Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Secret of Mana (SNES) Review

1993 SquareSoft

I remember several years ago having first known about this game from looking it up on FlyingOmelette's website (on her outdated Top 100 Favorite Video Games page). From what I've read on her website's pages dedicated to it (including the Oddities page), it sounded like a very good game. In late 2008, either October or November, I've decided to try it after it hit the Nintendo Wii Virtual Console. And my first impression on it was that it was good; it was my second foray to the Mana series after Children of Mana on the DS a few months prior (I haven't finished the DS game yet). Have any of you ever experienced a time, when on the first playthrough of a video game you thought it was good, but on your second playthrough you ended up finding the game a whole lot better than you once thought it was? That's the experience I've had after playing through Secret of Mana for the second time, and I'm glad I did. "How did it happen?", you may ask. Read the review, and the answer shall be revealed to you.

The civilization of Mana was prospering thanks to the Mana Tree's magic. However, some decided to use it for evil purposes to create a dangerous weapon: the Mana Fortress. The legendary hero brought it down with the Mana Sword, and Mana was safe once again; even though much of the civilization was lost because of it. Fifteen years follow these events and history repeats itself. A young boy named Randie (or whatever you wish to name him), decides to follow a couple of children who are out to find "treasure", but he falls down the log bridge. Randie still lives, but it's at this point that he decides to head back to Potos Village, and on the way there he notices a sword in a stone. An apparition tells him to lift it out, and lo and behold, Randie lifts the sword with no problems at all [insert The Sword in the Stone/Arthurian Legend reference here]. After lifting it out, he notices creatures running amok on the way to Potos. It's then revealed that the sword that Randie lifted was the legendary Mana Sword, which caused the creatures to appear. As long as Randie stayed in Potos, they were no longer safe, so the chief regrettably decides to banish him (until the adventure is over), but not before Randie gets in a fight with a gigantic mantis ant. Throughout the game Randie will meet up with Jema, who becomes his mentor, and a couple of friends who decide to join his quest: the elf princess Purim and the pint-sized Sprite (or whatever you wish to name them both). Randie and friends learn that by defeating evil monsters in the world of Mana will restitute the Mana Sword's power little by little, and the only one that can restore the peace of Mana is you. There will be many events that will unfold throughout the game, even a few surprise twist moments, and it's all really captivating. Along the way they will constantly encounter one of two sets of villains: one who plans on taking over the world and wants to revive the Mana Fortress, and one who does evil deeds just for kicks. This game was translated in a month's time by famed former video game translator Ted Woolsey (the man behind the English translation of Breath of Fire: The Dragon Warrior, Final Fantasy III/VI [NA/JP], Chrono Trigger, and Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars). From what I've looked up, this game was a bit lost in translation due to the fixed-width font, space limitations, and zero amount of sequential text; meaning that much of the plot and scripting was never truly realized when it was released overseas. But, in the end, I felt that what's there is really good, as it truly captivated me from beginning to end. There is a large variety when it comes to the locations in the world of Mana; like snow-laden ice forests, a land literally formed up out of the four seasons, underground caverns, heating deserts, and big mountains.

