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Secret of Mana (SNES) artwork

Secret of Mana (SNES) review

"A mix of turn-based & real-time RPGs that isn't for everyone but provides hours of rich fun for its audience."

Seiken Densetsu was a modest little RPG for the Game Boy, localized in North America and Europe as one of many spinoffs of the seminal Final Fantasy series. Final Fantasy Adventure easily could have been an uninspired one-off, but it had a lot of evident effort put into it, especially its surprisingly mature narrative. Thus Seiken Densetsu 2 was approved for the Super Nintendo, and we all look back fondly on its localized title, Secret of Mana.

Secret of Mana has a great first hour. Concise exposition links the game to its predecessor while avoiding the possibility of confusing new audiences, delivering a strong sense of foreboding all the while. Hard cut to a buncha kids wondering around the village outskirts, and our first protagonist, Randi, stumbles upon the Mana Sword, unwittingly hastening the apocalypse. That'll happen. His fellow townspeople, even his adopted father, decide to banish him because drawing the Mana Sword has brought forth all sorts of evil creatures to roam the earth. Some people are unkind like that. A wandering knight teaches us to fight our way out of a sudden life-or-death situation and advises us to seek out the Mana Seeds to unlock our true potential after we lose our home. Thus we have a simple but defined main character with a voice, the first glimpses of an established world, and a clear goal to complete, all within the first ten minutes.

After learning more about our quest, we immediately get ourselves captured to be eaten by goblins. Short game! But, what's this? A rebellious princess character named Primm has saved us! Hooray! But she's looking for her beloved Dyluck, and so she joins the party. No more than half an hour through the game and we already have our second party member! We can acquire our third by temporarily parting ways with Primm and recruiting a sprite who has lost his memory and is living among the dwarves. A full party within the first hour!

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By now we've already learned about many of Secret of Mana's strengths. We have combat with multiple party members, which additional players may control or one may switch to at the push of a button, leaving the other two to be controlled by surprisingly competent AI whose behavior can be modified through a menu function. Speaking of menus, the game largely eschews traditional menu screens in favor of pausing the screen whilst showing a circle of options around the relevant character mid-battle. Combat itself is simple but allows for strategy, as a cooldown timer determines how much damage one causes with an attack, encouraging the player to consider if a string of weak attacks or tactical withdraws followed by strong charged attacks are better.

There is good depth outside of combat, as well, especially with the variety of weapon classes on display. Instead of buying weapons, the player quickly finds one of each class and upgrades them with the help of a memorable character who pops up around the world. Each weapon has its own distinct style, and each upgrade brings with it additional traits, though details on each before purchasing would have been nice. Each character can level up their proficiency with each weapon, allowing them to charge up attacks at higher levels of damage. Practically speaking, it is best for Randi to focus on close-ranged weapons and the other two to focus on long-ranged ones, but any setup is viable if you play with friends.

One must take his party's capabilities into account both in optimization and in combat itself. Randi has the best stats of the three, so he can afford to take some damage up close. Primm can use support magic to alter stats, attribute elements to weapons, and more. Popoi can use offensive magic, debuff enemies, and more. Magic is obtained at a good pace, and each variety of magic levels up as it is used. Some say the game's magic is overpowered, but I dissent. Grinding early on can expedite proceedings, but unless one goes out of his way to become overpowered, magic is extremely useful without cheapening combat. It incorporates strategy by allowing multiple routes to victory while demanding the player to work within constricting usage confines. One can cancel enemy spells by utilizing buffs at just the right time, but this glitch is not readily exploitable and felt more like a nuance to me. Perhaps too many early RPGs simply cheapened spells by making them ineffective; Secret of Mana is better than that.

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Speaking of early RPGs, acute observation shows that Secret of Mana is a brilliant translation of the mechanics of many turn-based into real time. Status effects are an obvious asset, but there are more similarities. The cooldown timers add a sort of paced approach that is still more immediate than the half-minute-long timers for MMORPGs and incorporate the speed stat. One more interesting aspect of the combat is that there are dodging mechanics, which are stat-dependent, not manual. Sometimes your character may do a cool backflip or blocking animation to avoid damage! Enemies have a similar system that is indicated if they suddenly turn to the side and take no damage; this makes the charged attacks more useful since they tend to be composed of a flurry of attacks. These touches are not integral but rather signs of the care put into the game to make it more dynamic.

