Secret of Mana was groundbreaking for its time and one of the most remembered RPGs on the Super Nintendo. But is it as “great” as people remembered it?
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* This review is for the original SNES game, not the HD remake. I may play the remake in hope that the original’s flaws were addressed.
Honestly, I’m probably going to get a lot of flak for this but here goes. I don’t think Secret of Mana is that great of a game.
Yes, I can hear the boos of many a screeching nostalgic fan. And I don’t blame you. The game has so much going for it, and at the same time it’s just one long marathon of frustration.
Now, I have to admit this straight away. I didn’t play this game when it first came out, so I didn’t exactly have that feeling of wonder and excitement when I finally got around to playing it. Though I can probably say that it’s great for its time, the game is definitely showing its age now.
It’s not a bad game, per say. It’s just a very flawed one. But there are some saving graces that prevent it from being bad.
So, let’s see how it holds up during the year 2016.
I have to admit, this is the kind of screen that screams, “Nostalgia!”
A little background: Secret of Mana is actually the sequel to a Final Fantasy spinoff known as Final Fantasy Adventure for the Game Boy. That particular game is also called Mystic Quest in Europe but it is not the same game as Final Fantasy Mystic Quest for the SNES—one of the most polarizing spinoffs in the series.
Secret of Mana is loosely based on the Final Fantasy universe. It’s kind of its own thing but it also has minor connections to the series, such as the inclusion of Moogles.
But anyways, let’s address both the strong and the weak points.
The game starts off with a short tale about the life energy known as Mana and its role in the creation of the weapon known as the Mana Fortress. There was also a bit of background on a legendary sword commonly known in legends as the Sword of Mana. This is very much a classic Final Fantasy plot, which to say it’s always going to be an interesting premise.
During present day, you take the role of a young boy (officially known as Randi) who somewhat resembles Crono from Chrono Trigger. Seriously, look at him.
Come on, now. Don’t tell me you don’t see the resemblance.
But if you’re wondering which came first, it’s Secret of Mana. Chrono Trigger came out in 1995.
The game plays in an overhead view, very similar to The Legend of Zelda. But unlike that game, Secret of Mana has a bigger emphasis on the RPG mechanics rather than the action. And that can get confusing.
As soon as you claim your sword, you may start attacking enemies. However, there is a catch. There is a meter at the bottom of the screen that determines the damage you inflict when attacking. If charged to 100%, you will do full damage. But if you attack too early, you will inflict very little damage. This is to prevent you from piling on spam attacks.
You can use the weakened attack to stagger enemies since even budgeting microseconds in this game seems to count against you.
This doesn’t seem to apply to your enemies though. Even though you do get a short time of invincibility frames after you get hit and stumble back, your enemies can suddenly combo you into an almost neverending series of attacks.
Don’t believe me? Well, let’s look at one of the first major battles in the game.
Not too long after you start the game, you fight probably one of the worst designed first bosses in a RPG. I don’t mean the artistic design, but how you actually fight the Mantis Ant.
All you have in this one battle is the sword, so that is your only means of attack. However, the Mantis Ant can use magic (which completely freezes you in place) and has this one cheap, nearly unavoidable attack that renders you unconscious. Even if you try hiding behind walls, that attack can get you.
There is no strategy in this battle. A man named Jema will constantly bring you back to life if you die. You just smack the boss with the sword until it dies. That’s it.
A game in its first moments ought to teach you how the gameplay works before it changes things up. Otherwise, this is a jarring and confusing way to demonstrate the combat mechanics of the game.
And this boss battle in a nutshell presents one of the game’s major issues: its flawed and easily exploitable combat mechanics.
And as an additional slap in the face, the village kicks you out for doing something that you don’t know that you’re not supposed to do. And they constantly put the blame card on you, which is just atrocious.
You don’t seem sad to me.
So you wouldn’t sell me healing candies and would rather have me die in the wild? Well, fuck you too!
Well, good! It’s not like I wasn’t raised here for my entire life and this event wouldn’t scar me during my youthful age. And on the same day a mutant insect tried to kill me, my own village turned its back on me instead of offering me support. I sincerely hope you all drop dead.
Seriously, this event is both stupid and heartless. The whole village blames you for something that no one has ever told you about. They don’t even give you a chance to say sorry or try to fix your mistakes.
And this is definitely not a great way to get you invested into the game. With a village that heartlessly throws you out into the wilderness, I’m supposed to find out how to save the world for their sake?
No! Fuck that! I’m going to find a new village to live in, you assholes.
