2020/07/23

Terra Incognita

Terranigma

Like a lot of people, I've been on a nostalgia trip lately. The accelerating societal collapse seems to be the catalyst for this phenomenon, so it makes sense that much of today's nostalgia revolves around the High 90s--when most entertainment media sang their swan songs prior to hitting cultural ground zero.

For me, a defining component of the High 90s experience will always be sixteen-bit JRPGs. Back then, the Super Nintendo was the main venue where legendary game studios delivered masterpiece after masterpiece to gamers who didn't see that the tracks ran out just around the corner. It was a time that's now romanticized by the fact it was doomed to end--more so by how it ended.

This sentiment was really driven home to me recently when a friend lent me a rare copy of Terranigma. Most readers can be forgiven for not having heard of it. Part of a loose trilogy with Soul Blazer and Illusion of GaiaTerranigma was developed by plucky Japanese studio Quintet and published by JRPG powerhouse Enix.

A joint by those two outfits is an automatic buy in most Gen Y gamers' books, and they would have been right to snatch it up on launch day. Unfortunately for American gamers, Terranigma never saw an official US release.

The fact that I'd never gotten the chance to play the game before made my first playthrough of Terranigma a nearly transcendent experience. Like watching a TV show rerun that's "new to me", slotting the game pak in my SNES, firing up the old CRT I reserve for such purposes, and digging into a long lost JRPG transported me to another place and era. It's the closest I'll come to having a time machine.

It wasn't just being immersed in classic 2D JRPG graphics, game play, and sound--though Terranigma's soundtrack is an instant classic, and you should put it on while you're reading this.


What nailed the sense of, "It's the summer of 1996, and I'm just firing up the new Enix game I saved up for," was the key ingredient that's universally lacking from current AAA games but defined the 16-bit era. Each and every element of the game presented the familiar genre and aesthetic staples players loved while markedly improving on all of them as we once expected.

My default state while playing Terranigma was, I'm playing a Quintet RPG. This is fun! But often, I'd marvel, Whoa, look at that water effect! or, These battle controls are really smooth! or catch myself humming the OST.

Prior to Terranigma, no game had given me such a revelatory experience since Final Fantasy VI or Chrono Trigger.

It made me grateful, in however narrow a sense, to have been born when I was and sorrowful that younger generations never knew and will never know a time when things continually get better; when ascending excellence is taken for granted.

Christ The Redeemer, Terranigma

To at least make a show of giving an objective review, Terranigma does have a few warts worth pointing out. The plot involves the Manichean dualism precipitating a fight against a nihilistic supreme evil that's been overdone to the point of cliché in JRPGs and anime. Paeans to Fukuyama style Liberalism as final evolution of human thought pervade the game's second half. John Maynard Keynes even plays a recurring role as a traveling economist who encourages the protagonist to impose global free trade.

But unlike a Current Year game that would hammer on these points in a smug, lecturing tone, Terranigma presents its Liberalism and globalism as quaint artifacts of a more innocent time. In those days, Japan was still Japanese, Europe was still European, and America was still American--if only for a little while longer. The game gives no indication that its makers foresaw globalism wiping out those identities; quite the contrary, in fact.

As powerful counterpoints to its liberalizing tendencies, Terranigma depicts at least two images of Jesus Christ, and the Church is cast in a positive light. Such charity was audacious, even for the time.

The ultimate indictment of our current age's entertainers is that it's deeply refreshing to play a game whose makers clearly didn't hate their audience. If you can find it, I highly recommend playing Terranigma.

It's a great way to not give money to people who hate you.

Don't Give Money to People Who Hate You - Brian Niemeier

35 comments:

  1. I worked at a game store (Software, Etc) during the golden age of SNES. Back then they expected sales people to actually know about what they were selling, so we had essentially free rentals of any game in the store. Those were good times that aren't coming back.

    On the other hand, I gambled recently on Ghosts of Tsushima and I am pleasantly surprised and finding myself losing track of time as I dispense katana justice. It also has all the right enemies. It's a Japanese-culture game made by Americans (REEEE!!), it's a hit in actual Japan (REEEE!!), and it portrays the Mongols as villains (REEEE!! No, seriously, they are REEE'ing over its portrayal of Mongols). Finally, it's displacing the The Last of Us 2 humiliation ritual in popularity.





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    1. Just the name Software, Etc. brings back fond memories. I never see them around anymore. They must have fallen prey to the merger feeding frenzy that left GameStop as the sole video game mall outlet.

      I'm convinced free SNES game rentals will be included in the accidental bliss the blessed enjoy in Heaven.

