Review by The Vic Viper
"Despite the bugs, it is one of the most fun games on the Super Nintendo"
Secret of Mana was Squaresoft's big action RPG series before Kingdom Hearts and Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles came into existence. In many ways, it is the spiritual predecessor to those two series, especially FF:CC. While there are several annoyances about the gameplay that keep it from being the perfect aRPG, it is still one of the most memorable games on the SNES.
The Mana series is technically a spin-off of Final Fantasy, however there is little, if anything in common between the two series aside from the developer. SoM is a sequel to the Game Boy game Final Fantasy Adventure (know as Seiken Densetsu: Final Fantasy Gaiden in Japan). The stories aren't connected beyond a similar plot involving protecting the Mana Tree and keeping the bad guys from using Mana to control the world. There is, however, much more in common with the gameplay, as SoM uses a (greatly improved) version of Adventure's engine. While often compared to The Legend of Zelda in terms of gameplay, there really isn't that much in common except for the fact they are action-oriented and use a top-down third person perspective.
Combat involves either using magic or physical weapons, with most of the fighting done hand-to-hand. There are eight different types of weapons, and all characters can use every weapon. Four are ranged weapons, and four are close-combat weapons. You end up with almost every type of weapon conceivable (except for guns and bombs), including whips, javelins, axes, swords, and spears. Weapons have to be charged by waiting a few seconds after each attack or you will only be able to do a fraction of the normal amount of damage. The vast majority of the time this doesn't hurt combat as the enemies are designed around this limitation. However, there are a few instances when you need to time your hits fairly precisely and having to wait can disrupt your pattern.
Weapons are improved in two different ways. First, you can reforge your weapons by collecting orbs (generally after defeating a boss, though a few are in treasure chests). Second, they gain levels once enough enemies have been defeated with them. Every time you reforge a weapon, its max level goes up by one and every time you gain a weapon level you can use a new special attack that does more damage and changes the attack pattern. The special attacks involve overcharging by pushing the weapon's meter past 100%. These attacks generally take a long time to charge and aren't usually worth the effort, though there are a handful of extremely useful special attacks.
Your other battle system is magic, which your two secondary characters learn as you go around the world collecting the 8 plot devic-, err, 8 Mana Seeds and meet the Elementals. Each character learns three spells each from seven of the eight elementals, one will learn defensive and healing magic while the other will learn offensive magic. Like weapons, magic has levels and becomes stronger the more you use it. Every Seed collected raises the level cap by one and casting a spell earns you points towards that Elemental's spells. Unlike the weapons, which only gain special moves by not attack power as they level up, magic becomes incrementally stronger as it levels up and is generally worth the effort to keep it at full power.
Level grinding isn't that bad, though it can get very tedious late in the game. Weapon and Magic levels are tied to each character, so weapons have to be leveled up three times per orb and every Elemental needs to be leveled up twice every time you get a new Seed. For the most part this doesn't take too long since you can gain a level in a few minuets (at most), and if you always keep everything powered to max it spreads the griding out over the course of the game. Unfortunately, there is one point, near the very end of the game, when you get the last Seed and six weapon orbs. That means that you have to raise eighteen weapon levels and fourteen magic levels, and at this point each are earning 1 2 points (out of a hundred needed to level up) per use.
Characters also level up in the traditional manner, though this isn't anywhere near as important as keeping your weapons and magic powered up. If you fight everything you encounter while dungeon crawling, chances are you can keep the grinding for character levels to a minimum. Likewise with gold if you just kill anything that moves (and a few things that don't), you'll never be short on money.
Most of your non-weaponry equipment will be purchased from the local shops as soon as you get to a new town. You'll just buy the best and be set until you get to the next town. Upgrading your armor is a simple, yet extremely important, task since having only the second best possible equipment can mean not being able to survive even the most basic enemies in the next dungeon. Almost all enemies drop items, and like most games there are common and rare drops. Most just drop consumable items, but you can also find armor infrequently. Generally it isn't anything better than what you can buy in town (you can, however, sell what you find for decent money), though all of the very best equipment in the game is only available from fighting enemies.
The characters are fairly generic on the surface (they're even refereed to as The Boy, The Girl, and The Sprite in most Western circles, though the Japanese version did give them all default names). However, once you get into the story, they are all reasonable fleshed out, especially The Girl. They all have individual personalities that comes through in the (admittedly limited amount of) dialog and, unlike so many RPGs of the time, there are no silent heroes. The Boy is on a fairly typical hero's quest he pulls the magic sword out of the rock, gets himself exiled from home, and then has to go on a journey to reforge the sword and save the world. The Girl's story is an inversion of the white knight saves his high-class girlfriend in that she's the noble woman out to save her boyfriend, the knight. The majority of the Sprite's story takes place early on when he is simply trying to get home, then tappers off until the very end of the game.
The plot and character development progresses not only through the party interacting with NPCs (and there are quite a few that are relevant to the story) but also with each other. When the party first forms, everyone is rather lacking in team spirit and only interested using each other to accomplish their goals. Over the course of the game, as all of their individual agendas become intertwined, they begin to function more as a team than a mob. The villains aren't just faceless adversaries (except for the second to last boss, who literally doesn't have a face), and will appear throughout the game as you spoil their plans and occasionally they spoil your plans (not as often, but when they do, they make a big mess of things). Aside from various side-stories, the bad guys consist of the Emperor and his lieutenants, all of whom have their own personalities that, like the heroes, comes out in their actions and in dialog.