But to be fair, much of the story isn’t particularly memorable. It’s a typical youth-goes-to-save-the-world plot. I like the idea of starting the game off with being banished from your own home—which Final Fantasy IV did much better at a different approach—, but it just feels sloppily executed here. Instead of making you understand the situation from the village’s perspective, you just end up hating the people there due to their lack of empathy and understanding.
But I’m too hung up on this. Let’s move on.
As the game progresses, you speak to an eternally youthful sage named Luka—whose youth was never explained—and you receive the main objective of the game: visit eight palaces and awaken the Mana Seed in each of them to empower the Mana Sword.
It’s an objective very reminiscent of awakening elemental crystals in Final Fantasy.
Along the way, you meet a young girl (officially named Primm) and a sprite (officially named Popoi) who both decide to join you on your quest. What’s interesting to note is that each of them has a character arc. Very short arcs, but they’re still there.
You also meet an evil sorcerer known as Thanatos, who is what you get if you merge the characteristics of Exdeath and Kefka from Final Fantasy into one character. He’s very much a standard fare RPG villain who dabbled into a bit of necromancy and mind control. Unfortunately, the game doesn’t shed much light into his background and he doesn’t make a major appearance in any other game in the Mana series. It’s a real shame because he could’ve been a really interesting villain.
Overall, the story isn’t that great but it isn’t bad either. There are some genuine dramatic moments, though they lack real depth.
There’s a generic Empire with a generic Emperor with generic officers and the main villain of the game is a generic sorcerer. Honestly, they’re just sort of there. Otherwise, it never really feels like the world is set to end like how it happened in Final Fantasy VI. In fact, a lot of places are pretty much happy sunshine and lollipops.
It’s just an average RPG story ripe with typical RPG tropes, so take that as you will.
Though the story is straightforward, the gameplay isn’t. At first.
The biggest problem with Secret of Mana is how it doesn’t bother explaining its game mechanics. There are no NPCs you can talk to on how combat works. Items you buy from shops don’t have any descriptions to them, so you don’t know what the hell they do unless you read up on it or use it once and waste your money in the process.
And only by fooling around with the settings or reading a guide somewhere, you may figure out how the game works and even pick up some new strategies. Or if you’re one of those people lucky enough to keep a manual of the game…
For example, you may notice that the AI of your allies is pretty bad from the start. Like, Primm and Popoi almost always refuse to attack the enemy and this gets them killed so many fucking times.
But no, I’m a dumb shit. By accessing the grid menu through the ring selection menu, you can configure the AI of your friends by setting up how aggressive or defensive you want them to be. I just made them as aggressive as possible and pretty much most of the game is beat.
You can also change the character you control in the middle of the game by pressing the SELECT Button, which is a very useful feature if your current character is in a bind—like being unconscious or getting trapped in flames. That way, you can change to a different character and use a Medical Herb to heal the other character’s status condition.
You can also use the X or Y button to access the ring menu through one of your allied characters, which allows you to independently control their actions like using items or using magic.
And of course, you can find Weapon Orbs all over the game. After you acquire the default weapons, you can upgrade them by speaking to a NPC named Watts—who is sort of the “Cid” of the Mana series. By giving Watts a corresponding Weapon Orb and paying him a fee, he can reforge the weapon for you. And there are many weapons to choose from, giving you a reasonable degree of customization for your party members.
Also, what is the point of leveling up a weapon? Easy. When you hold down the attack button, your weapon will charge. Releasing the button will allow you to perform a powerful combo. The more levels you gain for the weapon, the more different combos it can do. And the higher-leveled ones can easily overcome the the invincibility frame issue since they can last a few seconds and have an absurdly wide range or attack.
You need to use every trick in the book, because your enemies certainly won’t play fair. Therefore, do yourself a favor. Learn how you use all these effectively and you will have learned the game.
You will also catch on to the minor annoyances that build up over time that can potentially take away enjoyment from the game.
As I mentioned earlier, the combat is designed in a way to be easily exploited. As soon as a character’s recovery time ends, the enemy can easily attack right before it ends and stagger the character even further. This kind of hit detection is very unintuitive, especially if you’re spoiled by the likes of The Legend of Zelda. A very good example of this is the werewolf enemy early in the game.
For me, this is one of the most frustrating moments of Secret of Mana. Primm just stands there and does nothing while I get pummeled by two difficult enemies. I can’t use magic and I can’t independently control Primm in case I need help.
