Review by gnrchild5
"A brilliant but flawed experiment"
The mission: create an RPG that is Legend of Zelda, Final Fantasy, and Dragonquest combined. OK, that's never actually been stated by Square, but the influences from the three biggest RPG series are so glaringly obvious, that you can't help but wonder if Secret of Mana was a calculated experiment by Square to create the ultimate RPG. For the most part, this combination of RPG elements, conventions, and cliches creates a hybrid that is a unique powerhouse-like Voltron. But in a few crucial areas, things don't mix so well, and it seems more like a clunky mess-like Frankenstein.
Although Secret of Mana came from Square (who made the Final Fantasy games,) elements such as the plot are much more reminiscent of a Dragonquest game. The story behind Secret of Mana is a little cliche, but solid. A boy pulls a sword from a stone (hmmm...) and long story short, he finds himself on a quest to restore said sword's power and save the world. More details of this epic, ancient battle unfold as you play, but again, it's all cliche, with few surprises. The main exception, the twist of the game, is of course the secret of Mana itself-what is Mana's identity? In all, the plot of Secret of Mana is good, but far more linear, and less convoluted, than a Final Fantasy game.
The same can be said of its character development-it's certainly got more insight into the characters than a Zelda game-where the main character has yet to even talk-but substantially less then Final Fantasy games, or even a typical Dragonquest game. The characters do have thoughts, feelings, motives to start the quest and conflicts that need resolved before it ends. But if the characters have a past or a future outside of the mission, it apparently isn't important, and flashbacks are kept to a minimum. The playable characters' personalities are a little more unique, being neither cliche heroes nor slightly less cliche antiheroes. In fact, they really aren't likable at all, at least not at first. When you first meet them, the main characters are (between all of them) whiny, spoiled, self-centered, helpless, bossy, arrogant, dishonest, and rude. So, you've got a lot of work to do to get them in shape to save the world. And, thanks in part to the more interactive battle system, you really feel like you're becoming more confident and powerful along with the characters. This is your journey, too, and by the time it's all over, you still feel that connection to the characters even without the Final Fantasy-esque plot development.
While many people believe this lack of character and plot development to be a bad thing-because it's from Square-it's actually one of the purposes of the game, and suits it perfectly. The game wasn't meant to represent the deep, poetic, emotional resonance of a Final Fantasy game-it was meant to resemble one of the fun, exciting, adventurous "quest" movies of the 80's, such as Willow, The Dark Crystal, or Neverending Story. The plot and the characters aren't the main point-it's the quest that's important; what the mission is and how they are going to do it. This game is about adventure and excitement, and if you can master the battle system, you'll get plenty of it.
The battle system is the core of the game, and what people have been arguing about for years with the same ferocity as Star Trek vs. Star Wars. The gameplay is modeled after Zelda: A Link to the Past, with the overhead view. It's more than just slashing your enemies, though. You have a variety of different weapons at your disposal, all with varying ranges, strengths, and even recoil time. You can also use magic, and this gets a little tricky. Some magic attacks can be dodged, many cannot, combining the rigid strategy of Final Fantasy with the reflexes of Zelda.
This is where the game doesn't quit mesh. There are flaws in the battle system that can make it very frustrating, let alone the fact that everything about the gameplay is unique, so you have no experience to draw from. What doesn't work? Well, for one, the fact that characters, both good and bad, get knocked down after every hit, and the fact that you can still damage an enemy when they're down (and they can damage you.) The problem is, the hits don't always register right away, especially when someone's down, and what happens is someone gets right back up and immediately goes down again-even though no one hit them after they got back up. You can get hit and have nothing happen for literally 3 or 4 seconds, then all of a sudden go flying through the air from that hit. What sometimes happens is you come across many enemies at once, and they all gang up on you. In worst case scenarios, you get hit once and you never get back up, because the enemies are just attacking and attacking, never letting up for a second, and your character just keeps going soaring through the air taking damage till they're dead. Also take into account that when more than one person is trying to hit a target, sometimes only one of those hits can register at a time. What ends up happening is that you might charge up your weapon for a powerful attack, only to strike at the exact same time as one of your other characters is doing a pitifully weak attack. Guess which one registers. To top it all off, the collision detection is horrible, no other way to put it. Sometimes an enemy will have his back to you and attack, and you still take damage. On the other hand, you may be standing there just slashing and slashing at an enemy, and nothing. So when you combine all the delayed reactions, the hits that don't register, and the hits that where way off but did still register, then you often have a battle where you don't know what the heck is going on. Even when you've gotten used to the battle system, right up to the end of the game, you will frequently have moments where someone took damage, and you have no clue how or who attacked them. Not only do you need practice to get used to the unique battle system, but you need even more practice to get used to the glitches in the battle system. Normally, game controls in battle isn't this big a deal, but in a battle system this complex (and the entire game is battles) then one little problem with it can throw the whole entire game off, and unfortunately, there's more than one little problem.