Secret of Mana is an action-oriented RPG with adventure elements thrown in; certain people who dispute about the "true" terminology of RPGs might say otherwise. Anyway, the entire game has you battle creatures and monsters in real-time, meaning that you don't have to take turns while battling. You start out the adventure as just Randie, but then Purim and Sprite will join your party. This game, believe it or not, can be played up to three players. I'm certain that at the time it was quite a concept, as RPGs that could be played with more than one player was unheard of at the time. But, if you're playing by yourself, and want to play as one of the CPU-controlled characters, press Select, because there will be times when they'll be stuck running behind a wall or a rock. But, the CPU-controlled characters can fight monsters, too, sometimes; however, the character that is controlled will usually do the lion's share of the work. Any time you hit an enemy or vice versa, you'll see the damage point(s) taken pop out just like in SquareSoft's turn-based RPGs. When any of your three characters levels up, not only will their stats be increased a tad bit, but their health will completely be refilled as well. Another thing that made this game stand out at the time was the menu system. Basically, there are "pages" of menus, with options all together forming up the shape of a ring. This ring menu system is quite innovative and very fun to use. To access the menu with your playable character press the Y button, but to access either of the two CPU-controlled characters' menus, press the X button. There are items like Candy, Royal Jam, Chocolate, Wishing Cup, and Faerie Walnut; but you can only have up to four of each item. Throughout the game you will meet up with the elemental Mana spirits who end up joining you and helping you in your quest. Purim will cast the healing, defensive, and change the weapon(s)'s attributes to a certain elemental magic; while Sprite will cast the offensive magic on the enemies. Some monsters will be affected greatly by a certain type of magic; in fact, if you allow Purim to use Sylphid's Inspection magic on an enemy or boss, you will see in the end which Mana spirit the monster fears the most. If you use the Mana spirit's magic a lot, then said Mana spirit will level-gain, making their magic more potent and long-lasting. That's right! The Mana spirits can gain levels, too; but it doesn't end there. Along the way you will be using different weapons, too; when you see a gap with a pole on each side, you know that you'll have to use the whip, and when you see some rocks, you may want to use the axe weapon to destroy them. You will be finding weapon orbs (up to eight) for each weapon, either by finding them or after having defeated a boss; and once reforged by the dwarven blacksmith Watts, the weapon will be more powerful and useful than ever. If you use a certain weapon enough times, then, you guessed it: it'll level up. But there's more: I haven't talked about how you can hold the attack button to unleash a powerful attack. If you use a basic attack, then you'll notice that there's a percentage going up to 100 quickly; the attack will not be whole until the percentage is full. If you hold down the button long enough and then release it, the attack's impact will be huge. For example, if your weapon is at Level 5, and you wait until the bar fills up and flashes with "5/5" on the bottom, then you'll amass a big attack. It's very cool. You'll still have to equip your helmets, wristguards, and armor by choosing the Equip option in the ring menu. Some bosses will require that you level up a bit in order to defeat them (not just the characters), and buying the most powerful equipment is a must, especially near the end. Strategizing is also key when fighting certain bosses. When you use the Roll Drum, you'll summon Flammie, a white dragon who will fly around the world. You can change viewpoints from third-person to bird's eye view while airbourne, and flying around the world of Mana is really nice, especially since it's huge.

This game's soundtrack is highly acclaimed by many gamers, and for good reason. In my opinion, it's one of the best RPG soundtracks ever heard on the SNES, and one of the best video game soundtracks ever heard, period. Hiroki Kikuta did a fantastic job composing the music for this game. This game has music that can be atmospheric, lighthearted, emotional, and epic. The choice of instrumentation is absolutely perfect. The title theme is absolutely incredible and mindblowing. The various areas have very wonderful themes; to name some examples, the Upper Lands and the Ice Forest have a really relaxing sound to it, the town and dungeon themes are varied, Flammie's flying theme gives the sense that you're flying, and the Mana Fortress has a real big sense of urgency to it. I'll never forget the first time I heard the final boss music; it is one of the most epic final boss themes I've heard. The regular boss theme is decent, but the theme that plays when you fight the penultimate boss is one of the uniquely scary themes I've heard. The sound effects are quite good, though the "Whap" sound that your weapon makes when sometimes hitting an enemy sounds a bit inappropriate. The Mana spirits' various sound effects are really nice to listen to. The one gripe I have in the sound department is that sometimes a sound (from a weapon or any other sound effect) might either obstruct the music, or worse, temporarily mess with its sound channels, which does not sit well with me. I really don't like it when the music is obstructed, as the music is really good. Otherwise, I find the sound in this classic gem practically topnotch.

Visually, this game is gorgeous. The pastel-toned graphics combined with vibrant colors and attention to detail is really a sight for the eyes. The areas are well-detailed, and the water effects are really neat. The variety of the areas are really cool; the Upper Lands is made up out of the four seasons, and to see the same foliage only with different colors is really fascinating and impressive. The desert setting is atmospheric, especially with the clouds hovering over you. The Ice Forest is absolutely beautiful with its trees glimmering constantly. Seeing the view from the Lofty Mountains is really amazing, and the Pure Land is really breathtaking. Many areas in this game have a lot of eye candy. When you fly in the sky with Flammie, the world of Mana is viewed with Mode 7 rotation and scaling effects; it's really fun to look at and admire. I would even go and say this game has slightly better visuals than Chrono Trigger does (yes, I said it), and that's saying something. The characters' animations are very smooth. Sometimes your characters' swinging and/or attacking animations will change randomly. The main protagonists even show facial expressions from time to time (I can't think of a game that came before Secret of Mana that did this). The regular citizens of each area look nice, and I could swear one of them closely resembles Crazy Stacy from The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening. Flammie animates wonderfully in the sky, and the Mana spirits look great. The enemies look nice, and some of them are palette-swapped later on in the game. The bosses are huge and detailed, though I would've liked to have seen more variety for the most part; they may look the same, but at least their magic attributes are different. I'm not saying 98% of the bosses look the same; what I mean is, you'll face a certain boss, then another boss, and after that another boss, and later you fight a palette-swap of a boss, new boss, new boss, palette-swap of past boss, rinse and repeat. I'm glad the palette-swapped bosses' attacks are varied compared to the boss they're based on. But, the unique-looking bosses more than make up for this; like the Dark Lich and the Mana Beast.