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    2. GameStop was a games only subsidiary of Babbage Etc., which owned Software Etc. Software Etc. even advertised GameStop in its stores. All Software Etc. stores were converted to GameStop at some point after Barnes and Noble acquired Babbage Etc.

      Similarly, the general electronics store Electronics Boutique switched over to EB Games because they were less successful than the games only GameStop. Of course, that took away all of the differences that allowed them to compete and they soon got bought up. I still remember a period of time when there would be two GameStops in a single strip mall because one used to be EB.

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    3. Sucker Punch has been under the radar one of the most consistently excellent studios since it's earliest days.

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    4. Declan Finn recommends Greedfall for the Dragon awards, "an action RPG that's very much colonial Art of the Deal, with enough cultures thrown into a blender, I'd have thought it was a JRPG. I seriously recommend it. Unless this goes REALLY bad for some reason, it should be on this. And it's indie, of all things."

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  2. Quintet was formed by ex-Falcom developers. They created and worked on the first three Ys games, and it shows. They had a fascination with creation, God, and the beauty of the world. It always felt like their heart was in the right place ad it was backed up by some of the most fun action RPG gameplay you can imagine.

    I have no idea what happened to them. After the SNES they made Granstream Saga for the PS1 and then they vanished. Just like everything good from the 8 and 16-bit era they faded away never to be see again as their genre slowly turned into . . . whatever Kingdom Hearts is now.

    I think the big dogs know since new games such as the Bravely franchise and re-releases of overlooked classics like Live A Live are becoming more and more standard.

    It's fairly obvious by now where things went wrong.

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    1. One reason why Quintet's mild globalist/green preaching is pardonable is their refusal to take themselves too seriously.

      In Terranigma, you can even visit Quintet's Tokyo offices, which is chock full of nod-and-wink jokes at the staff's expense. One side quest even involves saving a dev from a ghost that's trapped him in his messy bedroom. Also, he's a chicken for some reason.

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    2. Granstream Saga *is* what happened.

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    3. Quintet weren't the only developer to disappear during this era. Shooter legends Compile went under after their last game Zanac X Zanac, which might be the best shooter ever made. It's also pure 2D.

      I think the main thing to take away is that games were meant to be fun, and those that made them put that ahead of anything else. That is why everything up to the 16-bit generation holds up so well. Heck, it's why the Game Boy Advance was better than the PS2, Gamecube, and Xbox.

      They lost their way once they lost that.

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  3. "Terranigma depicts at least two images of Jesus Christ, and the Church is cast in a positive light. Such charity was audacious, even for the time."

    The odd thing I discovered as a teenager was that there was a lot more explicit church imagery and references in the Japanese versions of the game that were killed by localization by Nintendo of America. For instance, while it wasn't very plot relevant scraping the crosses and uniforms off of the church related locations in Lufia. Or Breath of Fire, although the church was not exactly portrayed positively there (went more with the insidious "other" infesting the wholesome local Japanese religion angle).

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    1. Hyrule was originally conceived of as an implicitly Catholic kingdom. Some vestiges escaped Nintendo of America's censors, including the cross on Link's shield and the Magic Book, i.e. the Holy Bible.
      https://zelda.fandom.com/wiki/Christianity?file=Christianity.png

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    2. This got changed because of the religious aspect. Anything Christian or potentially Christian was censored when brought over here.

      Sega didn't care so much, but Nintendo was always trying not to offend family audiences. They still do that now.

      Though technically, the NES Zelda games are still the last ones in the timeline, so you can make the case that there was a Revelation at some point in Hyrule. Nintendo, for some reason, refuses to make a Zelda 3 that takes place after 2 banishes Gannon forever.

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    3. Nintendo went through phases on this. The first couple waves of releases included games full of crosses and evils--Ghosts 'n' Goblins (where you fight Satan and Lucifer!), the first two Castlevania games, and the NES Zeldas (Zelda II has a church and a magical cross item). After 1988 or so, things start getting phased out a bit, with the removal of Churches from Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior II. They got even stricter a bit later on, to the point of delaying Dragon Warrior III in part because the Priest class had to be renamed to Pilgrim.

      I wish I had more insight into the behind-the-scenes reasoning. Were they getting complaints from angry mothers, was it the atmosphere of the Seattle area, some of both, or were other factors involved?

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    4. Nintendo of America's religious censorship was one phenomenon I don't remember getting a mention when I read Console Wars. It definitely would have been a mandate imposed by NOA, since they oversaw every aspect of game production with an iron rod.

      I suspect the shade of the video game crash of 83 had much to do with it. People forget what an apocalyptic event that was for the industry. Hardware makers were still haunted by it, even the Big N, and even into the late 80s.

      iirc, Minoru Arakawa and Howard Lincoln strictly enforced Nintendo's family friendly image. Their strategy for avoiding another crash was heading off any possible excuse anyone might have for not playing a Nintendo game. The religious right were at the height of their power back then. Even if their methods were misguided, playing it safe was NOA's default mode.

