Ranking the top 101 Nintendo games: No. 31, Terranigma
I am going to be thinking about this game for a long, long time.
I’m ranking the top 101 Nintendo developed/published games of all-time, and you can read about the thought process behind game eligibility and list construction here. You can keep up with the rankings so far through this link.
My love for Quintet’s Super Nintendo output is no secret. Maybe you aren’t aware of how much I enjoy those games, but that’s just because we haven’t gotten to that point of discussion yet: speak with me or read me long enough and we’ll get there. ActRaiser blew me away decades ago, and it’s still an excellent play in 2021. ActRaiser 2 is missing the civilization-building elements of the first game, but expanded upon the quality platforming segments by making them the only thing you did. Soul Blazer, published by Enix like the two ActRaiser titles, is one of the better action RPGs on the SNES. Robotrek is Quintet’s attempt at a Pokémon or Dragon Quest Monsters-type battle system where your protagonist isn’t the combatant but is the party leader, except it predates both of them.
Enix was not the only company that Quintet had a relationship with during the SNES era, even if they were the favorite. Nintendo also stepped in, like when they published the game that kicked off this entire ranking project back at number 101, Illusion of Gaia. Nintendo would publish one other Quintet project, and that’s the best game the developer ever produced: Terranigma.
You might not be familiar with Terranigma like you are ActRaiser or Illusion of Gaia or even Soul Blazer, unless you happen to be reading this from a PAL region, or are extremely into the import (or emulation) scenes. It never got an official release in North America, so how did it make its way to this list when the game was published by Enix in Japan, like Quintet’s other titles? Nintendo was responsible for localizing and publishing it for the PAL region, which means that, even though there are no North American releases, there is one in English, courtesy Nintendo of Europe. That’s good enough for our purposes.
Terranigma’s lack of a North American release was due to timing, mostly. While it released in Japan in October of 1995, it didn’t see the light of day in PAL regions until December of 1996: the Nintendo 64 was already a few months old in North America by this time, but it wouldn’t release in Europe or Australia until the following March. Owners of Nintendo consoles in those locales still needed something to play while they waited for the next generation, so, Terranigma had room on the schedule there. Enix had actually worked on a separate localization for North America, but their offices there closed before that could be released. Still, considering that the game was in English in a finished form (among other PAL languages) and good to go other than its actual cartridge production, Nintendo of America could have made it happen even with Enix’s western closure. They didn’t, though, so let’s just add that to the list of reasons that most of Nintendo of America’s history involves them being an enemy of the people.
In Terranigma, you are meant to resurrect the world. That’s no small task, and it is no small game. You play as Ark, who is maybe good at heart but is also kind of a mischievous jerk until his journey teaches him a bit about things like “consequences,” on his mission to revive a dead Earth. Ark will raise the Earth’s continents — sunk along with all life thanks to the eternal battle between the forces of light and dark — from below the oceans once more by climbing towers in the strange world he inhabits, and then he’ll step foot on these continents that no living thing has touched for untold ages. The Earth, in Ark’s world, is an exponential number of billions of years older than the one we inhabit, and this cycle of death and rebirth is not new to it.
After reaching the Earth and the continents, Ark must revive plant life, animals, and eventually, humanity itself. They’re all asleep, their souls held captive by monsters that dominate the entirety of Earth in this period in which it also sleeps. Killing monsters frees the souls of plant life, of animals, of humanity, and allows them to re-inhabit their less-demonic counterparts. Ark has the ability to speak with plants and animals to guide him on his quest until humanity is revived, at which point Ark can only speak with people. Things go pretty well in Ark’s journey when it’s just plants and animals out there, but that’s because their souls aren’t as easily corrupted as those of man.
Terranigma focuses on birth, on evolution, on death, on rebirth. Quintet was known for trying to put much heavier topics into their games than was typical for the genres they worked within, and Terranigma is the most extreme example of that — I highly recommend reading Peter Tiaryas at Kotaku on Terranigma’s blending of narrative elements and its complicated take on the Hero’s Journey, though, you will be very much spoiled on the story’s details if you do. (If you don’t want full narrative spoilers, you can simply be spoiled on the goat that made Tiaryas cry instead.) While Illusion of Gaia was obsessed with the concept of time, Terranigma focuses on evolution and a changing world, as well as the ever-present battles between good and evil and how they work themselves into the direction of that world.
The game also serves as something of a coda to Quintet’s entire SNES catalog: Terranigma is an action RPG, which is the genre the developer spent the most time in. It is part of the “Soul” trilogy of games, along with Soul Blazer and Illusion of Gaia, that did its best to make you think about the nature of the violence you inflict and its consequences on both micro and macro scales. It also features some civilization-building elements, like ActRaiser, as, once humanity arrives on Earth once more, Ark’s actions determine just how they, their cities, and their technology will evolve.
Because of these additional elements, Terranigma can take you anywhere from about 12 hours to 30. If you don’t care about the world-building stuff and you just want to spear every monster to death on your way to fully reviving the world and protecting it from some of the same threats that doomed it countless millenia ago, then you can! If you care about the direction of humanity itself a bit more, and want to fully explore Earth — and I really do mean Earth when I say that, as Ark first arrives in this world in South America, revives all of the world’s birds in Colorado, brings the rest of the animals back to the world with a trip to Africa, meets with Tibetan monks to get a sense of the state of humanity, etc. — then you can spend about twice as long here making it happen.
