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 mixed together 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.

Secret of Mana’s smooth flow reaches well into the gameplay, despite all of the hiccups. It’s an ambitious setup that lets three characters wield weapons and cast spells as a team, and those melees can get frustrating when party members snag themselves on the scenery or get dogpiled by repeated attacks. Yet it’s highly enjoyable. You’re free to dodge and rush past enemies if you like, and the game’s reliance on charging meters gives battles a light, strategic rhythm. And when the game implicitly demands that players fight monsters over and over to raise their levels, it’s not so tedious.

That’s to say nothing of getting three players to join in simultaneously, provided they have the Super NES multitap. Yes, it’s expensive these days. So is Secret of Mana. So is any good Super NES game more popular than Pac-Man 2.



Color and motion bathe Secret of Mana. The world offers gentle countrysides with waving grass, clear waterfalls with flowing rivers, luminous temples with fuming braziers, and the occasional burst of advanced technology or intriguingly modern “ancient” ruins. Large and bright characters roam the towns, and cartoonish enemies patrol the rest of the landscape—including the unfairly adorable rabites. With sprites big and impressive even by today’s standards, Secret of Mana is an adventurous fable even in the climax’s tragedy-laced plunge through a floating superweapon.

More than anything, though, Secret of Mana rides on Hiroki Kikuta’s soundtrack. It’s a remarkable collection of catchy combative beats and somber piano imitations. From the opening growls of an eldritch whale song and the gloriously matched title theme, the music rarely comes up short. Its only real misstep is “It Happened Late One Evening,” which plays in the dwarf village and ranks as one of the worst pieces of video-game music in historical record. It apparently absorbed all the mediocrity from the rest of the soundtrack, like a portrait in the attic.



It’s the music that truly makes the game, filling any gaps left when Square ripped out pieces of the original design. Secret of Mana is escapism for the most part, with evil forces to topple and legends to uphold. Yet it has moments of loss and mystery, reminders that no victory comes without sacrifice, and here the soundtrack is worth words immeasurable. We don’t need melodramatic speeches and bittersweet flashbacks to grasp Primm and Dyluck’s connection when “Fond Memories” stirs the imagination. We don’t need reams of backstory when “A Wish” suggests centuries-old powers both tranquil and ominous. We can hear it all.

True, an expanded Secret of Mana would be fascinating, and I’d readily jump on a remake more in line with the creators’ original vision—heck, I’ll settle for a recovered prototype of the Super NES CD version. All things told, however, the Secret of Mana we have is a superb game. It’s appealing, energetic, and downbeat in just the right amounts. If players really want character arcs and studied melodrama, there are many other RPGs to suit them. Besides, what would darker themes do for a game where Santa Claus turns into a frost gigas because children stopped believing in him?



The Mana series climbed back into view recently as Square Enix announced a Switch compilation of the first three games (though it’s scheduled only for Japan at this writing). Even Hiroki Kikuta, long underrated by the game industry at large, is in the spotlight with his work on the upcoming RPG Indivisible. It’s a good time to rediscover Secret of Mana and, if Square Enix is nice about that Switch collection, play an official translation of Seiken Densetsu 3.

Secret of Mana is an accident difficult to reproduce. More gravitas, and it’s overbearing. More cute strokes, and it’s saccharine. Subsequent Mana titles learned this the hard way. They have the Mana Tree and the rabites and the lushly illustrated world, but they don’t have the same balance. Few games really do, and that’s all the more reason to bring Secret of Mana to as wide an audience as the world can manage.


2 comments:

  1. Great writeup. I played Secret of Mana around the time it came out and I was at the right age to be totally taken in by the game. It was more or less my gateway drug into RPGs. I was sort of disappointed years later when I found that not everyone had my high opinion of it. I agree that it’s got some weird mechanics – but when you play a game as a child you find yourself adjusting to things like that. Stuff like the weapon charging and cooldown doesn’t bother me at all.

    You also make a good point about briskness and pacing. It’s one of the reasons that 16-bit RPGs hit a real sweet spot with me – the mechanics are a lot more fun and streamlined than their 8-bit counterparts, but the games themselves are far less bloated than anything that came after. I’ve played Final Fantasy IV well over a dozen times, but when I see newer RPGs that advertise “over 100 hours of gameplay!” I find myself passing them up.

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  2. Sharan11:00 AM

    I too was caught by surprise by how much I liked the game when it came out. I wasn’t really an RPG player at the time but it quickly made me a fan. I remember eagerly awaiting Secret of Evermore thinking it was a related title then being greatly disappointed while playing it. Damn that Square marketing -_-

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