The Super Nintendo is no pushover when it comes to the RPG genre; taking the Super Famicom into consideration, the console’s roster of RPGs rises even more both in quantity and quality. RPGs more or less defined the SNES, and it’s hard to pair any other console with a singular genre. This is not to say that the Super Nintendo lacked in other titles (far from it), but its RPGs were more than often on another tier entirely. Chrono Trigger is still considered one of the greatest games of all time, blending fantastic gameplay with a meaningful narrative; Secret of Mana is remembered fondly for its charming atmosphere and unique take on the action RPG format; Final Fantasy VI broke defined narrative conventions to push the genre further. And while it lacks the same legacy as the aforementioned games, Terranigma deserves mention in any discussion regarding the Super Nintendo’s roster of games.
The last game Quintet developed for the Super Nintendo, Terranigma released in the fall of 1995 in Japan, followed by a PAL region release in the winter of 1996. Selling rather poorly due to the Nintendo 64’s looming presence, Quintet’s SNES run ended on a rather quiet note. In some respects, Terranigma can be compared directly to Chrono Trigger, a JRPG that released a year earlier and lacked a full worldwide release, but that game managed to miss the threat of the Nintendo 64’s presence while cementing its status as one of the most influential games to release on the SNES.
Alas, Terranigma was not destined to share the same fate. The dissolution of Enix America Corporation, which had served to localize Quintet’s SNES titles in the United States, also meant that Terranigma never saw a U.S. release. With all this stacked against the game, it’s no wonder that Terranigma fell under the radar of great SNES RPGs. As of 2004, Quintet has gone silent and likely defunct, but Terranigma nevertheless remains a testament to the talent the studio was working with.
Even if Quintet was not able to find the success it needed to stay afloat, and even if their best games more or less faded into the background — simply pieces of the Super Nintendo’s greater library — that doesn’t change how meaningful, beautiful, and well crafted Terranigma is. From its gameplay to its story to its level design, Terranigma is everything an end-of-life SNES RPG should have been, and more. It has more combat depth than any other action RPG on the console, a story so thoughtfully written that it puts modern gaming narratives to shame, and creative dungeon design that rivals that of A Link to the Past. Terranigma is the full package that barely anybody played.
What’s particularly interesting about Terranigma is just how aware it is of its genre conventions, presenting a deceptively simple RPG that eventually turns the world it has seemingly presented on its head. To be fair, this is a trait Terranigma shares with both Soul Blazer and Illusion of Gaia — its sister games also developed by Quintet — but it takes the premise one step further than either RPG, fully committing to darker and more mature moments with a considerable amount of tact. At its core, Terranigma is a lonely game, one that carefully examines the cycle of life and death. Like many RPGs, it all begins in a small hometown.
Unlike many RPGs, however, players are greeted to a horrifying sight once they leave protagonist Ark’s home of Crysta. Instead of walking out into a lush field of greenery begging to be explored, Ark’s world is desolate, dark, and filled with bodies of lava instead of water. The overworld is more of an underworld — a perverse subversion of what players would naturally expect when exiting a town. There are similarities between Ark’s underworld and, say, Final Fantasy VI’s World of Ruin, but Terranigma’s land is outright apocalyptic, with virtually no life outside of Ark’s village.
The impact of this setting is made all the greater by the fact that Ark’s village is, for all intents and purpose, an average JRPG hometown. Ark is almost generically rebellious, has a love interest who seems to exist solely to benefit his character, and listens to a much older grandfather figure who offers him guidance; in fact, most NPCs feature whimsy dialogue that showcase just how sheltered Crysta is. Leaving Crysta for the first time is a genuinely shocking moment that flips the script completely. Terranigma is anything but atypical, and Crysta exists solely to mislead the player.
Quite blatantly in hindsight, too. Shortly after the game begins, Ark inadvertently opens Pandora’s Box, freezing everyone in Crysta save for himself and the Elder. What follows is Ark traveling to the underworld’s five towers in order to not only restore life back to Crysta, but to also seemingly resurrect a dead world. As the player has intimate knowledge of Crysta but not the other world Ark is resurrecting, said resurrection naturally takes a back seat to Ark’s main motivation of saving Crysta.
It doesn’t take much to realize that Ark will eventually visit the world he’s resurrecting, but the underworld segment intentionally hides something from the player — after the final tower is cleared, Ark will not be able to return to Crysta. The first chapter is easily the shortest in the game, but it’s also the one chapter that plays out the most like a typical RPG. Ark’s relationship with his love interest, Elle, is meaningfully developed, while a clear quest with guidelines is given to the player, and the story moves at a natural pace, clearly presenting the next step. When Ark leaves the underworld at the end of Chapter 1, it comes as a genuine surprise. All familiar ties are severed, and an already lonely world is made all the lonelier.
