Stiles’ Series Synopsis: Secret of Mana

So, this game is considered a classic and a masterpiece huh? Oh god, I can already see the lynch mob planning their attack…

1) Sword of Mana/Final Fantasy Adventure
2) Secret of Mana
3) Seiken Densetsu 3
4) Legend of Mana
5) Children of Mana
6) Dawn of Mana
7) Heroes of Mana
8) Secret of Evermore (Bonus Review)
9) Mana Series Synopsis

Secret of Mana

So… Secret of Mana. This is a title that holds a lot of weight, isn’t it? Heralded as an SNES classic made by Squaresoft back in their hey-day, this game is generally held just beneath Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI as an all-time great. As a first-time player and a long time fan of the company, I have come to a very different conclusion than the general fanbase seems to hold. Nostalgia is a powerful thing; perhaps too powerful.

A Work of Art

Let’s start with the positive, shall we? Secret of Mana is gorgeous, especially when it comes to its soundtrack. (In fact, you should check out the soundtrack here; perhaps it will add to this piece’s atmosphere as well. My personal favorites are A Bell is Tolling, Still of the Night and of course Fear of the Heavens). This game is already known for its soundtrack, having had several arrangement albums released. The soundtrack is the key component that made the world feel alive.

The graphical presentation is also beautiful, at least in terms of environments and enemy sprites. I honestly feel that the three main characters are less appealing to look at than pretty much everything else in the game, but that is neither here nor there. There were moments where I was almost stunned by how well the graphics were done. Little touches like grass blowing in the wind, locations like the waterfall and cliffs at Gaia’s Navel, or my personal favorite location, the Highlands with the snow-covered ground and the color changing trees. The spectacle the first time I rode on Flammie the dragon was also breathtaking, and it was in these few, brief moments where I caught a glimpse of greatness that the rest of the game never remotely comes close to reaching.

The way exploration was handled was also a success in my eyes. The main thing that kept me playing was the curiosity of what each new location would be, though admittedly this all comes back down to the beautiful atmosphere. The outdoor landscapes and how they were all connected together made the game feel like one complete world, and I was always excited to see the next area. The indoor areas on the other hand, don’t feel nearly as remarkable, especially the copy and pasted tiles of the mana dungeons themselves. Though the uniformity makes sense because they are all supposed to serve the same purpose, it still became a bit stale compared to how amazingly the rest of the game looked (though I admit this is a minor gripe). The game also resorted to maze like level design more often than I would have liked, it stopped just short of becoming truly draining however.

It’s all Downhill From Here

The gameplay is where things really fall flat for me, and I mean really flat. The main selling point of this title is its real-time combat, and frankly, it is awful. The game uses an action-based system that lets you attack at will by pressing the attack button. In an attempt to balance this mechanic and keep you from spamming the button as quickly as possible, the developers put in a sort of charge bar that fills up after every swing (and also while running, which makes the dash command all but useless, especially when you can only sprint in a straight line before having to stop, let the bar refill, then sprint again). This charge bar leaves your attacks all but useless until it is filled, which completely stalls the combat and leaves you with nothing but a repetitive ‘hit and run’ tactic as your only means of defense. As you become more proficient with certain weapon types, you will gain the ability to do charge attacks, which has you holding down the attack button and limiting your movement while you wait for the bar to charge multiple times over, on TOP of the initial wait period. This addition made no sense to me, as the additional damage for waiting longer never seemed to add up when you take into account the additional wait time. In other words, the damage per second ratio didn’t encourage using charge attacks over normal ones. All these factors already made the combat boring, but it didn’t really become terrible until you added in the other design quirks.

The ‘wait to attack’ mechanic was exacerbated by the enemy stun animations. After an enemy was successfully hit, they became stunned, and until their prolonged stun animation was complete, they were immune to damage, making every battle an irritating game of Red Light, Green Light. If you were lucky and attacked a stunned enemy the damage would sometimes just be delayed, retroactively hurting (and then stunning AGAIN) the enemy once their first stun animation is complete. Whether this was intentional or not, it was still a sloppy mess of programming and game design that completely butchered the flow of what was touted as ‘real time’ combat. Added to this was the invisible evade stats that made it so you will often do no damage to your enemies without any on-screen indication as to why or how. Evasion stats in RPGs are nothing new, but in an action RPG where skill is supposed to be a large determining factor for how well your characters do in battle, this made absolutely no sense and is yet another hurdle that slows your progression through the combat.

On the opposite side of the combat spectrum is the magic system, which is such an effective means of combat that it renders boss fights completely useless. It’s a decent system in theory, providing you with two spellcasters, one focused on buffs and healing while the other is focused on damaging magic. The flaws came into play mostly with the damaging magic, which gave you the ability (whether through a glitch or an intentional decision, I’m not sure) to rapidly chain your spells in a way that didn’t give your opponents a chance to react or fight back at all. Spells never miss, and while the animation for a spell is playing out, the rest of the screen remains frozen, so once you have the timing down to start a new spell as soon as the last one reaches a certain point in its animation. It becomes a never-ending cycle. This left the battles with regular enemies as an extremely boring test of patience with hit and run tactics, while the boss fights come down to nothing more than spamming the element the boss is weak to over and over again.

