you could see in real life, but the continents all look the part; you’ll find bigger cities over at China and the US equivalents, a large castle in Spain, forests in Australia etc. On the subject of cities, once you resurrect humans you can visit some in various towns and assist them with their troubles. Doing so in the correct way will lead to the expansion of those towns into cities. It’s a neat thing, which I didn’t explore fully on my first time through the game, it being completely optional. They are a little bit fetch-quest heavy by nature but it’s an interesting diversion and at least emphasises further Ark’s impact on the world. In truth, an involving sidequest like this is a welcome distraction, as without the need for hefty grinding and to a player that knows what they’re doing, Terranigma is not a marathon of an adventure.
Towards the end of the game, when every part of the overworld is open to you, it can be difficult to find out where to go next. Up to that point you could always tell where to go because there was only one real way you could travel that wasn’t backwards, which in turn points to the games linearity, if that’s a problem for you. One of Ark’s final tasks is to go and fetch five items from all around the world, which is next to impossible without clues; clues do exist within the dialogue, but sometimes the relevant person to speak to could be anywhere in the world, potentially constituting a lot of travel time, and sometimes their dialogue is so vague or weakly translated that you’re left running in circles. With the internet and game walkthroughs on tap this isn’t so much of a problem for the player, but it’s worth pointing out that this game won’t hold your hand at all, and you’ll be backtracking some in Terranigma. Even A Link to the Past tells you a bit more, although if we’re being reasonable, Super Metroid tells you even less, and that game’s world is just as vast. Just be aware that much of the NPC dialogue is irrelevant, though often pretty fun, if only for the wild non-sequiturs that some of these mad people come out with.
Quintet’s games don’t often suffer from lack of graphical care (with the exception of their later effort The Granstream Saga’s infamous lack of faces on the characters) and Terranigma is absolutely no exception. After all, EU gamers had already seen what the Nintendo 64 could do, and most were being wooed by Super Mario 64 and other 3D launch titles – just one more barrier to Terranigma’s commercial success. The areas are large, and some, particularly Evergreen and mountains like Guiana, are lush and well-detailed. The graphics have superb touches: even a walk around Crysta, the game’s first area and left behind for almost the entire game, serves up a great big bowl of eyecandy. Some areas do reuse earlier designs and tile-sets, sometimes more than once with dungeons, which is a bit lazy. There is one area that looks absolutely identical to another, for story reasons. It might be a little off-putting, but none of the graphics themselves are sloppily made, and the result is a fine looking game. And that’s in comparison to the luxuriant graphics of Squaresoft’s Final Fantasy 6, Chrono Trigger and Seiken Densetsu 3. This game more than holds its own – it deserves to be heralded as one of the most gorgeous games of the 16-bit generation.
The sprites all look tremendous too, with a wide range of monsters and scarce few palette swaps, which is always a bonus. Ark himself has a very expressive spriteset, with all of his attacking moves animating well, plus others like walking, running, running faster, eating, idle animations and swimming. Ark’s face after being toasted is always funny. Other characters don’t have quite the same range and standard of animation as Ark’s but they all look unique and do move well, and this is including not just humans and savage monsters but lions, birds, goats and flowers as well. The graphics are extravagant enough that they help convince players of the story and immerse them into it, which is exceptional.
MUSIC AND SOUND
Another tour de force. Game makers these days can call upon an entire orchestra to compose the soundtrack for their game if they need to, or if not that then do all sorts of other tricks themselves and have the space, technology and instrumentation to do it with. Despite the capabilities of the SNES sound chip, there were still surely many limitations to get round, which calls upon the composers’ creativity in making songs that sounded nice and that were appropriate for that particular part of the game. The 16-bit was a wonderful era for music in video games, where the composers weren’t limited to the beeps and boops and nasty static of the NES, nor were they afforded far greater possibilities by CDs and their storage brought into use by the PlayStation. Good-old fashioned creativity and wit were called upon to make Terranigma’s soundtrack one of the very best on the SNES, which is saying something, considering its competition in the form of the Donkey Kong Country trilogy, EarthBound, Chrono Trigger, Secret of Mana, Starwing and F-Zero. Some of the very best include the themes of both the Underworld and Overworld, Yomi’s theme, Crysta, Evergreen, the Bird Sanctuary, the Mountain theme, the Boss Battle theme and the Laboratory. It’s scintillating stuff that covers a wide range of instruments, ambiences and moods.
