Video Game Review: Terranigma

Imagine a game where you play as a person who needs to create–or resurrect–an entire world. With each challenge you solve, you restore not only continents but the cycle of life and the souls of all living beings as well. Then you find yourself in a battle between good and evil over what you have brought back. You find yourself between two worlds. You find a world awakening in yourself. Things are definitely not what they seem to be and eventually you wonder just what it is that you are fighting for.

You’re not exactly what might be considered hero or saviour-material. In your village, you’re known as a bit of a trouble-maker and something of a brat. You cannot leave things alone and this is what ultimately precipitates your ultimate quest and the strange, terrifying and wonderful places you will find yourself in.

Your name is Ark and your game is Terranigma. Terranigma was an action role-playing game created for the Super Nintendo in the mid-90s. It was never released in America: which is a really great shame, but it was launched in Japan and Europe.

To say I like this game would be an understatement. What I wrote above is merely a summary of a very fun and poignant story. This game has a wide range of emotional depth and covers a whole lot of themes like death, reincarnation, and life itself. I keep thinking myself whenever I think of Terranigma that if there was ever a video game with a Buddhist paradigm, this would be it. I do not exaggerate when I say that you, as Ark, have to create or recreate the world. You also help civilization evolve while becoming a part of it as well.

The character of Ark is interesting because with his mischievous and good-hearted nature and his staff weapon he reminds me a lot of Monkey in Journey to the West: a reluctant god-trickster hero–with something of a magic staff weapon–who is impelled by forces in the outer world to help others. So in some of that sense, Ark does fit the hero archetype. And believe me, this game does not skimp on archetypes or the hero’s quest.

This is also an action game. It is not turn-based and you don’t gain spells when you level up. Instead, you fight. You have to think on your feet and adapt to your enemy. Defeated enemies explode into a satisfying cloud and often leave some gold behind for you. There are puzzles as well and those can be challenging but not difficult. I confess that when I played the game, I looked up a lot of guides to help me through it because I wanted to see how the story unfolded more than getting stuck in places at times.

What else can I tell you? The areas that you visit are great … fond stereotypes of places that exist in our world but they are fun to interact with. I wouldn’t learn history from this game though, just to warn you, but just take it as it is meant to be: a game with its own logic.

All this said, I feel I should definitely mention that in addition to its lush 16-bit graphics and memorable characters, Terranigma has one other very great element: its music. In fact, its music does what any video game music should: it complements the story and the characters. It is integral to the emotional complexity inherent in the game. The music can be playful, grandiose and conflictive, and sad. Really sad.

But there is something about “Terranigma Sadness” that is different. It portrays this … transitory sorrow, this acceptance of loss and gain as a cycle of life. It–and really the entire game–has this resonance with the Japanese concept of mono no aware: an awareness or an empathy towards the impermanence of life. You can really hear it at towards the end of the main musical theme in the above link. It reminds me of an old man dying peacefully in his sleep under a sunny tree or an unnamed and unsung warrior resting after a long life of battle: leaving forgotten but satisfied by the depth of his life and accomplishment.

As I mentioned before, the spirit of the game has an almost Buddhist nature or a distinct link with some aspects of Far Eastern culture: a perceptual lens which has a very unique way of looking at the world.  Being able to combine these elements with fun gameplay is a mark of genius as far as I am concerned.

All and all, after a few years of not playing this game, I would still give it a five out of five. A friend sent it to me and it only reinforced the fact that I’m glad I got over my reluctance to play old games. No, this isn’t an old game. Games like Terranigma are never old games. No, this game is a classic, and this is what a classic truly is.

I’m going to leave you with this last video. I don’t know how long it or the above link will be on here. The following was a fan video created by one TheStarOcean. I thought it was lost forever years ago and while it doesn’t use the original track, it truly captures the heart of this game. Do not watch if you don’t want spoilers and you want to play this wonderful game for yourselves. If you have played it though, I hope you will enjoy it for what it is.

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