This generation has introduced a lot of new technology like motion controllers and 3D handhelds.
However, the best trend as of late is the making of the old new again, courtesy of the latest onslaught of remakes. The ability to download classic games right to your new console or cell phone rather than digging up your old console and hoping it worked or pirating it and hoping you didn’t catch a virus has made a lot of gamers happy.
If there was one game I was excited to get back in particular, it was Secret of Mana.
The story to how I found this game is rather weird compared to the more conventional “I rented it once at Blockbuster because I was bored” type story you usually find in a review like this. I actually first heard of and played this game at a family reunion.
I was in 5th grade and we were in Virginia for the annual Stafford family reunion. It was hot that day. It had been really hot all weekend and my mom had been adamant that I stay outside as much as possible. I just wanted to be anywhere else at that point, school included.
I went inside to excuse myself and to enjoy some much needed air conditioning, and as I got out of the bathroom (full disclosure here people), I heard the music from Super Mario World. I peeked inside the room it was coming from, and lo and behold, one of my cousins had brought their SNES and an assorted collection of games.
She had the aforementioned Mario game and a game I had never heard of before called Secret of Mana.
I played it for an hour or two and I was enthralled. The graphics were beautiful, the music was above and beyond anything I ever heard on any console and the gameplay was just awesome. I had to have this game.
I asked her where I could find it and she said she didn’t know. She also said it didn’t really interest her that much. I didn’t have any money but I had a rather extensive amount of games back home and we decided to make a trade.
One game swap later that year and I had Secret of Mana in my possession.
The story of Secret of Mana goes something like this:
In the past, men get too prideful and build the Mana Fortress, a flying superweapon that runs off of the world’s source of magic, rapidly using it up. The gods don’t like this and send an army of beasts to destroy the Fortress. A war erupts decimating the world until hero comes with the Sword of Mana and destroys the Fortress, putting an end to the conflict.
In the present, a young boy (you) is going to the waterfall with his friends when he finds the de-powered Sword stuck in a stone after falling down said waterfall. He pulls it out to cut through some bushes and get back to his village only to learn that in doing so he has:
- Unwittingly unleashed a hoard of monsters that the Sword’s magic was protecting the village from—which ends up getting him banished.
- Becomes a major player in a conflict between an empire who wants to revive the Mana Fortress and a country who wants to stop that from happening.
- Has to re-power the Sword by going to the world’s shrines to the various elements, magically seal the Mana Tree seeds so that they only give power to him and get orbs of magical power held by various boss montsers.
While doing this, he is joined by a rebellious girl from a noble family trying to protect her love interest (a commoner) and a magical Sprite trying to regain his memories.
Secret of Mana‘s gameplay is a hybrid of Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy II. The game is played from a top down perspective and uses an Active Time Battle system. In English, that means battles occur in real-time on the same screen as the gameplay, rather than fading to a different screen for a random encounter. There are no “turns”, but button mashing won’t help you either, as your attack meter must be at 100% for your attack to have full effect.
The combat works incredibly well overall.
You get eight weapons to choose from as you go through the game. Much like the Sword, each weapon can be leveled up with orbs you get from bosses you encounter. Much like Final Fantasy II, you have the ability to improve your skills through battle, and as you use your weapons more, you get access to stronger attacks. This allows for a high degree of customization for your party.
Secret of Mana is a 16-bit game and everyone of those “bits” is pushed to the limit. Needless to say, the environments are stunning. You go from shrines, castles, a beautiful crystal ice forest and anywhere elsee you could possibly dream up. It’s like the developers threw every fantasy and fairy tale locale in the game and mixed it together, and surprisingly, it worked. Even better, you get the ability to fly through the world on a dragon midway through the game. You will never forget it. I am not exaggerating this.
The characters and monsters, of which there is a truckload (even more than Link to the Past), are also all very well done. The bosses all look very epic, and sometimes genuinely terrifying.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t go into the multiplayer, because this was one of the rare RPGs that had a co-op component.
Plug a second controller in and you could play as one of the other three characters. If you had an SNES multitap, another player could join and all three of you would take over a character. At the time, this multiplayer element was a revolutionary idea and even today it’s still awesome. The iOS version doesn’t have this though, so that’s kind of a downer.
The Virtual Console re-release retains it luckily and now you don’t need a multitap—just a few classic or GameCube controller will do.
Lastly, the music.
Certain things defy normal written description. The music of this game is one of those such things. Saying the music is fantastic is like trying to explain a rainbow to a blind person. It will likely be what you will remember most. I will be as bold as to say composer Hiroki Kikuta needs to be recognized not just in the pantheon of great video game composers, but in the pantheon of great composers of anything period.
All that said, the game isn’t perfect. The story is serviceable but a lot of the twists feel kind of forced. To me it felt like Square was experimenting with things it would do in later titles.
More significantly, be prepared to grind to get money for armor. If you go into a new area without the proper armor, you’re going to die horribly. You’ll also have to grind to level up your magic. The low item cap (four of each item) will make high level curing magic a necessity.
Spoiler alert: It’s going to get tedious at times.
Speaking of magic, once you get your magic high enough, it becomes game breaking. Even bosses can go down in a few hits if you use their weakness, and a bug allows you to cast certain spells endlessly. A spell called Analyzer tells you which element a monster is weak to, even bosses, so that’s a bit too much handholding if you ask me. Part of the fun of Final Fantasy was experimenting with your magic to find out what moves were best.
All and all, this game is great. There are some small chinks in its armor but it’s nothing that kills the game. There’s a reason I went back to Virginia and braved another family gathering for it.
Why You Should Buy It
For starters, it’s just an awesome game. There’s hours of fun to be had for only 800 Wii points, even more so if you’re a completionist, as you will spend a lot of time getting every weapon and spell up to the maximum.
Value isn’t the only reason to get this game though. There’s something for everyone here.
If you’re an action/adventure lover, this is the game for you. If you’re an art aficionado gamer, this is the game for you. If you and your friends want to play a multiplayer game that isn’t Smash Bros or another FPS, this game is for you. If you’re new to RPGs and you’re trying to get your feet wet, this game is for you. If you’re a hardcore RPG fan looking for an RPG you haven’t played yet, well, I think you get the point.
The whole game is rewarding. Every time you get to a new area, you’re rewarded with something new. Every time you level up your spells and see how much more powerful there are, there will be a certain sense of accomplishment.
Secret of Mana was made nearly 20 years ago, but it stands the test of time. It didn’t have 3D graphics or voice acting, but it didn’t need them. All Secret of Mana needed was 16 “bits”, developers willing to take a risk and one of the best music scores in the history of any medium.
Though both versions have certain pluses and minuses (the iOS not having multiplayer but improved graphics or the Wii having the reverse), it is a great game and it is definitely a must buy if you have either system.