A reading from the book of Quintet, on the creation of heaven and earth

terranigma logo

Terranigma (1996)

I’ve decided to stir up a bit of controversy this time, so I’d like to talk to you about going to church. I’d be lying if I said I have a season ticket to the church these days. After all, just like a football season ticket, it’ll cost you a ruddy fortune – that collection basket gets handed around twice during a mass, sometimes thrice if it’s a particularly juicy service and a load of people died the previous weekend.

It’s all part of the privilege of being in God’s house. But why does God get to have so many houses and I don’t have any? It was that sort of thing that sealed it for me, you know. I didn’t want to accept second-best in this religious deal, especially when second place meant I’d be an eternally suffering Christian, whereas first prize was Godhood. Why go to hell when I could keep my eyes on first prize?

You can play a bit of God in Terranigma for the Super Nintendo, and if lording it over other people is what you’re into, then finally we have here a great 90s game that came out in Europe but never made it over to the States. Obviously they can hit us back with Chrono Trigger, Super Mario RPG, Xenogears, Harvest Moon 64… but one has to take the little victories.

This is another game from that obscure old crowd Quintet, who were also responsible for some other strong, underrated games in the SNES lineup: ActRaiser, Soul Blazer and Illusion of Time. Terranigma’s meant to be the best of them all; it’s a text-heavy, story intensive game, and the story is actually one of its strongest points even if the translation is Quintet’s customary shocking standard.

Therefore, suffering through the game in Japanese isn’t a great option. You could try it of course, but you might find it a bit like that time I accidentally attended a mass in Latin. I still loathed myself and my soul still needed cleansing, but now I didn’t even understand why.

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, although it’s all printed upside-down.

Terranigma’s protagonist, Ark (bit of a bible reference there, see if you can spot it) is a top-notch protagonist as well. A cheeky and laidback lad, full of back chat and mischief, but not a bad guy. They don’t bottle out by making him a silent protagonist – he comes out with some genuinely funny stuff and he’s the single driving force behind the game’s grandiose plot the whole way through.

Ark is told to leave his home village for the first time and visit the underworld’s five towers, destroying monsters in order to resurrect the overworld’s continents. When the continents are resurrected, Ark must leave the underworld via a portal, 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.

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. It’s 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.

The plot is 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 in games are quite secondary to the gameplay. You don’t want to make the same mistake Red Dead Redemption 2 made, after all.

This game’s an Action RPG, with a little bit of development from the Illusion of Time system. Playing through the game and attacking whatever monsters you see will see you through to the end just fine – the game never becomes grindy. One level-up can make a very big difference though, so if you find yourself getting battered, then try that. On the whole, the game’s difficulty can be up-and-down, but that’s fine.

And the game’s got an enjoyable combat system too. It’s not just swing your weapon and get results, Ark uses his spear (conspicuously not a sword) in a variety of ways: jabs, jump attacks, slide attacks, he can dish out spear strikes like communion bread. The combat is fun and you can mix it up a bit, which keeps things interesting.

There’s also a magic system in the game, although it’s wholly unnecessary to the game, it cannot be used against most bosses and to be honest, you’ll almost forget the magic spells were there to help you – I know I did.

In undertaking your grand quest of resurrection, you’ll 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 need not expect to see clever dungeon-crawling and smart puzzles, but you’ll have a great time fighting 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 a classic Final Fantasy / Dragon Quest style overworld with many little nooks and crannies to explore, as well as many real world locations. It’s based on our own world map, and the continents all look the part; you’ll find bigger cities over at China and the US, a large castle in Spain, forests in Australia, breweries in Ireland et cetera.

Quintet’s games don’t often suffer from lack of graphical care, with the exception of The Granstream Saga’s infamous lack of faces on the characters, I suppose. Terranigma is absolutely no exception anyway: the areas are large, and some, particularly Evergreen and the Guiana mountains, are lush and well-detailed. Even a walk around Crysta, the game’s opening area that you’ll leave behind for almost the entire game, serves up a great big bowl of eyecandy.

Terranigma more than holds its own against the luxuriant graphics of Squaresoft’s Final Fantasy 6, Chrono Trigger and Trials of Mana – 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 only a few palette swaps, which is always a bonus. Ark himself looks great, with a very expressive spriteset.

The music is another tour de force. Game developers these days can call upon an entire orchestra to compose the soundtrack for their game if they need to, but back then, the composers had to get around the limitations of the SNES sound chip. 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.

The dialogue is genuinely funny and full of soul, and that usually holds true whether the lines are 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 except the humans, as they begin to consume the planet. Ark is no longer able to talk to birds, plants or animals. It’s a sad but poignant moment in the game, and it makes the player reflect on Ark’s relationships with the creatures he’s resurrected, as soppy as it sounds.

Terranigma’s patchy localisation really does hurt it a bit though, if we’re going to look at things more seriously. After all, it’s no use me talking at length about the strength of the story, if the game wraps itself up in knots trying to convey it. The translation is bloody dreadful and unfortunately it can get distracting. It’s just one of those things, but it shouldn’t spoil your experience with the game.

I’m always on the lookout for outstanding or even just very good SNES games that I haven’t played yet, a testament to how much I love the Super Nintendo. This wasn’t the last SNES game of note, but for me it’s the perfect swansong, that last very high note of the 16-bit era, before this sensational console was allowed to go in peace.

18 September 2020

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