A Letter of Mana

I didn’t intend for this to be a Secret of Mana month, but the series bobbed to the surface with Square Enix’s newly launched Switch collection of the first three titles. It brings back childhood memories of questing through Final Fantasy Adventure (aka Seiken Densetsu) on the Game Boy, sitting entranced by Secret of Mana (aka Seiken Densetsu 2) on the Super NES, and then watching in frustration and despair as Square never translated Seiken Densetsu 3.

Yes, it’s happening again. Seiken Densetsu Collection is Japan-only as far as anyone knows, as Square Enix has announced no plans to localize it. This would be a good opportunity to fatten up the Switch library and finally bring over an English version of Seiken Densetsu 3, but their silence says a lot.

You might contend that Seiken Densetsu 3 isn’t worth the trouble. I disagree. True, its lineup of six selectable characters fragments the story, and the gameplay exacerbates a lot of Secret of Mana’s annoyances: unconvincing hit detection, cheap bosses, and so forth. But it’s a gorgeous game with that undeniable 16-bit Squaresoft grandeur to it. I don’t like it nearly as much as Secret of Mana, but I’d like to play an officially translated version of Seiken Densetsu 3 on the Switch.

So I’ll do what I did back in 1995: I’ll write Square Enix a letter.

Well, that’s my letter. It might be just as ineffective as all my letters were back in 1995, but I like to recall a time when I honestly believed that I’d sway a company into localizing a complex and potentially unprofitable game for the dwindling Super NES market just because I’d put something into an envelope and mailed it.

You were delusional, younger me, but you were earnest. I owe to you to write a letter about Seiken Densetsu 3 once again.

And if Square Enix does nothing, I probably owe it to you to play through the fan-translated version that I periodically start and never finish.

Secret of Mana: The Villainous Unknown

The Cutting Room Floor finds many things deleted from games: never-seen animation, unused backgrounds, extended music, and other stuff absent during play but still present in the code. My favorite sort of discovery? Full-fledged characters who were cut from a game.

I’m always intrigued by the idea of a hero or villain yanked from a storyline and lurking bitterly in the ones and zeroes. Secret of Mana has a fascinating case.

Secret of Mana lost a great deal of its original outline when it came from the never-released Super NES CD system to the humbler Super NES, and there’s plenty to uncover in the code. Messing around reveals some character poses never glimpsed during gameplay, and there’s one entire villain who doesn’t appear in the game.

Well, the standing theory is that he or she is a villain, at least. The unused character appears among the graphics for Secret of Mana’s familiar antagonists, so it’s fair to assume that this was a servant of the Empire or the sorcerer Thanatos. That, and the obscuring white robes and headdress don’t evoke a good guy. Faceless characters look less human and are therefore less sympathetic, after all.

But where would this deleted figure have appeared? The most logical choice is the ruins south of Pandora, where brainwashed townsfolk and masked cultists gather. The hooded villain would fit right in there, perhaps in a boss battle where it lifted its hands to summon one monster after another.

Of course, this leads to the most likely explanation, and it’s a killjoy: Robesy McHood is just a disguise for Thanatos himself. He first appears to the heroes at the ruins, and while he doesn’t fight them directly, it’s possible that he was to appear in this surreptitious, white-swaddled form before revealing himself. Which means this isn’t a real secret character after all.

Sifting through the Secret of Mana code also reveals the above character, a guard apparently meant for a castle or fort that never came to be. He’s not as interesting as a faceless cult leader, but I do like how he resembles Pete from Disney cartoons not a little.

Despite evidence to the contrary, I like to think that the white-clad villain is a discrete character, and not Thanatos. And if that’s true, the unknown cult leader at least deserves a name. What sort of apt Secret of Mana title fits best? I’d go with something like “Paltus” or “Sidonak,” but I know you’ll all submit better suggestions in the comments!

Secret of Mana's Sloppy Miracle

Why is Secret of Mana such a tough act to follow? It ranks among the best adventures on the Super NES, and no subsequent Mana game matched its reputation; not the directionless, world-building Legend of Mana, not the combat-heavy prequel Dawn of Mana, and not even the directly descended Seiken Densetsu 3 (which would’ve been Secret of Mana 2 over here). Anyone tasked with making a new Mana has a mountain of nostalgic player expectations to climb.