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    5. The best I could tell it was just the standards department nanny stating the games before they hit. It's absurd that in the late 80s/early 90s you'd think that *removing* religious references would offend more people than leaving them in, especially given the moral panic in the States at the time about video games and the ratings systems.

      I'd love an insider's perspective, but the only thing that really ever made sense is anti-religious people in the NoA standards department.

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    6. Some of the tweaks do make sense--there was some religious imagery associated with the villain in Dragon Quest II, for example, and given all the trouble D&D got in with its demons and devils, I can see removing them from games.

      I think Brian's probably right and it was just 'playing it safe'--in addition, I think the reception of Castlevania II (and the Nintendo Power cover on it just as the magazine was starting out) left some scars on NOA's psyche, based on the way they talk about it even in their own magazine later on.

      Now, was Seattle in the late 80s/early 90s the hotbed of secular progressivism it has become now? That may have had an impact; I blame it for a lot of what's happened to D&D in the past two decades. :)

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    7. This article is perhaps as good as any you might see on trying to put a storyline to Christianity etc. in-game for the Legend of Zelda series. Plus official art of Link genuflecting to a crucifix! As the others have said, I suspect that the real reason for removing the Christian aspects was something else, but the article is good. https://geeksundergrace.com/gaming/finding-god-hyrule/

      (Not everything on the site is that great; a lot of articles seem to desperately try to drag something worthwhile out of the ash-heap of modernity.)

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  4. Athletic and WhitesplosiveJuly 23, 2020 at 12:56 PM

    "Paeans to Fukuyama style Liberalism as final evolution of human thought pervade the game's second half."

    This is what irks me, that just about every game, even ones that seem to carry a very reactionary message, fall into this. In Fire Emblem 3 Houses, the first half of the game extols the Church (of Seiros, but the analogy to the True Church is obvious) as a unifying force that helps settle disputes and improve the lot of common people. Likewise the system of nobility is presented as flawed but also filled with many high-quality and well-intentioned people who see the mark of true nobility as charity and working for the betterment of their subjects (and nearly all the protagonists are nobility themselves, or else are part of the Church). The main Antagonist is a proto-Jacobin waging a war of extermination against the Church and all it's supporters (the better part of the continent) in order to abolish religion as well as the nobility and usher in an irreligious egalitarian utopia (which also happens to massively centralize all power on the continent in her person). Her motives are utterly corrupt and her arguments are nonsense, the only argument she has against the church is an argument against the concept of authority itself. And yet... just about nobody will ever say unequivocally that she's wrong (even as they wage war against her). Most of the characters' views range from "she's got the right idea but is going about it wrong" to "it may be worth what she's doing but I still don't like it." And you as the PC can't deviate far from these sentiments. I don't know if that's throwing in some blue-pills to try to keep SJWs off their back or if liberalism just always causes this kind of schizophrenia.

    It's ironic that the people most wedded to cultural "deconstruction" are also the most oblivious to the contingency of their own worldview. Even as a very reactionary person, I know I can never see the world as a 12th century monk did (even if I aspire to that level of faith and spiritual purity) because I am myself a product of my own time and place, and that many of said Monks ways of viewing the world would seem very strange and foreign to me. But the liberal fetish for projecting their own pathologies into the past ("Everyone was really a [biracial, irreligious, homosexual, usurious] liberal all along, but were oppressed by the Church!") is eye-rollingly stupid.


    "John Maynard Keynes even plays a recurring role as a traveling economist who encourages the protagonist to impose global free trade."

    Wow. That's amazing. And in the mid 90's even. Just another reminder that cringe knows no time or place, that cringe was always the enemy, and that it is an eternal threat against which we must always be on guard.

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    1. This is one reason for the term "High 90s". It was the delirium before the crash.

      Let's avoid the error that Postmoderns make when they judge the Medievals by Current Year standards. 25 years ago, unless you read Peter Brimelow or Pat Buchanan, you had no idea the globalist experiment would usher in a cultural apocalypse. That hindsight is 20/20 is one of mankind's inescapable curses.

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    2. Much of this comes from the fact that game devs in the 1980s to mid-90s grew up on pulp, adventure serials, and an environment where things were always improving, at least on the outside.

      Game devs now have grown up with post-modern Xenogears and Evangelion, as their storytelling benchmark. Their only framework for existence lies in video game rules filtered through Darwinism: level up and get enough strength to prove your ideals and beat the weaker foe. No wonder every fantasy story they make is basically an online MMO.