Much like Sword of Mana, Secret of Mana gives you eight weapon types to choose from, but unlike Sword of Mana, these weapon types are all but useless. In Sword of Mana, enemies had resistances to different weapons, meaning that you had to level up every weapon type to be successful. Here, the only difference between the weapons besides a couple of utility uses (a sword cutting grass or the whip getting you across gaps) are their damage outputs. You could be generous and argue that each playable character should have a pair of weapons at their disposal; a short and a long range weapon. But that still leaves two completely useless weapon types to clutter your inventory and add to your upgrade costs. When combining that with the game’s leveling system it becomes even more superfluous. It would have made a lot more sense to have given each character a couple of distinct weapon types; that way, they would all be useful in their own unique situations, but the way the game is laid out with its free-for-all structure, it really adds nothing.

Speaking of your three character party, your partners are once again controlled by A.I.. This was less than sufficient. The characters seem to have a dreadful line of sight, only attacking if enemies cross their path directly. Their attack patterns also make combat more irritating, often making the stun lock issue I discussed above even more apparent. The game had a simple system for setting your partners to be more or less aggressive, and you are likely better off making them attack as little as possible.

While the characters are not optimal in combat, easily the most frustrating thing about them is how often they get caught on corners or other obstacles on the screen. This not only leaves them unable to move, but makes you stuck behind invisible walls because you’re not able to move too far away from them. This is something that happened countless times, and while you can switch to any partner at any time by pushing the select button so you can free them yourself, this is just another example of poor optimization making what should be an extremely simple task (walking from point A to point B) a complete chore. I find it funny that the only game so far in the series that avoids this problem of partners getting stuck is Final Fantasy Adventure, and while that game was of course the most simplistic there was still a very clear understanding of level design that made the partner more practical. It is something they really should have worked towards here.

The ‘Ring Command’ system that is so iconic from this game was serviceable enough, but really did nothing that a normal menu couldn’t have done just as well, if not better. It was functional, and that is all it had to be; I almost forgot to write about it altogether because as much as it is talked about for being a huge innovation, it really doesn’t do anything to change the gameplay. It is an aesthetic choice that makes it so you still get to see the paused action on screen, which is nice I guess, and does make the experience slightly more immersive. But it isn’t some grand, game changing mechanic like it is lauded as.

One of the mechanics I actually did like was how limited the inventory space was. You are only allowed to carry four of each item type in the game, making healing rather difficult and encouraging more skilful play (in theory at least). I found it very rare that I ran out of healing items, and the game gives you a healing spell fairly early on as well, so it never really became an issue. I do miss games that do this, as having a stack of 99 greater healing potions almost always takes the tension out of boss battles in most games and makes them a war of attrition as opposed to a test of skill.

The more I played the more a particularly nagging thought continued to creep into my mind. Why wasn’t Secret of Mana turn-based? Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think turn-based RPGs are automatically superior; in fact, the more games I play, the more I yearn for more skilful and action oriented elements. But Secret of Mana succeeds at absolutely nothing that couldn’t have been handled better with a turn-based system. The game already makes you wait for a bar to fill before you can effectively attack. You still have to pause the game to cast spells and use items. Hidden stats and variables are still the largest determining factor when it comes to accuracy, not your actual skill with aiming. The only difference between this and a turn-based system is that enemies attack you without a screen transition and you can technically run around a little to dodge. Once again, I want to state that I don’t find turn-based games to be innately superior, but changing the system here would have made the gameplay quirks far less frustrating and made the game far more playable. If anything, Secret of Mana is more akin to Final Fantasy XII than it is to anything like Kingdom Hearts in terms of how the game actually plays, the only difference being that Final Fantasy XII automated your attack command, while here you are still mashing the attack button every two seconds or so. They gained nothing by making the game real time, and instead bogged down their design to make things ‘innovative’, and I think that really hurt the overall experience.

The leveling system is pretty standard’ dispatching enemies raises your experience points and level ups happen automatically. This simple and streamlined system works perfectly for a game of this type, but it is when the game tries to get more unique that the strength progression becomes repetitive. The game requires that you level up each weapon and magic type separately, meaning that if you want to stay up to date on your skill level you have to spam attacks with certain spells and certain weapons. Weapons don’t fall as far behind with this system because you are constantly using them, but magic is a nightmare to level up. The fact that you have a limited amount of MP combined with the lack of restorative items and the fact that every time you cast a spell the game has to be paused to do so, really leaves all of these elements fighting with one another in a rather frustrating way.

I mentioned earlier that the combat would have been more interesting if the game had restricted certain weapons to certain characters. Admittedly, you can make that choice yourself as you get to choose what weapons each character gets proficient with. However, given that the game gives you one fighter character and two mages, it doesn’t make any sense for you to work at leveling up your partners’ weapons, especially when you take into account the terrible combat balancing which highly favors magic against bosses.

Aside from that, equipment upgrades are pretty standard, you will buy the majority of your equipment upgrades from shops, the only exception being the occasional rare orb which you get from chests and bosses. You then take those orbs and pay a fee to upgrade your weapons, which leads to the previously mentioned weapon skill level ups. It’s a system that works fine for the most part, and I generally got excited each time I found an orb, which means the game was doing its job right in that regard.

Precautionary Measures

I have a feeling I already know what a lot of the arguments against me are going to be, and I would like to take this opportunity to clear a few things up. The first one I will likely hear is: “The game is multiplayer, it is more fun with friends!”. You know what else is more fun with friends? