Save for the technical and artistic prowess it carries in visuals and music, none of the components that constitute Secret of Mana are flawless; yet, despite that, it remains satisfying in the way it sprinkles action and adventure onto the bones of a regular RPG
Once upon a time, a civilization, aided by the magical power of mana, grew so powerful that they built the ultimate war weapon: the Mana Foretress. Angered by it, the gods sent forth an attack to destroy the floating menace. A war followed, and even though its course led to the whipping out of much of the mana power that existed in the world, its conclusion, with the destruction of said civilization by a hero using the power of the Mana Sword, ushered in an era of peace.
Many years later, disrespecting the direct orders of their village’s elder, three boys wander into a nearby waterfall where – as legend has it – a treasure rests. One of them falls from the log where they are standing and accidentally finds himself at the bottom of the cascade. There, he hears a mysterious voice that guides him towards a sword impaled into the ground. Urged to pull the weapon, he does so, but unbeknownst to him, his action causes monsters to come alive in the town’s vicinity as well as in the world that surrounds it.
When they learn of the boy’s mischief and his role in the unleashing of so much danger, the village’s inhabitants angrily demand that the elder send him away. Despite having raised the orphaned boy as his own son ever since the day he mysteriously showed up at the town, the old man has no choice but to bow to the demands of the people. Before the protagonist gets the chance to leave, though, the sword he is carrying is recognized by a traveling knight, who identifies it as the sacred Mana Sword and says that its weakened power was what had allowed the boy to grab it and the creatures to emerge.
He then goes on to say that in order to re-energize it, the main character must travel to the eight Mana Temples scattered around the world. Little does anyone know, however, that such journey will send the hero into a direct collision course with the Vandole Empire, an evil faction that is seeking the same temples, albeit with a much darker purpose in mind: reawakening the legendary Mana Foretress so they can employ it in the conquering of the world.
Although interesting in the way it is set up, the plot of Secret of Mana carries little in terms of freshness if compared to what other classic RPGs have to offer: neither the game’s script nor its setting fall far from the tree of the genre. Moreover, even though the story shows constant evolution, holds numerous notable moments, and boasts some remarkable characters, one cannot help but feel parts of it come off as somewhat undercooked, especially in regards to the fleshing out of a few heroes and villains alike; a nature that has a lot to do with the fact that during the game’s localization process, the script had to be trimmed down due to technical constraints. Still, in spite of failing to thrive in originality or development, the writing of Secret of Mana holds up relatively well, as it is easy to become engaged in the occurrences that give shape to its enjoyable twenty-hour quest.
Actually, being able to remain solid and fun in the face of a few obvious issues seems to be the theme that permeates much of Secret of Mana. Save from its immaculate, cartoonish and colorful visual work and its impeccable soundtrack, which come together to form a fantastic atmosphere that is playful yet epic, somehow foreshadowing what was to come in the masterpiece that is Chrono Trigger, that statement on irregularity can easily be applied to everything else about it: not only to its written portion, but also to its overall gameplay.
The difference between both of those components, however, is that where the former sticks close to the genre’s traditions, the latter puts some genuine effort in running away from them. And as a matter of fact, that trait is so strong that it is intimately connected to the game’s origins, as Secret of Mana officially started its production as a sequel to Final Fantasy III only to have its producers realize it was way too unique to be released under the name of that historic franchise.
For starters, where in many role-playing titles leaving major locations kicks heroes to an overworld map where they can head to their next destination, Secret of Mana bets on building a world that feels far more connected, as roads and intermediate regions link towns, dungeons, and other areas where the action truly unfolds. As such, given players are forced to actually travel between points, fighting their way through hordes of enemies and doing a dash of exploring in order to figure out how get to where they are supposed to, the game gains a very special level of immersion, as the scenarios that make it up transition seamlessly into one another and its universe feels much more organic.
The absence of a traditional traveling mechanism, which has an important role in making trips more efficient, does not dent Secret of Mana one tiny bit, though. Firstly, because the early portion of the adventure is filled with canons that, for a small fee, can work as shortcuts or as a way for the heroes to get to distant continents that cannot be reached by walking. Secondly, because close to the quest’s halfway mark, gamers will get their own fast-travel device: a dragon that can be summoned at any time and that, soaring above the world, can take the party to any point on the map in an instant. However, as a small caveat, it is worth noting that traveling on the creature’s back can sometimes be a bit confusing because the in-game map does not display the names of the locations it features.
That configuration, which is – in a way – closer to what one would find in an adventure game than in an RPG, falls together perfectly with what is certainly the most particular characteristic of Secret of Mana: its combat system. After all, the fact it completely abandons the concept of turns, leaning instead on real-time movements, gives it an action vibe that also makes the game feel more like a product of the adventure genre than a role-playing quest.
