Review by NT220

"And in the end, the game STILL doesn't tell you what the big secret is! I feel cheated..."

Zelda. Final Fantasy. Two of the most esteemed game series on the planet, each with the lion's share of rabid fans who would follow the series to any game system. Since the start, many have tried to combine the qualities of the two, usually combining Zelda-style fights (top-down, plenty of emphasis on sword-swinging, real time, attack whenever you want) with Final Fantasy-style stat growth (fight lots of enemies, grow strong. Fight no enemies, stay weak, get screwed). The efforts have been so numerous, in fact, that they received their own little sub-genre, the action RPG.

Of all the action RPGs in existence, perhaps Square's very own Secret of Mana is the most successful. Certainly it is the most tilted towards Final Fantasy rather than Zelda: levels, complex system of stats, equippables, even the battle system has Final Fantasy elements thrown in. Perhaps Secret of Mana succeeds because it does not try to compromise; it is clearly a Final Fantasy game with a Zelda-style battle system. It does not try to juggle exploration, puzzle-solving, and battling like Zelda; it does not try for the Zelda ''feel.'' And in spite (or perhaps because) of that, Secret of Mana manages an atmosphere and feeling all of its own.

Secret of Mana has perhaps the best storyline of any Action RPG; a distinction to be expected as it was made by Square, the most celebrated makers of ''interactive movies'' (as more than one critic has put it). As its title suggests, the power of Mana figures prominently into the story. Mana is an extremely powerful force that, in the past, was exploited by a group of power-hungry humans. Luckily, one man, the Mana Knight, brought them down and contained the power of Mana. To prevent history from repeating, the power was sealed in eight Mana seeds guarded by eight elementals.

Our hero (he has no default name), of course, did not know this in the afternoon when the tale begins. All he knew was that he needed a sword to cut down the grass surrounding him, as he accidentally fell into this watermeadow. so when he sees a sword lodged in a stone, he doesn't think twice about pulling it out. Unfortunately, he has unwittingly pulled out the Mana Sword, and that results in a giant monster attacking his village! He is thus banished, forever, from his hometown. But a mysterious old man pities him, and eventually helps him discover his true destiny.

Yes, it's the same old cliche that has been used in every Final Fantasy since, well... Final Fantasy! The plot to Secret of Mana brings you down several much-trodden paths, and the plot twists are pretty much easily guessable. There are times when your reasons for going to a dungeon is unclear too. But for the most part Secret of Mana's plot is rather enjoyable, and the decent translation (especially for 1993) helps it too.

But luckily, Secret of Mana has more emphasis on gameplay rather than story like most action RPGs. Like in Zelda, you wander around on one screen at all times; no battle screens here. Unlike Zelda, though, you get three characters in your party. You can control any one of them, while the other two follow you around and are controlled via semi-programmable AI. Each character can equip any weapon out of eight. Like in Zelda, your weapon must make actual physical contact with the enemy in order to do damage; ditto for the enemy.

Unlike Zelda, though, you cannot attack whenever you please. Every time you perform an attack, a charge bar will start filling. It must fill fully before you can attack again with full strength; attack when it is still filling up and you will perform only an extremely weak attack - a homage to the Active Time Battle system seen in the SNES Final Fantasy games. Also like in Final Fantasy games, you will gain experience after battles. Get enough experience and you will level up, and your statistics given a boost - avoid fighting enemies, and failure is practically guaranteed.

When it comes to magic, this game is also strictly Final Fantasy. You gain a huge variety of spells in the game, although they can only be used by the hero's two allies, not the hero himself. Characters controlled by the AI use no magic on their own; the player must command them to do so via menus. Spells are automatically targeted instead of needing manual aiming. And magic is not merely an afterthought in SoM, as your weapons alone cannot deal enough damage, and items cannot heal you to the point of safety.

With magic playing such an important role, so does menu navigation. Knowing the obtrusiveness and tedium of conventional menus, however, the designers of this game came up with a new system of menus: instead of changing to an independent subscreen when you bring up menus, in this game the game will be paused and a ''ring'' of icons will surround your character. You can select one of the icons by rotating the ring, or you can switch to another ring altogether, all with nothing other than the D-Pad. The ring system is really difficult to describe with just words, but in the game its ingenuity is shown in all its glory.

Secret of Mana is a very fun game to play through. Though most normal fights consist of just slashing the enemy to death with your weapon (magic is a valuable commodity that should be saved for bosses), it never gets repetitive. Because you cannot just stand in one place and mash the attack button, movement and positioning are crucial. Enemies can be downright ferocious in their attacks, and battles play out much faster and harder than your typical run-of-the-mill Zelda game or clone.

The problem with Secret of Mana, though, is that playing alone can be an extreme hassle. The fact remains that your computer-controlled allies simply aren't very bright. While they have pretty good accuracy when attacking, they have no sense whatsoever on evade tactics. One of the bosses, for instance, use an attack where he charges and gores you with his horns - any human should be able to see that coming from a mile away and get out of harm's way, but the computer? No such intelligence. Plus, your computer-controlled characters will often get ''stuck'' when there are obstacles - they will attempt to run through the obstacle instead of around it. It gets viciously annoying sometimes.

But this is what multiplayer is for - and multiplayer is what truly sets Secret of Mana apart from both Zelda and Final Fantasy. Up to three (if you have a multitap) people can join in on the melee, and each has a limited freedom on where to go. Three-player action is definitely where Secret of Mana shines most brightly, and it makes the game even more enjoyable as you no longer have to worry about the idiotic computer-controlled characters.

Secret of Mana's atmosphere is also unlike what most RPGs have to offer. It tries not for the epic feeling of most. Instead, It feels cheerful and bright. The graphics illustrate this: large, colorful sprites, numerous animation, and backgrounds with lush coloring and plenty of detail. The graphics are quite spectacular for their time, and even now they remain pleasing.

The music also sticks with this atmosphere. A folksy soundtrack with none of the instruments typically found in an orchestra features in Mana. Truly emotional songs are few, and most of the time the music is happy, upbeat, and fast. The music is unimpressive when alone, but coupled with the graphics and the gameplay it is a perfect background sound.

Secret of Mana does have its serious moments, however. There are some ''serious'' songs playing in the more downbeat moments of the game, and while they are more sentimental than melancholy they do calm down your mood appropriately. And every once in a while you will reach a ''haunted'' or ''dark'' place, where the sense of foreboding is just as strong. But for the most part, Mana is a carefree game with an intimate, familiar atmosphere - whether that's a good thing or not is a matter of personal taste.

If you want a game with an epic story that will move you to tears (which game does that, anyway?), don't buy Secret of Mana. If you want a game that scares you and disturbs you, don't buy Secret of Mana. But if you want a game infinitely entertaining and fun, with a decent story to boot, then by all means pick it up. In fact, if you're the fortunate owner of a multitap and two other people to play it with, bump the game's score up to 10: it ranks right up there with Super Mario Kart as one of the best multiplayer SNES games ever. As a single player experience, it is a bit more frustrating and unwieldy, but solid nonetheless. A must-play for Zelda and Final Fantasy games alike.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 02/09/02, Updated 02/09/02

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