Some contend that Secret of Mana is just a lucky game, not a good one. It arrived in 1993, right when American kids had few options for grand epics on par with The Legend of Zelda or Final Fantasy, and Secret of Mana capably mixed the two. Certain critics point to the game’s limited character arcs, its missing content, and its manifold glitches. They dwell too heavily and too cynically on what Secret of Mana might have been, no matter how little they actually know about a game that never was.

Here’s what we do know: Square intended Secret of Mana for Nintendo and Sony’s Super NES CD-ROM system. When said system failed to appear, the game switched to the plain cartridge-based Super NES and changed accordingly. Director Koichi Ishii stated that it lost about 40 percent of its planned content, and writer/producer Hiromichi Tanaka’s initial storyline switched out “darker” tones for a more lighthearted plot.

Cut corners appear throughout the Secret of Mana that Square released to the world. Characters are noticeably shallow in motivations, some later dungeons are far too simple, and programming gaps and slowdown suggest a game crammed onto a system that could barely handle it.

Secret of Mana is slapdash in both scope and story. There’s no question of that. Yet it’s a fabulous meridian of an action-RPG, with a grandiose saga on one side and a fairy tale on the other. And that’s all because it’s a mess.

Our story treads expected ground. An unassuming orphan boy (officially called Randi, though we didn’t know that for years) tumbles down a waterfall, pulls a sword from a stone, and launches himself into world-spanning heroism. Driven to restore the mystical force known as Mana, he joins up with a rebellious warrior girl (either Purim or Primm, depending on how you phoneticize) and an impudent, poofy-haired sprite (Popoi). Together they meet dwarves, mushroom people , white dragons, beleaguered royalty, bizarre cults, mysteriously youthful Mana attendants, and Santa Claus himself. Their clear foe is a ruthless empire backed by a body-switching sorcerer who wants to revive a dormant superweapon known as the Mana Fortress.

Clich├ęs lurk at every turn, but Secret of Mana eludes them by never slowing down long enough to notice. The game breezes from one quest to the next, and in doing so it preserves the initial fascination of each moment. You’ll see Primm vowing to rescue her boyfriend Dyluck from the empire’s clutches, and in the next beat you’ll recover a Mana Seed from the Scorpion Army, a cadre of thieves who bumbled right off the Time Bokan cels. Secret of Mana’s creators trimmed their original story, and translator Ted Woolsey believes that the script slimmed down even more for the English version. The uncompromised tale might dig deeper, but it would also deny Secret of Mana that all-important briskness. Scenes would last longer, and familiar sights would shed their charm.

Five Games I Own For Stupid Reasons

I try to be picky about the video games I own. This means that I still have over a hundred of them, of course. Most I keep because they’re personal favorites or stuff that I haven’t fully played yet. A few games, however, stick around on thinner justification. And here they are, posed with appropriately disdainful toys.

I last went to Japan back in 2007, and I prowled the retro-game stores relentlessly. Nearly all of them were filled with Japanese systems and games, naturally, but I stumbled into a small Akihabara spot that stocked American toys and video games.

If you frequent America’s retro-game stores and convention booths, you’ll notice that they mark up just about anything from Japan. Well, this Akihabara shop did the same for Western games. A Jaguar? That’s about $300. Hey, if you wanted to buy Atari’s little-loved final console and happened to be in Japan, this might have been your best bet.

The store also had a bin of common imported games for ten times what you’d pay at any American flea market. Yes, Super Mario Bros./Duck Hunt for the NES can be found in one out of three attics across the United States, but in Japan it’s a $40 rarity.

After seeing this spread, I had to buy something from the store. I wasn’t about to pay import fees on Zero Tolerance or Cybercop, but the shop also sold Japanese games. I fished a copy of Alshark for the Mega CD out of a clearance bin. It’s a space-opera RPG from Right Stuff, and that hit two, perhaps three, of my obsessions at the time. Even if it didn’t have the back insert, I thought it was a good deal for a hundred yen.

