Review by Snow Dragon

"For love of the game"

''It's a truism that there are only two basic plots in fiction: one, somebody takes a trip; two, a stranger comes to town.''
--Lee Smith

''Do or do not. There is no try.''

Even if you have never played this game before, you have been through it in nearly its entirety throughout the course of your whole life. Entering your name yields an unfolding of the basic story, which has its roots, like many great epics, in the nether regions of time immemorial. Back when a group of knights commissioned by the gods themselves charged with an admirable sort of calculated recklessness into battle against ruling clans of terror and their intimidating mechanical ramparts. Only by the power of Mana was humankind spared, but at great cost to the world's central life force. What little that remained was stored in the eight Mana Seeds, hidden from all potential evils in every corner of the globe. No one will gently remind you more eloquently than the game itself, however:

''Time flows like a river ..... and history repeats.....''

Enter three boys horsing around on a log situated over a treacherous waterfall. Before you can say ''predictable,'' one of them slips and loses his grip, and you identify him as the protagonist before he even hits the shallow pond's floor several stories below. Wandering around gathering his bearings, a voice calls to him from the other side of the stone fence. Closer and closer he is summoned until he finds that it is a sword talking to him. Anyone familiar with real-world classic tales of yore knows what happens next: the disoriented boy pulls the sword by divine mandate, thereby unleashing a torrent of monsters not seen since those years immemorial.

Except now the knights of Mana are no more. And the mechanical horrors are rising up again. The fate of the world inevitably, predictably, unfortunately rests on the shoulders of (so ironic, it is) the boy who was dropped on his head.

You have heard this before, and your everlasting soul knows you have. Secret of Mana (Squaresoft, 1993) relies on grafting every cliché in the book and classic piece of mythology you have ever studied into one basic RPG that hopefully provides a thrill. Most facets of this game should be familiar ground to you. The magic system will prove easy to use so as to cross the hazardous line of being childish, and indeed I was forming magic chains and burning rubber through this game when I was but ten years old and my cousin owned the game. Weapon leveling is as simple an affair. There are only eight levels to each weapon, but each weapon must be leveled individually with each character to keep everyone up to speed and proficient in all areas of hand-to-hand combat. It is the very basic skeleton of an RPG presented as an RPG in itself, but be careful, because it is more than happy to trip you up when you've got one eye half-open. In the midst of all the material you've seen in books and cinema a million times before, watch for the occasional creative glimmer; when it twinkles, your eye will catch it, and your spirit will be lifted to a degree you have yet to experience in a role-playing game.

SoM is a coming-of-age story by necessity. Once the hero dislodges the sword from the boulder in the river, monsters ravage the local environs and begin attacking you, going so far as to burrow a hole in the middle of Potos Village, your hometown. A tremor rocks the quiet municipality to its core, and an imposing antlike humanoid literally emerges from where the earth is split. The boy realizes that this battle is the defining moment of his destiny, and that no matter what happens, the weighty responsibility of the sword lies wholly upon his adolescent shoulders.

He wins the battle, but because of the burden the sword carries, he is forced to leave Potos Village forever.

And so begins his fantastic journey.

Secret of Mana reveals each new facet of its adventure in a precise, exact order. It is linear in the extreme and would scratch its head if asked to define the term ''side quest.'' Many of your tasks are restricted to the category of Get-From-Point-A-To-Point-B-Beat-The-Boss-And-Get-All-The-Items-Spells-And-Armor-In-Between. As you progress, the armor gets noticeably stronger, to the extent that you can tell where you're supposed to be by the defense rating of the armor being sold in the nearest town. The big-picture goal is to of course find the eight Mana Seeds at the world's Mana Palaces and slowly but surely restore power to the sword by holding it up to those eight seeds. Many characters generated by the game's myriad subplots will attempt to stop you, however. You will be contacted at several points in the nick of time by supporting characters only to learn that a Mana Seed is missing or that the power has been drained from it, thus giving you something to do for another hour. Each supporting cast member, however, develops from a flat stock character in the beginning (you have your usual assortment of thieves, underground mobsters, and hell-bent sorcerers who are empathically bonded to the underworld) to a round primary player with deeper meaning to their purpose.

