The Unspoken Melancholy of Terranigma

Quintet’s ‘Soul Blazer Trilogy’, as it is dubbed by fans, contains some of the best-loved, niche JRPGs on the Super Nintendo. While both Soul Blazer and Illusion of Gaia have their die-hard admirers (if anyone can find someone that feels the same way about PlayStation 1 spiritual successor The Granstream Saga, hit me up, that’s a rarity), Terranigma has always stood as the firm favourite — the worst kept secret on the system. The game was never released in North America and, in a rare turn of events, only released outside of Japan in Europe. Why (when we failed to receive EarthboundFinal Fantasy 2 & 3 (IV & VI) and Chrono Trigger) we got Quintet’s Super Nintendo swan song is anyone’s guess, but this decision led Terranigma to languish in relative obscurity for several years. It was not until the advent of dedicated, stable emulation that the game rose to international popularity. Indeed, the action RPG is now so ubiquitously and universally praised that it no longer feels distinctly cult, which isn’t a bad thing by any means, but begs the question if it even still fits into the category.

All of these games, especially Terranigma, are as popular as they are for a reason. Quintet were not afraid to shy away from large thematics concepts in their projects, indeed, amongst the JRPG genre, their plotlines are even more grandiose than expected. While Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger dealt with the lofty themes of death, trauma and destiny in equal, triumphant measure, the ‘Soul Blazer Trilogy’ opted for ambitious plots on a cosmic and biblical scale. The first game in the series (and the trilogy’s namesake) revolves around the repopulation of the world via the nameless hero, a divine, player-controlled lesser deity that fights for the freedom of incarcerated souls. The quest, in this instance, is God-given in nature and carries itself with a serious, even sombre tone. There are some truly bittersweet moments, and our hero is forced to reconcile with his otherworldly presence amongst normal humans. Illusion of Gaia adopts a less nebulous story, focusing on Will (the main character) as he attempts to save the world from a malevolent comet. The villain, in this case, is a non-sentient ancient weapon, an unemotional, primordial destructive force that cannot be reasoned with. The comet is also responsible for previously altering and influencing the evolution of the in-game world, interfering negatively with humanity’s path. Illusion of Gaia, with its use of real-world locations, spins a semi-what-if scenario of progress halted, placing the goal of the quest firmly on allowing humanity to flourish unimpeded by the influence of an original sin. This story too ends on a sad yet hopeful note. Terranigma feels like the logical artistic conclusion and culmination of all the groundwork set by both previous games, deftly combining the divine, reconstructive core of Soul Blazer with the personal, character-driven touch of Illusion of Gaia.

Ark, our protagonist, lives in the idyllic Crysta, a quaint, colourful village full of carefree characters. He is a mischief-maker, teasing animals and playing pranks when he can. Soon, after opening a door he should not have, Ark is thrust into a cosmic role — one of universal resurrection and global, moral guidance. While we have met JRPG protagonists with heavy burdens before, Terranigma stands out for its intense, unimaginable scale. The very first thing you do in-game is restore the five continents of the Earth (our Earth), before descending (or ascending — it is not immediately clear) onto the barren wastelands to reintroduce the flora and fauna. While the cliché of the goofy kid having to come to terms with his destiny and grow-up is present, the sheer magnitude of our hero’s responsibility almost subverts the trope. Ark, as his namesake suggests, is a guiding vessel for not only those around him, but for humanity. Plenty of games ask you to save the world, but very few task you with building it from scratch.

After the five trials have been completed and all five continents have been raised, Ark (as mentioned) journeys to the desolate Earth in order to begin his task of repopulation. The world, in its current state, is a vast, mystical and terrifying place, soaked in a primordial orange hue. The husk of a huge tree eventually calls to our hero, beckoning him inside to fight the infection within and restore plant life to the Earth. Indeed, you might recognise this very scenario from games like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Secret of Mana, which establish their own parallels to the mythological and religious archetype of the tree of life. Terranigma’s version of this icon is, however, the most entrenched within tradition. Ark, through rescuing the tree of life, begins the process by which to reconnect all forms of creation. There is also something to be said for the boy’s personal deific connective tissue, as his arrival on Earth also pays direct homage to the myth of the tree of knowledge, which was said to connect heaven and the underworld. This, in essence, gives us a clue to the state of Ark’s homeworld (the place that he came from to rescue Earth). The tree itself is filled with monsters, fauna corrupted and twisted into vicious shapes. Completely alone, our hero must battle through swathes of violent creatures in order to cut the infection out at the core of the tree. Said creatures are a strange contradiction, seemingly able to appear on a planet completely barren of all natural life. They exist before human cognition — we are unable to label them as truly evil, since evil, as a moral signifier has not yet been defined by a collective conscious. There is something deeply unsettling about the presence of these monsters within the tree at this point in the planet’s journey; they appear removed from time itself.

