On its surface, Terranigma is merely another monomyth in the style of the Hercules stories, the Arthurian legends, Star Wars, and even other video games such as Zelda and Final Fantasy. It is an odd and dark example of the genre, however, and unique in the way that it condenses and incorporates various phases of real human history. Underneath that surface, there is a critique - a radical critique, really - of human "progress", and of what we consider to be "civilization".
The philosophical element of Terranigma is, as with other high-profile entries in the interrelated Japan-centric anime/gaming world, largely a pastiche of established philosophy, symbolism and veiled religious metaphor, like a cursory look through the reading list of the designer when he was taking his humanities classes in college. There is nothing particularly original here, but there are nonetheless several remarkable things. First of all, unlike contemporaries such as Xenogears and Evangelion, it is not merely a haphazard stew of plagiarized elements, fused together in a stylized and pulpy (but ultimately intellectually shallow) way. The real-world characters, events and thought that are referenced by the game are chosen specifically to develop a particular point, and it has both a cohesive overall theme and an ending that one can actually make sense of - unlike with the other post-Eva games and anime that took this approach, the writer seems at all times to be in control of the narrative, rather than letting it control him and go wherever emotion or whim leads at the moment. Another thing that should be noted is that this is, in fact, not part of the post-Eva movement. While the Eva manga was released in Japan in 1994, and Terranigma in 1995, the more influential Eva anime had not yet begun to air in Japan when Terranigma finished development. While most attempts to incorporate philosophy and social commentary into gaming can be traced back to the influence of Eva (explaining why they tend to be so heavy-handed, clumsy and dense when they do make the attempt), Terranigma has nothing behind it but the previous work of Quintet - work that helped to bring gaming a little closer to the nebulous definition of "art" that we bestow upon other mediums.
Both the game's script and design are credited to Tomoyoshi Miyazaki. It is difficult to find accurate information on games originating from Japan, particularly when they are this old and by a company that is now defunct, so I do not know if the script was entirely written by him, or if it was a collaborative effort such as Illusion of Gaia was. I tend to think that Miyazaki was wholly responsible for the writing, as he is also credited with the scripts of Soul Blazer and Actraiser. Many of the key recurring themes are the same, but he seems to be more in control of his craft here and has more to say to the player.
The story sticks to the dualistic cosmology that Quintet used as the main theme of most of their works. The game takes place in a world with an overland called Lightside and an inner underworld called Darkside. Ark is a mischevious boy of Darkside, living in a village called Crysta. He lives with the village elder, along with a number of other boys who appear to be orphans, and one day he comes home to find the boys trying to open a door in the house that the elder forbid them from ever opening. Regardless of whether you choose to help or not, the door is opened, and suddenly everyone in the village becomes frozen in place, with the exception of Ark and the Elder. Venturing down into the basement behind the forbidden door, Ark finds a box containing a talking bat-creature named Yomi. It turns out the box is a kind of "pocket dimension", a furnished set of rooms that Ark can physically jump in to, and that serve as your inventory and equipment management area amongst other things. Yomi is somewhat coy, mentioning only that the Elder trapped him in the box and that the box has the power to restore Ark's village somehow if used properly. At this point, the Elder himself shows up, harangues Ark for causing all this trouble, and then tells him that to set things right he will have to visit five towers scattered about Darkside and ascend to the top of each. Ark thus leaves his village for the first time in his life, and begins his quest.
Each of these towers turns out to be a dungeon in the vein of Zelda, sort of an introductory period to get you used to the mechanics of the game. In this regard it has a bit more in common with Illusion of Gaia than with Soul Blazer, though Ark is a lot more robust than Will was. You wield a spear, and aside from a regular attack, you can perform a powerful dashing attack. Ark can also jump - oddly a rarity for these sorts of games - and while running can perform an even more powerful jumping dive attack. There's also a sort of magic system, used by collecting MagiRocks scattered about the game, but to be honest I found it wholly unnecessary, never used it and don't even really remember quite how it works.
