“And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.”
There exists a unique sort of glamorization within retro gaming. This is not true with every game of the past, and I myself hold that there is much to learn from the perennial classics, but there are several retro games with glaring weaknesses covered over by the tenderness of nostalgia.
We may say of these flawed artifacts that they “don’t stand the test of time” or that they “didn’t age well”. By those phrases we mean that the steady march of years and the advancement of modern technology have rendered the antiquities unappealing and unsavory, most often said in terms of graphics. The gist is that we perhaps didn’t know better back then but now that tech has evolved, we can see things as they really are: games clutched like gems to the heart of childhood but cracked and lightless. We are in this sense spoiled by the gaming industry’s advancements.
With Secret of Mana, that’s not really the case. It is far from a perfect game; that’s not to excuse it and then to proclaim it great. In fact, it could have turned out a lot better. It is a fundamentally flawed game and in realizing that, the glamorizing of retro games fell like scales from my eyes as I (finally) played through it from start to finish as an adult.
Seiken Densetsu 2, or Secret of Mana (since I’m reviewing specifically the US release of the game), doesn’t just fail to stand the test of time. It entered the Western world through a turbulent and rushed localization process, earning scars that ought to have been as plain as day nearly 25 years ago as they are right now. Maybe they were. Maybe these specific flaws were par for the course back then. I wasn’t a critic at the time.
When I was younger, Secret of Mana was a source of fascination to me. I never owned it but I rented it many times from local Blockbusters and gas station rentals. Further, I grew up with a brother two years younger than me so this was a game we could both play at the same time and sink our teeth into. Never being able to beat it likely meant that the mystery of Secret of Mana’s last chapters elevated the whole thing to legend in my mind. Its secrets guaranteed it became bigger in memory than it actually turned out to be.
What is apparent to me now, though, is that Secret of Mana is a unique and fun JRPG experience for two or three players but it doesn’t sit at the top of Square’s storytelling (or localization) achievements.
Secret of Mana opens with a good ol’ fashioned text crawl explaining with almost religious gravity how the power of Mana is fading from the land. Magic is dying. The world awaits an Arthurian hero who can wield the legendary blade, known by many names throughout history, celebrated in myths. Excalibur. Herald. Gigas. The Sword of Mana.
Many years ago, an ancient civilization harnessed the power of Mana and created the ultimate weapon: the Mana Fortress. In this familiar theme in Japanese storytelling where the Mana Fortress takes the place of nuclear power, the natural gods of Secret of Mana sent their divine beasts to tear the Fortress out of the sky. War broke out across the earth and the power of Mana vanished.
In desperation, a hero appeared at the thirteenth hour. Taking up the fabled Mana Sword, this champion smashed the Fortress. Though civilization had come to an end, the world knew peace. Time, however, flows like a river. This pattern of the abuse of Mana and the calling of a new hero has been repeated throughout history. The time has come for a new Mana Knight to arise, for a new imperial civilization seeks the Mana Seeds to unseal the path to the Fortress.
Near the village of Potos, a young orphan boy is playing with his friends when he falls into a lake below. The area is forbidden by the village elder but the boys talked of a ghost that haunted the waters. A voice calls to the orphan and leads him to a rusted sword embedded in stone. When the boy pulls it out, an apparition appears to him and then vanishes.
Returning to Potos, the village comes under attack by monsters and the villagers believe that removing the sword from the stone is an ill omen. The orphan boy is banished from the village, but in his hand he wields the ancient Sword of Mana. This is our hero, Randi, who later joins with a girl named Primm and a sprite named Popoi (none of whom were named in the original US version).
Together they travel to revive the power of the Sword of Mana using the Mana Seeds at eight palaces across the world. Also on their itinerary is trying to save the warrior Dyluck, Primm’s love, from the clutches of evil, as well as finding a way to restore Popoi’s memories. They’ll receive aid from the eight Mana Palaces and the sages. They’ll inherit the powers of the elemental Mana Spirits across the land: fire, water, earth, wind, wood, moon, light, and darkness.
Thanatos, an ancient sorcerer, is manipulating the empire in order to achieve immortality, raise the Mana Fortress once more, and destroy the Mana Tree. Beyond the threat of Thanatos, the powerful Mana Beast will awake from its slumber should the Fortress arise to attack it and destroy civilization once more. Only the Mana Knight and his friends can prevent the world from ending.
Secret of Mana is actually a sequel, not a first entry in its series. Its predecessor was released in North America as Final Fantasy Adventure (in Europe as Mystic Quest) for Nintendo’s Game Boy, making Secret of Mana the first Seiken Densetsu title to be marketed as part of the Mana series rather than as a Final Fantasy game. Mana has generally been more obscure compared to its more final and fantastical sister series, with some titles not even appearing outside of Japan. Even Secret of Mana’s own sequel, Seiken Densetsu 3 for the Super Famicom, never had an official Western release.