However, the combat really isn't for everyone. It has a slow, deliberate pace similar to that of an MMORPG. Also similar to that genre is how it's better to play with friends, at least as far as melee combat is concerned. The AI is good for its time, but AI from '93 ages as well as you can expect. Whether you do have friends or not, you'll be pulling up menus often to heal, cast spells, and such. If you don't like paced combat akin to turn-based games, Secret of Mana may just not be for you. Still, it's an interesting combo of turn-based and real-time RPG combat.

So, we have a great first hour, a full party, and unique combat. Things get better from here, but you might not think so at first. Our heroes venture into a misty forest to defeat a witch and save the hostage Dyluck. The player must deal with barricaded enemies with ranged attacks, switch weapons in order to cut down obstructive plants, and heal constantly. Those werewolves can and will tear you apart, those eyeball stalks spawn range-attacking enemies, and some enemies can inflict crippling status effects. The tiger boss is astoundingly awful, with sudden attacks that have no windup animation, baffling hitboxes, auto-counters, and the ability to jump out of range, spells that can immobilize you while causing damage... Spells he can spam so much that you'll be at full health, get hit so often your character can't even hit the ground, and then die. And of course his stats are high.

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I bring this up to assure the reader that not even this kind of rough patch should stop one from finishing the game. Very soon after that dungeon, we get to see some truly beautiful environments accompanied by Hiroki Kikuta's most beloved score as Secret of Mana shows off its expertise in the use of color and art direction. The somewhat uninspired level design is more than made up for by the overall world design, as our crew travels from subarea to subarea, with the game opening up immensely upon the acquisition of Secret of Mana's equivalent of an airship. Every NPC and enemy has personality due to fantastic character design, and this, in turn, gives personality to the areas they inhabit. From a forest of the four seasons to a desert of fallen stars, every location has something worth seeing as you progress, even if the combat doesn't agree with you.

This brings us to what is my favorite aspect of Secret of Mana, albeit a highly subjective one: it's like one big fantasy road trip! By this I mean that, although there is a plot and an end goal to achieve, most of the game's appeal will be found in not the core plot but in the time spent traveling, taking in the sights and sounds along the way. The game's structure of rarely returning to old areas and always having an original take on various environments around the corner gives the pacing tremendous momentum. Secret of Mana is more than a series of tasks or quests; it's a journey.

Sadly, all good journeys end in bittersweet fashion. All the time spent with your party in this gorgeously realized land makes parting with them rather tragic. The beautiful world is saved at great cost. But you made some fast friends and lasting memories!

And isn't that what we love most about video games?


Follow_Freeman's avatar
Community review by Follow_Freeman (December 12, 2017)

When he isn't in a life-or-death situation, Dr. Freeman enjoys playing a variety of video games. From olden shooters to platformers & action titles: Freeman may be a bit stuck with the games of the past, but he doesn't mind. Some things don't age much.

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The_real_cal_howard posted May 20, 2018:

I love the blog, bro. Tbh, despite its acclaim, its status as a JRPG thats not Final-Fantasy-esque kinda had me doubting, but this review restored my fairh in the game. I’ll definitely finish it now! You also didn’t spoil anything about the game, unless you count Tiger difficulty. Speaking of which, it also gave me a heads up about the Tiger boss, so thats very helpful.
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Follow_Freeman posted May 21, 2018:

Aw, SWEET! Good to hear, man! But take my advise; it's best to bite the bullet and get like ten levels of grinding done early on to make the rest of the game much more reasonable with the difficulty spikes. I'd recommend buying a digital copy to support the game, but I wouldn't blame one for ending up with the emulation route. One's enjoyment of the game will depend largely on appreciation of the presentation during the roughest parts of the game.

Incidentally, Square has published a collection with a save-state feature, so let's hope that makes it state-side. Japanese-speakers in the States may enjoy the Switch's lack of a region-lock for this one if they import.

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