It was winter when I began my journey through the Secret of Mana. I will never forget renting it from the local Mom ‘n Pop and losing myself for hours as I bashed Rabbites, explored beautiful realms, and conversed with a talking cat! My only regret was that I did it solo, as no one else in my circle of friends liked these sorts of games and my Dad despised them. So there was never a question that one day, I would revisit this classic. And this time, I brought a friend …
It all starts with a group of mischievous rapscallions who are busy playing in the woods when one of them falls into a nearby river (That’s YOU, BTW). Lost, you try to find your way back home and stumble across an old sword, and just like that, it’s adventure time. The sword awakens a monster who is drawn by the power of the sword. Despite saving the townspeople from certain death, the elder of the village makes the decision to banish you forever, lest you bring more monsters into the community. From here on out it is up to you to discover your destiny.
A serviceable story is all I expect out of a game, and if it happens to give me more, then I consider it a bonus. Secret of Mana is perhaps my favorite story of the bunch, due in no small part to its three leading characters. The Boy, The Girl, and The Sprite will never go down in history as one of the great leading trios, but something about these characters has always kept my attention longer than the usual melodramatic fluff that Square is known for. It’s as if these three characters ARE myself and my friends! The banter you hear out of them is very similar to the kind of talk that any gamer playing in multiplayer can relate to. Each character has a reason for the journey, but aside from this motive the detail stops there, allowing the player to be the vehicle. For this reason I always get The Neverending Story vibes every time I play this game.
Each character is also differentiated by the way in which they operate. You have the boy, who is stronger than the other two and levels up weapons at the speed of light. Guess what you’ll be doing with him? The girl operates as a healer and buffer, aiding the party from the rear. The sprite is your nuker and debuffer, crippling and destroying enemies with damaging elemental magic. It’s a great system that is made for the drop-in multiplayer that the game was created for, with each person taking on a different role.
The battle system itself is a mixed bag. In the beginning of the game prior to magic, this game will try your patience with unforgiving bosses, limited items, and if you are playing solo, a boneheaded A.I. that hampers more than helps. All of this happens during the most vulnerable part of your journey, where you have limited resources and are still attempting to learn the game’s system. Of particular notoriety is the Witch’s Castle and Woods. Oftentimes you will find yourself watching helplessly as your dumbass computer-controlled allies get trapped in a corner and pelted with arrows until they die. This says nothing of the castle itself which is full of kung-fu werewolves that can kill you in seconds. We conclude this exercise in frustration with a fight against a tiger creature that is rage-inducing and almost enough to make you want to quit.
Don’t. The combat system is a actually pretty well-thought out once you get through the beginning. You only want to attack when your bar is 100 percent, otherwise you will only do a percentage of the damage you normally do. Weapons range from the ubiquitous sword to bows and spears, and each weapon differs slightly in speed and function such as the axe breaking rocks and the whip allowing you to cross chasms. Spells and items are also easy to use; just select them and go. And all of these are quick to equip and look through thanks to Mana’s revolutionary Ring System which was designed specifically to cut down on menus. Weapons can be upgraded to do more damage, and to add different secondary effects like poisoning enemies. It is pure bliss leveling and upgrading weapons and spells and seeing the new iterations. It is just too bad it takes so long to get this system going.
One thing that is not at all in question is the game’s presentation. Its roots as a SNES-CD title is visible. Environments are stunningly detailed and full of lush detail. Places you will go include: a magical forest that has different sections representing fall, spring, summer, and winter; A MUSHROOM KINGDOM; A tropical resort in the middle of the game’s equivalent of the North Pole. Animation is well-done, in particular the enemies and bosses. The game also showcases the Mode-7 in a spectacular fashion, most notably when you are in the world map screen while you are … get this-BLASTED TO YOU”RE LOCATION BY A CANNON!!! What is equally funny is that the game even pokes fun at how inconsistent this kind of transportation can be. It often misses its target!!
Music in this game is an epiphany, and I can’t sing enough about it. It’s happy, it’s sad, it’s zany, it’s somber. The range of emotion that it reaches is unprecedented. What really brings it all home is the your trek through the ruins. “Ceremony” plays and just nails the creepy atmosphere that they are trying to portray. And the game is full of these musical touches. I still believe that the “Pure Lands” theme is perhaps the most beautiful thing to ever come out of video game music. It is as close to art as the industry has ever gotten in terms of sound design.
Before I leave this magical realm, a small word on the multiplayer: It is an absolute blast going on this adventure with someone who knows their stuff. A good team can outfit themselves at the store, maneuver the maps without getting stuck, and REALLY assist and support you in battle. Not to mention giving the whole experience a feeling of togetherness and camaraderie. In short, it is the way that the game is meant to be played.
As I look back on my time with this game, I cannot help but feel a little sad. Multiplayer RPG’s never caught on; at least not in the sense that the 16-bit era introduced. Instead they have evolved into the MMORPG, massive and lonely affairs where the name of the game is journeying with random strangers and the end result is the loot or the ‘raid experience’. Mana is a completely different beast, coming from a time where it was about the journey and the person SITTING NEXT TO YOU. It was about shared adventure and shared reward. There was precious little loot to fight over in Mana. The reward was the journey and the end was gamers growing closer; two things that are lost in the current climate. As I look back, I can put all the pieces in place to determine why this game is so venerated: Whimsical fantasy reminiscent of The Neverending Story and Willow, a story and gameplay system that revolves around companionship, and the ability to stomp a mudhole in the ass of BLUE HEDGEHOGS!!!! Take that, SEGA!
But in all seriousness, this game is well worth the experience, despite a few stumbling moments out of the gate. It’s not perfect but then what is? And I can think of no better way than settling down with a friend or loved one and disappearing into a world where magic still lives and hopes and dreams take flight.
Four out of Five Stars
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