That’s a shame considering Secret of Mana became known for its rather distinctive gameplay. Real-time battles and time-based strength meters replace the much more rigid turn-based systems, even the ATB system, seen in traditional JRPGs. In Secret of Mana, players can attack at any time but a character cannot strike with their full strength until their attack gauge refills to 100%. This prevents Secret of Mana from boiling down into a hack n’ slash. As a character gains experiential proficiency with their weapon, they can charge up their attack past 100% to do even more damage.
Weapons take the form of several basic types throughout Secret of Mana and though you do not actually buy new weapons, you consistently receive new weapons by upgrading the ones you have. This occurs when you find a weapon’s orb, often dropped by a boss monster. Taking the orb to the dwarfen blacksmith Watts, you can pay a small fee and have your weapon adopt a new form and better attack stats. It’s always exciting to see what the weapons will turn into next, though some of them seem to always remain more useful than others.
Despite the game’s innovations, the three playable characters fall neatly into traditional classes. The boy is a fighter without any ability to use magic but to compensate he can gain proficiency with weapons much faster than the other characters. Plus he can wield the power of the Mana Sword. The girl is of course the healer. She gains three spells with each Mana Spirit that joins the team and all of her magic is of the support type. Lastly, the sprite is the official black mage. His magic, again three spells per Spirit, is offensive and afflictive. Expect to spam his magic during almost every boss battle.
One of the cool things about the magic system in Secret of Mana is the Mana Spirits will gain levels as well. This occurs through simply using their spells. As Spirits gain in levels, their effects are more potent. You can simply hang out near an inn and cast a bunch of magic to farm more levels, snagging a good night’s sleep to recover MP. It’s easily exploitable in that sense but you’ll need a good chunk of powerful spells to clear the game, anyway.
The most important feature in Secret of Mana is the multiplayer mode that makes it a co-op action RPG, two or even three friends can join in as the other party members and they can drop in or out at any time. Even by today’s standards, that is incredibly unique in the realm of RPGs but it makes for some awesome hang out sessions with friends. Secret of Mana is easy to play and though things like navigating menus grind the ARPG action to a halt, the battles are a seamless experience happening in the field with friends able to come and go at will. A godsend for potty breaks.
The single player mode isn’t to be sniffed at either since any of the three playable characters can be left up to cpu control. Each individual AI can be customized to play more defensively and keep their distance or more aggressive and close in for the kill. The depth of this level of customizeable autonomy, however primitive, is impressive and it clearly formed the basis for future RPGs to come (I’m looking at you, Final Fantasy XII).
There’s a lot to love in Secret of Mana but many of the elements particular to the US version bar the game from true greatness. Let’s get into discussing those.
The 8-bit Review
Bright graphics, cutesy characters, and pastels paint the world of Secret of Mana. It is as lush and as vibrant as its cover art, though the graphics can become somewhat repetitive given the scale of this world. During development, the game was initially much bigger and had to be dialed back to fit on the SNES cartridge but it’s pretty clear that the game pushes the hardware quite far. Little touches bring this world to life: dappled sunlight passing through leafy canopies, atmospheric effects like mist or smoke, and lots and lots of Mode 7.
Mode 7 pseudo-3D is seen when flying through the air on the back of Flammie the baby dragon. It’s also caught in glimpses when launching from cannons in early game warp travelling. When flying over the globe, the earth seems to scroll beneath you. It’s a very cool effect considering the game’s age and it was something unique (certainly in appearance) to the SNES. By now, that particular 3D effect looks garbled and heavily pixelated, but the impression of soaring over sweeping vistas remains. If only there had been a way to depict differences in elevation.
The score of Secret of Mana has long been known for its distinctiveness among 90’s JRPGs. Whereas most other games in this genre at the time drew from strictly high fantasy instrumentation and themes for their music, especially those concerned with medieval castles, knights, damsels, dragons, and quests, Secret of Mana possesses a soundtrack that’s been called much more mysterious. It is notably dark and reveberating, eerie in some tracks and more unpredictable in its musical progression, relying heavily and unusually on bells and chimes. It sounds less like something a bard would play.
Composer Hiroki Kikuta believes in the value of independent, creative thought to achieve the highest quality results over divvying up responsibilities among a group. He claimed to have spent nearly 24 hours a day in his office composing and editing music for Secret of Mana while it was in its two year production. That’s nothing to sniff at, and he called this amount of time spent on composing “luxurious”. His stance on creative work is that there’s a degree of obsessive passion that needs to come to the fore. This philosophy can be heard in the richness of the music, its ability to convey imagery.
“Through a single musical phrase, it’s actually possible to influence the creation of a kind of world in the imagination of the listener.”
As mentioned, there are some dark tracks. One of them even made it on our Top 20 Spooky themes list!