But these werewolf enemies have quick and long-lasting attacks that can easily prevent you from recovering, therefore you just sit there with your thumb up your ass while you can’t do anything against them. The damage stacks quickly and that game over screen comes up.
This is, what, the second hour of the game? Why would you put in a sudden difficulty spike that early?
This particular sequence also proves that there is some wacky hit detection going on. Sometimes, your attacks charged at 100% don’t damage the enemy even though your sword makes direct contact with them. It’s like your enemies have invincibility frames at random points. But the problem is that the game sometimes doesn’t indicate if this is an enemy dodging or if it’s a glitch. Some enemies jump back to dodge your attack while others don’t.
It’s also very easy for your party members to get stuck in walls. The AI is designed to follow your controlled character and it has little ability to walk around walls to reach you. Sometimes, it has them walking into enemy attacks and constantly getting barraged by projectiles. And every time your friends get stuck somewhere, the screen refuses to scroll over. This makes even casually running through maps a chore.
Luckily, you have the SELECT button in case this shit happens. Harmless, but annoying.
I heard that you can have other people join in and control the other players, making it a three-player game at max. Unfortunately, I don’t have this little luxury so I’m stuck with the bad AI.
It’s also irritating that you have to be close to the edge of the screen in order for the map to scroll. This makes it so easy to get ambushed by enemies in the cheapest ways possible. I could be headed north and suddenly two werewolves would bum-rush me and my friends. Again, annoying.
The status effects in this game are badly designed. Right from the very first boss, your character can go unconscious for several seconds and leave you fully vulnerable. This is just a way for the enemy to easily to throw in as many cheap shots as possible. Also throw in getting engulfed by flames a few times in the row before the enemy finally decides to give you some goddamn air.
Also, magic is godly in this game. When your enemies spam magic against you, you’re pretty much at the north side of Fucked. This is especially true for the beginning of the game, where your characters don’t have magic yet.
But when you spam magic against them, the game is pretty much won.
The problem is that most magic can’t be dodged and it has better recovery than physical attacks. You can outright abuse it to prevent the enemy from attacking you. Then you just stack up the damage until the enemy dies.
And this sort of thing also forces you to grind. Not necessarily for individual character levels, but constantly using magic over and over to level it up. There are some parts of the game that are difficult to complete unless you leveled up a specific type of magic. And there are eight types of magic, and sixteen in total to level up since Primm and Popoi do not share Mana Spirit levels.
And it’s made worse by the fact that you can only carry four of the same item at a time, meaning you can only have four Faerie Walnuts with you to restore your MP. And Faerie Walnuts are pretty expensive for most of the game. So, you would have to travel back and forth between a grinding spot and an inn ten or more times to save money! Wonderful…
Also, what is this?
Uh, yeah. That’s complete bullshit.
When you do receive magic, only Primm and Popoi get it. Primm gets the defensive magic while Popoi gets the offensive magic. Randi gets NOTHING. Even though he is the best at tanking and physical attacks out of the three, those traits don’t matter much in the long run.
Because by the time you’re done spamming offensive spells with Popoi, the boss battle is over before Randi will even land a hit.
Even though there are better weapons to use, the only reason to use the Mana Sword is to cut grass with it and to use it against the final boss—who can only be damaged by a Mana Sword enchanted with Mana Magic from Dryad. Yeah, that’s pretty stupid.
Why even encourage players to experiment with different weapons when only one of them lets you beat the game? It’s even worse when you need to have Primm and Popoi cast Mana Magic, but Dryad’s level is at 1 meaning the magic won’t last very long when you use it. I favored the spear or the whip over the sword, and I had to go back to grind in order to level up the sword and Dryad’s magic just so I can clear the game.
At some point, you can control a dragon named Flammie. Flammie is pretty much the substitute for airships from Final Fantasy, as he allows you to quickly travel across the overworld to get to certain locations faster.
Theoretically, this idea should work. But that’s not quite the case. The navigation sucks. Unlike most RPGs, you’re not used to this game’s overworld so you don’t know where most of the places you visited are. It doesn’t help that you can only view the overworld through this gimmicky behind-the-person perspective.
Most RPGs allow you to view the overworld from a top-down perspective at a fixed camera. That’s fine. Even though Final Fantasy VI uses a similar behind-the-person perspective when you’re piloting an airship, you already have explored most of the overworld and you even have a nice little mini-map at the corner to help you navigate easily.
