Review by YusakuG
"In my opinion, the best Square game ever made"
Although Square did not truly achieve commercial success in the US until they came to the Playstation, they had a long history of successful games in the past that gained a loyal cult following. When people are asked what their favorite early Square game is, many will respond with Chrono Trigger, or one of the early Final Fantasy titles. Mine, however, is their classic action RPG Secret of Mana (known in Japan as Seiken Densetsu 2). The reason for this is not only because it's the first Square game I ever played. It's also because this is the most fun I've ever had playing an RPG, with Sony's classic Wild ARMs coming in at a close second.
The game's background story tells a tragic tale of mankind's own greed almost leading to its downfall. Years ago, humans began to abuse the ancient power of Mana, which kept the world in balance. These humans used the power to create a powerful floating fortress. The gods became angered, and were going to destroy mankind for its sins by sending down a powerful white dragon-like creature known as a Mana Beast. However, a lone and mysterious hero came forth, and destroyed the Mana Fortress, thereby saving mankind.
Now, in the present, a young boy (whom you name) is walking through the woods. He has been separated from his friends, and is trying to find his way home. Along the way, he finds an old sword stuck in a rock. The sword seems to speak to him, pleading that he set it free. The boy removes the sword from the rock, not knowing the consequences of his actions. It seems the sword had an ancient power that was protecting his village from monsters. Now that the sword has been removed, monsters are running rampant through his town, and the forest nearby. When the head of the village finds out that the boy has removed the legendary sword, he orders that the boy be banished from the town.
This is the beginning of a great adventure, as the boy will become involved in a quest that will once again hold mankind's fate. It seems that an evil Empire is once again seeking out the power of Mana, plotting to revive the long-forgotten Mana Fortress. The boy will team up with a young girl and a mysterious, small Sprite. It's up to them to claim the eight Mana Seeds, and prevent the Empire from repeating mankind's past mistakes.
The strongest appeal of Secret of Mana is its gameplay. It plays like an action RPG, with strong traditional RPG elements to give it more depth. Just like in Legend of Zelda, you roam the land fighting monsters as they appear on the map. Unlike traditional RPGs, there is no separate battle sequence. You can switch control among the three characters in your party at any time.
However, unlike most action RPGs, there's a bit of strategy involved. Your characters, and even your spells, gain levels. Each time your characters find one of the eight Mana Seeds, you can power up the spells in your inventory. You do this by using the spell as often as you can. The more it is used, the stronger the spell becomes. The highest level your spell can reach is determined by the number of Mana Seeds you hold. Only when you obtain all eight Seeds can your spells reach Level 8. This is a great system, as it allows you to choose which spells you want to level up, and which spells you don't. That way, experience is not wasted on spells you hardly ever use.
Of course, you won't be relying solely on magic alone in battle. Your weapons need to be upgraded as well during the course of the journey. However, unlike most RPGs, you don't buy them in stores. During the course of the journey, you find weapon orbs. Take these orbs to a blacksmith in town, and he will power up the weapon that is related to the orb you hold. You can only power up weapons that you hold orbs for, so it's important to seek out as many orbs you can, to make sure your weapons never become obsolete.
However, the crown jewel of the gameplay is the brilliant multiplayer feature that Square implemented. With a regular SNES set up, a second player can join in, playing one of the two other characters that join the boy in his quest (the computer controls the third). However, if you have a special adaptor, two extra players can join in. This is what makes Secret of Mana so much fun. You must work together as a team to see the end of the journey. It adds so much to the overall fun to have two close friends join in on your quest. It's too bad that most RPGs do not implement this feature, or if they do, they don't use it this well.
Another aspect that makes this game so much fun is the traveling system. For example, if you want to get to an area that's far away, you have to travel by cannon. In other words, you're loaded into a cannon, and shot high into the atmosphere. You can't help but laugh as your characters go flying 30,000 feet up into the air, only to come crashing down in their destination. Later in the game, you find an abandoned baby dragon that you can use anytime to travel to far off places.
Even though this game is rich in gameplay, some people won't care unless the graphics are good. Well, Secret of Mana has that area down, also. These were some of the best RPG graphics seen when Square released this game in late 93. The character sprites are large and detailed, a vast improvement over the tiny SD sprites that were common in the SNES Final Fantasy titles. This game also pushed the SNES's color palette to the max. Every area in this game is vibrant and full of life. The fields that our heroes explore are loaded with swaying grass and bountiful flowers. The towns are highly detailed and very original. Each area you visit has its own unique theme - From the beautiful golden streets of Gold City, to the mysterious and misty Mana Forest. Even the common enemies you encounter during your quest were well designed, if not a bit weird. (Ducks wearing army helmets that throw bombs at you?...) Overall, there is very little to not like about the graphics. The only flaw I can find is that there were occassional hints of slowdown, especially during more complex spell effects.
The music is also something special, and at the time, was one of the better SNES soundtracks out there. The soundtrack is wide and diverse - It ranges from happy and bouncy town themes, to the soothing, yet mysterious, theme of the ice dungeon. Many claim that this soundtrack pales in comparison to Nobuo Uematsu's Final Fantasy works, but I don't think they should be compared. This is a completely different kind of soundtrack. While Uematsu's tracks seem to be more symphonic and epic in nature, Secret of Mana's music is much more upbeat and catchy. The only track in the game I don't like is the annoying and repetitive tune in the underground Dwarf Village. Overall, however, the soundtrack is a winner. The import music CD is one of my most frequently listened to in my collection.
Of course, no game is perfect. Even beautiful games like Secret of Mana have a few flaws. The most glaring occurs when the computer controls one of your party members. The characters you don't have control over will often get stuck behind rocks or trees, preventing you from going further, since you need all your characters with you. You then have to go back close to where they are for them to get back with you. This can be annoying, but can fortunately be solved by having a second or third player join in. Another minor complaint I have is that Square's translation is a bit dry. The characters have very little life in their dialogue, except for the Sprite who joins your party. He gets a few humorous lines here and there. But, this was an early attempt by Square, so I can forgive this.
These complaints do not take away from the fact that Secret of Mana is the most fun you can have playing an RPG. This game is an absolute blast with friends. And even if you're alone, the gameplay will hook you almost from the beginning. The game does not pretend to be an epic, it just wanted to be a fun RPG that you can sit down and play, without having to worry about complex systems or character management. This is a game you can come back to time and time again, without it ever getting old. Secret of Mana is unquestionably a masterpiece, and in my opinion, is the best Square game ever made.
Reviewer's Score: 10/10 | Originally Posted: 02/10/02, Updated 06/09/03
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