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Secret of Mana (SNES) artwork

Secret of Mana (SNES) review

"The farther you advance into the adventure, the more worthless the hero becomes when compared to his two companions. He is the best melee fighter, which is great for mowing through the common enemies that reside on the paths your party must navigate while traversing the overworld and any dungeons, but he possesses no magic of his own. When left to fight alone, the best the hero can do is charge up his weapon of choice (which isn't the quickest of processes) and hope to connect with an enemy by unleashing an enhanced attack."

I've grown accustomed to the highs and lows that can accompany my frequent trips down memory lane. I used to find myself mortified when revisiting an old favorite showed me that the title was far inferior to the experience that my rose-colored glasses had left me romanticizing. Now I just take disappointment in stride and make jokes about diminishing returns on my investments.

Unfortunately, 2013 has barely begun and Square’s Secret of Mana is already a frontrunner in my official “Game That Isn’t Quite What I Remembered” category. It didn’t mysteriously turn into a horrid experience since I last played it -- in fact, there are lengthy portions of the adventure where I can still feel that old magic creeping through – but the moments I loved seem to be concentrated in the adventure’s earliest portions and the formerly majestic outing now manages to become increasingly annoying the longer I spend playing it.

First, the good news: Secret of Mana is essentially a classic Zelda game with role-playing elements added into the mix. You run around and whack monsters with your trusty sword (or one of several other weapons) just like you would in an action-oriented game, but you also gain levels and manage a three-character party (much like you would in a more typical RPG). Most of the truly old school RPG tropes are also in full effect.

You begin the adventure as a random boy in an isolated village, but you soon find yourself exiled shortly after "discovering" a mystical sword that's “hidden” nearly in plain sight (if it were any less difficult to find, it would have to appear right in front of you the instant you start playing). In short order, you'll be joined first by a tomboyish girl who also happens to be the daughter of a local noble, then by a mischievous sprite. Of course, there also is an evil empire loaded with devious henchmen that's looking to utilize the power of magic to violently take over the world. If the revelation that you and that mystical sword are integral to stopping those baddies surprises you even a little, I'm guessing you're new to this whole video game thing.

Secret of Mana screenshot Secret of Mana screenshot

In a lot of ways, the game’s beginning is perfectly executed thanks to the breakneck pace with which you experience the hero’s "coming of age." After retrieving the sword, fighting a boss and getting kicked out of your home, it won't take long for you to bravely… get captured by hungry goblins (you don’t even put up a proper fight). Fortunately, the aforementioned village girl comes along to prevent you from becoming monster chow. Grateful for her efforts, you'll then find yourself helping your savior as she searches for her missing boyfriend. That subplot is closely intertwined with the main storyline about the evil empire and its desire for magic-fueled world domination, so you're already well on your way to greatness even at a relatively early stage! The sequence of events somewhat resembles the typical action movie, wherein the cocky youngster immediately finds himself in over his head and needs the help of a loyal comrade to make it through the early stages of his journey so that he can live long enough to step into his “hero” shoes. The movie comparison becomes even more apt once that potential hero is joined by the sprite character, who immediately jumps into the "plucky comic relief" role, even if the script is oftentimes too flimsy (at least in the American port) for much personality to really shine through.

During those first couple hours that you spend playing Secret of Mana, you'll likely only find one potential pitfall: a boss encounter with a foe named Spiky Tiger. This beast is arguably the toughest one you’ll encounter in the game for a couple of reasons. First, it is fond of jumping to ledges that are out of the range of your melee attacks. Second, by that point in the game you haven't yet gained magic spells that either the girl or sprite can use, meaning there is no way to damage your adversary when it leaps out of range, and there are no handy shortcuts that you can use to exploit elemental weaknesses. Also, the beast is fond of inflicting the "unconscious" status effect, which effectively removes a character from action for a few precious seconds. This setup leaves you to hope that the meager supply of healing items you can bring along will hold out through not only a dungeon, but also a boss battle where you can only inflict damage on the boss at certain times… times when said boss will be careening wildly through your party, knocking members out left and right, only to leap out of range the instant they've finally recovered.

Sadly, the eventual addition of magic spells can make the battle with Spiky seem almost ideal. That’s true because the game's magic system goes a long way towards making boss fights duller than I can remember such encounters being in any other game that comes to mind. When a spell is cast, either by you or by an enemy, the action freezes while the spell plays out. Many bosses also slow things down with status effects. They might transform your characters into near-worthless midgets or Moogles, for instance, or freeze them or immerse them in flames. Clearly, the best way to deal with bosses is to find their elemental weaknesses, then spam relevant attack magic like crazy until a foe perishes, all while you work to stay out of the range of any melee attacks. That doesn’t make for interesting fights, though.

Secret of Mana screenshot Secret of Mana screenshot

The farther you advance into the adventure, the more worthless the hero becomes when compared to his two companions. He is the best melee fighter, which is great for mowing through the common enemies that reside on the paths your party must navigate while traversing the overworld and any dungeons, but he possesses no magic of his own. When left to fight alone, the best the hero can do is charge up his weapon of choice (which isn't the quickest of processes) and hope to connect with an enemy by unleashing an enhanced attack. Meanwhile, the sprite is loaded with attack spells that inflict serious damage when they are powered up, and the girl is great at healing and buffing. She must be relied upon to make the hero worthwhile for much of the game’s duration, since she's capable of infusing his (and anyone else's) weapon with elemental power so that he can at last inflict a respectable amount of damage on bosses. It's weird to play a game where the main character winds up feeling like a third wheel, but Secret of Mana produces that precise dynamic.

I will admit that part of my problem with all of this possibly stems from the fact that I was playing the game solo. Secret of Mana also allows you to play with a friend or two, with each player using a separate controller to direct one of the playable characters. I found myself thinking that if I was controlling either the sprite or the girl and a friend was controlling the other, we could put the hero on computer auto-pilot after magic became available and then rip through the game with both of us being able to immediately handle our character's spell-casting duties. Playing alone, things get a bit more muddled, as you'll have to regularly tap buttons to cast another character's spells or use items to replenish health and magic (or negate status effects). Making it to bosses was fun enough, but fighting them was tedious. Sadly, the game features more than three dozen such boss fights (that grow increasingly frequent as you progress through the adventure), meaning you’re in for a lot of boredom.

Such shortcomings are a shame, as there are some legitimately great aspects to this game. Exploring the world was a lot of fun because Square did a wonderful job of creating a beautiful and mysterious planet loaded with lush forests, creepy temples, vast deserts and a number of bizarre locales. There is a bright and cartoonish aspect to the graphics, which makes the surprisingly dark turns that the story takes all the more jarring. You'll save the world from the evil empire, but it's likely you'll have a melancholy moment while the credits are rolling as you wonder if the price paid to do so was too high. Secret of Mana does many things right, but the few missteps it takes are increasingly difficult to ignore. It’s unfortunate that what might have otherwise been a timeless experience found itself diminished by tedious combat.


overdrive's avatar
Staff review by Rob Hamilton (January 25, 2013)

Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.

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