Completing each of the towers "revives" a continent in Lightside, which correspond with the continents of our own world. Ark then travels to Lightside, tasked by the Elder to "revive the creatures of the world". This is done in phases, with Ark first restoring plants to existence, then animals, and finally humans. Once humans are revived Ark begins to aid them in their development, until they have, in some areas, built the equivalent of modern cities.
* major spoilers begin here *
The focal point of all this development is to revive a scientist named Beruga, buried in suspended animation in a high-tech lab underneath the snowy hinterlands of Siberia. Beruga had been working on the secret of immortality, apparently with the blessings of Dark Gaia, the "chaotic" aspect of the dual forces of nature. It turns out that the Elder, Yomi and Dark Gaia have conspired together to drive Ark to restore the world to this point - the state of industrialized, high-tech civilization that was Dark Gaia's vision the last time it was atop the cycle of power. Dark Gaia seeks to end the cycle entirely and establish sole power over the world and over life. Ark is bailed out by the Elder's Lightside counterpart (a stand-in for the Dalai Lama), and it is revealed that, in addition to the divided nature of the land itself, there are also both Light and Dark versions of all of the people and creatures of the world inhabiting each sphere. The Ark you have been in control of up to this point is the Dark Ark, and as such he cannot challenge Dark Gaia. However, by fusing with the spirit of his deceased Lightside counterpart at a hidden grave site, and meeting up with the Lightside Yomi, he acquires the ability to challenge Dark Gaia and restore balance to the world.
* major spoilers end here *
When I said that the game has a cohesive overall theme, I did not mean to suggest that absolutely everything in it makes perfect sense, or that there are not elements of the superficial and stylized that are simply there because they look good. Nor is it free from descending into moments of confusion - particularly with the somewhat choppy English translation it received. However, for something drawing on such a broad range of influences and references, and taking on a story and subject so massive in scope, the game is remarkably fluid and coherent. Most of what you encounter, be it very subtly at times, contributes to the game's overall thesis, which has much in common with deep ecology, anti-modernism and the writings of Jerry Mander - thought largely considered "radical" by mainstream thinkers in any area, much less the extremely conservative (up to this point, in 1995) and sales-driven world of console video games.
One has to separate the wheat from the chaff carefully when analyzing Terranigma, however. Nearly every character and setting has some sort of real-world significance, but some are merely superficial references that must have just coincidentally sounded good to the designer (or translator), whereas others underscore the game's major themes. The name "Ark" is, of course, probably a biblical reference, and "Yomi" is the name for the common Japanese conception of hell, but neither of these really matter all that much in overall understanding of the message of the game - these are among the superficial "coincidence references". More interesting is what the Crystal Spear says to Ark when he opens the box (a fairly obvious reference to Pandora's Box, of course) - "I have awaited here for someone who could use me at will. Humans, upon gaining intelligence, will learn of my existence.Using me, humans will gain power and expand their world. Have you the courage to use me?" The player is presented with a Yes/No choice - if No is chosen, "So you are no more than yet another peasant dulled by peace..." is the response, and if Yes is chosen, "Then take me in your hands exactly as your soul desires." Considered in the context of the overall conspiracy to drive Ark to revive the world in exactly the way that Dark Gaia wants it, this is very interesting. Interesting also is a point much later in the game, where the human world has been revived according to Dark Gaia's specifications and you can go about optionally "growing" it for bonus items, where you choose who will become the mayor of the small village of Loire (representative of France). The candidates are Jean, a neo-liberal who proposes a sort of free-market democracy, or Louis (possibly based on Louis Blanc, one of the earliest French politicians to promote socialism), who proposes an entirely socialist and communal arrangement. The only way to "advance" the town is to vote for Jean; if one votes Louis in, the town stays in its initial state for the rest of the game, and the people have all their needs met but complain of being bored. There are many other such moments that are very interesting considered within the context of the game's greater message, but I will not attempt to catalogue them all.
