Secret of Mana was the second installment of Square’s Seiken Densetsu series. This action RPG was very well received in the US, and proved to be an excellent choice of a game for SquareSoft of America to publish.
Secret of Mana and the other titles in its series (Final Fantasy Adventure, SD3) are about the mysterious Mana Tree. The Mana Tree holds the world together and keeps all elemental forces in a state of balance. In the story of Secret of Mana, the Tree is threatened by those who seek to use its power in the pursuit of global domination. Later, the 3 heroes learn that the enemy is not the emperor or his nation, but rather, the man who has been using the empire from within.
The story begins in a forest town where 3 mischief making boys are exploring the woods looking for treasure. One of them falls from the log bridge, and begins to search for a way back to his home when he sees an old sword inside a stone resting in the middle of the lake. He tries to ignore it, but he hears voices that draw him towards it. When he reached the stone in the lake, an apparition started speaking to him, telling him to take the sword. He does, and finds his way back home. When he reaches the village and speaks with the town elder, he learns about the legend that foretold great disasters in the event that the sword was removed. The legend became even more convincing when a monster from the earth attacked the town. Although our hero was able to defeat this one, the elder knew that if this boy stayed in the village, more monsters would attack because the sword acted as a beacon that drew them. The elder was left with no choice but to exile our young hero. Upon hearing about this, a knight who was visiting at the time invited the boy to accompany him to the water palace. When they got there, the boy learned many things about the sword, the legends, and himself. Very soon after this, he meets the other 2 heroes, a teenage girl and a sprite child. Although they at first team up with him for the purpose of completing a couple of simple tasks, they ultimately become steadfast partners dedicated to a common cause.
Players can control any of the 3 aforementioned heroes. The young man is the only one of the 3 with no spells or MP. He makes up for this by having the highest strength, defense, constitution, and HP, and his ability to gain skill with weapons faster than the other 2. The girl has decent strength and defense, average HP, and high wisdom. Her magic is primarily healing and defense, but she also learns spells that improve weapons, as well as a couple of attack spells. The sprite child has the lowest attack and defense, but has high agility and intelligence. The sprite’s magic is almost entirely offensive, consisting of many damage dealing and status ailment-inflicting spells.
Secret of Mana’s gameplay is somewhat different from other action RPGs. When a player attacks, he/she becomes “tapped” for a short time. While a player is “tapped”, he/she cannot run or attack at full strength. He/she can still attack, but it will inflict very little damage and will not stun the enemy or knock it down as it would if it were at full strength. “Untapping”, which enables the player to once again attack at full strength, occurs about a second after the character attacks. Another thing players can do is charge up their weapons and execute power attacks. Power attacks have very nice animation sequences, especially the high level power attacks. Power attacks involve multi strike combos, jumping/spinning attacks. Also, some power attacks involve weapons glowing with energy and characters throwing fireballs from their hands (ala Street Fighter 2). A player can charge his/her weapon to a level from 1 to 8 depending on his/her level of skill with the weapon. Skill with weapons increases by using them and killing enemies with that weapon. Weapon skill levels can only be as high as the level of the weapon itself. The 8 Mana weapons, as they are called, can be upgraded by finding special weapon orbs and taking them to the blacksmith. For example, if the player has the Broadsword, which is the Level 2 Sword, and finds a Sword’s orb, he can pay the blacksmith a small fee to have the L2 Broadsword upgraded to the L3 Herald Sword. Although the max weapon skill level is 8, the weapons themselves can be upgraded to maximum level of 9.
Just as weapon skill has levels, so does magic skill. Spells are learned by meeting each of the 8 elementals. Square’s use of the 4 elements returns in Secret of Mana, except now there are 8 elements (Water, Earth, Wind, Fire, Light, Darkness, Moon, and Nature). By using the spells from an element, the girl and sprite gain skill levels with that elements magic and the spells in that group become stronger. Magic skill can only be as high as the party’s current Mana Power, which increases when the party finds mana seeds. Mana Power and magic skill can reach a maximum level of 8.
Another excellent feature about the gameplay in Secret of Mana is its multiplayer capacity. Up to 3 people can play Secret of Mana simultaneously, each controlling 1 of the heroes. 3-player Secret of Mana is very fun, and it adds the element of teamwork to the game. One of the problems with having 3 players is that sometimes the game will slow down if there are too many sprites in addition to 3 active players. This usually only happens in towns, where there is no pre-programmed limit to the number of people moving at one time. Slowdown is pretty rare in dungeons and battlegrounds since there is a limit on the number of on-screen enemies. The best way to prevent game slowdown in Secret of Mana is to have 2 of the 3 players tag out while exploring cities and safe areas. When only 1 or 2 people are playing, the other character(s) are computer controlled. NPCs act based on the battle strategy given to them by the player(s). Through a menu accessed via the NPCs command ring, players can decide if NPCs should usually approach enemies or back away from them, whether they should be aggressive or defensive, and whether or not they should use power attacks. NPCs’ magic use is controlled directly by the human players, and they will only cast spells when commanded to do so by a human player.
Although the graphics in Secret of Mana aren’t of the caliber found in Square’s PlayStation games, they were definitely very good for a 16-Bit machine. The enemies ranged from smiling Rabites to rabid werewolves and aggressive black knights. The bosses were drawn well, and most of them were big and scary looking, just as bosses should be. Hand drawn backgrounds and landscapes look vibrant and beautiful in 256 colors. The animation for spells was decent, though not super impressive, and it got better as spells increased in level. One of the problems with the graphics is the extremely pixelated appearance of the world map while the party is flying.
The audio in Secret of Mana is pretty good. It doesn’t have the most realistic sound effects to be found in a 16-Bit game, but they are by no means bad or annoying either. Some of the background music selections are very enjoyable. In general, the music fits the surroundings and creates an environment accurate to the setting.
Even though the translation of Secret of Mana was rushed (Ted Woolsey had only 6 weeks to convert this game into English all by himself), the game proved to be a fine addition to the family of Square games available in North America. The story was translated very nicely, and should be easy for any American at least 10 years old to understand. Secret of Mana is a one-of-a-kind game, the only 3-player action RPG I know of, and a worthy purchase to almost any gamer. If you don’t have it, try to obtain it from Funcoland or any other used game dealer, because this game a true classic.