This is what changed my feelings for the game the second time around. This game has a decent challenge flow, though I didn't realize it in my first playthrough of the game. The game lets you get your feet wet in the beginning, but then it gradually gets a bit more challenging, but not challenging enough to make the game hard or impossible. The only time the game is ever hard is if you're either underleveled or not properly equipped, or both. In order to defeat certain bosses, you'll have to level up not only your characters but the Mana spirits and weapons, too, otherwise you will get pummeled. In my first playthrough I've gotten countless game overs, because I either didn't level up enough to fight a boss or I wasn't powerfully equipped for the situation. However, on my second playthrough, I've only gotten two or three game overs, and that was just shortly after the beginning of the game. That's quite scary if you ask me, because basically I've practically mastered this game since my first playthrough. Why was that? Because I did what I was supposed to do in my first playthrough, level up a lot and get the most powerful equipment for the current situation. I downloaded this game on the Virtual Console in late 2008 and finished it a year and a half later (mainly due to my sometimes taking a break from it); I beat this game in almost a month on my second playthrough break-free. That says a lot right there: I managed to almost always get money to get powerful equipment right when I got to that village or town, I managed to conserve some of my items while battling, and I level-grinded enough times to survive boss battles. Despite my first playthrough (which was not as good as my second one), I managed to defeat the Mana Beast on my first try ill-prepared; the second time around I still managed to defeat him, only this time I was very prepared and formed up a good strategy for the fight. While I no longer find this game difficult, I do still have a few issues with it. First of all, this game can be a tad glitchy at times (though they can be avoided so long as you don't accidentally enable them). Sometimes when either Purim or Sprite conjures up the Mana spirit's magic, said magic might not respond sometimes so you have to do it again. You have the advantage to attack enemies while they're stunned, so they take damage a second or two later, but unfortunately the same could be done to you, and it can be quite annoying unless you press Select to choose another character and attack said enemy (the only type of enemies you have to worry about that will do it to you are certain ninjas and wolfmen). When holding down the attack button long enough until the bar is flashing and let go you'll unleash your massive weapon attack, but if a boss does magic on you after you released the button the attack will not happen. And then there's flying around the world of Mana with Flammie. As much as I enjoy riding that gentle, kindhearted, and fun-loving four-winged white dragon, I tend to get lost in the sky. While some characters say which direction a certain place I may need to visit, and I'm glad they do, sometimes it can be difficult to reach your destination because the whole world of Mana is huge, and the places do not have names above them. When viewing Flammie from a third-person perspective, you can see the compass-like directions. Otherwise, despite these few grievances, I think this game has a nice challenge flow, and doesn't ever feel like it's spiking on you. Doing things properly in my second playthrough of this game and sticking with it until the end made me realize how better this game was. I know it sounds a bit crazy, but it's true.

