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The Mana series started with Final Fantasy Adventure, released in 1991. Before this review, I had never played any game in this series. Developed and published by Square, Secret of Mana was released for the Super Nintendo in October, 1993. For this review, we played the Super Nintendo version on the SNES Classic. Depending on who you ask, Secret of Mana may be considered one of the best Super Nintendo games of all time and some say it’s one of the more influential RPGs in history.
The story in Secret of Mana follows a young boy which you can name before playing but from what we researched, his actual name is Randi. I’ll just keep calling him “Boy”. Him and two other kids were playing on a log over a waterfall, the Boy falls and as he’s trying to get back, a voice calls out to him that draws to him to a sword which you eventually learn is magical and contains the power known as mana. Unfortunately, removing the sword releases all of the evil in the world and because of that, the Boy is kicked out of his home town. The Boy then learns he’s required to seek out the eight mana seeds to restore mana to the sword and seal away the evil. On his journey he comes across two different characters that join him on his quest – a sprite named Popoi and a girl named Primm. With that said, you can name these characters anything you want but for the sake of this review, I will call them “Sprite” and “Girl”. I should mention the Sprite and Girl have their own reasons for teaming up with the boy. The Sprite is trying to get his memory back and the Girl is supposed to marry some dude but she’s truly in love with an officer named Dyluck. But he went missing and she obviously wants to find him. The story is told through text dialogue so there is no voice acting. You’ll interact with a bunch of characters, including Santa and Rudolph because why not. Being a Japanese RPG, the story gets a little strange, at least if you’re not familiar with many games in this genre or even watch anime. You’ll need to read all of the dialogue not only to understand what’s going but also to know where to go because it can be very easy to get lost. Overall, we thought the storyline was okay. If you can get into it, it can spark a few emotions. There’s some funny moments here, sad moments there, but story aside, we play games for the gameplay, and the gameplay is rather fun.
I would say Secret of Mana is an action RPG. I guess you could say it’s a party-based action RPG. Once the other characters team up with the Boy, you can switch between each character at will, and what’s really cool is that up to two other players can jump in at any time, as any character, and drop out whenever. You can run, sprint, and attack with weapons or use magic. You slay monsters which always seems to grant you money. Fallen monsters can drop chests that reveal items or even traps. The game isn’t really focused on loot but some of the stronger gear is only available as random drops from specific enemies which will probably lead to a lot of grinding. You can the spend money at vendors to buy armor and restorative items. As you progress, you acquire new weapons and there’s actually only a handful in the game. However, you can acquire weapon orbs that can be brought to a specific blacksmith that will use the orbs to upgrade the weapons, making them more powerful. These upgrades actually transform the weapons into entirely different ones. For example, the whip can become a flail and the boomerang can become a chakram. The orbs are usually acquired by defeating bosses but they can also be found in chests. Each weapon has eight orbs but there’s a glitch to acquire a ninth sword orb which will make it extremely powerful and make the final boss battle less tedious. Characters can also level up their weapon skills meaning weapons level up independently for each character as you use them. You can charge up your attacks to do more damage and with each new level raises how many charges you can build up.
As you slay monsters you gain experience and when you earn enough experience you level up. All three characters will acquire experience simultaneously. Each character has a variety of stats that increase with each level like strength, agility, wisdom, and defense, among others and these stats technically affect how the characters perform in battle. For the most part, all three of our characters remained close in level throughout the entire game. If a character dies, they won’t acquire any experience until they’re revived. Reviving a character can be accomplished by one of three ways – using the Cup of Wishes item during gameplay, using the appropriate magic spell, or sleeping at a Inn which will cost you some gold. On your quest to save the world, you’ll meet elementals that grant you different magical powers. The Boy receives no magical abilities but the Girl primarily receives healing and defensive magic and the Sprite receives offensive magic. Whenever magic is used, it drains MP from the character but casting magic in a specific category raises that elemental’s experience, eventually leveling up which makes any magic attacks in that respective category more powerful. This means if you want to level up an elemental, you may have to farm at certain points by just casting magic attacks non-stop which can become tedious. Now you can set the behavior of any AI characters through the action grid. You can have them be aggressive and attack enemies, keep away, and guard. We thought this was a pretty nifty feature, given the time this game released. Unfortunately, the AI characters can be a nuisance thanks to their terrible path finding. All of the characters must be in close proximity to proceed forward. AI characters will often get stuck on objects or behind walls, and having to frequently go back to get them so you can proceed becomes annoying.
As opposed to the Final Fantasy games out at the time which relied on turn-based combat, the combat in Secret of Mana is in real-time and, overall, it’s interesting but definitely has some quirks. It works and its functional but we have some gripes. For one thing, there’s a power bar that drains whenever you attack or sprint. The power bar refills pretty quickly and you can still attack when it’s not full, but you’ll do more damage when it is. With that said, waiting for the power bar to refill all the time makes the combat kind of slow and clunky. The combat also has this random shit going on where attacks don’t always land, enemies will randomly dodge, and sometimes your attacks will “whack” the enemies which means that attack did much more damage than normal. I believe all of this has to do with your characters’ stats, so the higher their level, the better they perform in combat. While the actual melee and ranged combat is as easy as pressing a button, casting magic is not quite as fluid. You need to open a radial menu which pauses the gameplay, then switch to the magic menu, choose an elemental, and then choose a magic ability to cast it. Most enemies and bosses are weak to specific elemental attacks but the magic is best used against bosses. Unfortunately, that means many boss battles turn into tedious cases of navigating through menus. You can switch to any AI character’s menu to access their magic at any time but the fact that there’s no quick way to cast magic abilities is really a bummer and slows down the pacing. Unfortunately, many things in this game require you to access the radial menu. Equipping gear, buying and selling items, using items, and it also doubles as a “pause menu”, if you will. The radial menu may have been revolutionary for the time but it’s certainly aged and many games since this originally released have done things like this much better, mainly due to more modern control schemes.
