Retro Playthrough – Terranigma (SNES) [Part One]

by Christopher David Lawton

It’s no secret, to those who know me, that I love 8-bit and 16-bit video game music. I think vijyamagames lost a lot, when the common medium shifted to CDs, and makers were given the space to include full orchestral scores. Don’t get me wrong. I think some absolutely excellent music came out of the CD era, but none of it compares to some of the classic tunes of Mega ManCastlevania or even, Super Mario Brothers.

I want to play you something…

10-the-underworld

That’s the underworld theme for Terranigma, a little-known Action-RPG (little-known in North America, anyway) from the end of the SNES’s lifespan. Can you get that level of music from a CD-based game? Absolutely. In fact, it’d probably sound better. But, you would lose something in the process. Modern game music experiences the same process that modern pop music experiences. After it’s composed, it’s recorded and then produced. It’s mixed and tracks are overlayed. Flaws are fixed. It’s produced some more. In the end, your music is perfect, and it doesn’t matter how high of quality it is, because you have infinite space to work with.

But, take that same composer, limit the time he can spend working on the music, the number of instruments he can use, and the amount of space his music can take up on a cart, and you’ll see their true skill. The classic video game music of my youth (and likely your youth, if a Google search for Terranigma led you here) was created under such circumstances. Game composers from two decades ago worked with limited resources and technology, and they still managed to turn out gold. Even the worst video game music from twenty years ago is still decent. Can you say the same about modern video games? Can you even remember the last game you played that had a good soundtrack?

(I can. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow had a stellar soundtrack, which should totes be on cassette tape, if it’s not already.)

I’m digressing. What did I want to write about? Oh, yes. Terranigma. Let me shift gears for a second, and I promise I’ll bring it back around to music in a second. I do have a point regarding the 350 words above this paragraph. Up until this week, I had never heard of Terranigma. I’m certainly not alone in this. Here in North America, we didn’t get the game. Ever. They got it in Japan, Europe and Australia. No North America. Because of this, I was largely in the dark regarding what the game was even about.

That isn’t to say I was completely blind. In my research, I discovered that it was developed by Quintet, the same company that put out The Illusion of Gaia, which remains one of my favorite SNES RPGs of all time. When I found that out, I knew I had to play this one. I had to see if it was as good as IoG. I’m not too terribly far into the game, but I have to say, so far, I’m not disappointed.

The first thing I love about it, which should be obvs by now, is the music. It’s so good, I’m listening to it as I write this. I can’t get enough of it. It has a long way to go to even crack my top ten video game soundtracks list, but it’s on its way. It may make it there eventually, though a lot of that depends on how long the game is.

And that’s where my love of the game seems to slow. I like the gameplay. It feels very SNES-ish. At the same time, though, the way they set up the game feels very… shallow. I shouldn’t be too surprised. Despite my love of it, Illusion of Gaia had its fair share of narrative and gameplay problems. For example, more than once, the story elements seemed a little too convenient. “Oh, I need some weird invention to get to the sky city? What? There’s a hermit inventor near here who might have one? And he shares the same name as my long-lost uncle, who was also an inventor? That was kind of easy…” Despite having a bit of fun at the game’s expense, I do really love it. The ending alone is one of my favorite endings from the SNES era.

And IoG is why I’m willing to forgive some of the early problems I’m seeing with Terranigma. It starts out simply enough. As the brash, young protagonist you are (naturally) sleeping. You wake up to find the love interest telling you you’re sleeping too much. After a bunch of stuff happens (during which you bust down a door by throwing two pots at it) everyone in your town is frozen. When you ask the elder what’s going on, he tells you that you must leave the village to find out. Again, all of this seems almost too convenient. It feels like the only reason I’ve done anything, at this point in the game, is to create a reason for my protagonist to leave town. I don’t feel like I’m actually experiencing the world, here. I’m merely shifting from one event to another, because someone in the game has told me that I have to. The narrative flow does not feel organic.

Anyway, after you follow the elder’s advice, and leave the village, you find yourself (through a sweet mode-7 overworld) entering a tower, for some reason. This was something else the elder told you. You’ll have to defeat 5 towers to save everyone. At any rate, I climbed to the top of the tower, beat the test of the guardian, and restored Eurasia. Seriously. That’s what the game told me. I restored Eurasia. Also, a few of the people back in the village came back to life. And then I saved and stopped.

Now, admittedly, I’m only about an hour into the game. I’m sure some of this stuff will be explained, and I’m hoping the explanation breaks my brain, but it doesn’t feel like I’m actually saving anything. It feels like I’m only going through these towers, because it’s a game, and I know that in order to “complete” the game, I have to go through the towers. Does that make sense?

I’m certainly not ragging on the game. I mean, I am only an hour in.  For all I know, it kicks it into high gear later on, and the story becomes an incredibly complex tale, on par with the great works of the English language. Then again, it might not get better, and I’ll have spent hours playing a game for the sake of playing a game.

If that’s the case, though, I can guarantee my ears will love me for those hours. And that, I think, is definitely worth my time.