Secret of Mana is a really fun action-oriented RPG. Its challenge flow is nice, even though it's really not that challenging. The visuals are beautiful and the animations are well-done, the soundtrack is fantastic and quite powerful (though I wish the sound effects would not obstruct it sometimes), and the gameplay is solid. Even if the plot wasn't 100% translated when released outside of Japan, I still found it quite engaging. The fight with the Mana Beast was one of the most heartpounding, epic, and dramatic final boss encounters I've ever experienced, and without spoiling anything, I thought the ending was a bit sad. Flying with Flammie can be very fun, despite the world being huge. Secret of Mana has a unique menu system that's great to use, and it's fun to level up your characters as well as the Mana spirits and the weapons. The areas are really nice to explore, and I like the variety of the areas. There are even cameo appearances from the Moogles (of Final Fantasy fame, and what's cool is that you can become one for a short amount of time if either an enemy turns you into one or if you use the Moogle Belt), and special guest appearances from Santa Claus and Rudolph (just in time to celebrate the holidays). I'm glad I gave this game another go, otherwise I would've thought it was just good; now I think this game is great, and it's neither too long nor too short, which is just right. Playing through this game twice makes me want to try Secret of Evermore and Seiken Densetsu 3, as I had a great time with it. In my second playthrough, this game quite grew on me. If you're one of those gamers who have long been interested in this game, then go ahead, give it a shot. Just remember that if you plan to play by yourself, make absolutely sure to press the Select button whenever you wish to switch between characters. Also make sure you level up and properly equip yourself, otherwise the game will become challenging, when it's not supposed to. Sometimes second experiences will differ greatly compared to first experiences, and this game has had that effect on me. It's not perfect by any means, but if you're willing to try it, you may find yourself having fun with it.


Thursday, December 2, 2010

Kirby Squeak Squad (DS) Review

AKA Kirby Mouse Attack [EU]
2006 Flagship/Natsume/HAL Laboratory/Nintendo
Started on December 2nd, but finished on the 17th

I remember the first time I played this game. I had played a bit of it on one of my cousins' Nintendo DS back in the summer of '06, and I thought it was fun from what I had played; it was the first Kirby title that I played for the DS (I didn't play Kirby Canvas Curse until Christmas of '08, but that's a story for another time). However, it wasn't until two years later that I would purchase the game and play it to completion (I did not have a Nintendo DSLite until April of '08). This game introduced an interesting set of new enemies to the series, and the familiarized Game Boy Advance feel was nice. However, while I think it's a fun game, it does have a few flaws. I'm not trying to make it sound like I'm finishing this review right away, as it will not happen until the concluding paragraph. I've still more to talk about with this game. So, how does the game fare after these few years?

It was a nice day in Dream Land, where all was well and peaceful. It was Kirby's favorite time of day: snack time. Kirby was hungry, and decided to eat a scrumptious strawberry shortcake; however, before he got to take a bite, his tasty meal disappeared in the blink of an eye. Kirby was left shocked and had wondered what happened to his delicious snack. Kirby came to the conclusion that it must've been that awfully greedy King Dedede that stole it, so he decided to confront him. However, it soon turns out that King Dedede is innocent, and it's revealed that the strawberry shortcake was stolen by a band of mousy critters called the Squeaks. Kirby would not rest until he would finally recuperate and eat that snack. I'll be honest, the fact that Kirby was doing all this just to eat pastry left me with a mixed feeling at first; but eventually I thought it was all right. In fact, it's a very cute plot. Kirby will be going through worlds that vary in style and environment.

Control is like that of the Game Boy Advance Kirby games, though considering the fact that the Nintendo DS is practically a portable SNES (it's got the Y and X buttons), save for two screens and the fact that you could use the stylus sometimes, I kinda wish the controls were in SNES style. Otherwise, no complaints here. Kirby can walk, run, climb, duck, swim, and swallow enemies. Flagship seems to have tweaked the controls a tiny bit; for example, it might just be me, but Kirby seems to be jumping a bit higher than he did in his other games, plus his slides are fast and brief, too. Kirby can still inhale his enemies, and if he swallows an enemy with an ability, you'll receive a power up. If you get hit while you have the power up, the ability star will bounce off of Kirby, and you'll only have a few seconds to take back that ability before it disappears. Familiar abilities appear from the past games, and there are also new abilities; like Animal Kirby and Metal Kirby. Throughout the game, you'll be collecting treasure chests (if you can find them); and inside them are scrolls that give you a new trick for a certain ability, a map piece, a heart piece (if you get two, your health will increase a tiny bit), color spray, and more. Your health is represented by a bar, just like in Kirby Super Star (Ultra). There is also a new technique: the items and/or abilities encased inside bubbles. Any time that Kirby touches or inhales a bubble, it will go inside his rotund tummy. The bottom screen of the DS is represented by Kirby's tummy, and you can only have up to five items in there. If you tap the ability bubble with your stylus, then Kirby will transform into that ability right away; but, should you not desire the ability bubble, you can always slide the bubble to the topmost portion of the bottom screen, and you can decide whether to keep it inside you or spit it out (while the ability is still inside the bubble). What's cool is that there is even an ability which turns enemies with powers into ability bubbles. At the end of each world, you face a boss, and defeating a boss earns you a passage to the next world. Sometimes, you may collect a chest, and the moment you do a major Squeak will try to prevent you from escaping with it. If you get hit by a Squeak while you have the chest, it will get off of Kirby, but you can always get it back; but should a Squeak bring it back to its lair, you'll have to enter the lair to face him off and retrieve the chest. In the title screen, you could decide to play (one of) three mini-games, all requiring the usage of the stylus. Just like the majority of the games in the series, it saves automatically.

