I haven’t played an RPG in quite a long time and I’m glad I chose this one to ease back into the genre. One of the things I like most about the majority of 8 and 16-bit console games is that I can usually complete them fairly quickly and then move on to something else before things get too stale. This is not so much the case with a lot of traditional RPG titles which emphasize constant slow-paced menu-driven battles. Thankfully, 1995’s Terranigma is a breezy action RPG that only took me about 19 hours to complete at a fairly leisurely pace. The combat is stimulating and the game doesn’t spread itself too thin or take up fifty hours of your life just because it can. I really appreciate that.
Also known as Tenchi Sōzō (“The Creation of Heaven and Earth”) in Japan, Terranigma is the third game in a loose trilogy of Super Nintendo action RPGs from developer Quintet which also includes 1992’s Soul Blazer and 1994’s Illusion of Gaia. Though these three games don’t share any specific characters or plot points, they do include many of the same gameplay elements and narrative themes.
Terranigma had the misfortune to release just as publisher Enix was closing down its North American operations, which makes it one of the relatively few Super Nintendo games to see official release in Japan, Europe, and Australia, but not over here. It’s a damn shame. This game is a triumph and deserves more than the dubious honor (along with Seiken Densetsu 3) of being remembered as one of the North American SNES’s fabled “lost” RPGs. Luckily, it’s easy these days to track down a ROM file (or a reproduction cartridge, if you’re an unrepentant physical media snob) and experience this gem for yourself.
In Terranigma, you play as a mischievous teenage boy named Ark (or not, as you can change his default name to whatever you like) who lives in the peaceful village of Crysta, along with his adorable purple-haired love interest, Elle. Life is pretty peaceful until one fateful day when Ark breaks his way into a forbidden room in the village elder’s house and discovers a literal Pandora’s Box that he (of course) promptly opens. This causes everyone in the village to be frozen in place by a magic spell of some kind except for the elder, who tells Ark he must leave the village to seek out five mysterious towers and conquer their various challenges in order to restore the cursed villagers to life. Things escalate quickly as Ark soon discovers the shocking truth that the subterranean Crysta appears to be the last surviving human settlement following some sort of cataclysm which laid waste to the surface of the planet. Each of the five eldritch towers he visits causes one of the planet’s sunken continents to be restored to its former place. These revived continents turn out to be very familiar indeed: Eurasia, North America, South America, Africa, and Australia! Ark soon finds himself in the surface world, where he must serve as the catalyst for the resurrection of life and human civilization as he journeys far and wide across this devastated Earth.
Right away it’s clear you can’t accuse Terranigma of having a stock JRPG plot. There’s no evil empire to fight and there isn’t even anything resembling a true villain on the scene until well past hour twelve. Ark’s quest is a slow burn driven by the player’s own desire to piece together enigmatic events and is really more about the journey and the plethora of memorable people and places you’ll encounter along the way than the purposefully nebulous destination. It’s very similar to Dragon Quest VII in this sense, although it wisely avoids that game’s glacial pace and extensive backtracking. Ark is also not the standard “silent protagonist” you’ll find in RPGs from this era and his wisecracking, devil-may-care attitude adds a lot to the game’s charm. As a whole, Terranigma’s story is completely delightful and I won’t be spoiling it here. If you’re in the mood for a complex, unorthodox narrative laden with challenging themes and a blend of sparkling humor and touching warmth, Terranigma is for you.
The gameplay also doesn’t disappoint, as this game features some of the most nuanced and well thought-out combat mechanics seen in an action RPG of its generation. Ark can walk and run in eight directions, unleash five different attacks with his weapon (a spear), block projectiles, and, most crucially, jump. While the variety of distinct attacks available is uncommon enough, the ability to jump is what really sets Terranigma’s combat apart from Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past’s, Secret of Mana’s, and even Quintet’s own earlier efforts like Illusion of Gaia. You’ll also unlock additional movement options like swimming and cliff scaling through the acquisition of key items during the course of the game. These are mainly useful for exploration and don’t impact the combat. Overall, fighting enemies in Terranigma feels faster, more dynamic, and generally more fun than it does in most other games of this kind.
Being an RPG, there’s also the requisite magic system. Regrettably, I can’t say I cared much for it. Terranigma’s magic is effective, no doubt, and the various spell animations look and sound awesome. The main issue I had is you simply don’t need any of it! The game is set up in such a manner that just beating down everything in your way with your weapons is both quicker and more enjoyable. Here’s a basic rundown: You find crystals called “magirocks” scattered throughout the game world. They work sort of like bottles for holding the spells of your choice until you decide to use them. You need to go to a magic shop, pay money to have them filled with magic, and then bring them back for recharging as they’re used. See the issue here? You can either trek back to the magic store over and over to spend money refilling your magirocks or you can just…not, since beating on the bad guys with your weapon is both more efficient and more exciting. Ultimately, I can forgive Terranigma for this rather lackluster system. Balancing the magic in an action RPG does seem to be one of the trickier aspects of the design process, after all. Look no further than Square’s Secret of Mana, where the most effective combat strategy involves repeatedly pausing the game to select attack magic from the menu over and over again until whatever you’re fighting explodes. Not exactly the pinnacle of great action gameplay. It’s far better for the magic in a game like this to be unnecessary than overpowering.
Terranigma’s final distinctive gameplay element is a bit of a distant callback to Quintet’s own ActRaiser: Town building. Doing sidequests for villagers will actually alter the game world by facilitating technological advancement and international trade. Villages can become towns and towns cities. While it’s a fairly minor aspect of the game in that it won’t alter the main storyline or ending, it’s still a lot of fun to see the results of your actions and choices take such a tangible form on the world map.
When it comes to presentation, Terranigma is practically unrivalled on the system. Sprites are larger and animations smoother than they were in most earlier action RPGs, the backgrounds are lushly detailed, and the cinematic cut scenes accompanying the gradual resurrection of the world are some of the most elaborate and beautiful ever executed on a console up to that time. The breathtaking score belongs in the pantheon of all-time 16-bit greats like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI. It really is that good. The compositions are soulful and inspired, with some of the most effective use of musical leitmotif I’ve had the pleasure to experience.
There are a couple flaws worth mentioning, too. As I alluded to earlier, Terranigma is a pretty easy game. This might sound like a plus to some players, but I really do think the enemies could have been made just a bit tougher, as it would have bolstered the game’s underwhelming magic system by rendering it a tad more needful. It also seems the game’s best levels were concentrated in its first half, with later dungeons feeling markedly less detailed and innovative.
These are all trivial gripes, however. Terranigma is a resounding masterpiece and a must-play title. Quintet’s games always had great artwork and music paired with rock solid gameplay. That’s not why I think they’re remembered, though. No, I think it’s because Quintet was never afraid to introduce big ideas into their games in small, relatable ways. Death, rebirth, religion, the nature of good and evil, the paradoxical fragility and resilience of life, the dangers of greed and pride: Quintet didn’t just lecture us about these things, they actually showed us different aspects of them through meetings with unforgettable characters and then left us to draw our own conclusions. They didn’t hold back, yet still somehow managed to do so with restraint. They gave their audience credit at a time when games were widely considered mere child’s play.
Nothing illustrates this better than Terranigma’s absolutely heartrending ending. I wouldn’t dream of spoiling it here. I will say it’s the most pitch-perfect bittersweet coda I’ve ever experienced in a game. I actually shed a tear or two and no game has made me do that before in my 3.5 decades of play. It’s easily my favorite game ending ever.
This is why Quintet’s body of work will never be forgotten.