Review by LawnNinja

"Does this fan favorite still hold up, well over a decade later on Virtual Console?"

It is a select few games that have garnered the praise and adulation that has been afforded to Secret of Mana over the years. It is widely regarded as THE quintessential Action-RPG, and one of the finest experiences that the SNES had to offer. Fifteen years after its original release, this well-loved classic has been made available on the Wii's Virtual Console download service. Despite the fact that it has several undeniable flaws, Secret of Mana is still an immensely enjoyable experience, well worth the 800 Wii points.

In a nutshell, Secret of Mana is essentially the marriage of Zelda and Final Fantasy. The game is played from a top-down perspective, nearly identical to The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past in graphical style. Like Zelda, all of the action takes place in real time, but rather than focusing on reflexes, Secret of Mana most often calculates your success based upon a series of numerical statistics, like Final Fantasy (and just about every other RPG in existence). These statistics grow with your characters as you progress through the game, in typical RPG-fashion, allowing you to battle continually more difficult enemies.

That's not to say that success is entirely based on how much you "grind". Secret of Mana rewards patience and strategy in real time through two unique elements of its weapon system. Firstly, unlike Zelda, you cannot simply run up to enemies and wantonly bash away. Mana employs a stamina meter of sorts that depletes every time you attack or dash, then takes a few seconds to recharge to 100%. You cannot dash again until your stamina recharges, and although you CAN still attack, your hits will only cause a small fraction of the damage they would if you were to wait for the meter to return to 100%. This makes combat in Mana a much more slow-paced endeavor than in similar games. You don't simply mash the attack button; you position yourself appropriately and wait for the best moment to strike.

The second aspect of Mana's weapon system to stress planning over reflexes is weapon skill. Each of your three characters can freely use any of your eight weapons, and develop their own individual skill level with each separate weapon. For each skill level gained on a weapon, a character acquires the ability to charge that weapon up for a more powerful strike by holding down the attack button. The number of "levels" you can charge up corresponds directly to the character's skill level with that particular weapon. Charged attacks are not only considerably more damaging than the basic 100% attacks, they also have different animations that include everything from speedy rush-ins to multiple hits to spinning area effects. The breadth of choices given to the player by this unique system allows for a great deal of customizable strategy. Will you be patient and begin all fights with a series of fully-charged strikes? Will you charge your weapon only up to level 3 because you find that animation particularly useful? Or will you attack quickly with regular hits, switching between your characters to ensure that your stamina meters are always at 100%?

That brings us to another unique aspect of Secret of Mana. The game gives you three playable characters, and although it's entirely possible to play through by yourself (switching between active characters as needed), it is clear that the game is meant to be played by three people. In its original SNES format, this required the use of the multi-tap peripheral, but on the Wii, any combination of Classic Controllers and/or GameCube pads can be used. This makes it easier than ever to enjoy the game as was intended by SquareSoft, something that many people never got to experience in the heyday of Mana. For those unable to play with human counterparts, Mana provides a basic interface for configuring the AI of your computer-controlled characters. For the most part it's functional, but if you're playing solo, you're almost always better off switching between characters and controlling them all manually than allowing the computer to act on its own.

This "Action Grid", in addition to just about everything else in Mana, is accessed from the "ring menu". Pressing the menu button will pause the game and bring up a ring of options around your character. Everything from weapon and magic selection to items, equipment, stats and options is accessed through these rings. While lauded by many as a significant change from the screen-filling menus of most other RPGs, the only real difference is cosmetic. You're still pausing the action to go through menus, and it still gets tedious and time-consuming, especially when you have three people playing.

Storytelling in Secret of Mana is accomplished mainly through in-game dialog boxes that appear before and after major events. The story is nothing to write home about... it's the typical RPG fare of "unlikely hero gets ancient weapon and must journey around the world with his ragtag crew fighting evil". While it's never a pulse-pounding, edge-of-your-seat thrill, the story is certainly interesting enough to keep you playing and direct you to your next destination. Progression through the story is, for the most part, entirely linear. There are a few instances where the decision of where to go next is left up to the player, but in all but one of these scenarios, there is a specific locale that you must visit to progress, and even though you can journey to other places, you'll only be left wondering why you can't do anything consequential.