Aside from the battles, setting up your characters also gets some getting used to. Instead of a typical pause menu, you get a circular wheel' around your characters, allowing you quick access to your weapons, magic, and items in the heat of battle. This is annoying to use at first, as you find yourself trying to figure out how to get to your items or magic menu, accidentally canceling it out and resuming the battle, or spending way too much time going from magic menu to stat menu to item menu to weapon menu to magic menu-oh, crap, did I skip it? What was I even looking for? See what I mean? This wouldn't be a problem if they had just allowed for shortcuts, like in Link to the Past where you could set a magic attack to a button, but apparently that wasn't possible here (even though the L and R buttons aren't even used in this game,) so you're stuck pausing in the middle of battle and sifting through the annoying windows every time you want to use a magic attack. On the plus side, setting up your non-playing characters' actions is easy, and you can switch between them instantly in the heat of battle. You can determine, to a pretty good degree, how aggressive and defensive your other characters are in battle, and surprisingly, the AI on the allies you're not controlling are better than most games are today. That's not to say it's perfect-their timing when attacking is more off than a Carlos Mencia standup special-but they're always by your side fighting with you, and they're always right behind you when you run away.
As for the music, sound, and graphics, I think you'll be pleasantly surprised. Square went without their usual impresario Nobuo Uematsu on this one, but the soundtrack holds up very good on its own. The main theme, Angel's Fear, has become a classic in its own right, and most of the tracks here will really draw you in and impress you with its enchanting and mysterious hooks. Some of it's just mediocre, though, such as the main town theme, which sounds like elevator music. In a few places it's actually bad, such as the tone-deaf, shrill, off key screeching of the dwarf village. The sound effects are good and feel natural for the actions they are describing, although some, like the level up jingle, are fairly electronic and remind us how far we've come in 14 years. The graphics are fairly defined and realistic for a 16-bit game, although when you compare this game to Square's next two games (FF6 and Chrono Trigger) it's hardly impressive. The most notable thing about this game's graphics are the bright, vivid colors. They really bring out the exotic features of the characters and enemies, and the lush landscapes when you're outdoors. Indoors and in caves and other dark places, however, creates a contrast against the bright colors that just doesn't look quite right.
After it's all said and done, Secret of Mana is a brilliant game; it's just a shame that despite all the great ideas behind it there's a few bad ones that can be hard to get over, namely the problems with the gameplay. If you can get used to these problems and learn to work around them, then the game will offer you a very fun and unique experience, and, in my opinion, is well worth the effort. As far as I know, there's no GBA or PSP re-release of this yet, so you'll have to settle for a ROM or a used copy, which unfortunately can be somewhat pricey. The only similar game that this can be compared to is the GBA prequel Sword of Mana, which a used copy of should cost you the same as a used copy of the SNES cartridge of Secret. If it comes down to you choosing between the secret and the sword, consider this-Sword of Mana has corrected all the gameplay problems, making it much easier to play, but its short length, uninteresting characters and story, and the low difficulty level make it an inferior game altogether. So if you really think you can't deal with the frustrating gameplay, buy Sword of Mana instead. But I would encourage anybody curious about Secret of Mana to give it a try. It has earned its place as a classic piece of gaming history.
Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 10/15/07
Game Release: Secret of Mana (US, 10/31/93)
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