The shop owner further won me over by reminding me that Alshark was intended for Japanese systems. I liked that. When I visited Japan on school trips in the late 1990s, almost every store clerk would politely mention that a game was in Japanese or meant to run on a Japanese console, and I would smile and nod, knowing full well how to circumvent region lockouts. By 2007, foreign game collectors were so routine a sight in Akihabara’s stores that no clerk bothered pointing out that a copy of Burning Rangers was the Japanese version.

Whenever I see this battered copy of Alshark, I remember that store, its unnecessary cautions, and its Atari Jaguar.

I have a weakness for penguins and old Game Boy cartridges. I need no reason for liking penguins, and I can rationalize my affection for handheld game cartridges. They’re tiny marvels, evoking the childhood fascination over just how an entire Zelda quest or Contra shootout could fit into a little plastic Triscuit.

On a trip to a retro shop called Game Zone in New Jersey, I really wanted to buy something but had little money to spare. Fortunately, the store maintains a rack of Game Boy games for a few bucks each, and I flipped through them until one called out to me: Amazing Penguin. It’s an enjoyable puzzle game where a penguin evades little creatures to fill in sections of a map. While too primitive in looks to charm us like Pengo, Amazing Penguin sates both my fondness for penguins and my desire to own at least one old Game Boy game.

I have another reason for keeping Amazing Penguin. It’s a Natsume release, and a few of Natsume’s Game Boy offerings, including Tail Gator and Ninja Gaiden Shadow, are worth decent money these days. If the tuber-based Spud’s Adventure and Amazing Tater can be Game Boy gold, why not a game about penguins? They deserve it more.

It’s tempting to defend Keith Courage and his Alpha Zones. On first play, it seems like a solid side-scroller that varies between bland kid-hero stages and speedy mecha-suit levels with cooler monsters and catchier, Rygar-esque music. Heck, it’s based on the anime series Mashin Hero Wataru, and anime tie-in games can get much worse than this.

Perhaps, you might think, people deride Keith Courage not because it’s a lousy game, but because it was the unimpressive pack-in for the TurboGrafx-16. Instead of giving system owners a free R-Type or The Legendary Axe, NEC and Hudson chose Keith Courage and looked downright primitive next to the Sega Genesis and its flashy, ridiculous Altered Beast showcase.

After a few stages, however, it’s easy to see that Keith Courage is mediocre. Levels simply repeat their ideas with nastier jumps and different enemy hues, and getting new weapons becomes a matter of tediously jabbing flying coin-cats over and over. Sorry, Keith Courage. There is no redemption for you.

So why I do I have it? Because it’s among the few TurboGrafx-16 games that isn’t preposterously expensive. Besides, any old cartridge-based systems seems incomplete without a side-scrolling game. The Super NES has Mario, the Genesis has Sonic, and the TurboGrafx, though it might not deserve it, has Keith Courage.

POKER PLUS (Atari 2600)

I could say that I’ve played every game I own, but there’s one exception. A friend and I give each other absurd games or related merchandise each Christmas, and one year his gift was Poker Plus for the Atari 2600. I don’t have the system, as Atari’s reign was before my time and I have no space for another console—not even if the 5200 has a good version of Pengo.

Until I can borrow an Atari 2600, I must make due with YouTube videos of Poker Plus. It seems like an acceptable Atari simulation of various casino card games, but it would have completely baffled me as a child. Perhaps that’s what I like about it. Today, it takes a convoluted game made entirely of Japanese text to truly perplex me. I like to remember an age when anything with numbers seemed as forebodingly grown-up as tax forms and NYPD Blue.


There’s nothing wrong with owning Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo. It’s a fantastic puzzle title still unmatched in its vicious two-player matches. Yet I have the HD Remix version on the PlayStation 3 (complete with obnoxiously loud menu music), and it adds new features and levels.

But I prefer the older version. There are a few options that HD Remix lacks, such as taunts and music that speeds up in the final moments of a match. More importantly, I like the old sprites. They capture the affectionate little details of the characters better, from Dan grinning in delusion to Morrigan nervously fondling her wings on the brink of defeat. The HD characters are too smooth, looking more like Flash cartoons than the work of Capcom’s sprite animators at the top of their game.

Hmmm. Maybe that’s not such a stupid reason after all.