Gaming History 101

Know Your Roots

Secret of Mana Review

leave a comment »

som_boxPlatform: Super NES
Released: 1993 (Japan, US) 1994 (Europe)
Developer: Squaresoft (aka Square)
Publisher: Square
Digital Release? Yes, Secret of Mana is available on the Wii Virtual Console for $8.00 or iOS/Android for $3.99
Price: $45.75 (cart only), $99.99 (complete), and $999.99 (new/sealed) per Price Charting

Please Note: As discussed in both reviews, we played through this game on the Wii Virtual Console and not the SNES.

Jam’s Take

This year I’m finally catching playing games on that much loved system, the Super Nintendo. So far I’ve been very happy with the games I have played. Earlier in the year on GH101 I managed to finally playthrough the fantastic Super Metroid. Its amazing how well these games play today despite never owning a SNES back when I was younger and better looking. For this November/December game club I played through Secret of Mana. This game is uncommon and kind of forgotten in Europe.  Released from Squaresoft the game came out very late in the SNES life cycle, so its time to get ready to grind and see how Secret of Mana fairs today.  Since I don’t own a SNES I played through Secret of Mana on the Wii virtual console.

som_groupNow I’ll be honest and state I don’t generally play RPG type games on the console. I much favour the portable RPGs as it is easier to pick up and play the game and leave it on standby when you are in the middle of an area where you can’t save. So I was a little nervous going into Secret Of Mana on the console. It felt like an incredible achievement.

Starting up Secret of Mana you are greeted to a fantastic score and some interesting art work and just from that opening I knew I was in for a treat.  In the game you start out as “the boy” who you can name whatever delightful name you fancy. After you pull a sword from a tree stump monsters start appearing. This leads you on a epic adventure to save the world. As you progress “the girl” and “the sprite” will join your party. The game has drop in and out co-op so if you have any buddies that want to join the adventure with you they can. You can play co op with up to three people but if your venturing on the SNES console you will need to hunt down the multitap which is pretty rare (at least in the UK). I was not lucky enough to play with anyone else through my playthrough but I could see how it would make the strategy aspect of the game a lot easier. That is provided the person playing with you is taking the game seriously. Playing alone is fine though you are able to loosely control your parties AI with a use of an action grid system so if you find your party is interfering to much you can program them to hold back.

som_battleWhen you begin the combat in Secret of Mana you will probably think like me that this is some action RPG similar to Zelda where you can just swish the sword like crazy. You’ll quickly find that doing this even on the weakest enemies will leave you slashing away for quite some time. The mechanics to the combat have you monitoring a stamina bar when you hit a enemy you loose stamina and the bar needs to fill to 100% before you can hit the enemy again and deliver maximum damage. Hitting the enemy before this will result in a hit with far less damage or just missing the enemy entirely. It takes a bit of getting used to but once you get into the rhythm its actually a lot of fun.

As you progress through the game you will pick up new weapons and magic spells. The weapons can be welded by any member of the party, the magic spells can only be used by the Girl and Sprite. Not only that they are also specific to those individual party members, for example only the Girl can use healing magic.

Of course this being a RPG you are expected to do some obligatory grinding to level your characters up. You can level up each of the main characters as you progress through the game but what you really need to focus on is levelling up magic and the individual weapons in the game. The only way to level each of these is to use them, yes it may sound simple but weapons will not level up with your character. Almost seems like a use it or loose it scenario. Once you level up your magic and weapons to a suitable level you find your characters have naturally been levelled up anyway. Not only that the game will be significantly easier. I found the earlier portions of this game a lot more difficult than later on just because I had not got my head round the level up system. Since you only have three characters and they are the only ones that stick with you for the entire game, it really doesn’t take that long to level up compared to a lot of other RPGs.


The music is just fantastic for this. Well this is a SNES game, which has that very nice little Sony sound chip. This is one of the few games in a while where I wanted to enjoy the complete score from start to finish (without muting the TV and putting on a CD) while I’m grinding away leveling up characters. One of the tracks was recently featured on the Top Scores Volume 2 podcast on GH101.

