Sunday, October 19, 2008

Terranigma (SNES)

1995; Quintet Co., Ltd.

Quintet's efforts have always been overlooked, but never because their quality was lacking. Okay, maybe Robotrek wasn't so great and Actraiser 2 was a disappointment, but every other game this company put out in the 16-bit age was a masterpiece. There was Actraiser, the first great non-Nintendo developed title for the SNES, but the company's Soul Blazer trilogy was their true masterpiece (and the only other games they made for the system). None of the three games were tied beyond obscure connections, themes, and presentation--with Illusion of Gaia and Terranigma often being called "spiritual" sequels to Soul Blazer. The most important thing these games had in common, however, was quality and innovation. After 2 of the best games of their respective generation, Quintet put out the perfect swansong of the SNES and the classic RPG-Adventure genre.

Where Final Fantasy VI pushed the SNES hardware to its max potential and felt perfect on the platform, Terranigma aims for the same ambitions but fails to deliver on its promise due to the limits of it's generation. This is not a complaint of the game, as much as it is a testament to it's massive scale and aspirations. The game begins as an underwhelming take on Soul Blazer, as you essentially revive a dead world by battling your way through 5 unimaginative dungeons. After the first act of four, the game becomes the true successor to Illusion of Gaia as you travel a world filled with color and variety. By the third act, Terranigma truly becomes a adventure beyond compare. The blessing and curse of the game is that it perfects many elements of Quintets previous games, but ultimately fails to mold them into a cohesive whole like it's predecessors.
Terranigma is unique in many ways but what truly stands out is the game's overarching world which is, literally, our own. Once you break free of the underworld within the game's opening hours, you find yourself on a dead Earth. The planet we know and love except with all its life sucked out. Without giving away too much, you find yourself on a journey through Earth's history as you travel from ancient tribes to a future vision of Tokyo. The game has a subtle layer of education, as you familiarize yourself with the map of our planet and travel through our history. Its a shame then that the game suffers from lackluster localization and losses some of its realism as it ventures into a purely fictional future (Columbus is alive till the end of the world--I mean, really, guys?) Just as interesting is Quintet's signature themes of duality, man's plight against himself, and the presence or non-presence of a God. They are themes that, while not dealt with as delicately as a great novel, we hardly ever see in videogames and are used to much effect in this imaginative adventure.

As I said, the first part of the game feels a aesthetically dull when compared to the rest of the game or previous Quintet games. There are two things that redeem it and make the rest of the game an enjoyable experience: the gameplay and the music. Where I thought Illusions of Gaia was on an equal level of Zelda's fighting, Terrangima completely surpasses both. The game has, easily, the most fluid and fun fighting of any RPG-adventure. The controls are pitch perfect and the game rewards you for your progression. In many ways, I feel Terrangima is to A Link to the Past as Castlevania: Symphony of the Night was to Super Metroid: it's a game that loses some of Nintendo's level design charm, but perfects everything else wrong with it. Where Zelda gives you no incentive to fight or search for secrets, Quintet observed this problem and implemented a very satisfying experience system so you can level up. Furthermore, the game offers you stores where you can buy items that actually matter. Even better is the game's social economy, which, while primitive, lets you interact and effect the game world in a way that was way ahead of its time.
The game's soundtrack is the perfect metaphor for the overall game, when I think about it. It contains some of the most haunting and beautiful themes to ever grace an SNES title, but it often implements them poorly--replaying the same dungeon theme over and over, rather than making a new one. Its not that the game is ever bad, but it just doesn't know how to make the adventure as fluid as its gameplay. The Diablo meets Secret of Mana dungeon crawling is amazing, the themes of the game are amazing, the world is amazing, and the inventiveness is amazing. The game simply fails to make all these things matter and work to their full potential. Once again, I fault the system more than the developer as they chose to make a game far too big for its respective hardware. Where Quintet's previous titles feel sealed to their system and year, Terrangima begs for Quintet to come out of their near decade silence and re-imagine this grandiose adventure in the way that they originally thought they could. The game ends with a credits sequence that pulls the heart strings, except they were never attached properly. You might cry at the end sequence, not because of how well it ends the game but because just how damn amazing Quintet are at this exact moment.

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