After defeating the infection and restoring plant life to the Earth (complete with a lovely cutscene of the barren soil being overtaken with lush vegetation) Ark learns that he can talk with the flowers, all of which converse in a whimsical, child-like tone. Our hero then continues his journey by visiting a nearby mountain and, after defeating another source of corruption in the form of a beast, returning the birds to the planet. There is a great, reconstructive joy in the early sections of Terranigma, which helps balance out the sinister uncertainty the player first experiences when they arrive on Earth. As the fields fill with the grass and the sky fills with birds, Ark finds that he is no longer alone, and he can share these breathtaking, unspoiled vistas with the noble creatures that surround him. Continuing, he then assists the other animals in returning to the planet, quite literally disposing of a ‘pagan God’ in order to bring life to the lions, monkeys, rhinos and many more. These beasts, while still exhibiting the unselfish characteristics of the birds and the plant life, act as something of a forewarning to Ark regarding what’s to come. During one of the game’s most poignant scenes, Ark accidentally causes an avalanche on a snowy incline, trapping himself with a mountain goat inside a freezing cavern. The mountain goat’s husband lies dead on the floor having, according to his wife, ‘landed awkwardly’. The female mountain goat briefly laments her partner’s death, before conceding that sometimes ‘there’s no telling fate’. She then lays with Ark in order to keep him warm and, the next morning, breaks into a smaller cavern that allows him to climb back out to freedom. The female mountain goat stays behind in the cavern, assuring Ark that she will get out ‘one way or another’. She does not. Returning to the same area later in the game reveals her lying next to her husband, dead. This single character exhibits the best qualities that a living being can hope to achieve — selflessness, kindness, courage and understanding. Ark, even if he did not mean to, caused the event that triggered a great loss for this creature. In his rush to re-establish human beings on the planet, he started an avalanche that had knock-on effects beyond the immediately obvious. Despite this, the mountain goat still treats Ark with the utmost warmth and is considerate of his well-being. She even, at one point, offers our hero the body of her husband should he be hungry. Repelled by the very thought, Ark declines, but the mountain goat sees nothing wrong. To her, you must eat to survive, it is the natural order of things. If anything, there is a great honour in the consumption of her husband’s body — he is not wasted in death. This also applies to her own life, her sacrifice acting as the conduit to allow Ark’s escape and subsequently the birth of the human race. Again, this great sadness is complemented by a selfless warmth, a pure force of good. Unfortunately, with human life right around the corner, things become far more complicated as the game progresses.

There is a marked change of pace once Ark defeats the shadowy ‘Dark Morph’ (perhaps a representation of unavoidable human sin) and introduces human beings to the Earth. The moral simplicity of the natural world is somewhat skewed by the advent of the human race, who exhibit and are influenced by positive and negative emotions in equal extremes. Ark, after slumbering for three years, awakes to find he can longer talk to plants or animals; that innocence and the ability to commune with nature has vanished. Settlements now dot the world map, grand castles ruled by avaricious, tyrannical kings and villages home to drunks, conmen and lazy officials. Earth is not as simple as it once was, and Ark’s already monumental task has been made more difficult by the number of moral quandaries that have surfaced. It is no longer just about reintroducing life to the planet; it is now about ensuring happiness for the inhabitants. There must be economic stability for small villages, room for artistic and personal endeavours for their populations and constant mediation to avoid all-out war between different kingdoms. The gameplay too alters to reflect this evolutionary step. While there was dialogue to enjoy with the plants and animals, there are now several full conversations to experience with many unique NPCs. Quests, which were previously relegated to fighting monsters and journeying forward, now require the use of multiple items and the concoction of ingenious plots to finish (including an entire sequence in which the player must brew a sleeping potion and drug an entire castle to gain access to a special item). Even the enemies, which were once bizarre, primordial beings have morphed into the physical manifestation of very human fears: bats, the undead and, in particular, ghosts. Vengeful spirits inhabit abandoned yet decadent castles, their powerful emotions in life resulting in a state of permanent undeath. Humans, for better and for worse, have complicated and restructured the established order. The player may ask themselves at this point, was it worth it? The purity of nature has been poisoned and little good seems to have come of it. Ark, himself a human (though a divinely bestowed one) must reckon with his own people’s place on the planet and their necessity within its future. The patience and selflessness he is expected to exhibit has been shown to him before though, and the mountain goat’s lesson serves as a constant reminder throughout the game.