The sound-effects are nice enough. Each letter of dialogue makes a little sound as it’s printed onscreen, which is a little annoying, but at least the noise’s tone changes depend on how deep the voice of the person speaking is. One horridly annoying sound in the game that I’ve simply got to mention is the little chime that repeatedly plays when Ark is low on health. I swear, I thought Zelda’s shrill beeping was bad enough, but this one is mutilating. Not enough for me to seriously badmouth the game, but enough to make you desperately want to heal your wounds as quickly as possible. Not many monsters make sounds as you strike them, which is a shame, but your spear sounds satisfying, especially when striking the enemies multiple times. Other sound-effects like falling into water, falling from a height and running and stopping are all present and do the business.
PLUSES AND MINUSES
+ Terranigma and its protagonist don’t take things too seriously all the time but still the game delivers an emotional story that is certain to make an impact. It’s probably the best game story I’ve ever played, once the poorly translated dialogue is combed through. Better than Metal Gear Solid and Mother 3, the latter having a fairly overrated story but being similar in scope with light-heartedness buffered by depressing and tragic themes. Despite my constant comparisons of Terranigma with Zelda, the whole experience is unlike anything I’ve ever played.
+ The dialogue is actually funny and soulful, often true whether the dialogue is translated well or poorly. You’ll enjoy Ark forging friendships with plants, birds, animals and humans alike, even if the human characters are a bit weird. After a point in the game, Ark leaves behind everything but the humans, as they begin to consume all. It is a sad but poignant moment in the game, which makes the player reflect on Ark’s relationships with the creatures, soppy as it sounds.
+ The combat system is fun and variable, and never boring. There’s even a magic system in the game that allows you to perform magic spells in return for special rings, purchased with items called Magirock (if you find yourself wondering why you’re picking up these Magirock things all over the place, that’s the reason why). The reason I haven’t even mentioned the magic spells previously is that they are wholly unnecessary to the game and can’t even be used against most bosses, yet they’re always there if you need them against regular enemies, pointing to the combat’s depth. You’d almost forget they were there to help you – I did!
+ The monsters you go up against have a wide range of looks, and as mentioned previously, palette swaps aren’t all that common. The bosses are even better again; usually large yet still detailed sprites that animate well and have a variety of different attacks and routines. Just like in Zelda, the boss battles are great spectacles and add a lot to the game, chiefly because they are done really well.
– The game’s patchy localisation really does hurt it a bit, if we’re going to look at things more seriously. After all, it’s no use talking at length about the strength of the story if the game wraps itself up in knots trying to convey it, especially when everything else in the game tends to range from above-average to top-notch. The translation is standard Quintet fare (that is, bloody dreadful) and unfortunately can be distracting. It’s just one of those things, but it shouldn’t spoil your experience with the game.
I am always on the lookout for outstanding or even just very good SNES games that I have not yet played, a testament to how much I love the console. With Terranigma, I doubted its abilities heavily at first, but upon going through it with a mind wide open I found it to be one of those games I wished I’d had as a kid, and also one of those games I wish I could develop amnesia for and play through again. In any case, the game is worthy of a few subsequent playthroughs to refresh one’s self and re-immerse one back into its captivating world.
It’s got something strong for everyone: if you want a hard-hitting story, it’s there (yet again, just dented a little by that translation). A fun combat system, check. Fabulous music and sound, and fantastic graphics, absolutely. Some challenge? It does, but more in the adventuring side than the combat side –having access to a walkthrough mightn’t be a bad idea. I do have a love for the obscure, as many do about their chosen hobby. Terranigma fits that bill of obscurity well. This is a shame in itself, because this game, while not quite hitting the high notes of A Link to the Past, is one of the strongest games the Super Nintendo Entertainment System has to offer – a perfect swansong. Further, this game is one of the best gaming experiences I have ever had. Although I do dislike that obstinate term “They don’t make ‘em like this anymore”, it could have written for this gem.