Terranigma (SNES) review
"Sometimes, being too ambitious for one's own good is the difference between being good and great."
In a lot of ways, it probably would have been better for those of us living in North America if the development team at Quintet had saved Terranigma for the next generation of consoles rather than forcing it onto the Super Famicom. First, there are the obvious reasons: even if Nintendo of America were willing to overlook the extremely blatant religious context, it was already gearing up for the Nintendo 64 in late 1995, and publisher Enix had by that time ceased operations in the region altogether. Those events ensured the game a place in history as an anomaly, a title published in Japan, Europe and Australia, but not in the United States.
Perhaps more importantly, at least as far as my own enjoyment went, Terranigma was executed on too grand a scale for the aging SNES. This left players with a game that was amazing in concept but unevenly executed. A 16-bit system could do a lot of things, but creating an epic tale of the creation of Earth mixed with the sort of deep philosophy Quintet was fond of placing in their SNES titles was a bit much. That's particularly true since the Japanese-to-English translation necessitated trimming a fair amount of dialogue, just to fit the game on a single cartridge. To truly understand how things eventually got off track, though, we should probably start, oh, I don't know...
IN THE BEGINNING…
…there was a boy named Ark who lived in a mystical underworld town called Crysta. Unfortunately for Ark, he is a mischievous lad and the game opens as he tampers with a strange box he found behind a door he was forbidden to open. This causes almost everyone he knows, including his "sort-of-girlfriend" Elle, to be frozen. The only person unaffected by this powerful curse, the village elder, instructs Ark to lift it by exploring a number of towers scattered throughout the underworld.
This is just the first chapter of the game. The five towers, though similar in appearance, are fun little dungeons and do a great job of easing the player into the adventure. As with Quintet's other two SNES action-RPGs (Soul Blazer and Illusion of Gaia), combat is handled in a manner similar to any good Zelda clone, with Ark being able to move around rooms while attacking enemies at the press of a button. You'll explore these towers, killing monsters to gain levels and finding treasure chests and Magirocks, which are needed in order to use the various magical rings that can be purchased in towns.
After you complete a tower, a hint of something much bigger appears. Each one is essentially a control panel that affects the surface world, causing the creation of Earth's continents. Clear all five towers and a portal to the surface appears. Ark doesn't have much time to celebrate his friends and Elle being released from their curse, because he now is expected to travel through the portal and bring life to the fledgling planet.
Thus commences the second chapter, wherein you'll clear dungeons with the goal of creating plant life, birds, mammals and humans. Throughout all of this, it's hard to find any major complaints. At times, it feels like you might need to grind a few levels to make a certain boss fight or two easier to handle, but in a game with fun, action-oriented combat, that's not really a big deal.
I wish I could say the same about the annoyances that pop up in the third chapter, which also happens to be the game's longest. Once the world has been created and stocked with all sorts of life forms, it's up to Ark to travel the planet and advance its civilization towards some mysterious goal. That effort starts promisingly, as you'll go through a lengthy, zombie-filled village almost as soon as the chapter begins, but after that fun intro, things get very uneven.
With humans now populating the planet, it's not long before Ark finds himself involved in a thrown-together plot revolving around a princess with the same name and appearance as Elle, where allies and foes who are barely given enough characterization to appear one-dimensional randomly pop up and act in ways solely designed to keep the plot moving. With superior writing, this attempt at storytelling might have worked, but here it feels like a transparent means to an end.
After you endure a lot of stuff that does little more than set up this plot, things get back on track as Ark explores a massive haunted castle, which is perhaps the game's best dungeon… at least until you meet its boss. Bloody Mary is one of the most infuriating encounters I've ever dealt with in an action-RPG, for multiple reasons. She has amazing defense, for starters, which means you'll have to spend a long, long time whittling down her health a couple points at a time while avoiding her devastating attacks. Even if you decide to spend time grinding a few levels, it seemingly takes forever for your strength to reach a point where your attacks cause enough damage to add up to a good chance at winning. But never fear -- there's an easy way around this. As long as you've been gathering those Magirocks, you can simply buy a bunch of magic rings in town and whittle her health down much more quickly with spells. I guess she wasn't that horrible after all! Well… except for the minor fact that you probably won't even know this is an option, since Bloody Mary is the ONLY boss you can fight with magic, and the game doesn't really do much (if anything) to inform you of the fact.
This leads to a portion of the game that presents one mess after another. There's an optional mini-game that involves you essentially running fetch quest after fetch quest for people in order to create industry that will allow towns to grow into prosperous cities. One dungeon delivers a horrid stealth segment, where you must dodge around flashlight-wielding guards who spin randomly. As you gain access to the entire world thanks to receiving a boat and (eventually) an airplane, you'll realize there are areas containing Magirocks, items and equipment scattered all over the place. You'll have to scour the planet for them, which often requires you to walk over nearly every tile since nothing on the world map tells you which spaces hide ruins. Even more irksome is the fact that a few of these locations contain items necessary to advance further in the game. Honestly, getting through this chapter becomes quite the chore at times.
But if a gamer can endure this tedium, the final parts of the game do provide some degree of redemption. They're not perfect -- as I've said before, the Super Famicom simply didn't have the memory to properly expound upon some of Terranigma's deep concepts -- but it's not hard to get into a plot twist where all of Ark's hard work leads to a conclusion he was definitely not expecting, forcing him to work to correct things, leading to a beautifully bittersweet and melancholy ending. While the journey may not always have been pleasant, the final destination still made it worth my time.
Terranigma's uneven highs and lows make properly rating the game a tricky exercise. It gets off to a great start, and it boasts an ambitious concept and a conclusion that felt like the perfect way to end an epic journey. On the other hand, things really fall apart in the middle, which is dominated by fetch quests, tedious exploration, and some hastily-written and thin narrative. All things considered, this is a good game that's worth playing, but there likely will be moments where you'll be annoyed to the point you wonder if that's actually true...
Staff review by Rob Hamilton (February 21, 2015)
Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.
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