Although the first chapter gives players access to more or less their entire skill set, it isn’t until Ark leaves the underworld that the combat and dungeon design truly begin to shine. The towers themselves feature plenty of puzzles and enemies, but they’re still very much tutorial-esque. They serve to teach the player, not challenge the player; as a result, it’s easy to get the impression that Terranigma doesn’t offer much of a challenge early on. Once Ark reaches the overworld, however, and players are left to fend for themselves, the entire experience changes. Enemies are more aggressive, puzzle solutions are more inconspicuous, and the comparatively massive overworld begs for deep, detailed exploration.
With enemies targeting Ark more often, his natural move set ends up getting greater use. Fighting with a staff, Ark’s basic attack has him stabbing towards enemies, but by briefly button-pausing between stabs, Ark can carefully move while attacking as well. Should a player start spamming the attack button, however, Ark will lunge into a flurry of jabs that, when properly positioned, can do an incredible amount of damage towards enemies at a frantically fast pace.
Ark can also jump and run, both of which fundamentally change how Ark attacks. By simply jumping while walking, Ark will leap into a spin attack that can reliably knock enemies back while doing fair damage. Running, however, is where Ark shines most. By dashing into a jab, Ark will leap forward with his staff, smashing through whatever is in his way. By running, jumping, and attacking, Ark can also dropkick his enemies; should a player attack immediately after the kick lands, Ark will then transition into his forward attack, chaining two useful attacks together.
Of all of Ark’s abilities, his block will naturally get the least amount of use throughout the game; since Ark is so mobile, an adept player will simply be able to dodge damage. That said, the block does play a crucial role (especially in the final boss where it’s downright necessary for survival) in deflecting certain projectiles, and decreasing the amount of damage that Ark takes. While there’s not much players can do to make blocking as fluid as attacking, it can be used strategically and intelligently.
Outside of his natural abilities, Ark can also use magic through the Magirock system. By trading Magirocks to magician shopkeepers, Ark can purchase rings and pins that augment his natural abilities. The Fire Ring allows Ark to blast out a burst of flame, the Elec Ring delivers an AoE attack over the whole screen, the Grass Pin serves as an alternative to healing, and so on and so forth. Interestingly, as there is a finite amount of Magirocks in the game, players cannot solely rely on magic to get by. This is invoked by the game design itself, outright blocking the player from using magic in some boss fights, and it adds another layer of strategy to the core gameplay loop.
However, good combat is nothing without good enemy and level design. It doesn’t matter how varied Ark’s moveset is if said moves don’t amount to much. Thankfully, Terranigma is Quintet’s best game when it comes to enemy and dungeon design. While Soul Blazer had its fair share of interesting enemies, the simpler combat meant that encounters rarely got too exciting, even with magic. Illusion of Gaia featured more varied combat options, but let the enemy design falter in favor of placing an emphasis on puzzle solving (with a few notable boss fight exceptions). Terranigma follows after IoG’s example, ironing out the kinks in the process.
Enemies constantly target Ark, especially later in the game. Their aggression inherently puts his abilities to the test at all times. While Terranigma isn’t particularly difficult on a whole, the enemies do put up a good fight, and getting careless can quickly lead to a game over. Simply attacking blindly — especially in boss fights — goes against the natural design of the game. Of course, by the end players likely won’t be having too much trouble, since Terranigma is rather generous with giving Ark strong equipment, but the level of challenge never gets as brain-dead as it eventually does in Soul Blazer, or as downright punishing as Illusion of Gaia can occasionally get (Bloody Mary’s boss fight notwithstanding).
In the same way Illusion of Gaia used real-life locations for its dungeons, Terranigma opts to share in that same spectacle, albeit with its own twist. Rather than having the dungeons be based on real-life locations, they’re located in real-life locations instead. For example, the first major dungeon in the overworld — the Ra Tree — takes place smack-dab in the middle of the Amazon. And where Illusion of Gaia relied on more obtuse puzzle solving, demanding that players pay attention to the world around them in order to proceed, Terranigma takes a more Zelda-esque approach. While both games are valid in how they present dungeons, Terranigma’s take is a bit more universal in execution, perhaps depriving the game of higher highs when it comes to dungeon design, but also avoiding lower dips in quality.
Every now and then, Ark will find key items in major dungeons that allow him to bypass puzzles. If items don’t play a role in said dungeons, then the overall designs skews more towards pure exploration, setting players loose and allowing them to explore in order to make progress. Terranigma does require an attention to detail in later dungeons more often than not, but most puzzles are designed around being solved in a way that feels natural and conclusive in regards to the gameplay. Dungeons are spacious, but never so big where players are bound to get lost. Puzzles are engaging, but never frustratingly so.
The biggest contribution Chapter 2 brings to Terranigma, however, is its approach to NPCs. Throughout the second chapter, Ark enters dungeons so that he can resurrect all the life that’s been lost on Earth. In a sequence that mirrors the creation in the Book of Genesis, he brings back greenery, water, and plant life before restoring birds, land animals, and humans — in that order. What this means is that Ark is truly alone for the entire chapter, as humans aren’t resurrected until the very end of Chapter 2, and can’t be interacted with until Chapter 3.