While the characters are excellent, the overarching plot isn't that special. If you simplify it enough, it's just a story of a ragtag band of unlikely heroes saving the world by using the power of nature to defeat the evil, power hungry, empire. However, it is the characters, both good and bad, that really keep the story afloat as you care what happens them even if not the rest of the world.
There are only a handful of instances of weak storytelling, but they are the result of using plot devices which are used so often in fiction in general that most people will just accept it and move on with the game. First, there is the knight Jema who is basically a fountain of exposition throughout the game. It never turns into a deus ex machina, since he has legitimate reasons for knowing all that he knows and being in the same places as you, but he is used a lot when introducing another NPC would have worked just as well. The second is the sage Ject, who basically serves to hand out side-quests for a about a quarter of the game. Again, he has specific reasons for sending you where he does, but he is used too often when there were many other ways of getting you where you need to go.
What really separated Secret of Mana from most games of the time is that, despite being a non-turn based RPG, you had multiple characters to control. Generally action games only had one PC, or possibly a clone that could be thrown in for multiplayer gaming. Mana does allow for up to three players, but will have the computer control the two characters for single-player gaming. For the most part the AI is acceptable, though there are screwups throughout that can get annoying. The problem lies in that all three characters have to be on the same screen at all times, so they are basically leashed to each other. If one character gets too far ahead, s/he'll run against an invisible wall until the rest catch up. This causes problems when you want to run through an area but the other two decide that they want to fight the enemies. Computer controlled characters can also have trouble navigating through narrow, switchbacking, paths as they often try to go straight and get stuck instead of going left, forward, and then back to the right. The happens mostly when there are other enemies around, though they can still get stuck at corners and against obstacles in the middle of the path.
The AI only controls the movement of the characters and will only use physical attacks. You are still in complete control of what equipment they have, items used, and only you can make them use magic (though you don't have to switch which character you are controlling if you want one of them to cast a spell). This is actually a good thing, as it prevents the computer from wasting your limited resources and doesn't allow you to simply sit back and let the game play itself. Additionally, you can switch between characters with the press of a button and give a limited amount of direction to the AI. You can set how close the AI controlled characters will get to enemies as well as how offensively they fight, and you can override the computer by commanding them to attack a specific enemy (useful when you want them to go after the strong enemy while you keep the minor ones at bay).
Another unique design element of Mana games is the menu system. Rather than having the menu overlay the entire screen, the menus consist of sets of rings that surround the characters. The game is paused as you scroll through to select magic attacks, change your equipment, configure the settings, and so on. Each character has their own menu rings, so to cast one character's magic you simply pop up their ring and select what you want. In the end, this is just a cosmetic change, as the game is still paused and doesn't really take any less time to navigate than a traditional menu system. Whether or not it's an improvement over the standard is a matter of some debate.
In addition to the engaging story and excellent gameplay, Secret of Mana is a crowning achievement from a graphical perspective. The game runs at a higher resolution than most, makes excellent use of Mode 7 graphics when traveling, and has very bright and colorful characters and environments. Most areas have several background layers, a foreground, and use transparencies to bring everything together into an immersive environment. Most of the enemies are simple variations on existing animals, such as wolves or insects, or taken out of mythology and fiction (vampires, ninjas, dragons, robots, and such). Even so, they are large, impressive, and detailed. The audio is a bit uneven, as there are a few memorable soundtracks, many forgettable ones, and a few flat out bad ones. The sound effects aren't necessarily bad, but they get repetitive and irritating after a while. Unfortunately the game doesn't give you separate volume controls for the music and sound effects, so you can't mute the effects while enjoying the music.
The game's difficulty is a bit lacking, especially late in the game if you have your magic levels up reasonably high. Eventually The Sprite will learn the Magic Absorb spell, while lets you replenish your MP at any point by stealing it from enemies. If your spells are powerful enough, you can just blast your way through anything and everything and recharge with the next thing to wander by. This is especially apparent in boss fights, as most are very weak against a certain element. Most times you can beat the bosses without getting hit once simply by spamming magic from a distance. The rest of the game is much more balanced, and while it is never hard, it never becomes so easy as to be boring.
What really keeps Secret of Mana from being perfect is a number of bugs. Besides the mess-ups from the AI when controlling movement, there are a couple of other glitches and bugs in the game that can cause problems (but none are game-breaking). One of the most common graphical glitches is when the screen dims or brightens during a spell animation, but doesn't reset itself for whatever reason until you go to a new screen. Most of the gameplay bugs involve the game not determining damage to enemies correctly. Occasionally something will happen such as it not stacking damage (so that all three characters will hit one enemy, but it'll only register damage from one of them), not registering the damage dealt until a few seconds later (often crops up when damage is dealt to an enemy in the process of casting a spell), or simply ignoring damage from one of your spells. All of these problems are very rare and don't really hurt the game that much, since it only means that you have to hit the enemies again. The only other issue is that the game doesn't put all of the enemies on the screen that it should. For instance, there might be a spot where three Master Ninjas are supposed to be, but when you get there only two will be there (if you walk away and come back, the last one will probably be there). Convenient when you don't want to fight, but annoying when you're level griding or looking from item drops.
Because the bugs, while numerous, are all trivial, Secret of Mana was still able to become one of the greatest games on the Super Nintendo. Even by today's standards, it is a complex, well crafted, fast paced, and most importantly fun. In addition to being a fantastic game all on its own, SoM led to two amazing sequels: Seiken Densetsu 3 (often simply called Secret of Mana 2), which used the same engine but fixed many of the bugs, and Legend of Mana, which had one of the best stories and presentation of the PlayStation era.
Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 10/10/08
Game Release: Secret of Mana (US, 10/31/93)
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