While the majority of Secret of Mana’s soundtrack is great, there is one song that goes on insta-mute. Not sure what he was going for here with the Dwarf Village. Sugar high, maybe?
With the multiplayer being as good as it is, that’s likely the primary reason why you’ll want to play Secret of Mana. Multiplayer in this JRPG is unique enough and fun enough to warrant a 7/10 for Gameplay, though it’s not a system with its bugs completely worked out and playing in tandem with the wrong buddy can turn into a real drag. The menus aren’t too user friendly but if you delegate a friend to keeping watch of the heals or doing some extra damage it can certainly be an enjoyable experience, that is if your friend doesn’t run out of patience with all of the inevitable backtracking and getting lost.
Secret of Mana works a significant amount of backtracking into its plot (the section where you have to hunt down Sage Joch is barely bearable) but getting lost is another thing entirely. Navigation in the game is really terrible. The one map the game gives you is a rotatable globe so zoomed out so as to be totally ineffective. Down on the field, it’s impossible to figure out where you want to go without memorizing the world’s layout beforehand or stumbling around until you’re there. Even when flying Flammie, so much of the detail of the Mode 7 scrolling plane escapes distintion that it’s difficult to tell one city from another. A mini-map or really just a traditional map of any kind with place markers would have been amazing.
How else are you supposed to find this teeny-tiny face in the ocean Easter egg?
Frustration will also develop with Secret of Mana’s major hit box and accuracy problem. The game is viewed from a top down perspective almost exclusively, minus the Mode 7 portions, so some of the larger enemies and flying bosses will appear to occupy spaces that they evidently are not. Even when fighting ogres as big as proverbial barns, you’ll likely become annoying when you “miss”, especially after charging up for a more devastating attack. Missing will make you want to mash your attack button but that’s exactly you do no damage at all. As it is, certain enemies feel almost as if they’re not there and magic becomes a mainstay for any serious battles, unfortunately.
Lastly, there’s an extremely limited inventory in this game. Only four of each consumable item can be carried at once! That’s extreme but it’s not hard to imagine that the decision was made to go with such a limitation since in a real-time combat game the action can be paused at any time and therefore your heroes can be healed at any time. Putting limitations on healing via items means that you can’t rely on restocking to carry you through every dungeon (especially with only four Cups of Wishes to bring characters back to life).
Writing out the basics of the story as I did above felt pretty good, actually. Though the premise isn’t bad, it’s the details of the story which leave much to be desired. Secret of Mana feels sparse. Characters come and go. Some of them seem more important than they actually are. Character development is absent. Subplots lead up to nothing. There’s a reason for all that.
Secret of Mana was actually developed to be a launch title for the proposed Super NES CD-ROM System under development by both Nintendo and Sony. Yes, before PlayStation, Sony teamed up with Nintendo. Too bad the partnership fell through when the two giants couldn’t play nice together. There were battles for control, spearheaded by the Big N. Nintendo announced its partnership with Philips, Sony’s rival, when they were supposed to be working with Sony and so the feud between them developed, eventually leading Sony to the path of competitor against Nintendo. The peripheral add-on that would’ve enabled the SNES to play CD-ROMs was never released.
This meant that Secret of Mana had to be reformatted for the smaller space of a SNES cartridge, resulting in many changes and cuts to features, gameplay, and storyline. Initially, multiple endings were included (an itch scratched in Chrono Trigger). The original story apparently would have been much darker. It likely would have increased the significance of all the secondary characters (the imperial leaders for example). Up to forty percent of the planned game was left on the cutting room floor. Let that sink in… nearly half of the game had to be cut. But, as they say in marketing, that’s not all.
What was cut? Playing the game, absences are obvious in the lack of balance. The Tree Palace is an arduous task to complete but the Moon Palace is a tiny galactic “maze”. The earlier parts of the game seem to have much more focus and direction whereas the later parts of the game will leave you wondering where you are supposed to go next. As a kid, I always thought that the story would “take off” after fighting the witch, confronting Thanatos in the castle and trying to rescue Dyluck. As it turns out, the story just meanders and seems to forget itself as it goes along until elements appear out of nowhere, as if by casual mention.
It’s a bare bones script. In addition to the 40% of the game that was cut due to the switch from SNES CD-ROM to SNES cartridge, whole swaths of the game’s text had to be cut for the English localization. There simply was not enough space left on the SNES cart for all of the story. Likely this constraint of space was another reason why Square eventually chose to move their RPGs like Final Fantasy from Nintendo consoles to Sony’s. So Nintendo lost two partnerships right around this time in the mid 90’s.
Translation by Ted Woolsey had to be completed on a terribly short deadline, just 30 days, with a lot of the English having to be oversimplified and a lot of the script cut again due to space constraints. Woolsey commented in an interview that the list of what was cut is too long to describe.
