Proof that Enix WAS, in fact, capable of creating a good RPG prior to the merger with Squaresoft, despite all the contrary evidence provided by Dragon Quest and Star Ocean,* Terranigma has become quite a favorite among fans of old, obscure RPGs in the past decade, thanks to emulation making it possible for Americans to play it--the game was only ever released in Japan and Europe. The old SNES Action RPG was very creative, had a generally entertaining protagonist, and a plot and setting that took a look at several interesting themes, most of which seemed to revolve around the idea of essential contradictions.
My favorite theme of Terranigma, I think, would have to be its portrayal of technological and social advancement. The goal set for Ark (Terranigma's protagonist) is to resurrect the dead Earth's lands and life forms, and then to nurture human advancement to quickly bring the world to a modern state. Ark is thus present to witness several events and inventions that forever changed the flow of human history, technology, and culture, and helps in several cases to bring them about. Ark's actions (if you choose to do everything in the game, that is) advance culture in the fields of naval navigation, preparing and keeping food, art, economics, foreign trade and travel, alcohol, and (most of all) scientific progress, among others. He nurtures such monumental technologies as telephones, airplanes, and usable electrical power. And as he does all this, the towns of the world change, going from your standard RPG villages to modern cities.
It's a pretty neat process, honestly, even if the game's translation is, as was often the case back in the SNES days, not always great at conveying the game's elegance properly. What I really love about it, though, is that the game tries to show both sides of cultural advancement, both the good and the bad, in several different ways.
The first aspect of advancement it looks at is the basics of success. The painter Matis provides a good example of this. Matis is a poor, largely ignored painter who wants to show his works to others, hoping to find people out there who enjoy the work he pours his soul into. He thus gives Ark an example of his work, and asks Ark to show it to others to get their opinions and interest. After Ark shows it to a famous and rich critic who likes it, Matis becomes famous, and orders for his paintings begin pouring in. Eventually Matis's fame, however, leads to him being overworked, and by the end of the game, he says, "Before fame, I thought it was great just to paint. Now look! I work like a machine for money chased by time. This is no good! Even if it sells, it's no good if it's not what you want to paint." Through Matis, as well as some others that Ark meets, the game shows the desire for success and its rewards of a bigger business and home, wealth, and popularity, but it also shows the downside of the success that comes with advancement, the way that success can take over one's life and draw the pleasure from what one does.
The next aspect are the effects of cultural advancement in general, which are shown through the games' several towns and how they grow. As Ark promotes the world's sciences, economy, culture, and globalization, the small villages he visits become large towns and finally modern cities. The benefits are easy enough to see--modern comforts become available to all, there are more pastimes for the people of the cities, and international trade and tourism brings new goods, money, and visitors to each city. But at the same time, the game shows the bad with the good. Many residents complain about how crowded, busy, and complicated life is now, while the animals that Ark saved earlier in the game and that helped him along his quest suffer for mankind's success, being taken from their homes to be put in a zoo, or sold on the black market.
The last aspect, and that of particular note, is the consequence of advancing technology. I feel that the game does especially well with this. It treats great moments of scientific history with reverence quite often--the successful use of Columbus's navigation methods to reach a new continent is played out as quite a big moment in history, and the discovery of how to harness electricity to create light is treated with such reverence in the game that the moment almost seems divine. The usefulness of scientific advancement, as well as the yearning to create a better life through invention, is treated as a marvelous thing in Terranigma.
Yet, at the same time, the game also shows how much is lost with the spread of high technology. Bell remarks that his phones are a huge success, and wonders casually if perhaps people can no longer live without having the instant ability to hear others' voices. A random NPC scoffs at many of the legendary and mystic ideas of old as silly and impossible in such an advanced world (even though Ark has encountered many of these things), showing the loss of belief in legend and the intangible brought on by the modern world. Columbus laments that his navigation methods, so monumental and important before, now seem old fashioned, even quaint, in this world of airplanes and television, showing that scientific advancement can even cause a lack of appreciation for itself. The use of technology for the creation of attack robots and a super virus in the game shows the dangers that technology can have, of course. Most telling of all to me are the words of Eddie,** the one who harnessed electricity into a light bulb: "I worry about how much light from electricity has changed our lives. It may have stolen the warmth like a candle's flame from human souls."
Technology and advancement in general can do great things for us, but we can also lose much because of it, and Terranigma tries hard to show both sides of the coin. Having seen this double-sided nature to the world's progress throughout the game makes the game's ending, in which Ark looks down on the world he's created and nurtured and sees it for all its greatness, all the more poignant, for we know that the greatness comes at a cost, and we know that Ark is aware of this. Terranigma does a fine job with its theme of the joys and despair of human advancement.
* Keep in mind I said PRIOR to the merger. Star Ocean 3 and Dragon Quest 8, which are actually good games, wouldn't count.
** Don't ask me why the game can't be bothered to just call him Edison when it's got people like Bell and Columbus in there by name. Then again, they misspelled Matisse as Matis for some reason, too. Who knows why, I guess.