Secret of Mana on SNES...
January 02, 2019

I think when you view Secret of Mana through the lens of youth you see a fantastic adventure into the unknown, filled with colourful and quirky monsters, a few friends and a delightful assortment of classical weapons. When you learn about the origin and execution of the game’s development, you begin to understand why it’s just so darn flawed. However to this day it stands as a legendary representative of its console and respective generation, the venerable fifth, to be exact.

Even as a tender-digit youngster I understood that Secret of Mana was buggy, that failed execution of spells weren’t coded into the mechanics, to say the least. That the game had to be cut down after the doomed SNES-CD was cancelled does explain why so much of the map is underpopulated. It also explains why the latter half of the game feels truncated, particularly the quest to sniff out the imperial assassin, Dark Stalker. It always felt like a waste of a castle, to me.

The time you spend in Potos, Gaia’s Navel, the Water Palace and Pandora exist in sharp relief when compared to the fetch quests of which the rest of the game consists. So much of your adventuring is spent thoroughly exploring all of these areas, and dashing about like the world was about to end. Which, of course, it looks like it will.

The graphics would not likely have changed, and nor would have Kikuta’s soundtrack, since the CD Rom wouldn’t have brought any extra capacity in memory or processing performance with it, unlike the Sega CD, which boasts a DAC and a CPU for co-processing tasks. No, what’s missing in Secret of Mana is the kind of detailed quest-building that occurred in the title’s first one third.

You could argue that there’s too much fetch-questing between the first three main areas, even though the developers accounted for all the travel time with the highly memorable mode of cannon travel. Side note: How much work could it have been to implement that properly in the remake? Too much, apparently. I bring it up because Secret of Mana wasn’t going to succeed as the half baked remake we got.

No, it’s not a remaster: Those are whole new assets, though it is a shame that they stopped short of realizing its potential. How they managed to make it nearly as buggy as the SNES version is a mystery, but it does affirm my opinion that the original is the definitive version, in spite of its imperfections. We didn’t need remixed music - a fully orchestrated soundtrack ala Redbook would have improved matters significantly.

Do I imagine that the game might have been expanded to its full potential? No. From what I understand the change in medium was introduced to the team early enough in the development cycle that they had to take what they had and make it fit into a cartridge, instead of a 650MB disc. According to Wikipedia as much as forty percent of its content was cut, including multiple endings.

In this case the tale has been told, and there can be no adding onto it, especially given the nature of the changes. Adjusting the nature of the story would give us an alternate history version of the game, instead of granting us more of the same. That’s what we’d want, after all. Shorten the Mana Fortress run, trade out the recoloured bosses for new ones, slot in some new quests in uncharted lands and that could round out the game nicely.

Except that it wouldn’t. Love it or lump it, Secret of Mana is a complete game compressed down from its original vision. It gave us a rare taste of local multiplayer, exceptional music quality, and a lush world to play in. It could have been larger, but Nintendo is an unpredictable dynamo, and I’ll sit on the premise of being grateful that we got to play this legendary adventure at all. Yes, Square-Enix could have done better, but there's more to the accomplishment of a modern RPG than the quality of its production.

In the 1990s we weren't oversaturated with games of all genre, creed and nationality. There's no reason to suspect that Secret of Mana was going to make more of a splash than it did on the SNES, and its sales pale in comparison to blockbusters like Final Fantasy III (US) and Chrono Trigger. Square-Enix accomplished the ignoble task of selling its IP short, however, but we can be grateful that they have done a fine job of preserving the original ROMs.

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honestgamer honestgamer - January 02, 2019 (11:49 AM)
I somehow didn't know the history of Secret of Mana's development, so that was interesting to learn. As for the game, I've never felt it was particularly flawed. Glitches weren't nearly common enough to get in the way of my enjoyment, though wandering the world sometimes did get old when I would get lost.
hastypixels hastypixels - January 02, 2019 (03:23 PM)
How does Secret of Mana be buggy? Let me count the ways:
- Weapon Orbs can randomly respawn (a useful glitch, in fact)
- The first boss battle can crash before Spikey is spawned in
- Ally path finding can be irritating when they randomly run the opposite way long enough to get trapped somewhere
- Spells failing to execute on command as often as three times (with no apparent reason for interruption)
- Colour palettes changing erratically during attacks (it's obvious this was their first effort. SD3 was much better)

Much of the flaws are the product of the development team having to cut 40% of the content out of the game, though it did contribute to the amazing compression techniques they used in future titles, like FFVI (III). I don't have a point of comparison for how much more I could have enjoyed the game, since the PC release didn't meet the stride of its origin, but its easy to imagine that it could have been smoother overall if their Corporate Overlords had given them more time to polish the game.
overdrive overdrive - January 03, 2019 (08:23 AM)
Ally pathfinding annoyed me in the game at times. But what I disliked most about both this game and Seiken Densetsu III was how they couldn't decide if they were action or turn-based with battles, with how time stops for spells and charge attacks while that animation plays, making any of those attacks unavoidable. Particularly during boss fights, as some of those turned into episodes of you constantly watching some animation or another and then hoping to tap a few buttons before the next one started, making those fights horribly disjointed.

That in itself makes me agree that this game is more enjoyable early on than at the end. Partly because of the world-building (I mean, eventually, you go to a bunch of places based on the "sage guy tells you to go here, then there, then there, then there" chain) and partly because you could just wander these forests and meadows and feel like you're playing a cool take on Zelda or something like that because you're not loaded down with spells and neither are enemies, so it's as close to pure "real-time" as it got.
CptRetroBlue CptRetroBlue - January 03, 2019 (06:23 PM)
It is buggy and still nostalgic to transverse at the same time. That reminds me I need to finish the game to add to my list of conquered SNES titles.
hastypixels hastypixels - January 06, 2019 (09:42 AM)
I'd say it's one of those must plays and has a place in the pantheon for good reason. Certainly it's flaws don't deter - and perhaps if not for SoM we'd not have gotten Transistor, among others.

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