There are small pockets of good within humanity and these usually manifest through Terranigma’s real-world characters. Columbus, for example, appears as a paragon of virtue — a man who bridges borders in the name of progress and returns to cure fever-ridden villages while asking nothing in return. We know that Christopher Columbus, while an important historical figure, caused untold harm to the indigenous people of the places he visited, with those who followed stripping the land of its riches and enslaving the population. The real-life Columbus is a far cry from his in-game counterpart, who is a morally just man, interested in reaching new continents in order to set up trade routes and bring prosperity to all. Indeed, Terranigma seems to place moral value squarely on humans who are depicted as contributing to the advancement of society. Analogues to Wilbur Wright, Thomas Edison and Henri Matisse all appear as well (usually in their respective countries), each asking Ark to assist them in small tasks, which bring about the birth of new technology, or unique artistic achievement. These moments can be quite fulfilling, and the game does an impressive job of showing the player how their small contributions are shaping the planet for the better, with small towns that eventually, through your hard work, blossom into rich, vibrant cities. There is, however, always that distinct sadness that lingers just below the surface. The monks in the Tibetan mountains talk at length about the process of rebirth, returning to this planet as any number of things (animals, plants, another human, etc.) and Ark even witnesses Meilin’s (one of the first humans he has extended contact with) parents souls speak to her and inform her of their current progress on this very journey. While there is hope and comfort here, there is also the knowledge that all things will eventually come to an end. There will always be death and the planet will, eventually, disappear again, its continents submerged below the great ocean. Despite this innate, unavoidable fate, Ark must continue to see the world along the right path. His righteousness, his unwavering confidence in the face of cosmic destruction is moving — even if he doesn’t quite understand it. I mused earlier on the fact that our protagonist, despite being so young and exuding all the characteristics of a generic coming-of-age hero, has a unique, monumental burden to carry. In retrospect, it seems that there is no better kind of person to carry it than a child, whose innocence provides the necessary fertiliser for the planet to grow in all the correct ways.

At this point in writing, I have not given Terranigma’s gameplay its due, which is something I will attempt to remedy now. Throughout, the gameplay has an impressive immediacy, which both complements and contrasts the theming and plot. For a story of this scale, you might expect a turn-based RPG, visual novel, or something more akin to a god sim (think Populus, or the non-side-scrolling sections of Quintet’s very first game, Actraiser). Instead, Terranigma delivers a system that plays like a cross between Link to The Past and Secret of Mana, combining the reaction-based hack and slash puzzling of the former, with the levelling, equipment and magic systems of the latter. Freed from menus and text, Ark is a natural extension of the player, which does wonders for the scope of the entire experience, as the player struggles and battles with a visceral sense of place. You truly understand the level of malevolent corruption leaking from the Earth as you directly engage with a host of impressive-looking, menacing sprites in real-time. While not all of the game’s systems are particularly polished (magic is based on the rechargeable currency of ‘Magirocks’ and is simultaneously rarely useful while being clunky to use) there is an undeniable immersion in play. This is all enhanced by some wonderful pixel-art, which manages to be entirely detailed while retaining a sense of 16-bit (as much as the word can be used in this case) realism. The colour palette is considered and often skews towards sombre tones and rich autumnal vistas, perhaps a reflection of the game’s innate bittersweet contemplation of life and death, creation and destruction. The soundtrack, composed by Miyoko Takaoka and Masanori Hikichi, also provides a stunning audial backdrop to proceedings. Once again, in amongst the exciting, powerful battle themes (of which there are few) lie reserved, melancholy tunes which drift deliberately through the game world. The main theme (and reoccurring musical motif) Light and Darkness is simultaneously triumphant and plaintive, just as our short time on this planet is.