Secret of Mana doesn’t give you that kind of privilege. The “mini-map” only appears when you pause the game, and it’s just a shitty globe that doesn’t make navigation any clearer. Finding places to land in is somewhat unintuitive and navigating is a pain in the ass. The overworld map also suffers from a terrible open-ended design. You know how many RPG overworlds are designed to be straightforward and have the occasional fork in the path? Well, Secret of Mana’s overworld is nothing like that. Everything is covered in bland forested areas, grasslands, mountains, and other strange designs. There are no roads to clearly indicate how the world is built. Maybe if the names of locations show up next to the place you want to land at, this wouldn’t be such a problem. This makes the game’s last few hours a nightmare because you can’t even find where the hell you’re supposed to go.
While this behind-the-person perspective looks cool on the SNES, it loses its charm quickly when you realize that it isn’t very usable and it just outright makes navigating the overworld more confusing.
Why does this game have to be so tedious?
It’s these kinds of things that bug the shit out of me. It makes me angry that a game like this is robbed of its vast potential due to bad decisions on how the game ought to be played.
The lesson here is functionality. Make sure that the average gamer can figure out how to play just from playing the game alone, not forcing the gamer to look up walkthroughs just to figure out the basic mechanics.
This is the kind of game that makes you buy a subscription for Nintendo Power. By the time this game came out, it’s unlikely for an average household to have Internet. It’s even more unlikely that the Internet would have easily accessible video game walkthroughs at that point too. No GameFAQs for you. Chances are it wasn’t created yet.
And I really hate to shit on this game too, because it’s one of the most aesthetically pleasing games I have ever played on the SNES. It has a charming art style that mixes both gritty environments and cute characters, which is a staple of the classic Final Fantasy games.
From unique enemy designs…
To impressively vibrant landscapes.
Entering the Pure Lands for the first time is one of the game’s most beautiful and haunting moments. A sacred place hidden away from the rest of the world, but foreshadows a greater calamity just around the corner.
And the soundtrack is one of the best I’ve heard on the system.
Honestly, I REALLY want to love this game. It has all the assets. But the combat system is so badly designed and relies heavily on:
- Getting the best gear
- Getting the highest levels possible that grinding can provide you
- Having specific key items
- Spamming high-level magic
- Constantly using up your healing items just so you won’t die
- Not getting locked down into a corner where the enemy can constantly exploit the short invincibility frames
When I put it like that, it sounds like I’m referring to pretty much any RPG on the SNES. But at least some RPGs require you to use a reasonable degree of strategy to get through the game. Secret of Mana rarely needs a strategy. You just hit stuff or spam magic until the enemy tilts over. If that doesn’t work, spend a couple hours dedicated to grinding.
As how the game stands today, it’s pretty dated. The presentation is still nice and appealing, but the gameplay is choppy in places. And when you get used to the gameplay, it’s stupidly easy because of how exploitable and unbalanced it is. And I’m sure this game was very well loved back in its day. Among the most recommended RPGs on the SNES, Secret of Mana often turns up on the list.
At the time, there was no other game like it. Even its predecessor, Final Fantasy Adventure, felt more like a clone of The Legend of Zelda rather than its own thing. Secret of Mana has the ring menu (which is actually easy to learn after using it a few times), the fact that other players can control the other party members, the crisp and appealing graphics that demonstrate what the SNES is capable of, the magic system which allows you to enchant weapons with a certain element, the different kinds of weapons you can equip that each behave differently, its earnest attempt in creating an atmosphere, etc. There’s an undeniable charm to the game that is difficult to recreate. The overall presentation still stands out.
With that said, I don’t strongly recommend this game. I will acknowledge that it is a decent game, though. Just a very flawed one. I read that its Japan-only sequel, Seiken Densetsu 3, is a far superior game in terms of gameplay and story. But that’s a battle for another time.
So if you want to still try this game, go ahead. Just know what you’re getting yourself into.
Secret of ManaPrice Varies
- There is a small amount of customization for party members by letting you equip any weapon to them.
- The game’s presentation still stands out in the SNES library, having great visuals and one of the best soundtracks the system has to offer. Exploring the world feels great and the atmosphere is quite amazing for a 16-bit game.
- The game’s story is okay for its time, but is average and forgettable.
- The combat mechanics are fundamentally flawed and are easily exploitable through the overuse of magic.
- The game fails to explain its own unique mechanics, requiring you to use a manual or a walkthrough in order to better understand the gameplay and simple strategies to make the game much more tolerable.
- A mixture of small flaws such as a finicky hit detection, bad party member AI, overpowered magic system and terrible overworld navigation can make the game less enjoyable due to how much they make the game more tedious.