Enemies, which are simply hanging around the scenarios, will engage and attack the heroes as soon as they walk by; yet, given there is no transition to a separate battle screen, as duels occur in the locations where the exploration takes place, players are free to choose between tackling them or just moving away, even if the second option obviously has the negative consequence of potentially making the characters underleveled if too many skirmishes are skipped. If gamers choose to fight, they are free to move around the screen in order to get away from incoming attacks (although there are some moves that cannot truly be avoided) and slash away at the beasts until their health is depleted and they disappear into thin air.
Despite that simplicity, which does cause some combats – especially those against simpler foes – to turn into the mindless mashing of the attack button, Secret of Mana colors its battle system with pretty interesting elements, some of which have their origins in the RPG genre itself and others that emerge from its action-based nature.
On the first front, there is how every blow delivers a certain amount of hit points; how the party has eight weapons of different natures available, such as a boomerang, a bow, and a sword; and how the two partners of the boy – a girl and a mystical child – carry unique mighty arsenals of magical powers, with each one of them having around twenty spells, generally three for each one of the seven elements awakened inside the Mana Temples. Consequently, by using menus to activate spells and switch weapons, there is quite a bit of experimentation to be done with all forms of attack and stat-boosting that are at hand. And finding the ideal combination of weapons and magic is essential to take down the dozens of bosses – which come in impressive variety despite how sometimes they are re-used – the heroes will come across.
Meanwhile, when it comes to the action side of battles, gamers can hold the attack button in order to charge up their weapon and deliver stronger hits, and many are the enemies that require such a move since their elevated defenses lead standard attacks to have little to no effect. Furthermore, given combats happen in real time, it goes without saying that a player can only command one character at a time, and Secret of Mana takes advantage of that situation very smartly.
First of all, it implements a co-op multiplayer feature that allows another gamer to jump into the action at any time by taking control over one of the unused characters. Additionally, not only does it let one switch between heroes in a flash with the use of the Select button, but it also offers the option to configure the behavior of the computer-controlled characters by – in the menu – moving them around a square that determines their level of aggression as well as how distant they are to stand from the foe they are facing.
It is an impressive set of options, configurations, and features, and each one of them works towards making Secret of Mana more engaging and impressive. Still, they do not stop the game’s battle system from being flawed for a number of reasons. Physical attacks, for instance, have very inconsistent hit boxes, as they – in what appears to be a completely random pattern – sometimes land and sometimes simply do not. Therefore, it can be frustrating to charge an offensive move up to its maximum level, unleash it as close to the foe as possible, only to have it not hit.
Perhaps, such an implementation was planned as a way to keep players away from mashing towards victory; however, besides not working in that regard, as against some enemies that strategy is still perfectly possible, it also has the effect of leaving one totally dumbfounded in relation to their repeated inability to deal damage for no good reason. Equally frustrating is how even though AI-controlled characters do behave generally well in the field of battle, they have the tendency to get stuck on obstacles or to keep fighting when players are trying to run away, which can lead to undesired deaths or the significant loss of HP, two occurrences that can be critical in some of the game’s longer dungeons.
A much brighter point comes in the form of Secret of Mana’s menus. With three characters to take care of amidst action-based battles as well as a whopping amount of weapons and spells to manage, the game had to find a way to make that process smooth, and it succeeds almost completely in that regard via its so-called Ring Menus. With the Y button, players will open the deck of options for the character they are controlling; meanwhile, the X button does the same for the heroes being handled by the CPU, as pressing it repeatedly allows on to cycle between the two AI-controlled protagonists.
Once the ring of options appears around the hero they belong to, the up and down directions of the D-pad will allow one to switch between the different menus that cover distinct subjects, such as items, weapons, magic, and general configurations related to the character, with the B button working as a way to select an option and the Y button being employed to undo the selection and return to the previous level. Undeniably, it takes some time to get used to that system; moreover, stopping constantly to trigger spells considerably harms the flow of boss battles, where the frequent usage of magic is absolutely necessary. Still, once they do have learned it, most players are bound to realize that there could really be no better way to manage all the tools they have at their disposal, making the Ring Menus, alongside the unique combat, the adventure’s defining gameplay traits.
Although Secret of Mana is a game that, in many ways, is built on the role-playing staples often explored by the folks at Square, it is also a title that finds features to make it unique. It is a quest that holds an impressive number of well-designed dungeons, appealing locations, and notable bosses; elements that will not surprise anyone who has delved into other works by the company. At the same time, it bets on an action-based battle system that greatly separates it from the Final Fantasy games, and features a tone and traveling mechanics that further expand that gap.
Truthfully, with the exception of the technical and artistic prowess it carries in visuals and music, none of the components that constitute it are flawless: its plot lacks development, its combats – even if fun – have a variety of issues, and a few minor design oversights are bound to cause players’ enjoyment of the quest to be slightly disrupted. Yet, despite them, Secret of Mana remains satisfying, and regardless of how Square certainly released better efforts for the Super Nintendo, the title is still worth playing due to how it breaks away from the usual mold followed by the company, sprinkling action and adventure onto the bones of a regular RPG.