Review by horror_spooky
It's no secret that in the days of the Super Nintendo, RPGs were the dominant genre. Just like there is a new first-person shooter released every month for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 (and shovelware mini-game compilations released for the Wii), RPGs were a dime a dozen in the fourth generation. Square and Enix (not Square Enix quite yet) were the lead RPG developers in the world at the time, strengthening franchises like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, and releasing RPG after RPG after RPG. To be honest, most RPGs had problems distinguishing themselves from another, and most followed the random battle/turn-based format that is still used today. However, there was one action-RPG from Square that strived to be different, and that game was Secret of Mana. And different it was.
It's not that hard to describe Secret of Mana really. Basically, if you take Nintendo's Legend of Zelda franchise and inject it with RPG gameplay elements, you have Secret of Mana. In the game, combat plays out like a combination of Zelda and RPGs in the sense that you battle enemies in real-time, and even use your weapons in a way similar to how Link does in A Link to the Past. However, you have to wait for your weapon to recharge after each use in order to deal full power. Players can also charge their weapons and unleash even more devastating maneuvers to deliver maximum damage.
Other Zelda elements are present, especially in the exploration and puzzle solving aspects of the game. The puzzles are a bit on the light side, and they get way too repetitive for their own good, which is disappointing because the puzzles would have truly helped the game reach new heights. Regardless, Secret of Mana, despite its similarities to other games, is still a beast of its own, and I will tell you why.
The one thing that makes the game extremely unique is its support of three-player co-op play. Unlike basically every RPG ever made, Secret of Mana allows two other players to plug in and take control of the two other characters in your party after certain points in the plot are reached. The other characters have access to all the same weapons as the main character, but some armor is character-specific. This is a unique experience, and a wonderful experiment, and it pains me that we haven't seen many more co-op RPGs since Secret of Mana wowed the world on the SNES.
The other characters, known by fans as the Girl and the Sprite (though you name them whatever you want in-game), are extraordinarily helpful. They have access to spells, with more gained as the game progresses, and without these spells, the game would be damn near impossible. At the same time, the spells do make the game a tad bit too easy for my tastes. For example, most of the boss fights can be ended in a matter of seconds if you simply chain cast spells repeatedly, and most of the time that spell is Gem Missle for some reason.
The Sprite has more offensive spells while the Girl has more defensive spells. The basic strategy any gamer will employ is to have the Sprite spam offensive magic and have the Girl heal the party periodically. This leaves the odd man out, and it's true that the central character does have times when he is virtually useless in combat.
What I liked about the spell system is that the spells become more powerful the more you use them. If you're familiar with how your skills and abilities level up in Bethesda's Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, then you have a general idea of what to expect with this system. Any character's skill with specific weapons also level based on use.
A major issue in the game is the clunky menu system. Instead of employing a traditional menu, the developers decided to try out a "ring" style menu. The result is quite messy. Navigating the menus are a pain in the ass a lot of the time, especially in the heat of battle. Menus are especially hellish if you're playing in two-player co-op, as the menu tends to randomly open whenever you attack too close to the character not being controlled. This menu system doesn't even make sense, and why it was used is beyond me. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
Another issue that the game has is hit detection. Quite simply, there are times when attacks don't register. Actually, this happens way more frequently than anyone would expect. It's extremely annoying to charge your weapon to full power, unleash your attack, and then watch as the game pretends that it never happened. At first, I thought the enemies were simply dodging my attacks, but later I noticed that when enemies dodge, there is a dodging animation that goes with the maneuver.
Storyline-wise, the game is sound. Most of the game, the storyline seems simplistic and boring, but towards the end, there are a ton of twists and revelations packed in that help everything make more sense. The cut-scenes are pretty hilarious sometimes, and the characters are quite entertaining. Sure, some of their lines are laughably bad, but that's what makes this adventure fun. Secret of Mana doesn't take itself too seriously, but it isn't afraid to get its hands dirty when it comes time to deliver an emotionally impactful plot. To give anyone reading an idea of what the storyline is like, the game follows a young boy who is thrust into a worldly power struggle after he pulls a sword from a stone. This sword is the "Mana Sword", and the boy is tasked with reviving it to its full power.
Graphical issues are present in Secret of Mana, as well as a few glitches here and there. However, the game is overall pretty good looking. The animation is impressive and all the character designs are quite good. The overworld map is jagged and ugly, and is quite glitchy, but the rest of the game is unique, charming, and pleasing to look at. It's a mixed bag for sure, but there's nothing game-breaking here to deal with.
The musical score is nice and easy to tap your feet to. The music for the bosses is especially exciting and blood-pumping. The audio provides a pleasing experience.
Secret of Mana will last a long ass time, especially if you aren't playing in co-op. The game can run anywhere from 10 to 25 hours I'd say, and that's if you don't take your time to explore every place in the game completely. The co-op feature does make replayability a very viable possibility, and it's just fun to go around slaying monsters with buddies for once.
Secret of Mana isn't a game without flaws. The hit detection is horrible at times, there are technical problems across the board, and the menu system is god-awful. However, the game has a lot of good ideas, and there aren't many games like this baby around. Sure, the bosses get repetitive and are too easy to defeat, but all these issues I have listed could easily be fixed. Why the series hasn't been revived for current-gen consoles is beyond me, because it is my firm belief that a fully co-op RPG in this day and age would be a brilliant idea. Hopefully the combined minds of Square Enix can make it happen.
Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 09/16/10
Game Release: Secret of Mana (US, 10/31/93)
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