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Secret of Mana (SNES) artwork

Secret of Mana (SNES) review

"I'm really starting to wonder what's with Squaresoft. Many call them the best RPG developer, while others claim they're an overrated piece of fecal matter. Me, I'm still confused. The Final Fantasy series has proven to be a deep and breathtaking series, constantly reinventing itself and consistently providing a quality experience. Yet Chrono Trigger, often considered to be the best RPG of all time, let me down severely, being nothing more than a bland game doing nothing special. And now Sec..."

I'm really starting to wonder what's with Squaresoft. Many call them the best RPG developer, while others claim they're an overrated piece of fecal matter. Me, I'm still confused. The Final Fantasy series has proven to be a deep and breathtaking series, constantly reinventing itself and consistently providing a quality experience. Yet Chrono Trigger, often considered to be the best RPG of all time, let me down severely, being nothing more than a bland game doing nothing special. And now Secret of Mana, beloved by many, has done the same. Despite a few bright points, Square has a lot to learn if they were aiming for a great action RPG.

Let's start with something innocuous, the story. Many will tell you this is a simplistic and stylish story, not meant to be epic or deep. Many will also tell you that the story is low-key and irrelevant. That much is true. Mana has been sealed many years ago to prevent its destructive power from being used. But everything's all out of whack now, as the empire is attempting to revive this power. Even worse, your character in his ignorance pulled the Mana Sword out of its stone, thereby disrupting everything. But you are the hero now, and it's up to you to make everything nice again. Low-key and simple indeed. The plot doesn't matter at all, and you never really know what's going on. For instance, a guy named Thanatos is seen early on, being a typical bad guy. Eventually, you discover he's one of the empire's henchman. Maybe they mentioned it earlier, but I didn't notice. The plot is just too simplistic, clichéd, and nonsensical enough not to care what's going on. It doesn't try to be a complex and engaging story, and as such I can't blame them for not being interesting.

The presentation parallels the plot; it's stylish and unepic. Everything's colorful and cute, from the cute little robites you'll mercilessly slaughter to the cute little walrus town to the cute little Santa Claus (I jest you not). Music is also nice and happy. Tunes are all bright, relatively fast paced, and often forgettable. Sure, it tries to get dark and serious at times, but it doesn't exactly succeed as well as a serious RPG could. This is very much a lighthearted RPG, and the story, graphics, and music reflect that. Some might hold that against this game, but I won't. I may not particularly enjoy it as much as a more serious game, but I don't mind. Other aspects bothered me far more than a simple presentation.

A blend of Final Fantasy and Zelda is many gamer's dream, and that seems to be what Square was aiming for. On the RPG side, you have hit points, equipment, items, experience, leveling up, magic, and multiple characters. You have, at least in theory, all the basics of your average RPG here, except the battle system. This is where Zelda comes in. You have a top down view, and you attack enemies in real time. You manually walk up to them and physically whack them with your weapon just like Zelda. You can run away if you'd like, ignoring many battles. The overworld is detailed and interactive like Zelda, but concentrated in areas with boring expanses like Final Fantasy. An interesting blend, I suppose.

I may not have liked the game overall, but there was one major bright spot. Simply put, the weapon system rocked. You get a grand total of eight types of weapons, such as a sword, bow, or whip, which you split up between your three heroes. Every time you kill a boss, or occasionally when you complete a major section of the story, you will receive orbs specific to one or more of the weapons. Bring these to a dwarf blacksmith, and he will enhance and strengthen your weapon. But you need to learn how to use them, right? The full strength of that weapon won't be realized until you've practiced with it, meaning you must level up your character's prowess with each weapon as well. That's positively brilliant. There's enough leveling up opportunities to allow each of your characters to focus on 3-4 of the weapons, and you get to choose which ones complement each character. Shall you allow your sprite to focus on mainly long range weapons, reducing his chance of dying quickly? Shall you focus your hero on the strongest weapons, hoping you can control him well enough to use them effectively? You must take into account strength, range, accuracy, and added status effects when choosing who will level up which weapons. This management system was easily my favorite aspect of the game, and I can only hope it will show up in other RPGs.

Of course, most people praise the fact that this is one of the very few multiplayer RPGs. And yeah, the uniqueness of said concept has potential. I say potential, because I did not have the opportunity to try it out and see what it's like myself. It's too hard to find others willing to commit themselves to an RPG with the hectic schedule some people have. However, most people just didn't seem interested in general, and many who have played the game before didn't like it either. Heck, I certainly wasn't enthusiastic, so how could I convince anyone else? But if you know one or two people who have the time and are willing to play this game with you, hey, knock yourselves out. Maybe you'll find some fun.

But other than that, the game fails. Miserably. The battle system Square created just doesn't work out, creating numerous problems that make playing the game a chore. For such a well loved game, the list of flaws seems to go on forever.

  • Collision Detection: You can line up an attack seemingly perfectly, yet still have it miss. Sometimes it's because the enemy will evade it, but often it just misses. The worst case was a boss - a giant face on a wall. I would have to stand to the left or right of the middle "eye" in order to hit it with my sword. Stand right in front, and I would miss. Wha?

  • Evade Rate: You and the enemies will randomly evade attacks. The weapon will go right through the enemy, but it will block the attack somehow. The purpose of evading in a menu based RPG is to mimic an action sequence, where some attacks will miss. But you don't need that in an action game, because it's already taken into account by where your character is! What's the point? It's also quite frustrating when some enemies have a very high evade rate, and you swing away haplessly while nothing happens.

