Playing through one of my favorite childhood RPGs 15 years after its original release sent me reeling in a crisis of memory. I remembered a vibrant, colorful world with a scope and scale that was larger than I could grasp, and with a difficulty level that forced me to do my very best. Now, I find a game that is charming, but very small. Exploration is limited, and there is virtually no challenge left. Perhaps I, and all of us, have become spoiled by the progress the genre has made.
But there was a time, should you want to relive it (or experience for the first time, if you missed out on this 1993 classic), that this was unequivocally the best action RPG available to English-speaking gamers. Come join me on a nostalgia-filled adventure–my Secret of Mana review.
I’d like to start with the one aspect of Secret of Mana that hasn’t felt its age: the audio. This game’s soundtrack marked Hiroki Kikuta’s entry to VGM as we know it, and those among us who follow these things closely know that Kikuta is a diamond in the rough. The music to Secret of Mana is truly classic; there is nothing I would change about it. Seriously, if Square Enix were to create some updated port/remake version of Secret of Mana, I would ultimately be disappointed with any rendition of the score other than its current form (or, if Kikuta handled an up-sampling, that might be okay).
Kikuta’s not the only person worthy of praise. A long-time member of the team, synth manipulator Minoru Akao deserves a lot of credit for helping Kikuta design the soundscape used in the soundtrack. The synths used in this game are phenomenal! A few of them would be used again for Chrono Trigger, but most of them were only found in this game and its Japanese-only sequel (Seiken Densetsu 3).
An interesting thing I noticed while watching the end credits scroll by: the sound effects for Secret of Mana were done by Kenji Ito and Yasunori Mitsuda. Ito had done plenty of soundtracks for Square in the past (including the first Seiken Densetsu, Final Fantasy Adventure). But for Mitsuda, his first big break in terms of music composition was Chrono Trigger. To hear Mitsuda’s earliest work with Square, in the form of the clanking swords and magic-based sound effects in Secret of Mana, is certainly a treat.
Here, like with most 16-bit games, we now see the game’s age quite clearly. As I played through the game, my wife kept commenting that the graphics were ugly and that they gave her a headache. That’s just the opinion of one woman (who doesn’t play games regularly), but I suspect the experience is best suited to smaller televisions. Everything is big and blocky, even with the smooth sprite animations in place. Let’s face it: the game wasn’t designed for the HD generation.
But there’s a lot to love about the classic visual aesthetic in Secret of Mana. First of all, the color palette is fantastic. Plenty of bright, vibrant colors fill the screen: green trees and pink blossoms, blue sky and earth-colored mountains. The battle animation was superb for its time, and the change in weapon design with each upgrade made a big difference in my mind as well.
So if you’ve never played Secret of Mana before (and shame on you), here’s the premise: Mana Knights and their sweet, sweet Mana Swords guard the Mana Trees. There’s only one of each per generation, and sometimes things get crazy (like at the end of Final Fantasy Adventure). In Secret of Mana, you start as a young boy playing in the woods with your friends, when you fall down a waterfall (also a nod to the introduction sequence of FF Adventure) and stumble upon a sword in a stone. Lights flash, a ghostly voice tells you to take it, and you do. Minutes later, back in town, a deadly monster attacks! How did this happen? The villagers have an explanation: apparently, there was a legend (which no one bothered to tell you) stating that removing the sword would result in catastrophe. The villagers suspect that the only solution to their own problem is to banish you from the town. So long, Potos! And your journey begins.
Much of the game’s plot is revealed in the next few hours of play. You meet up with the other two playable characters, as well as almost all of the important NPCs. The girl’s reason for joining you is that her town is being slowly brainwashed by a weird death-worshiping cult. The Sprite is a creature of Mana and recognizes that if he doesn’t do his part, Mana will disappear from the planet, and he with it. You start collecting weapons and visiting Mana temples to become stronger and take on the evil forces ahead.
Unfortunately, much of the plot’s pace slows down after about 3 hours. Once you’ve taken that cannon to the Upper Land (where the Sprite used to live), that’s pretty much the end of the interesting content. There are a few more special moments, especially near the end of the game, but most of what’s between Upper Land and Pure Land (at least 10 hours of gameplay) is level-grinding through a variety of dungeons. Yes, there are some villains introduced, but they have no backstory and are of little consequence in the end. The plot is linear, as are the events; there is virtually nothing you can do “out of order” in this game, because you are on a set path.