I suspect that Miyazaki, if indeed he wrote the plot and dialogue of the game, was heavily influenced by his collaboration with Mariko Ohara on Illusion of Gaia. Unfortunately, I cannot find any of her writing translated into English, with the exception of a short story from a book that I coincidentally grabbed off the shelf of a Half Price Books nearly eight years ago (though at the time I did not know her connection with Illusion of Gaia, I just bought it based on the title alone :). The story, entitled "Girl", from the book "Monkey Brain Sushi" doesn't offer up much that I can see that sheds light on the enigmas of Terranigma. Nor can I find much in the way of English-language articles or interviews; though she is a prize-winning science fiction author in Japan, it appears the west has taken little notice of her. Merely based on the themes she introduced in Gaia, however, I get the feeling that Miyazaki picked up ideas from her and ran with them, incorporating them with the same themes he was already exploring in his works since Actraiser.
Particularly interesting is that the game was translated into English, yet only released in the PAL territories, and kept from North America. Why alienate such a lucrative market? Unless someone happens to find an old interview in a Famitsu magazine or something, where a member of Quintet/Enix makes an official statement to that regard, we are left with only speculation. The conclusion most commonly arrived at is that, due to "religious parallels" it was deemed not acceptable for American tastes. But if you actually sit down and go through the game, aside from calling Lightside and Darkside "God and Devil" in the introduction, there is really not a whole lot of overt content that would offend busybody Christians - and certainly nothing that could not have been Bowdlerized the way games commonly were for the U.S. in that time period. The "religion" explanation is less than satisfying to me. My initial suspicion, upon first completing the game, is that the game would be seen as too anti-industrialist and anti-capitalist for Americans ... but Japan, the country of it's origin, is even more fervently free-market and techno-utopian than the United States is! Perhaps that was it, though, and the Japanese are just less anal about the censorship of "potentially subversive ideas". Perhaps it, somehow, was sheerly a financial consideration. There's really no way to know for sure - but I would love to hear from Miyazaki himself, or someone higher up associated with the project, what the true reason was.
Also carrying over from Gaia is the non-traditional depiction of government and society. Fantasy, adventure and RPGs, particularly those of the consoles, nearly to a one always affected a sort of quasi-medieval-Europe environment under absolute monarchies, where you are the servant of Benevolent King who tasks you with defeating the Demonic Evil, you go to the Church to Heal and Restore Life, etc. and soforth. Terranigma, like Gaia, has only one King and one Queen who participate meaningfully in the story, and both are out-and-out villains. Most of the villages you develop are either directly under some sort of democracy, such as Loire, or the government is off-screen and implied to be democratic (Freedom and Nirlake), or there simply is no mention of government at all. Even if these depictions are fairly simplistic, they are the first of their kind that I am aware of in fantasy-themed console gaming, and are part of a general scarcity in the whole of the fantasy genre, to include literature.
Terranigma is, in as far back as I can remember, the only game released up to the 16-bit era aside from Earthbound that can even begin to stake a claim to being "art". It offers up more intellectually meaty fare than was to be expected from console games, particularly on a Nintendo system, in the mid-90s. No, it is not Pulitzer material, nor can it be mistaken for any sort of profound philosophical statement. It is a case of relatives, in a very young medium, only about 15 years old at the point that Terranigma was released - we are talking about a medium ruled to this point by stories of plumbers jumping over turtles and swarthy beefcakes running about shooting down armies with magic guns that never run out of ammo. Infocom's text adventures of the 80s took on deeper social and existential themes in the computer gaming world, but Quintet was really the first on the scene in the console gaming world, and Terranigma was by far their best effort.
* Article on ethnic stereotypes in Terranigma (at Everything2)
* Discussion of the game's ending (at Gamespot)
* Beyond Civilization by Daniel Quinn
* In The Absence of the Sacred by Jerry Mander
* Gameplay video