Review by Rottenwood

"The Wildest 16-Bit Threesome Ever"

I'm probably going to sound like an overly dramatic lunatic after this first paragraph, but what the heck. 'Secret of Mana' is one of the few games that has become a part of my life, in its own small way. When my two best friends and I got our hands on it back in the Super Nintendo days, we would play it endlessly. We even built all of our weapons and spells to maximum levels, for no particular reason other than it seemed like a fun idea. And it was. 'Secret of Mana' is simply packed with endless pleasure, whether you're playing through the story or just romping around and hunting for experience or treasure. I purchased the game right after it was released, and I have since played through it at least 10 times over the years with different groups of people. Any friend of mine that is into video gaming has played through this game with me at least once; it's practically an official ritual at this point.
The game's appeal is no secret: it's all about the three-player simultaneous play. 'Secret of Mana' would be a fun game were it just a single-player action/RPG, but it really needs to be played with three people to be appreciated. To me, gaming is best when it is a social activity, as opposed to sitting alone for hours on end. My friends and I have so many personal jokes based on 'Secret of Mana' that it is a little scary. The wrath of the Nemesis Owl! Moogle insanity! And who can forget Neko, the slick salescat who appears in the middle of nowhere to sell you overpriced items while wearing what appears to be a giant sombrero? 'Secret of Mana' has endless charm, which grows as you share it with friends. Any game that can keep three people up until four in the morning is something special, especially when the players are running only on caffeine and the love of gaming.
If you're unfamiliar with the game, here's a little overview. 'Secret of Mana' was made by Square during their 16-bit Golden Age, which also led to such classics as Chrono Trigger, and Final Fantasy 2 and 3. (Which were 4 and 6 in Japan, but never mind all that.) What separates this game is the action-based gameplay, as opposed to the turn-based controls of the other aforementioned titles. Imagine 'The Legend of Zelda' with heavier role-playing elements, and you'll have some idea of how 'Secret of Mana' feels. You control one of three characters; a fighter, a girl who uses white magic, and a sprite who uses black magic. All three characters can use any of the game's eight weapons, and even with three players, you can switch which character you're controlling at any time. So if you get tired of smashing critters with a sword as the fighter, you can grab the whip and play with that for a while. Or if you want a real change of pace, you can switch characters with a pal and sling some black magic. The real-time action keeps the gameplay brisk and exciting, as opposed to the tedium that can set in while playing through the 235th battle in a traditional turn-based RPG.
The controls are ideal for a game of this type. While the combat is a simple one-button affair, more complex acts like magic or item use is handled using a ring menu that you can pop up at any time. This is much faster and more convenient than having to go to a regular menu screen, which would slow down the game and annoy your friends. Armor upgrading is quick and painless; every piece has a simple number rating, and the higher the number, the better. I have no idea why a Tiger Bikini provides more protection than a set of Steel Armor, but hey, what do I know? Magic is equally simple, with seven elementals for each magic user that provide three spells apiece. Some are much more useful than others, but there's a good variety to experiment with and enjoy. The spell animations get more impressive as you gain elemental levels, which is a nice touch.
Equally fun is building up weapon experience, which allows you to pull off more complex attacks with each level increase. Fighting off critters with the bow is much different than using the axe or gloves, giving the combat some strategy and variety. And if you don't care about building weapon levels at all, you're more than welcome to stick to your favorite weapon and leave the others be.
The gaming universe in 'Secret of Mana' is bizarre, beautiful, and simply unforgettable. While some critics have attacked the game for being childish or relentlessly upbeat, the bright colors and playful enemies give the game its unique sense of style and personality. I can't remember what the dungeons in 'Dragon Warrior 2' looked like, but I'll never forget the Upper Land in 'Secret of Mana,' where the environment changes colors with the seasons. And who can forget little villains like Captain Duck, a military duck who tosses exploding eggs? Or the wild and savage Rabite, a monster whose only purpose is to look cute before you smash it to bits? How many role-playing games have Rudolph the Reindeer in them, begging you to save Santa from the forces of evil? While 'Secret of Mana' features a fairly typical 'save the world from the forces of evil' storyline, it has countless unique moments that make it stand out in the RPG crowd. And the game's wacky sense of humor helps keep the apocalyptic plot from getting too dull and overbearing.
Then again, I'm not sure the plot ever gets dull, mostly because of how confusing it is. The main thrust of the story is that the world's mana is fading, and it needs to be restored. 'Mana' is the world's magical energy, I guess, sort of like 'the Force' or what have you. Naturally, a Very Nasty Villain and his Unruly Henchmen Of Extreme Evilness want to steal this power and harness it to do Bad Things. Mana Seeds get sealed and unsealed, beasts are summoned, and the sprite loses and regains his memory according to the needs of the plot. The supernatural silliness is punctuated by some inspired moments, such as when you first get to fly a dragon all over the world. To give credit where it is due, the game's climax (while a bit befuddled) is pretty creative, and the ending is refreshingly open-ended and provides mixed emotions.
The game is a visual feast for fans of the 'old school.' The characters and enemies are designed with color and personality, and the lush backgrounds are packed with foliage, rivers, and anything else the programmers could cram into the environment. The game shows off some of the Super Nintendo's snazzy effects (note the Mode 7 madness when you use the Cannon Transport!), but there is little point in discussing the visual prowess of a Super Nintendo game these days, so I'll move on.
As for the game's audio quality... well, let me put it like this: I own only three video game soundtracks, and this is one of them. Sure, music from a 16-bit video game isn't going to get your party started, nor is it likely to impress the girl you just met at Barnes and Noble. But for those in the cruel grip of nostalgia, or if they simply appreciate older video game tunes, this game is a gold mine of melodic goodness. The songs range from catchy to beautiful, using a unique variety of synthetic instruments. Every time I put the soundtrack into my CD player, the music instantly takes me back to my high school days when I first got the game.
I can rant and rave all night, but the fact remains that this game needs to be played in a trio to be truly appreciated. Even as I sit on my couch and type this out, I can picture the last time I played through the Ice Forest, eyeing the lovely crystal deposits and listening to the gentle, gorgeous music. And my eyes even get a little misty whenever I hear the music of the Pure Land, my favorite gaming environment ever. The fact that I share these memories with some of my best friends makes them all the more special. If you and your friends are looking for the perfect multiplayer gaming experience, look no further. You'll remember your time with 'Secret of Mana' long after you've forgotten about the latest FPS frag-fest.


Reviewer's Score: 10/10 | Originally Posted: 07/01/03, Updated 07/01/03


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