Review by tnote827
"Secret of Mana is, quite simply, the Best. Game. Ever."
Introduction: The first ever SNES RPG I played so many years ago still reigns as my favorite game of all-time. The game begins with three children fooling around on a log high above the ground, and before you know it the character that you have just named falls down below into a pond. Searching around, you realize that your only way out of this area is through some weeds and into a clearing where a flight of stairs lead you out of your predicament. But how to go through the weeds is the question that begins one of the best games you will ever have the privilege of playing.
Gameplay: In the storied tradition of Squaresoft comes this non Final Fantasy classic that introduces a style of play that just never caught on in the world of RPGs: multi-player. Throughout your quest you will obtain two other characters to help our hero along the way through the world, and all three characters are controllable with three different controllers. This is made possible through the deviation from turn-based battles well known to Square titles (like the Final Fantasy series), for the more enjoyable hack and slash action-based environment (as seen in the more recent Kingdom Hearts). In addition to the multi-player option, you can fortunately cycle through the three characters when playing alone so as not to fall victim to the dreaded sacrificial lamb syndrome brought upon by the artificial intelligence (AI). Playable characters not controlled by a human have the propensity to do nothing more than twiddle their 32-bit thumbs during the majority of fighting, and even though there are setting to control how your AI-characters battle (passive to aggressive and magic-attack to physical attack), I personally found tinkering with the options to cause more harm than anything else. Another rare feature of Secret of Mana is the ring-command system, which allows for easy-access to the in-game options throughout the game. Rather than devoting an entire page to these in-game menu options, Secret of Mana employed this ring system, which allows you to cycle through all of your items, change weapons, equip armor, cast spells and a multitude of other features, all within the flow of the game. It will take you a while to become comfortable with quickly cycling through all of these options, but I believe that by the end you will yearn for new RPGs to abandon the external options screen and revive the command-rings. The best part about Secret of Mana is the extremely straightforward nature of the game. Those of you gamers looking to drop 100+ hours completing every side-quest and finding every hidden character need not address Secret of Mana. There are very few hidden aspects to the game, so you need not concern yourself with talking to a random guy at the inn 13 times to get him to reveal the location of an enemy you can steal a key from that opens up a dungeon only accessible by searching the world map. In addition to the avoidance of obscure tasks, there is also no Zelda-effect, or the need to talk to some random character, or find some random item, in order to advance the actual storyline. Now, I am not saying there is no difficulty involved in playing this game, to do so would be a blatant lie. I just feel the strongest aspect of the game is actually playing of the game, as opposed to wasting hours hunting and searching for some piece of information that will allow to continue playing the game.
Story: The story of Secret of Mana takes a while to actually develop, as in the beginning you just think the hero removes this rusty ole sword from a stone to save his own hide. But you get the first hint that this sword is not just any sword when you get back to your hometown, and everyone seems to be upset with you. Some strange man is nosing around town, and before you know it even your best friends are threatening your very being. And that is when the game begins. You will embark on a journey that spans the entire globe, searching to reseal each of the seven Mana Seeds to your legendary weapon, the Mana Sword. Along the way you will encounter a damsel in distress (well, technically your in distress, but I digress) whose only purpose left in life is to scour the continents in search of her lost love. She eventually joins your party to help find her man, except you will soon find that there is a greater evil in the world than just the forces who abducted the Mana Seeds. You will finally befriend an orphan sprite, whose best attempts to swindle the hero out of his hard-earned gold backfire, but whose heart of gold will leave a lasting impression on you the gamer by the time the ending credits role. One of the most underrated characters in video gaming (namely because all three characters do not have default names), his only goal in this quest is to find his homeland so he can be reunited with the other sprites (as his parents were killed when he was but an infant). There are many plot twists and surprises throughout the game, and to go any further into the plot would risk ruining some of the enjoyment you will derive from watching these events unfold.
Graphics: The graphics for Secret of Mana were really quite good for its time, but unfortunately never get the respect they deserve because of the release of Chrono Trigger and its lush, flowing graphics (at least for the SNES). The most important aspect of the graphics is that you will never find yourself in a situation where you feel the graphics take away from any aspect of the game, aesthetic or otherwise. Secret of Mana was a relatively early SNES Square release, and in comparison to anything after it simply cannot stack up from a graphics perspective. However, for what they are the graphics make the game enjoyable, and coupled with the actual game itself more than make up for missed CGI and voice acting.
Sound: The only game I have encountered that has a better, more complete soundtrack than Secret of Mana is Chrono Trigger. Each area of the game has a unique theme and, excluding the final part, you will never routinely encounter an area where you are around long enough to find the music as repetitive. There are some areas that you may find yourself going back to simply to rehash the beautiful melody playing in the background. And the selections are so diverse that different songs will appeal to different people. There are no universal feelings on the best song in the game, because chances are if you talk to ten people you will receive ten different songs that they found to be most enjoyable. However, there is one song in particular you never want to hear and you will know when you hear the music why you do not want to hear it.
Time: Secret of Mana, unlike other Square titles, does not have an internal clock, but rather a times saved counter, which is really not too helpful in gauging your time commitment to the game. I would gather that in order to beat the game from start to finish with no concerns for leveling up characters or spells, or acquiring the best equipment and weapons, you will need 20-25 hours. Being able to run straight through the game, however, will take either a great deal of skill or luck, as many of the bosses pose difficult challenges, and most likely storyline-battling alone will not be enough to sufficiently prepare your characters for the perils ahead. If you require having all of your magic and weapons at level 9 and your characters maxed-out, you can probably expect to put in at least another 5-10 hours.
Replay Value: I first obtained this game a few years after its US release, and since then have probably gone through the game, beginning to end, at least ten times. The caveat with this, though, is that it is my favorite game of all-time. Without non-linear gameplay or time-consuming side quests, there is not much to differentiate each replay from the previous run-through. There are some hidden elements of the game that you will have extreme difficulty obtaining without a walkthrough or extreme luck, however they do not represent a large-enough portion of the game to solely be the reason for replaying the game. The storyline and gameplay of Secret of Mana are strong enough to warrant at least one additional run-through (especially to take advantage of the multi-player capabilities), however after that it will really depend on how strong your convictions are for this classic.
Final Recommendation: If you are reading this having never played the game before, please kindly step away from the computer and obtain an SNES, a controller (a multi-tap and two more if you have friends) and Secret of Mana. Given that you will need to invest around 20+ hours, borrowing this game from your local rental agency is probably not advisable, unless you are either a binge gamer or can retain the game for long enough to run through it at least once all the way. My major recommendation regarding Secret of Mana is that you must, at all costs, partake in this ending. I will say nothing more, but it is one of maybe two or three moments in video games when I truly felt the emotions of the characters. For this reason, and countless others, Secret of Mana is, quite simply, the Best. Game. Ever.
Reviewer's Score: 10/10 | Originally Posted: 07/29/04
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