Ask any RPG fan to name the first SNES RPG that comes to their mind. Chances are, they would present you with one of two responses: Final Fantasy VI, or Secret of Mana. Old school genre fans know that these games need not an introduction, nor an explanation for their past efforts. These legends speak for themselves – at least that is what nostalgia would have you to think. I, like many others, have fond memories of Secret of Mana from back when I was a kid, but just how enjoyable is it to play after almost three decades?
The recently released Collection of Mana has allowed me to experience this followup to Final Fantasy Adventure once again, this time from the comfort of the Nintendo Switch. Secret of Mana earned the respect of RPG fans back in its prime, but that doesn’t give it an automatic pass for those that might want to experience it again, or perhaps play it for the first time. I hope that this review gives you an idea of what to expect out of this classic action RPG.
Secret of Mana, like Final Fantasy Adventure before it, uses the finite, godly energy source known as “Mana” as the focal point of its narrative. There once was a time where a powerful civilization used Mana in order become even more of an unstoppable force. A gigantic floating battlestation, the Mana Fortress, was the ultimate product of this endeavor. This blatant abuse of Mana caused the gods to retaliate with the Mana Beast, a divine being thats sole purpose was to destroy the Mana Fortress. This conflict however, if left unchecked, would ultimately destroy the world, and that would have been the case if it weren’t for the efforts of one selfless hero.
Wielding the holy sword – a blade imbued with the power of Mana – the hero ended the conflict, but at a great cost. The world would eventually recover, but history does have a way of repeating itself. In the present, a young man named Randi stumbles upon the ancient Sword of Mana, now drained of power, trapped within stone. Unbeknownst to Randi, removing the sword spurs on a chain of events which will have antagonistic powers, once again, seeking to revive the dreaded Mana Fortress. Randi’s only hope will be to grab some friends and set out to the eight mana palaces, sealing the eight seeds within to prevent the Mana Fortress from rising once more.
The narrative found in Secret of Mana, while certainly passable, is nothing to write home about either. The series is no stranger to the idea of a “holy sword against darkness” – that in itself is fine – but I feel that the team over-complicated this point for no apparent reason. In a way, and as to not spoil the story, the hero and his Sword feel like the pointless “third wheel” to the conflict between the Mana Fortress and Mana Beast. I wouldn’t be surprised if some context was lost in translation, seeing as some of the dialogue sequences are quite rough around the edges anyways. The exploits of a certain spoony bard two years prior are leaps and bounds beyond the average conversation here, which is a bit of a disappointment in itself.
The heroes and villains of Secret of Mana suffer greatly from the poor writing. Randi has the most reasonable motive for the adventure, considering he forced himself into the situation with the whole “sword in the stone” deal (among other reasons revealed later), but he doesn’t really get fleshed out until the very end of the game. The team is introduced to numerous key baddies along the way, but none of them are portrayed in a way as to make them truly memorable villains. Even the twist towards the end, which has one antagonist superseding another, lacks emotional impact because both characters weren’t that compelling to begin with.
The Empire, more or less, acts as the ultimate bad guy here, but the Emperor himself has lots of lackeys beneath him, most of which aren’t developed beyond their sporadic (and ill-fated) attempts to derail the plans of the hero. When compared to Final Fantasy VI, another game in which an evil empire is up to no good, with a multitude of supporting characters under its banner, the difference is night and day. Outside of the Thanatos, I couldn’t tell you the names of any of the other villains shown off in Secret of Mana, whereas Gestahl, Kefka, Leo, and Celes all are likely to ring a bell to those that have played Final Fantasy VI. Regardless, as it stands, the narrative in Secret of Mana barely advances from its predecessor, Final Fantasy Adventure, which was released on a technologically inferior system two years before this SNES title.
Graphics and Sound
Fortunately, thanks to the new hardware platform, Secret of Mana surpasses the graphical and audio achievements of its forebear, setting itself up as one of the greatest presentations of the SNES RPG scene. There are all sorts of unique biomes to explore, each home to unique creatures and inhabitants. Both enemies and heroes are animated beautifully, and the occasional Mode 7 perspective from a friendly dragon – a precursor to the airship view found in Final Fantasy VI – serves as the icing on the cake.