      To turn it around you're going to need a new crop to finally throw off the subversion of their own genres before things turn around again.

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    3. Most new authors simply cannot tell a story that's not a video game. They never learned how.

      The smart ones recognize that fact and use it to their advantage by writing litRPGs.

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    4. Ugh. Xenogears (Gnosticism!: The Video Game). I never understood then why it was so popular though I unfortunately do now.

      It had boring gameplay, ugly graphics, dull environments, and a story that was offensively depressing enough to invoke the Eight Deadly Words. Naturally it was a hit.

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    5. Thanks for the FE3H review. It looked suspiciously nationalist from the outside perspective, but whenever you see THE CHURCH OF __ in a JRPG you know you're in for some humdrum humanism.
      Is the story at least less death culty from Dmitri's route?

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    6. Xenogears was probably a hit from riding the coattails of Final Fantasy VII. Also, anime cut scenes and a great soundtrack. I never played it, never wanted to play it, but I had a good friend in college who was working through it and caught bits of it.

      The only game I recall playing where you wind up fighting God is Dragon Quest/Warrior VII, and there, it was framed as a friendly sparring match. :)

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    7. Athletic and WhitesplosiveJuly 23, 2020 at 8:53 PM

      @Careless really I have to say I enjoyed FE3H, from a gameplay and story perspective I think it's the best FE in ages. Of course the "moral" isn't clear cut, it's just, as I said, kind of schizophrenic. Not quite deathcult propaganda, some reactionary sentiment but not quite explicitly illiberal. Mild spoilers ahead if you want to avoid them:

      The political 'tone' does vary somewhat between routes.

      Edelgard - pretty much full on Jacobin. But with a touch of nativism [?] as Edel expresses contempt for the Church leadership being non-human creatures and influencing human politics (dragons secretly manipulating kingdoms for good or ill is a recurring theme in FE). Also briefly speaks on wanting to refocus to the internal issues of the empire and isolate it from foreign influence.

      Dmitri - The most sympathetic to monarchy/nobility, but not overly political. Takes loyalty to the Church as given but mostly focuses on Dmitri's hatred of Edelgard.

      The Other Guy - Very sympathetic to Edelgard's position, but also very cynical in treating Church loyalism as a path to power. Mixed race (med analogue and adrestian) bastard prince wants to leverage the war into power for social engineering and opening the border to his belligerent half-countrymen in Almyra to the North because he was bullied as a child (in Almyra no less). A foreign ruler overturning the Adrestian social order because of his childhood neuroses, how charitable of him.

      Silver Snow - haven't gotten to it, saved all my NG+s for the Church path, potentially based but I've avoided looking it up.

      Overall it's definitely worth the buy if you can get it second hand and you're worried about financing anti-Christian freaks.


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    8. Careless Whisper, if you haven't fought God in a video game aside from DQ I'm assuming you gave the Shin Megami Tensei/Persona series a pass? Xenogears also had Deus as a boss, but it was more supposed to be a Demiurge analog.

      Xenogears did well because of 1) hype 2)it was *Squaresoft in the 90s* - they could package anything and it would get a cult following and 3) it got a Demo on the same distribution as FFVIII did - came with Parasite Eve. I'd further suspect 4) the late 90s mindset being totally primed for Gnostic references.

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    9. Valar, I think you meant that for me, and no, I haven't played any of those games. I devote little time to video gaming lately, and I more or less set my platform and series of choice in the late 80s to mid 90s and have largely stuck with them. (Although I dropped out of Final Fantasy after IX.) :) I am, however, willing to consider recommendations within my fairly limited range.

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    10. Apologies to the two of you for the confusion! I must have gone momentarily cross-eyed.

      I wouldn't recommend SMT (it's rather Nintendo Hard with little payoff, and while I liked it initially I don't really find replays enjoyable anymore), it just immediately came to mind when you mentioned a lack of "fighting God" in video games.

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    11. Oh, that 'lack' was meant to refer more to the narrowness of my experience than to the absence of the theme. :)

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  5. I started a playthrough of Chrono Trigger today. It's the first new game I've played since Halo 2, which shows how long I've been out of gaming. Loving the setting and the music so far!

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    1. Oh, to see that game new again through your eyes!

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  6. Ah, Terranigma. So many fond memories of this - thanks for the post. This game, Chrono Trigger, and Final Fantasy 8 (yeah, I know everyone hates that one but me), were really the high water mark for JRPGs to me, and I've been disappointed by them ever since. It's nice to see someone else from my generation also enjoyed this one though!

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    1. My pleasure. You're not alone in liking FF8. It's my favorite of the PS1 era FFs.

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