Q: “On a scale of one to ten, how tough is it to translate Japanese games into English?”
Woolsey: “Let me put it this way, It’s a lot more difficult than it seems! Our avid following in the US is constantly saying to us, ‘look, just what is your problem? Get the games out faster!’, they have a real problem with this. But they don’t understand that there are severe limitations – as everyone who’s played a Square game will realize – with size, it’s just so tough squeezing the translated text into the game. What this means is that you have to rethink an entire plot without actually changing any of the parameters that govern how the plot has implications on the rest of the game. So, inevitably, some depth is lost in the translation from Japanese to English.”
Q: “How much is lost?”
Woolsey: “Well, as far as simple text is concerned, I would say that you can get twice as much information into the same space when written in Japanese as you can writing in English. But it’s the process of making sure that what you’re left with still makes complete sense, that’s the real time consuming problem, even after you’ve stretched and pulled all the text windows until they are as big as possible. Also, with some titles – like the Secret of Mana – there’s no order to the messages. As a result, it’s very difficult keeping all the plot lines and story elements in your head while working out what can be lost and what needs to be changed. Translating Japanese can be a completely frustrating task!
My kid brother playing through Secret of Mana with me commented at the end that the game seemed “unfinished”. Considering everything that transpired during the rushed translation process, the botched partnership with Sony, the compression of the game’s data into the SNES cartridge, I now know why he said that. So much has been cut.
But what exactly is the “secret” of Mana? The world may never know. I mean it’s likely that (spoilers: highlight to reveal) the Mana Tree is the orphan boy’s mom and the ghost in the Sword is his dad, but those two revelations matter so little to the overall plot that they may as well be afterthoughts.
Only the ring-shaped menus and the timing for the attack gauges bear some explanation to new players, though these are features which can be quickly learned through trial and error. Secret of Mana never becomes so complex, so multi-layered with new systems that it gets too complicated. Newcomers and RPG fans alike should be able to pick up their controllers and jump in and out of combat rather easily. There is far less of the number-crunching and dialogue dragging that occurs in other RPGs. Limiting players to only a few items, spells, and weapons for the entire game means there’s not a whole lot to have to learn.
Leveling in Secret of Mana is simple and that is the surest road to success. There are some boss fights (especially that fire tiger, ugh) that can be painful if you’re unprepared or under-leveled. Bosses strike hard and many of them rail on you with magical attacks which cannot be avoided. Ensuring you’re well-equipped and well-stocked with items and experience points should be enough to see you through, but that won’t help if you cannot find a sense of direction. Secret of Mana does not give you the tools to be a great navigator.
There is also a significant leap in difficulty in a handful of areas in the game. The Pure Land is one example of this. If I had to guess, I’d say that is probably yet another symptom of everything that had to be cut from the game. Otherwise you’re left with this massive, inexplicable jump in challenge.
Secret of Mana may be many things but a rip off it is not. Some risks it was forced to take but some of its features are the results of pioneering thought. You could play retro RPGs for years and never come across something as distinctive as Secret of Mana. That seamless multiplayer goes a long way, not just in covering up the flaws but also in ensuring the game remains remembered.
My Personal Grade: 6/10
Like I said at the beginning, there is a real temptation with retro games to view them through sepia-toned glasses as perfect or at least superior in some fashion. Indeed this is one accusation made against the retro gaming community. One of the difficulties of being a critic is recognizing one’s own biases, which most certainly exist. In the realm of retro games of decades past, there exists a strong bias toward seeing them in high standing and in undertaking this adventure to I guess review everything, I’ve begun to confront this bias within myself. Replaying and reviewing Secret of Mana took the game down a few notches for me, no matter how excited I was to play it again on the SNES Classic.
Truth be told, Secret of Mana is an example of a retro game which suffers more from just time. It’s not time that ensured its blemishes. In the US version, its perhaps once beautiful plot was reduced to the isolated activities of forgettable characters and villains mucking about in a chopped up world. Its gameplay can still be enjoyable for a couple of friends whittling away some afternoons with couch co-op, but inevitable frustrations and narrative aimlessness will work actively against that. I never beat this game as a child and it took forcing myself through the latter parts of Secret of Mana with my kid brother to see those end credits roll.
All of the troubled translation issues are summed up in a single image, the image of the three heroes standing tranquilly at the foot of the Mana Tree, lush foliage in the background, scarlet cranes flying overhead. That image doesn’t actually appear in the game, excepting the title screen. It’s an elegant scene that points out the inelegance of the game itself.
The full 3D remake is on its way here soon and I wonder if Square Enix is going to take the opportunity to restore what Square was forced to cut from the English version. Now’s their chance to restore the world of Secret of Mana to the dream it could have been!
Aggregated Score: 7.0
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Categories: Game Review