During the second chapter, Ark gets to know the animals around him, as do the players. They form natural connections with one another as animals actively help Ark on his quest. One of the most meaningful interactions in the game comes from Ark helping a young lion cub, Leim, finish his trial into adulthood so that he can go home. The dungeon itself isn’t too long, but it sees Ark interacting with Leim all the way to the end. The two form a bond, getting to know each other, and Leim ends up as one of the game’s more memorable characters as a result.
However, when it comes time for humans to be resurrected, Ark loses his ability to speak with animals. While it seems natural that Ark would have more in common with the humans who have been revived than the animals he had previously interacted with, there is a key difference in how the game depicts animals and man. Animals live in nature, live off nature, and act by their nature. They are not evil, they are not cruel — they just are. Their actions exist for their own survival, and they live off the land as is.
Humans are in direct contrast to this. They aren’t all friendly, with many betraying or misleading Ark during the events of the third chapter. They fundamentally change the world around them, building settlements, tearing down nature, and even showing cruelty towards animals in some specific cases. Mankind does not exist to live in nature, but to change nature. With few exceptions, it is in man’s nature to look out for themselves, even at the expense of the world around them. By the time Ark can communicate with humans, it seems as though he has nothing in common with the people around him, yet no longer has means of communicating with the animals.
In a world teeming with life, Ark ends up coming off more alone than before. Even as he interacts with a larger supporting cast during Chapter 3 — a cast that develops and appears quite often, in fact — any attempts made to forge a relationship with Ark end up falling through. He is an outsider in the overworld, but no one else can save it but him. While Chapter 3 brings out quite a few twists and turns, it really isn’t until near the end when Terranigma puts its theme-building on the back burner in order to push the narrative further.
Ark’s arc isn’t like Will’s from Illusion of Gaia; while it’s easy to fall into the trap of interpreting his story as a typical coming of age narrative, Ark’s is more complicated than that. He’s the only person who can save the Earth because he’s the only one on Earth who sees the full picture. He’s been with the planet since its resurrection began. While other characters do acknowledge the mystical nature of the world, only Ark truly understands its full scope ¯ or at least, that’s the impression that the game gives off.
By the end of Chapter 3, it’s made clear that Ark was tricked the whole time. He was never truly saving the Earth, but prepping it for the embodiment of darkness to take over, eliminating all unnecessary life and locking whatever remains into a state of perpetual immortality. This minor change completely recontextualizes not only what Ark had been doing the entire game, but has implications on his arc as well. He simply followed orders, believing that what he was doing was right, and remade the world as he was told; however, he likewise did something that gave him the strength to carry on even after his supposed failure: he remade himself.
Terranigma’s final chapter is titled “Resurrection of the Hero.” Unlike other chapters in the game, the finale sees Ark tackle one singular dungeon without willing anything else into the world. Rather, Ark’s main act in the chapter is destroying the embodiment of darkness, Dark Gaia. This act restores the world to its most natural state, but requires Ark to die in the process. The resurrection of the “Hero” is not the revival of a person, but the affirmation of an idea that man can change and remake themselves.
By the end of the game, Ark is quieter, calmer, and more mature. Just as he lost his ability to speak to animals, he also lost his innocence in the process. He saw the world as it was — a world that wasn’t his — and remade it so that others could live, not knowing that he would never get the chance to see it flourish. At the same time, however, this is Quintet’s way of once again reaffirming the idea that mankind has to recognize the whole picture in order to survive. Soul Blazer dealt with this directly, and Illusion of Gaia alluded to it multiple times in its narrative. Terranigma places the idea front and center one final time.
Ark has been controlled the entire game, and it’s only the finale where he stands out as his own individual, free to live how he chooses. When Ark dreams for the last time, he dreams of being a bird, flying free above the overworld — free from the control of the player, from the control of the plot’s masterminds, and from his own fate. The final resurrection in a game all about life, death, and reincarnation is that of Ark himself — not as a hero, but as a simple bird.
As the credits roll, players get to witness the world that they created alongside Ark. Control has been wrested away, but that in itself is what makes it such a poignantly beautiful conclusion. Terranigma presents itself as a basic RPG at first, but slowly unravels into something all the more meaningful. Ark’s story is tragic, but it’s a necessary tragedy that never holds back. Quintet built its reputation by telling mature stories with engaging gameplay on the side, and Terranigma is the logical endpoint of their design philosophy.
Terranigma tells an amazing story about life, death, resurrection, and what it means to exist, but it does so while understanding its medium. It isn’t so much that Terranigma’s story is compelling in its own right (though it is), but rather what makes Terranigma such an incredible experience is the mere fact that it’s a video game. Players are in control. They resurrect the world alongside Ark. They play out Ark’s tragedies firsthand. They die alongside Ark and put the controller down, closing out the game. Quintet’s final SNES outing may not share the same legacy or status as its contemporaries, but that doesn’t make it lesser. A must play for anyone who likes engaging combat, well-told stories, or just wants to meaningfully reflect on life, Terranigma may very well be the best action RPG on the SNES.