The sound design is equally pleasing, with an absolutely gorgeous soundtrack composed by Hiroki Kikuta leading the charge. As much as I love Kenji Ito’s work in Final Fantasy Adventure, Secret of Mana takes full advantage of the technological advancements, crafting an even better composition than what came before it. If you aren’t immediately taken in by the mysterious cries and accompanying piano melody in the intro, you should probably get your ears (and maybe your entire head) checked. Sound effects are also nice here – nobody wants melee swipes to sound like you’re hitting something with a wet noodle, and each of the various weapons in the game have nice effects that really bring out some “oomph” in combat.
Secret of Mana is an action RPG that improves on some of the groundwork laid by its predecessor while, surprisingly, taking a few steps back in other components. You’ll hack and slash your way through swaths of enemies, using various weaponry and magic to best suit the situation. Randi is the chosen hero of the Sword of Mana, meaning he cannot cast magic himself, though his companions – Primm and Popoi – will be able to support him with the mystical powers of the Mana Spirits. Weapons have both an item and skill level, allowing you to power up their power through smithing and opening up the opportunity for powerful “charged” attacks, respectively.
The upgrade system is fine, but the weapon charging system proves to be inefficient and tedious, for many of the same reasons that some people despise Cyan’s “Swdtech” abilities from Final Fantasy VI. In my run for this review, I ignored the charging mechanic outside of one or two situations and I suggest you do the same, unless you’re the kind that also likes watching Goku charge himself up over five episodes of Dragon Ball Z.
This charging system, alongside a new power bar, replaces the limit break-esque “will” system from Final Fantasy Adventure. Any time a character swings, their power bar will drop to 0% and refill to 100% over a few seconds seconds. Waiting to strike again at 100% will insure that you’re attacking at maximum power, and this is especially important to consider when you can no longer routinely “stunlock” enemies – more on that later. While it’s clear that I’m not a fan of the previously mentioned weapon charging system, I do like this power bar as it sets up an ebb and flow of combat that, while simple, is satisfying. Strike an enemy at maximum power, then evade any counterattacks while your power recharges.
Repeatedly using the same school of magic will eventually increase its level, improving the potency, duration, and/or accuracy of that category of spells. As a kid, I once made it a point to level all of the Mana spirits up to max level but, again, I would not recommend this today since it is both unnecessary and annoying to do. The majority of spells you’ll obtain are situational at best, meaning you’ll really have to go out of your way to level some of the more obscure spirits to max – so why do it? Magic is already completely broken because you can essentially “stunlock” most enemies if you time your casts properly.
The aforementioned stunlock does not stop at magical abilities though, some enemies can also be stunlocked through melee strikes. The biggest difference is that magical stunlocks remain easy to perform throughout the game while their melee counterpart becomes less useful on more powerful enemies. The heroes aren’t immune to the stunlock mechanic either! Enemies of the more “spastic” variety can rip you to shreds if you aren’t careful, which can really be frustrating when the party AI doesn’t perform in your favor.
Remember how companions would come and go as they pleased in Final Fantasy Adventure? Not the case here. Companions in Secret of Mana, once discovered, join your team permanently, but there are some severe disadvantages included with this change. The AI is terrible, and it feels like you only have two options – be stupid and chase enemies, or be stupid and run away from enemies – despite a large board of options. This, combined with the corridor-based design of many dungeons and limited party range means that companions will inevitably get caught in terrain, stunlocks, or both. In many ways, your companions can do more harm than good, especially early on when supplies are limited and repeated deaths that, in theory, should be avoidable all but wipe out your savings. If you want to avoid the headache of bad AI, play locally with up to two other friends and you’ll probably have a much better time.
To wrap up the gameplay, let me bring the Secret of Mana remake in for a quick aside. I believe that the gameplay issues I’ve outlined above are why many people, including myself, were so sour on the remake from a few years ago. I did not mind the updated graphics – many did – but the revamped soundtrack was definitely inferior to the original score. Those issues aside, I think the remake’s biggest flaw was the that the game’s core mechanics, in fact, have not aged that well. Say what you want about the remake, I believe that it captured the gameplay of the original rather accurately – stunlocks and all. And if you’re anything like me, you just won’t find these systems that exciting today.
Secret of Mana was a wonderful product of its time, but what the seven year old me once loved has proven to be nothing more than a beautiful, but flawed action RPG from a bygone era. I did not feel this way with Final Fantasy Adventure, a game which is technologically inferior to the Secret of Mana, but somehow was more enjoyable for me to play. That’s not to say you shouldn’t play the game – if you never experienced the title in its heyday, then perhaps it might be worth your time. Otherwise, those looking for a trip down nostalgia lane might consider holding on to the memories of yore rather than running the risk of tainting said memories forever.