I say the game is about birth and rebirth and death and evolution, but the message at the heart of it, the real soul of the game, if you’ll excuse the pun, is about leaving the world a better place than how you found it. Even if it won’t personally benefit you, even if you won’t be there to enjoy the fruits of it, it is incumbent upon you to act with this idea in mind, for the sake of all of those who could benefit, who will be there. Is there a more relatable idea out there in 2021, in a world we’re seeing devastated by climate catastrophe, by a ruling class with a terminal case of short-term, fuck-you-got-mine, laying waste to the world we’re supposed to share and pass on, than what Terranigma proposes? It’s not just relatable, but vital to our own survival, as it was for Ark’s fictional Earth.
Ark begins the game not really knowing why he has to revive the world, other than that he was told to do so by someone he trusts. Eventually, through his understanding of the inner workings of the world, of the beings that inhabit it — be they plant or animal or human — Ark comes to realize that he, like everyone and everything else, is simply a steward of Earth. It is his role to preserve and maintain the planet while he is here, so that Earth itself will still be there for others in the future. There is a cost to that sort of thinking and that ideal, yes, a giving away of one’s own potential happiness or well-being, perhaps, but the cost is worth it, is the point. The alternative is succumbing to the zombification of the masses that one of the game’s antagonists eventually threatens humanity with, and if you think that zombification here is one of those instances where it’s serving as a metaphor for the way those with and in power treat the masses, you are correct. Shocker: the zombification guy is also the one most obsessed with efficiency and scientific progress at any cost, because of the power both could grant him and those most like him.
The battle between light and dark and Terranigma is seemingly endless, but it doesn’t have to be. The birth and death and rebirth of the world means all of the souls inhabiting the version of the world you play in have experienced life before, and yes, that includes Ark and his allies and the few human enemies he makes along the way. Despite this, destiny can be rejected, the battle finally concluded: the story of Terranigma tells us as much, makes it a central component of its messaging and story, even. All it takes is the will to do so, the understanding of what’s right, the ability to put the world ahead of yourself. That’s no small thing, but again, this is no small game.
The story and the setting and the themes are all wonderfully done, the peak of Quintet’s considerable narrative and thematic powers, but the gameplay is also excellent. Combat is simple enough, in terms of actually doing it: Ark can stab with his spear with a single button press, but combination attacks also exist that allow you to take down certain foes either faster or at all. A running thrust, a vertical spin attack, and so on: all you need to do is press two buttons at once, sometimes a direction, sometimes another cross button, and you’re good to go. Avoid getting hit, strike when you can, and you’ll be golden for the most part when it comes to combat. You get all of the tools you need for the game at the start of it: from there, it’s just upgrading your weapons and armors, and occasionally buying or finding some items or spells that’ll help you progress further.
Spells are consumed like any other item, though, the resource you use to buy spells is renewable: you can hold as many spells at a time as you have of this resource, and using a spell replenishes your supply of this currency. You find this resource out in the world through exploration and curiosity, so if you want to have spells to go with your spear, make sure you stray from the path as often as you can.
You won’t really catch yourself grinding in battle to level up: so long as you take the time to explore, to backtrack where necessary, and you don’t skip out on fighting enemies, you’ll be good. You’ll start to feel it if you rush through the combat portions of the game, because the bosses have ridiculous defenses that will require the best possible weapons and stats to penetrate.
Terranigma feels good to play both in your hand and in your head. It’s such a smooth action RPG experience, clearly developed by those who have learned some things about that style of play over the years, as Quintet had, and narratively, thematically, there is no stronger entry in their catalog. It’s got a great art style that is so clearly at home on the SNES, and I’d put the soundtrack up against almost anything on the system, too. For my money, it’s the best action RPG on a console loaded with them: the combat, sound, pacing, and story make it exceptionally playable in 2021, and the themes have sure kept it relevant into this year as well, as the continents start to sink into the ocean for real.
I didn’t just play Terranigma one time to see if and where it would rank on this list. I played it once (after figuring out how to get the PAL version to work on my SNES Classic — the internet can help you here if you want to play it that way), knew it had to be included somewhere on the list, and then played it again months later just to be sure, which resulted in me moving it up the rankings even more to where you find it today. The notes I took on this game look like Charlie’s conspiracy theory wall from It’s Always Sunny, with notes on top of notes and written both vertically and horizontally, wherever I could find space on the page to detail something else it made me think or feel. It’s just so layered, so packed full of meaning and purpose. It’s a thing of beauty, in both conception and execution, and I can’t wait until I can play it again.
I’m going to be thinking about Terranigma for a long time, whether it’s how it sounds, how it feels, how it makes me feel. And what else is there, really, with what we’re doing here, but to have a game imprint on you like that, to carry it with you ever after? There’s life yet in these old systems, even if you think you’ve experienced everything worth experiencing on them: Terranigma stands as proof of that for me, and it should be that way for you, too.
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