People will meet you before you meet them. They come to you because you have the one thing they want: the ultimate power of the cosmos in the form of something so simple as a rusted blade. Each group's motives for gain by ill-gotten means become essentially unimportant as the game craftily weeds each group out until finally one remains. Like a novel, you will find everything out in short bursts. As such, there is almost no diversion from the main road. Never does the game attempt to handle the doings of two travelers at once. Even you and your two allies deal with their problems one after another: first the boy must attend to the situation at hand, then the sprite will remember something from the past that must be addressed, and finally the girl will have to catch up on the doings of her boyfriend, the Pandoran general Dyluck. If branching paths are what you crave, go elsewhere, because this game is as straight as an arrow.

Secret of Mana is an action RPG in the vein of games such as Legend of Zelda. You walk around fighting enemies whose positions on the screen are preordained in order to gain levels or get to the next area. There are no turn-based affairs; to include them in this game would most likely ruin its flow and make it unworthy of the acclaim it receives otherwise. Damage is done in small increments that are easy for the old and new role-player to comprehend; as a matter of fact, the maximum amount of damage you can do with any given blow is 999, a number laughed endlessly upon by RPGs of today on CDs capable of holding much larger data. Finding ways to reach this supposedly small number is interesting, though. The magic system is set up so that you can link spells together and start the casting of the next one before the first one has been given a reasonable chance to unleash elemental hell on an enemy. When using magic on bosses that are weak against a certain category of it, this rapid-fire combination makes nearly all boss battles laughably easy. Watch as one dies in a blinding white pyrotechnic display in a matter of seconds due to the four Thunderbolts or three Earth Slides you just summoned, and you will think one of two things:

1) ''What's up with this ****? I've had more mind-bending experiences with canned ravioli!''
2) ''Duh-huh! Me like white ka-boom! Me want see more!''

This reviewer has played many an RPG on many a console in his eighteen years, and suffice it to say that upon returning to this game and disintegrating a boss's ashes with magic overkill, he has been known to lapse in the realm of comprehensible sentence formation from time to time.

There are many such instances in which all the rules of proper grammar will leave your mind in awe of what is happening or what will happen next. Such is the soul-stealing, blood-curdling power of this game: that it can take a hodgepodge of stories, ideas, and characters that have been done over in tons of other games (and in many cases better), attach them together to form a peculiar sort of handsome Frankenstein's monster of a game, and make it something so addictive and powerful that you play it a million times, and then once more, and then again for the heck of it. You will force your way into the story enough to know the three main characters. Of course, there is the boy who fell from the waterfall and excised destiny itself from a boulder, but you also have a princess who is unwilling to reign as queen of the town of Pandora and would rather elope with her boyfriend the general (who is unwittingly marching into the hands and master plan of the world's most powerful sorcerer), and a sprite from the Upper Land who has lost his memory and is performing in the Dwarf Village's theater to earn enough money to pay off his debts and return in the hope of re-discovering what he has lost. This ragtag band of perfect strangers is the only hope civilization has. You have every right to roll your eyes at this obvious realization.

Secret of Mana is beautiful. Even without an essence so strong as that of Mana to set the plains aglow and breathe light into even the foggiest mountaintops, the game uses lush, vivid colors with distinctly sharp edges to shape the look of the game as a mix of cartoonish animé with a hint of sketchy realism. Only the brightest blues, greens, and pinks are suitable for this world that is so happy in the wake of the understated doom that has just befallen it. Enemy creatures run the gamut from playful (Rabites) to deceptive in appearance and therefore doubly dangerous (Lullabuds) to downright scary (the ethereal Dark Lich does nothing to prevent you from soiling yourself and your gaming chair in unabated fear). It can be dark when it wants to, and the fairweather skies will cloud up at the drop of a hat to convey an instantly more dire set of circumstances. Flammie the baby dragon and the boss enemies share equally impressive bouts of animation; the game switches to a dizzying Mode 7 third-person view when you take to the skies on his undulating back, and many of the boss sprites are larger than a typical house. This game knows no subtlety; everything shouts at you to make its presence known: the spells that exhibit the Super Nintendo's (then) impressive range of color and light effects, the enormous muscle-bound bosses, and the sparkling backdrops of the world of Mana's spacier locales like the Moon Palace.