The graphics are as equally beautiful as the score that accompanies it. If your familiar with Squaresoft’s (now Square Enix) other games for the time like Final Fantasy VI (know as Final Fantasy III on the SNES in US/Europe) you will be very familiar with the art style and even the setting of this world. Its a medieval setting with technology featuring vehicles like mechs or a flying ship (like Final Fantasy VI). In fact the game very much mirrors the progression of those games where you travel round the world to various different areas like various castles, a desert area, enchanted forests. Each area is filled with vibrant colour which with the fantastic soundtrack makes it a treat for your eyes and ears.

som_lichThe sprites for characters and enemies don’t have the usual nasty look to them. Instead it felt kinda weird hitting cute little puff balls with the sword, almost makes you question who the real monster is. The game does recycle a lot of the enemies and even boss sprites by simply just swapping the colours. This was quite common for RPGs in this era but it still comes across as quite lazy. There was a area towards the end of the game where I literally fought several boss battles back to back and three of the bosses where just colour swaps. The game also features the mode 7 graphics that the SNES was famous for. Later on in the game you will be able to travel around the world map in this sorta 3D style. I actually found this really awkward in the game as I have absolutely no idea where I was on the world map despite the game providing you with a map. On some occasions I was literally flying around trying to find a town that was supposedly “west” according to someone I chatted to in a previous area.

The game is long but not overwhelming. I rarely found I needed to grind to level up and I was able to comfortably get to the end of the adventure without having to level up absolutely everything. Of course if your a perfectionist and want to max out your stats it will take you a lot longer. I was surprised to find there were few side quests or reasons to explore the world. The game felt very restricted to the task at hand despite giving you a world to explore.

som_santaWhat makes Secret of Mana stand out from the crowd is its memorable moments. One moment you are exploring a enchanted forest where the seasons change, the next you are on a hunt for Santa Claus – yes, this happens. It all rolls up into one epic adventure that might just leave a smile on your face.  Secret of Mana was quite the delight to play. I didn’t expect to like it as much as I did. The grinding never felt too taxing and provided you’re paying attention to the plot you always knew where you needed to head next. The graphics and music alone are something not to be missed especially if your a fan of the 16-bit generation. The game is satisfying and highly enjoyable to play right up to the end. If you are lucky enough to have someone else to enjoy the experience with there is a co-op option, but it won’t make the game any less enjoyable if you choose to experience the quest alone. Of course if you hate all things grinding and level up based this game may not be for you.

Final Score: 5 out of 5 (review guidelines and policy)

Fred’s Take

I didn’t have an SNES like the rest of America in the mid 90s, I opted in 1991 to get a Sega Genesis because it had more game for the money at the time.  This did not change the fact that I was jealous of my cousin, who did have an SNES, because of how each game looked.  You can’t look at a Genesis game (outside of maybe Aladdin) and say that it has better colors, graphical fidelity, and quality than the SNES because the fact of the matter is that it just doesn’t.  Couple that with the gorgeous Sony S-SMP sound chip (module) that blows away the often “farty” sounding Yamaha 2612 (and I like that chip) of the Genesis and you start to wonder when reading reviews or watching gameplay why one even went with a Genesis – the answer is gameplay and library, but I digress.  The reason Secret of Mana is so significant to these factors is that it so perfectly illustrates the strength’s of Nintendo’s 16-bit console over its competition that the dissolving relationship between Nintendo and Square at the time was not only tragic, but then end of an era with 3rd parties for the company.  Granted, Secret of Mana was supposed to be the first SNES Playstation CD game released on the console (that story is here) and some content was lost in translation, but thankfully this game did come out, even in English.