The actual world in Secret of Mana is quite large, especially for its time. When you first start playing, most of the world is blocked off, but as you complete objectives and acquire new weapons, you’ll gain access to new areas. Some weapons are required to access specific areas. For example, the whip is used to jump across gaps and the axe can break small obstacles blocking your path. You’ll come across crystal orbs that require specific elemental magic to be cast for them to reveal new areas. In the beginning of the game, you’ll come across cannons that basically act as a fast travel system since they will just launch you directly to specific areas. They’re basically required to progress since all of the areas are not really connected as in you can’t walk from one major part of the world to another. About halfway through the game you’ll acquire a Flammie, which is a flying creature, that can be summoned at any time and at first, this thing seems pretty cool because it’s basically a quick travel system. You can use it to fly anywhere around the world but you really need to know where things are otherwise it’s easy to get lost thanks to no real visible landmarks on the map screen. You are provided a compass so the cardinal direction is all you really have to go on unless you’ve memorized the map and world. This whole flying around the world concept is actually quite impressive but it’s also dated if you compare it to a more modern quick travel system. Secret of Mana released in an era where games didn’t really hold your hand. That means if you don’t pay attention to dialogue and your surroundings, you can easily get lost or not know what to do. Completing objectives also grants you access to new areas but some objectives like having to speak to a specific NPC for example may not be obvious, causing you to get stuck. Reading everything carefully is very crucial. Sometimes the game introduces environmental “puzzles”, and I use that term loosely, which involves you stepping on switches and pulling levers, among other things. There’s one forest area that you have to navigate through in a specific way which can just result in a lot of trial and error until you get it right.
The bestiary in Secret of Mana is made up of a wide variety of creatures. Some of the creatures are typical, others are humorous. You’ve got bees, wolves, goblins, gremlins, and even more obscure enemies like mushrooms, heads, ninjas, chess knights, even ducks that utilize explosive attacks. All enemies are unique with their own attacks, some enemies can spawn other enemies, others can stun you, set you on fire, and even turn you into a Moogle, whatever the hell that is. There are magic abilities and items you can use to dispel magic, protect yourself, and the Moogle Belt will actually de-Moogle your character. You’ll come across a ton of bosses, all of which are damage sponges with different attack patterns. Some of the boss attacks are just crazy. Some of their attacks are seemingly unavoidable, like their magic attacks which will pause the entire gameplay, even stuck lock you. These battles can sometimes be frustrating. Knowing their strengths and weaknesses is key. The end of the game has you seemingly going from one boss to another constantly. Now there is no auto-saving or quicksaving, for that matter, so if you die you need to restart from your last save which is usually back at the last Inn. This means dying can result in losing experience, items, and having you trek a long way back to where you were. Luckily, defeating bosses automatically refills your health but, unfortunately, it does not refill your MP so you’ll want a bring a few faerie walnuts which you which instantly refill a character’s MP. Farming experience is definitely in your best interest, more so in the beginning of the game but also at any other point. We found the beginning of the game to move along rather slowly, requiring us to farm in order to progress without constantly dying. But after that, we basically breezed through right up until the very end where some enemies can do crazy damage and dodge everything you throw at them. Farming to level up at any point is always good because being overpowered will make your life a lot easier. You’re going to traverse through a variety of areas including forests, caves, castles, towns, even snowy tundras. It’s a pretty diverse world and each new area is always throwing something new at you.
For a game released in 1993, Secret of Mana looks pretty damn good. It’s full of vibrant colors, the pixel art still holds up, the environments are well detailed, and the Mode 7 effects when flying around the map screen are quite impressive. On the audio side, the sound effects are basic, what you would expect, and got the job done. As for the music, we know it was impressive for its time. Jeremy hated one specific song because it gave him a headache. I, on the other hand, thought the music was okay but does get a little repetitive after a while. You’ll hear many of the same tunes over and over like the boss battle music for example. On the performance side, there was some slow down here and there, especially when the screen got busy. We did experience a few glitches like walking through walls, enemies spewing out what looks like glitch blocks, and others that could be seen as exploits. Some of these may be exclusive to the SNES Classic version but I can’t confirm.
We did have fun with Secret of Mana, despite its issues. But I would say most of its issues are due to its age. The somewhat grindy nature of the gameplay, the cumbersome menus, and the randomness of the combat can really bring the game down in some ways. We enjoyed the story, the visual presentation, and we think the gameplay is actually more fun when you’re at least slightly overpowered. Dying and being kicked all the way back to your last save can mean a serious loss of progress. The odd design choice of waiting for the power bar to refill so you can do max damage makes the combat feel a bit more tedious at times than fun and I think even for a game released in 1993, that was questionable. You adapt to it pretty early and I guess it’s designed to balance out the gameplay. Whether or not the removal of the power bar feature would break the game, I don’t know, but it would definitely increase the pacing.
Ultimately, we would recommend Secret of Mana but it’s definitely not going to appeal to everybody. If you enjoy RPGs, especially JRPGs, definitely give it a shot if you haven’t already. I know the game is praised, I’ve heard about it before, and despite playing it a little bit a few years back, I basically went into this blind . We would say this is a great RPG for the Super Nintendo but we also feel that many aspects of it are dated. Still, it’s a classic that’s beloved by many and if you can get past some of its quirks, you should be able to enjoy it.