The meat of the game will have you following the story from town to town, dungeon to dungeon, on a quest to restore power to your sword. As is typical of RPGs, towns in Mana serve as your hubs for story information, restocking your consumable items, upgrading your weapons, purchasing new armor, restoring your health and MP, and saving your game. It is especially important in Secret of Mana (more so than in most other RPGs) that you keep your weapons and armor at the highest level possible. The level of your weapons corresponds directly to the maximum level of skill a character can achieve with that weapon, and having the latest armor equipped can mean the difference between plowing through a dungeon or dying at the front door.

On the presentation side of Mana, we have a rather mixed bag. The graphics are certainly colorful and crisp, but they lack the variety and artistic style of similar games like Zelda and Final Fantasy. For a game originally released in 1993, though, I certainly can't complain. There are no game-breaking graphical problems, and overall it's pleasant to look at. On the audio side, most of the music is entirely forgettable. There are a few really excellent tracks towards the end of the game, but the music that you will remember most vividly from Secret of Mana is the absolutely DREADFUL theme from the Dwarf village early in the game. It is easily the most annoying music I've ever heard in a video game, and puts an ugly aural scar on what otherwise would have been a decent, albeit run-of-the-mill, sound track.

Mana can vary in the length of play time, depending on how you play. You can go directly from one plot development to the next, or you can spend time "grinding" and powering up your characters to make subsequent encounters easier. The game can take anywhere from 20 to 40 hours to complete, depending on your ratio of "grinding" to story progression. A solo player can expect to spend some time powering up to make up for the AI (which is universally bad at avoiding damage). For those who enjoy the game, it is highly replayable, since you can choose to specialize in different weapons for each character on each playthrough. This can make the experience unique each time you play.

Not all is bright and sunny in the land of Mana, though. There are several glaring flaws that hold this game back from being on par with masterpieces like Zelda. For starters, the game wants to do more computation than the SNES could really handle. Secret of Mana was originally developed for the planned Sony CD SNES peripheral that ultimately became the PlayStation. When that deal fell through, Mana was significantly scaled down in nearly every area, and this is most obvious during combat. Very often you will waste time attacking enemies that actually died several seconds ago, but still remained on screen because the game didn't finish compiling the damage yet.

Even more frustrating is the wildly random collision detection. Each weapon has a specific hitbox, and you'll learn where it is quickly. That doesn't mean, however, that you'll always hit your target. Sometimes you'll attack an enemy, from the exact right spot, and you won't hit it. Then you'll wait for your meter to recharge, attack the same enemy, from the same spot, and be successful. This is extraordinarily annoying, especially when you've spent time charging up your weapon. Now, this could possibly be the result of the enemies' "evade" statistic, but since the evade animations for the enemies seem to have been removed from the game in the downgrade, you'll never know whether the enemy evaded your attack or if the collision detection is off.

Perhaps the biggest flaw of all, though, is the severe balance issue with Mana's magic system. The game is rather challenging until you receive the ability to use magic, at which point it becomes painfully easy. Defeating bosses almost always boils down to spamming attack spells until you run out of MP. All of the truly interesting spell effects are given to the healer, but since you'll be wanting to conserve the healer's MP for, you know, HEALING, using them is more often than not a waste. The attack magic character eventually gets a spell that absorbs MP from enemies, at which point there really is no good reason not to blast everything with magic from there on out. Finally, your magic also grows in level like your characters and weapons. While certainly cool in theory, in practice, all it really amounts to is your weapons becoming obsolete in the face of far more devastating magic spells.

Even with all these prominent erros, Secret of Mana remains a thoroughly enjoyable experience. It is the direct predecessor to games like Kingdom Hearts, Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles, and even MMORPGS like World of Warcraft. I found myself constantly overlooking the flaws of this game, because I was simply having so much fun playing it. At the end of the day, we don't play games because they're critically acclaimed or expertly programmed. We play games because we have fun with them, and if nothing else, Secret of Mana is decidedly fun, in no small part due to the dynamic three-player co-op. Whether you want to over-level yourself and blast through everything in sight, or impose a challenge on yourself and rely on weapons over magic, Secret of Mana definitely delivers. It's far from perfect, and it doesn't deserve a great deal of the praise that it's accrued over the years, but if you're looking for a multiplayer adventure of the SNES flavor, you'll be hard pressed to find a better way to spend your 800 Wii points.

Reviewer's Rating:   3.5 - Good

Originally Posted: 02/05/09

Game Release: Secret of Mana (US, 10/31/93)

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