Wednesday Column

1993: Secret of Mana (Persistence: Spiky Tiger and the Value of Sticking To It)

InfernalMage “The following is a contributor column by the Infernal Accountant Mage.”

I’ll discard a lot of commonly held knowledge based on the fact that it just doesn’t apply to everyone the way it’s supposed to. You won’t be surprised to hear that “high school is the best time of your life!” isn’t a favorite of mine, for instance. On the other hand, there’s the odd bit of wisdom here and there that I think is pretty universally useful. Let’s talk about “anything worth having is worth working for.” Let’s talk about persistence.

Back in the day you could go to a retail establishment that stocked video games and pay to borrow one for a time – “renting” it, if you will. In the days before Humble Bundle, Steam sales and Game Pass, this was one of the few ways to get games without dropping full price on them. For young me and for many other kids around the same age as young me, rental stores were a small paradise. Wandering around Blockbuster searching for just the right game for the weekend was equal parts exhilarating and foreboding; a good choice would turn the next two days into a game-fueled joy, while a bad choice would lead to a whole weekend filled with nothing but disappointment. This was Serious Business.

It took just the right kind of game to merit two or more weekend rentals, then, and Secret of Mana was the right kind of game. Thanks to anticipation fueled by Nintendo Power’s typically breathless coverage and lunchroom discussion amongst my peers, my first experience with Secret of Mana was an extended session to remember. I popped the cartridge into my SNES and adventured non-stop until I ran into one of the earliest roadblocks of my gaming career.

If you’re not familiar with Secret of Mana, it’s one of the premier action-RPGs on the Super Nintendo. We follow an unnamed boy who, through a series of childish mishaps, ends up drawing and wielding the legendary Mana Sword. This magical weapon once helped defeat an evil empire, but untold years of disuse have rendered it into a rusty scrap. Drawing the Sword attracts monsters hungry for the remaining power of Mana, but it’s all the boy has as he begins his adventure. He’ll have to team up with other heroes, a girl and a sprite, collect and refine an arsenal of weapons and unlock the power of magic in order to defeat the evil empire once more.

By today’s standards it doesn’t do much out of the ordinary, but that’s because Secret of Mana established a legacy and blazed a trail for games to follow. The most obvious gameplay innovation is the addition of a timing aspect to hack-and-slash action-RPG combat. Each attack empties a power meter that then refills over the next few seconds; attacks when the meter was empty do considerably less damage, so the player is encouraged to balance attack and defense, dodging after a swipe as the meter refills. We’d later see this idea built upon in the combat systems of games like Quest 64 and Parasite Eve, but for my money Secret of Mana is about as good as it gets.

Innovative as it may be, this is a fairly simple combat system to grasp, and Secret of Mana does a great job of easing the player into its gameplay. Well, mostly. The newcomer will find that the game progresses smoothly so long as they engage with the rhythm of attack and defense encouraged by the combat system. They won’t even need to grind for levels. Skilled play is all they’ll need. That lasts right up until the encounter with Spiky Tiger.

Several hours into the game, the boy, girl and sprite have teamed up to make a full party. You’re sent to explore the castle of the witch Elinee in seach of the fate of the girl’s lover Dyluck. Upon finding him, he’s sent away by the witch, who then sics her pet tiger on the party. An unprepared player has just met their match.

Spiky Tiger represents a significant increase in difficulty compared to the rest of the game. Previous bosses stayed well within the defined “rules” established by Secret of Mana’s gameplay; if you were careful and timed your attacks and dodging, you’d generally be able to avoid taking hits. Spiky Tiger, on the other hand, cares not for your rules. It leaps in and out of combat, avoiding damage in the process, and it uses unavoidable fire magic attacks to trap party members and deal huge amounts of damage. Most of its attacks are unpredictable and difficult, if not impossible, to dodge effectively. What’s more, your tactics at this point in the game are limited, to say the least – while there are several weapon options available, they don’t yet differ significantly outside of raw damage output, and Secret of Mana imposes strict limits on how many healing items you can carry. Spiky Tiger deals a whole lot of damage that you can’t avoid with the tactics you’ve been taught so far, then expects you to prevail in a given time span with a limited amount of healing. Put simply, this is a battle of numbers and young me wasn’t up to it.

Young me was deeply invested in the skill-over-stats ideal that Secret of Mana appeared to be presenting so far. As a result, young me often avoided unnecessary combat, choosing instead to prevail against bosses by dodging their attacks and counterattacking. This even worked against the boss immediately preceding Spiky Tiger, a duck-faced plant called Tropicallo that had no unavoidable attacks and could be beaten with skill alone. Spiky Tiger was another story entirely.

The correct answer, of course, would be to take some time, grind some levels, go back and win the fight as expected of me and carry on with the game. Young me was having no part of that. One attempt turned into three. Three turned into six. Six turned into a weekend wasted trying to defeat Spiky Tiger while stubbornly refusing to gain some levels and make it easier on myself. A wasted weekend meant that the game had to go back. Spiky Tiger had won.

