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Secret of Mana (SNES) artwork

Secret of Mana (SNES) review

"About as quirky as it gets without being Indie."

If Indie publishing had been a thing in 1993, you might have been forgiven for thinking that Secret of Mana was a passion project of 4-10 years length. It is a classic, and stepped into unfamiliar territory in a way only Nintendo made possible for console gaming. Naturally, they werenít the first, but they popularized mechanics we take for granted in 2017.

The setting was different enough from others of its ilk to stand out as memorable. Hiroku Kikutaís melodic soundtrack brought with it some delightful ideas, but also some of the most annoying themes in any RPG. The dwarf theme wins instant volume down (or mute) as your controls afford you, every time. The remedy is a game provided short cut that seems aware of this inconvenience.

Secret of Mana, simply put, takes the Legendary Sword myth and adapts it into a violence rich--um, detailed world that is in peril except for your intervention. Youíll acquire the Legendary Sword, depleted of its power, and be sent on a quest to overcome impossible odds. Two allies will join you with rather well fleshed out personalities and amusing events to carry you along.

Combat plays out in real time: Levelling characters, weapons and magic depends upon your ability to anticipate, react to, and exploit enemies whose tactics vary with each new area you enter. SoM is a beautiful game, with lush pixel art and clever use of the SNES hardware. In spite of any failings, Hirokuís soundtrack has produced some of gamings most beloved themes. Itís a journey worth taking, if you mind its imperfections.

We didnít know much about RPGs in the West, and Final Fantasy VI had yet to grant us multiplayer combat Ė so when SoM trotted out three player realtime combat, we were floored. A multiport adapter was required for this, but it worked flawlessly when you could dedicate enough time and friends to it.

Who ever did, though? SoMís long time commitment meant you were grinding solo, or playing with a friend Ė or sibling Ė if you could manage it. Mechanical ticks, like getting stuck around corners, or having the computer get stuck, derailed the fun train as well. It seems like every time SoM got something right, it managed to have a glitch that sabotaged the fun.

In single player mode, you control your AI guided allies with the press of a button. Choose a target, their combat style, an item or magic spell, and watch them go to work. Some magic spam may be required in boss fights, so stock up on restorative items as often as possible.

This brings up one of SoMís most perplexing choices: Item storage. Carry as many as twelve unique items, but only four of each. Youíre going to be running to that price gouging cat a lot Ė but I hear heís got a mortgage. How else would you explain why he doubles his prices compared to nearest town? Letís move on.

Weíre no stranger to leveling in RPGs. Characters, weapons, pets, items, magic Ė if it has a stat, someone has decided that your time can boost its attributes. Secret of Mana allows you to level your character, your weapon and your magic. The first is obvious, the second allows you to charge your weapon once for each level. When unleashed you can deal out massive damage.

Leveling, before we get to magic, works in a descending order of gain. From levels one to nine, each level is slower by a fixed percent. By level nine youíre gaining as little as 1% for each successfully landed use. Remember that, itís going to burn you when you get there in mid game.

You see, magic is acquired by your partners through mana spirits which youíll meet along the way. As the main character, you donít get any Ė apparently you donít need it. Your partners will gain offensive and restorative spells which can be leveled up. Hereís the trouble, though: Each newly acquired spirit starts at level one.

The total number of spirits also determines your maximum level cap, too, so the more the merrier. When youíve just two spirits, youíll have all six spells Ė three to each Ė in a short time. When youíve six of them, thatís a whole other story. Youíll want to find a static enemy with high resistance to spam near a town so you can hit the inn to restore your MP between grinding sessions.

This issue was addressed in the sequel, though it was never released in North America. Tough luck for us, I suppose.

The Secret of Manaís success is that it succeeds more often than it fails. Just when you tire of a quest, the developers seem to know it, and provide you with a nice plot twist or change of pace to ease the tedium. What SoM does well it does exceptionally well.

This is an open world exploration RPG, even if it doesnít look that way at first. Youíre not tied down to a specific path. Instead, a few short branches will bring you back to the main plot without insulting your intelligence or bossing you around. Youíll get the sense of it being your quest, funnily enough.

Even though most of SoMís humour is pretty dry bones material. All is forgiven in the heat of combat, however. Once you get going, chances are you wonít want to stop. Boss battles are especially stirring, until you run into a couple of recolours and rehashes. Weapons upgrades are always a thrill, and building up to that new charge level is so satisfying.

Your allies have grid configurable combat tactics that give you fine tuned control over their actions. SoMís soundtrack is possibly the best of the franchise, and combat is going to keep you on your toes. Thereís a great big world to protect out there, and plenty of beautiful landscapes to visit along the way.

SoM is known for its Ö occasional glitches. Enemies are always in memory, but wonít load when more than a fixed number are on screen. This can result in untimely ambushes and attacks that stun lock you to death. Fortunately better gear and higher levels resolve that one, at least. Some weapon orbs donít spawn and can force you to reset, though there are known exploits to get you more than you should have.

Secret of Mana has seen re-release on mobile, with improvements that resolve many of the glitches that plagued the Super Nintendo release. Itís worth picking up full price as a memorable, action packed RPG, even if you lose the ability to knock down drag out with friends. This lesser known RPG set the stage for many of us and is worth sinking your teeth into.

hastypixels's avatar
Community review by hastypixels (March 19, 2017)

At some point you stop justifying what you play and begin to realize what you're learning by playing.

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