Though there is a part of me that cherishes the simple story told in this game, the truth of the matter is that the plot is the weakest aspect of the game.
While there are some aspects of the game that people in today’s savvy market would consider downright broken, there’s still a lot to love about this oldschool action RPG. But let’s start with the broken stuff.
Along with gaining levels through experience points, all of your characters have to “skill up” their weapons and magic through repeated use. However, there is virtually no “scale-to-difficulty.” For every enemy killed, your characters get the same amount of points given toward their weapon’s skill level. The only thing that changes is the number of points given per enemy killed. This works the same for weapons and magic: you earn less and less per unit (kills for weapons, uses for magic), so each subsequent level is harder to attain. Near the end of the game, you can earn more points per enemy killed based on a rudimentary scale, but if you’re looking for efficient skill-ups, what’s the solution? Every time you get an orb to raise the level of one of your eight weapons, you can head back to an area with easy enemies and go nuts; moments later, you’re all caught up. Do that 64 times, and you’re set. That doesn’t sound repetitive…
The process is even worse for magic. Each of the eight elemental magic categories are increased through use. So here’s how this one works: you stay at an inn, walk outside town, cast the same spell over and over (until you run out of MP), then go back to the inn to rest. Rinse and repeat. Not doing this results in your magic being pretty much useless against any challenging creatures. But if you do go through with it, the game’s difficulty dies. Every single boss can go down with less than ten casts of the Sprite’s magic if it’s fully leveled and you’re using the right element. There’s no purpose in even attempting to attack the bosses with weapons when you can just nuke them to the ground.
So what makes this game fun? There are a few things. First and foremost is the potential for multiplayer. Secret of Mana is one of the first (perhaps the first) console RPGs to allow more than two players. And now, on the Wii Virtual Console, you won’t even need to buy Bomberman to get the multitap port! All three characters can be controlled by different players. This makes for the ideal experience, and I highly recommend playing through the whole game with friends if you have the chance. Now, if Nintendo worked to get multiplayer Virtual Console titles to work WiFi on the Wii, that would be amazing.
In general, what makes this game fun (even in a single-player experience) is the seamless merge of grinding and exploration. The dungeons, and the world itself, are much smaller than I remembered from when I was nine years old, but that’s the nature of the beast. The fact is that, even though the world is small, each dungeon and each outdoor zone is a fun and unique experience. The integration of specific weapon usage to progress in the game (whips to clear chasms, swords and axes to chop down various obstacles) added a lot to the game.
There are a lot of control problems in this game, many of which were fixed in its sequel (seriously, we need Seiken Densetsu 3 in North America…). First of all, your AI-controlled characters will regularly get stuck behind a wall or some other obstacle, usually because they were busy fighting an enemy you intentionally avoided. To fix this, you hit the select button to change which character you control, and get that character to where they ought to be. The lack of solidarity between the actions of each character in your party causes a number of problems, but really, the one I described is the biggest of them all.
Another problem is that there are times when no one in your party can act because they’ve all been knocked down by an enemy. During this time, you can’t even choose to use an item, switch weapons, or prepare to cast a spell. With enough bad luck, you can quickly lose your entire party and get a “Game Over” because some boss got the upper hand so early in a battle that you had no chance to act defensively.
Playing through this game more than a decade after my last playthrough was a truly sobering experience. I didn’t realize just how short, simple, and shallow this game really was until I played it through the eyes of a man who’s played hundreds of RPGs. Nonetheless, there were few games in its day that could hold a candle to this one. Thus, the game shows not only that it has aged, but also that the industry has taken great strides forward to make better action RPGs (although the Mana series continues to suffer, generally).
Many of the current Square Enix staff had their start with this game. Hiromichi Tanaka (Final Fantasy XI) is listed as a producer, and the current Mana series head honcho, Koichi Ishii, was also a key member of the staff. Did this game help launch their careers? It couldn’t have hurt, I’ll say that much.
If you’re up for a good romp through one of the true SNES classics, definitely check out Secret of Mana. Just don’t be surprised when it fails to live up to the memories you have of it from an earlier, simpler time.