For a time, at least, because another weekend would come approximately one week later, and I’d return to the rental store to pick up Secret of Mana and try again. Six tries turned into ten. Ten tries turned into twelve…

…and finally, mercifully, one day the fates converged, my characters landed enough critical hits and the Tiger’s AI was merciful enough that I managed to pull through. Words cannot express what a glorious moment this was. Sheer, dogged perseverance in the face of what had seemed like an impossible task had pulled me through. The unstoppable wall had been torn down. The rest of the game was now open to me. It was, without exaggeration, as if I’d been handed an expansion or sequel to Secret of Mana right then and there. The sun shined just a bit brighter that day. The song of the birds was just a bit chirpier.

Naturally, the boss immediately following Spiky Tiger, a lizard that temporarily devours party members, is something of a joke. It had nothing on the beast that had plagued me for so long. Immediately following this boss, the girl and sprite obtain the power to cast magic, rendering the rest of the game largely moot – attack magic is incredibly powerful in Secret of Mana and every boss for the remainder of the game is forced to bow to the might of the arcane. If you can beat Spiky Tiger, you can beat Secret of Mana.

Young me didn’t beat Spiky Tiger the correct way… but young me did beat Spiky Tiger. With persistence, dedication and dogged determination, young me overcame an impossible obstacle and opened the way to a whole new world. Years later, as frustration-focused platformers became popular thanks to Super Meat Boy and frustration-focused RPGs became popular thanks to Dark Souls, modern me laughed in their digital faces. What hope did they have to stop me? I’d beaten Spiky Tiger and learned a valuable lesson: if you never gave up, it wasn’t a question of whether or not you’d win, but a question of WHEN.

And when it came time to apply for colleges, find jobs, enter the dating scene, meet friends, the same truth would become apparent: the world would like nothing more than for you to lie down and give up. That’s easier, after all, and it saves everyone a whole lot of work if they can just tell you “no” and move on. If you don’t give up, if you keep getting back up again, if you refuse to let the bastards get you down, well… anything’s possible. I don’t know if Spiky Tiger taught me that so much as I learned it from applying the concept to life, but by God, that feline jerk certainly makes for a prime example of the value of persistence.

A remake of Secret of Mana was released earlier this year. It is a solid and enjoyable game that’s only enhanced by fond, nostalgic memories of the original… with one key exception: Spiky Tiger is much easier to defeat.

I’d weep for future generations, but they grew up with the Souls games. Spiky Tiger would just be a warmup for them.

 

The Infernal Accountant Mage believes the pen is mightier than the sword…well, depending on how sharp the pen and sword are. A child of the ’90s and a prolific writer, he strews his work about like Legos made of words, just waiting for your brain to step on them. He enjoys a devilish challenge, so when it comes to talking about some of the more difficult games out there, you might just run into the Infernal Accountant Mage. Some advice: hold on to your soul around this guy, and don’t sign anything. Read more at popzara.com

 

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3 replies »

  1. I loved Secret of Mana when I was younger. My brothers and I only had one hour of video game time, unless we combined them to play together. We would get a two hour block of sweet gaming time, and my mother would get a break from two of us at a time; it was a win-win.

    Fast forward to the release of the SNES Classic. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on Secret of Mana, besides emulating the game there really was no easy way to play it today. Shortly after the announcement they announced the remake of the game, and I was overjoyed. I couldn’t wait to experience this game with my son again, I only remembered the warm fuzzies of the game.

    I don’t fault it for the aged systems that it employs, they are quite poor in respect to today’s mechanics, but we got to the Spiky Tiger fight and after 3 fights, we simply quit.

    See the thing is, I don’t have time for games that waste my time with poor game design. The Spiky Tiger is just that, a poorly designed boss fight meant to force you to grind in order to proceed, to over level comparative to the challenge. Never, in any game should you die because the game is simply being cheap. All of Spiky Tiger’s attacks are cheap, and with limited healing items available me and my son were constantly wiped out.

    I think persistence when it comes to games is not something we need, especially when it comes to poor game design. If I’m trying for a moon in Mario and I fail over and over again because I’m just not nailing the gap in time, but every time it is my fault when I fail, that is one thing. I’ve beaten Celeste and a good portion of B sides, I’ve 100 percented Ori, and while those games require great skill to beat, you never die because the game is being cheap.

    When a game rests its laurels on obtuse or poor game design, and simply states you should “git good” I simply don’t have the time to beat my head against it. When I was 10, and this was the only game I owned, that would be one thing. Today, there are just too many well designed games to be bothered with ones that don’t respect the player’s skill and time.

    Fantastic article though, great read.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I haven’t played this game yet. However, reading your post gives me interest to try this out. IT seems fun, exciting and challenging at the same time. But which one would be the best to start off. The original or the remake?

    Liked by 1 person

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