If only time could stand still though, because SoM is not one to boast the world's best animation. There are very few movements that do not jerk or skip frames at least once during their cycles. Characters' walking - something even a child could animate - appears to be aided by strong doses of caffeine. The bosses are often too big or detailed to display any sort of fluidity and often come off as dumb and only around for the purpose of destroying you (which, let's face it, if that's not why they're here, then what are we even doing playing this game?). Slowdown occurs at every possible moment during major events, such as the white-light explosion of the death of a monster guarding a Mana elemental. Snails with double hernias have been recorded as moving faster in some instances. Complicated techniques such as rapid-fire magic use and charged weapon attacks don't fare much better; while flashy, they take a long time to store up the energy for, and you often take a hit before being allotted the proper amount of time to both charge up your power meter and position yourself for a direct hit. Ultimately, the analogy of a fat man in a disco bar comes into play. He may get the looks right, but any random schmuck in the crowd could tell you that he doesn't have the moves to be out on the middle of the dance floor.

SoM displays a pleasing soundtrack that fits the bill and happily completes Assignment No. 1 on the RPG checklist (make sure songs match mood and setting). By far the game's strong musical suit is its ability to give you chills with the synthesized string runs and gritty bass warbling effects, as in the Dark Lich's battle theme and the song playing during the cinematic history of Mana. The emphasis is heaviest on the symphonic pieces, but a great number of rock instrumentals come through as well. Most memorable of all is the boss battle theme, entitled - perhaps understatedly - ''Danger,'' which makes even the most unapproachable of 32nd-note runs look as effortless as making toast. It stands out as one of the few examples where if I heard this song played by an actual person, I would literally cough up a lung. Of course, in the area of sound effects, you have your sword slashes, punches, and the occasionally distinct Japanese quirky bite - try using the Balloon spell on any enemy if your inner dork cries out for attention. The biffs and whacks serve their purpose like a child at a fifth cousin's niece's brother's funeral (''do I really hafta be here???''), but you will never forget the music in this game, and that's a promise I wouldn't make if I could break it.

Hiding beneath the glossy visual and auditory exteriors, however, is the undeniable fact that this game is just a plain ol' blast. Once you are pulled in by forces outside mortal control, there is a deep compelling desire to play this game out to the end. You begin to gain a higher understanding of what you would have missed if you had turned the game off at the title screen, stuff like:

- Three-player sublimity (if you have a multi-tap)
- A horde of zombies who are relentless in accosting you inside a subway car, of all places
- Your certain death atop a castle being firebombed by an armored biker
- A ferry ride across time and space itself
- A duel to the death with ..... SANTA CLAUS?!?!??!?

I love this game. It's my favorite game of all time, as a matter of fact, but any 10's I give it are purely sentimental and must remain locked up tightly inside my fragile heart. I would be a delusional fool to think that in spite of a few glaring flaws that cause me to gnash my teeth and wail in anger, it deserves an actual tangible 10. Never being one to cloud my judgment with gross bias, I have placed an appropriate objective integer in the small tiny score box on the Review Submission Form.

Turned sideways, this number represents my love for this game.

Maybe that's not quite so indicative of your feelings toward this game. But there's nothing to match the sheer joy of falling into that hole in Potos Village and brandishing my sword in fear of the Mantis Ant once again. I shake pincers with an old friend and lose myself in a journey worthy of the Argonauts. As far as I am concerned, the real world no longer exists.

So I can only assume that everything is right with it.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 03/05/03, Updated 03/05/03

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