I vaguely remember hearing of this game when it was first released. It made the cover of Nintendo Power
and had a very interesting write up which gave hints and gameplay advice in the first person voice of the male protagonist. I also remember being quite struck by the artwork which accompanied that article. The iconic shot of the three main characters standing next to the Mana Tree was green, lush, and gorgeous and provided a since of epic scale which tantalized my 9 year old self. However, despite being intrigued by the artwork and the article’s unique writing style, I never had a chance to play the game.
It is commonly known that the game known as “Secret of Mana” in the United States was actually the second game in the series. Indeed, the original game was actually released on Western shores as “Final Fantasy Adventure” for the Game Boy. It is interesting Square did not choose to keep the already established Final Fantasy franchise name for this new release, but differences in gameplay and tone definitely denote “Secret of Mana” apart from the Final Fantasy juggernaut.
“Secret of Mana” was released in the year 1993, right around when the Super Nintendo had reached the mid-point of its console life. “Project Reality” and the promise of the N-64 were still years away and existed only as teasing hints of the future for console gaming. But regardless of this development, “Secret of Mana” was a technological achievement within the limits of existing technology. Indeed, the game was initially developed as a launch title for the SNES-CD add on, which failed to materialize.
A further remarkable fact about “Secret of Mana” was that it was the last game to be programmed by Nasir Gebelli, who gained notoriety for programming the first Final Fantasy game. Although Hironobu Sakaguchi has been hailed as the creator and godfather of the Final Fantasy series, it can be argued Gebelli played an equal role in the series’ success and popularity. Additionally, Gebelli has become somewhat of a pariah in recent years, having not worked on a game since “Secret of Mana”, unlike Sakaguchi, who stayed on as producer for numerous Final Fantasy games before leaving Square to open Mistwalker studios.
To begin with, the game is gorgeous. The sprites are large and colorful, and entire game has a palate that is rather bright and pastel. Although the game’s plot can be bleak, it still maintains a chipper tone. This principle also applies to the music, which is especially impressive considering the game was initially designed for a CD platform. The songs in “Secret of Mana” are catchy and rather upbeat, with occasional forays into more melancholy melodies. From the richly detailed grass to the bouncing rabites, “Secret of Mana” is filled to the brim with charm and personality.
Once I got past my initial reaction of “this game is pretty”, I was struck by another: “this game is hard.” In what can best be described as a love child between Final Fantasy and Zelda, the battle system is a brutal and rather unforgiving affair that provides a great challenge. Most centrally, it is based upon a principle which must have been entirely counter-intuitive to the 1993 game playing audience: waiting. “Secret of Mana” punishes the player for blitzing into a fray and instead rewards a more patient and cautious approach.
This level of difficulty also applies to the manner by which inventory and the game as a whole is managed. While the ring system works well as an organizational device, the game makes no effort for hand holding when it comes to optimizing your party’s equipment, or even letting you know if you already own a particular piece of armor and you’d be better off saving your gold. Likewise, the weapon system can be overwhelming in its choices, but inventive in the way it rewards continued use of a particular weapon.
But as the game went on, I was dismayed by ever increasing glitches and a decided lack of polish when it comes to relative minor manners. For instance, the AI for the allies never was satisfactory for my play style, despite the tweaks I made on the AI menu. This resulted in my allies dying quite a bit, particularly the Sprite. Likewise, the limits on inventory made backtracking to grab more candy and chocolate bars while exploring a dungeon a common occurrence. Additionally, the boss battles against amazingly detailed large sprites don’t seem to climax or finish, they simply end with little to no explanation. The hit detection also seemed to be glitchy, particularly on the charged weapon attacks, which I never had much consistency and eventually abandoned altogether in favor of a 100% attack. These might be nit-picky complaints, but it’s this level of polish which prevents me from becoming a sold out fan of the series.
Would I Have Liked It When It First Came Out:
Probably not. I found RPGs boring at this age and I would have been too infuriated by the “wait for strongest attack” principle.
Do I Like It Now:
As a matter of fact, I do, but not to the level I enjoy the Final Fantasy or Zelda series, of which “Secret of Mana” appears to be a hybrid. I’d probably be interested in playing the third game in the series to see if any gameplay glitches were fixed, but I don’t foresee replaying “Secret of Mana” again and again with the same fervor I do Final Fantasy VI.
Do I Get The Nostalgia:
I think I do. It’s a gorgeous and colorful game, and its unique battle system was probably an “Ah ha!” moment in the lives of many young gamers who learned the value of patience by waiting the extra 2 seconds before unleashing a ferocious attack on an unsuspecting rabite. But how they managed to organize their party without them dying every 30 seconds is beyond me.