The last quarter of Terranigma introduces a twist that recontextualises the whole game. Ark, after resurrecting Beruga (a cult figure scientist who had placed himself in cryo-sleep) is essentially killed — betrayed by the elder of Crysta village who sent him on his quest. Our hero is then resurrected by the collective life force of the planet and the people he has helped along the way, returning first as a baby before transforming into his previous young adult state. Both the village elder and Beruga are being influenced by the entity known as Dark Gaia, quite literally, ‘the Devil’. A further series of twists and turns reveal that Ark’s seemingly idyllic home, Crysta, is actually located in the underworld and is populated by Dark Gaia’s creations. These are humans who are exact replicas of their topside counterparts, which is the surface world that Ark has been working so hard to restore. Ark’s topside other is the deceased ‘legendary hero’, whose spirit he eventually combines with in order to balance both light and dark. It is interesting that, at this late point in the game, a clear villain is established. Previously, Ark’s journey is one of pure sighted restoration, free of any looming threat of evil (only the briefest hints of someone pulling the strings are ever mentioned). The arrival of Beruga and his Dark Gaia-influenced machinations bring an interesting flipside to the positive growth that humanity has experienced so far within the game. The scientist’s great sin is the unnatural extension of human life; creating an immortal world with death partly removed from the equation. Indeed, Beruga seemingly survived the last time the Earth was laid to waste, hiding deep within the bowels of his fortress, frozen in time. The last catastrophic event that led to the planet’s demise was a disease called Asmodeus, which the scientist plans to reutilise as a method to cut down swathes of the population that he deems unnecessary, fixing the theorised issue of overpopulation in a world without death. Up until now, the scientific and cultural advancements that Ark has been instrumental in have been to the benefit of all. The creation of planes for travel, storage methods to keep food fresh and electricity to illuminate the dark. Beruga is a representation of selfish human advancement, which distorts the natural order of the world. With no death there is no cycle of reincarnation, and the planet comes to a standstill. As the spirit of the great hero relays to Ark, the planet’s clock has struck ‘thirteen’ and exists outside of a definable space. Beruga, however, is eventually done in by the very technology he pedals, sucked into the rotary blade of his own airship, so easily betrayed by the cold steel he decided to surround himself with.

Ark’s final battle with Dark Gaia is not so much to banish evil from the world, but to restore balance between the two and to set the hands of time ticking back on the correct path. After sealing the lord of the underworld away in a fantastically bizarre sequence set on the clearly H.R. Giger-inspired staircase of eternity, Ark comes to terms with the fact that he and the rest of Crysta (as creations of Dark Gaia) will disappear. As thanks for his role in the planet’s survival, the God of light allows Ark one final day in Crysta, surrounded by those he loves. The elder is gone, no longer recognised by anybody living in the village. There is a profound, deep sadness as Ark comes to ruminate on his place within this world — the pawn of a dark entity that, even for all the good he did, was simply following orders. And, at the end of it all, will he simply cease to be? To disappear from time completely, having served his purpose to divine beings who live beyond and above human understanding? The melancholy that permeated the entirety of Terrangima, that lingered at the end of every word and existed ephemerally, seemingly in every particle of the planet, now erupts fully. Ark, at the end of his selfless journey, is granted but one day of peace. Laying down in the same bed he did for all those years, Ark ‘dreamt his last dream’. The small glimmer of catharsis, of enduring humanity, appears in the game’s very last line — ‘it was a dream of becoming a bird and seeing the world grown older’. Maybe it is the process of reincarnation, or maybe it is just Ark’s final, fading moments, but either way it does not matter. As a bird, freed from the heavy burden of his quest, our hero soars above the planet, watching its lush green fields develop beyond the bounds of time. Trains and plains appear, objects familiar to us as players, and great cityscapes loom on the horizon, glowing brightly under the night sky. The fruits of Ark’s journey appear to him now, in another life, fully realised — a flourishing, exciting planet full of humanity. Perhaps somewhere down the line, after a seemingly infinite number of lifetimes have passed, after the planet has died and risen countless times, Ark will reappear, not as the God-like hero of the universe, but as a young boy, knocking on the door of his childhood sweetheart, reunited in the thrilling loop of infinity.

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