The soundtrack is very fun to listen to. The tracks are all familiar Kirby fare, with HAL's trademark sound, with a few diverse tracks as well; the songs are really good and they fit their chosen environs well. A few songs are remixed from the classic games, and there are new songs, too. One that comes to mind is an eerily relaxing banjo tune followed by airiness in one of the stages, which strikes me as ambient-sounding; another song that comes to mind is a very airy song with an ongoing ominous overtone. I feel that Natsume participated in the sound department, too; 'cause in the past games of the series there was barely (if any) any ambience. Not that it's a bad thing, as it's quite a nice change. The boss themes are good. The sound effects are decent, and some were lifted from past games. The Squeaks make an adorable squeak sound, and the ability sound effects match their abilities.

The visuals are like the ones you'd see in a Game Boy Advance game, and they're really good. The main sprites were largely lifted from the two Game Boy Advance Kirby games, and they are quite small considering how large the screen ratio is. In fact, try comparing the sprite size to that of Kirby Super Star Ultra's; the difference is quite jarring. But, then I'd be digressing, and I don't want to do that. The colors are vibrant, and the characters' and enemies' animations are still as good as ever. Flagship decided to give Kirby a few more idle animations whenever he stands still: for example, when Kirby stands still while holding the parasol he will sway around and tap his foot, or when Kirby holds still long enough as Animal Kirby he'll scratch his costume's ear with his foot. The major Squeaks are designed quite nicely; one is a ninja with cool shades, another is gigantic and robust, another is a small mustachioed one with swirly glasses, and the leader of the Squeaks is mischievous. The cutscenes are displayed through comic book-like cutscenes, and thankfully they're crisp and smooth and do not run in VHS quality. For some strange reason, whenever you swallow an enemy with an ability, it takes one complete loading second to turn into that ability. Why a whole second, I wonder? It's not a CD game. Maybe Flagship tried to get adjusted to the DS hardware? Maybe I'm thinking too much about that. You can collect up to six "wallpapers" for the bottom screen, which is actually Kirby's tummy with a different background. I love how the back of the box says "Change the world!", because Kirby's abilities may have a powerful effect on the environment; breathing fire or shooting yourself as a fireball will melt the snow, and blowing ice on the water will create icy land. It gives a feeling of realism.

Kirby Squeak Squad is an easy game, but there are a few moments of challenge. If you want to just beat the game it'll be easy, but if you want to collect everything you may have a bit of a hard time. The 120 treasure chests can be obtained in a number of ways; whether by just finding it, by swallowing a pale yellow-ish Waddle Dee, or by defeating a boss. Once you round up a big silver chest the Squeaks will appear and will attempt to prevent you from escaping with the chest. It's really fun to try to collect all the treasure chests, but you must have room for them in the bottom screen, otherwise Kirby will reject them. Once you manage to obtain all the treasure chests you'll unlock Extra Mode, which is the same game except you have to do it all in one sitting, plus it times how long you take to beat it. The game is also quite short, as it can be beaten in about three hours' time or less. But, it's fun while it lasts.

As I stated in the introductory paragraph (for which I probably should've waited until the end), this game is good. It's got a few flaws, and the one-second loading time I find quite questionable. But, this game has beautiful graphics and well-composed music, and the gameplay is good. I liked the diverse variety in the worlds, and some chests were quite challenging to obtain. It's a bit short, but that's okay, as there are things that make up for it. The plot was cute and the atmosphere great. I enjoyed playing as Animal Kirby a lot, as the costume he dons is absolutely adorable. The bubbled ability system was really nice, and there's more. HAL must've heard about gamers trying to guess what Kirby is, maybe a ghost (when we all really know that he's a puffball), that they've decided to do something that I find quite funny (should you collect a certain amount of items), but that's a surprise. It's easy, but it's okay, even though I would've wanted to see more. This game is quite enjoyable, and the second best Kirby game on the DS.