som_mushboomThe draw of The Legend of Zelda and its many sequels are impossible to ignore and it was only a matter of time before someone else stepped up to make a clone.  There were a few and despite Secret of Mana not being the earliest of these, probably the most significant comes from a Gameboy title from 1991: Final Fantasy Adventure.  If you’re familiar with the portable gem, it’s basically The Legend of Zelda with Final Fantasy elements, but it was also the only thing that came close to a Zelda title on that portable at the time.  Even more significant is that in Japan it’s name is Seiken Densetsu: Final Fantasy Gaiden (or Legendary Sacred Sword: Final Fantasy Side Story) and Secret of Mana in Japan is Seiken Densetsu 2, so basically Square is letting the Japanese audience know that these two games run in the same series.  Some patchwork was performed, notably the remake of Final Fantasy Adventure on the Gameboy Advance was called Sword of Mana and in Europe the previous title of Mystic Quest, which was also the title of a so-so SNES Final Fantasy side story in both US and Europe, was also changed to Sword of Mana.  As Jam hints to in his review, it was an odd time for Japanese RPGs in English so a lot of things got lost, including the never released in English but apparently amazing Seiken Densetsu 3 on SNES the year following Secret of Mana (yes, there is a fan translation, go get it).  In the end this sordid tale needed to be brought to the surface because I’m going to make many comparisons to Final Fantasy Adventure/Sword of Mana, but I just want to refer to it as “the previous title” or other similar descriptors and have you know what I’m talking about.

Most of the gameplay in Secret of Mana is passed down from the previous title, however some of my biggest gripes from that game are blatantly addressed here so I’m betting I wasn’t the only one.  The first is the use of magic, which was not largely part of the gameplay in the first title and now is one of this title’s most important gameplay mechanics.  On one hand I want to roll my eyes and condemn Square for going so strongly in the opposite direction from having magic as mostly a puzzle solving element in the first game and having it be your knight in shining armor in this game.  On the other hand if you track JRPGs of the time and look at the trends emerging in 1992-1994, the entire genre was beginning to focus more on magic and making it a closer analog to Dungeons & Dragons, so whatever the reason, magic is very important in Secret of Mana.  My other gripe was that I had a hard time figuring out where I needed to go and how to get there in the first game.  You had a map, but this was the Gameboy and it wasn’t all that capable of providing you with anything but what you had in Legend of Zelda, a big box with a dot indicating what quadrant on the map you were in.  Not very helpful when you’re trying to find the “coastline village in the north”.  As Jam points out, the map in this sequel is not a whole lot better or more helpful, but the journey is almost linear in how it wants you to navigate this map and realms are separated in level-like areas that aside from a few areas it’s not much of a factor.  This does result in probably one of the most straightforward JRPGs of the 90s and frankly I am thankful for it, although I wonder what the more hardcore audience thinks.

som_firegigasYour basic tasks are in a “go here, kill this boss” formula that doesn’t change as the game progresses and it’s almost laughable looking back at how much recycling happens in this particular game.  Even the original had diversity with bosses – although it was clearly at the expense of unique enemies in each dungeon – so the trade-off is again another conscientious choice, but I couldn’t believe the fact that I play every boss at least twice and the only unique bosses come in a rush-like manner at the end.  Thanks to the localization there are some decent re-workings with boss names to soften the blow, but if it weren’t for the story much of the magic of Secret of Mana is lost.  And that story, I must say, is what makes this title so significant.  Aside som_gigas3from the aesthetics and impressive sound design, Secret of Mana has one of
the best stories in this era.  It’s not complicated, doesn’t get all full of itself, and doesn’t need an encyclopedia of background information to tell the story to another person.  It’s short, it’s simple, it’s effective.  By far this simple tale of a hero and his companions saving the world is of my favorite on the console.

Secret of Mana enchanted those that got to play it back in the days of the SNES and as Jam and I discussed on the game club, it probably would have done the same for us.  Since I don’t have the benefit of playing it when it released I have to go into this with the pragmatic view of seeing what it’s trying to do in comparison to its peers and how it has aged today.  I’m sure it’s clear that this is of the best JRPGs to release on the SNES and while the hit detection leaves much to be desired, this could be the breath of fresh air you want from re-visiting this era.  I can’t promise you won’t get annoyed (because you will), or that you won’t be grinding (because you will), or that you might get so frustrated you quit (because some did), but this is a game worth sticking with in all its flawed, but charming glory.

Final Score: 4 out of 5

Want to hear more depth about the Secret of Mana campaign or just want to know what happens in the game without playing it?  Check out our Secret of Mana game club podcast.

Written by jamalais

January 1, 2015 at 11:00 am

Posted in Reviews, SNES

Tagged with ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: