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I remember several years ago having first known about this game from looking it up on FlyingOmelette's website (on her outdated Top 100 Favorite Video Games page).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.


1 comment:

  1. I also have this for the VC and while I found it to be fun, I kept wishing I had someone else to play it with. You're definitely right about the graphics though, the game looks great.