  • Status Effects: On a similar note, status effects just don't work in an action-RPG. Gee, I'm asleep. Too bad my other characters already killed all the enemies, so I just get to sit here and do nothing waiting for my character to wake up. Yawn.

  • Too Slow: The numbers declaring how many hit points the enemy (or you) lost and the added comments of what's going on (any leveling up, status effects, etc) just can't keep up with the action. This means that, if all three of your characters are beating up on a helpless enemy, you have no idea which one is actually hitting him, when it's hitting him, and how much damage is occurring. The guy could've died 10 seconds ago and you wouldn't even know it.

  • Charged attacks: You can charge up your weapons to make a stronger attack. However, this takes (a) a lot of time doing nothing, and (b) a lot of luck. Get hit, and you charge down. Also, the animation for a charged attack is different, so you must time it differently. And, of course, sometimes you'll just miss, for the reasons listed above. Why bother using them?

  • Lame Enemies: Some are kind of cool, like the wolves, but others are downright annoying. Some can only be killed by magic, despite the fact that you barely get any mp. Your best bet is to just run from them. The worst offenders are the blobs. They will randomly split in two, regaining all their hp back in the process. Thus, it is possible that you will spend 5 minutes just trying to kill all of its many clones. By the way, this is one of the ones with a high evade rate, making your life even worse.

  • Poorly implemented magic: Magic will always hit. And they usually do more damage than physical attacks. Thus, boss battles often mean merely casting the same magic spell over and over, replenishing the sprite's magic whenever he needs it. Yawn. Moreover, magic must be leveled up in a similar manner as weapons, which does not work as well. You have almost no mp, so in order to effectively level up all of your types of magic (grouped into elementals), you must cast it all, go to an inn, and repeat numerous times. Forced leveling up; how ridiculous! I gave up on it quickly, and just didn't bother. Also, everything stops for a few seconds when magic is cast, an aggravating point.

  • Screen scrolling: As you move toward the edge of the screen, the screen won't start scrolling with you until you are almost to the very edge. This makes it very easy for you to be surprised by an enemy you couldn't see. It's just such a stupid problem that you'd think they would have accounted for it, but no.

  • Weak AI: You just can't get the complexities necessary for computer controlled players on the SNES. So I can't blame them that much. But that doesn't make me happy when I'm constantly adjusting the how aggressive my partners should be, and doesn't make me any less confused when the sprite gets the snot beat out of him while the girl barely gets touched.

Yep, the battle system needs help. I'll freely admit that some of those points are quite minor and wouldn't bother some people. But the sheer number of minor problems is ridiculous. Square tried to blend Zelda and FF, but I think such a marriage is a match made in hell. The end result is far less than the sum of the individual parts, and I'd much rather see either of the battle systems separately than this piece of junk.

And with that weak battle system comes even weaker item management. You have three equipment slots - head, armor, armlet, as well as your typical healing items and so forth. Sad to say, the equipment is nothing more than simply buying newer stuff at every new town, with nothing more exciting in between. I guess I can understand not wanting to get too in-depth (this is an action game too, after all), but it's sad to see equipment managing at its most basic form. Items are just as bad. You can only hold 4 of each type, and there's only about 10 or so different items! Needless to say, you won't be worrying about them much. I can understand the need to dumb it down from the complexities of FF, but the game would almost be better by ignoring them completely.

The pacing is all off too. You will begin in a rather large overworld, trying to protect the water seed. You will gain all your weapons, go through numerous towns and dungeons, and do an awful lot of backtracking. This is much akin to Zelda, in a way, and it was kind of cool. Then you blast off into the northern area, where the sprite lives. All of a sudden, there's not much to do. The game takes on a new form: find a town, go through a few areas, fight a couple bosses, blast off to the next area. There's no backtracking and no unity between these separate places, and the pacing is a far cry from the first area of the game. Just wait. Your time spent in new areas will shrink even further as you continue onward. For instance, it takes 10 minutes to get through the Moon Palace (if that), and a mere 5 minutes in Tasnica. What's the point of all this? It all seemed disjointed, and the sudden changes were a bit jarring. With such short quests, there was no satisfaction in completing a task and moving on to the next area. I just didn't care anymore.

I should also mention that this game has the worst example of slowdown I have ever seen in a SNES game. I refer, of course, to the Shadow fight. I couldn't believe the extreme slowness and choppiness I saw on my screen. It may have been worth it if the boss was exciting, but I didn't even get hit in that battle. Not only could the system not handle this stupid boss, but they couldn't even grant me a challenge. And this is supposed to be one of the best games out there?

I cannot believe Square is so well loved for games like this. So many people apparently enjoy Secret of Mana, while its numerous flaws are crystal clear to me. The problem seems to be in the blend of the two styles. Rather than complement and reinforce each other, the FF and Zelda elements manage to take away from the other half, leaving both sides of the equation sorely lacking. That doesn't even take into account the sloppy design and worthless "missions" that last 5 minutes. And this is considered one of the best games on the SNES? There are far too many flaws to make Mana worthy of play time. Square's darn lucky to have included the excellent weapon system, not to mention the potential for coolness with multiplayer, or else this score would not quite be as "high." But I still had to force myself through this flawed endeavor. Whatever it is that others see in this game, I certainly don't.

mariner's avatar
Community review by mariner (January 29, 2006)

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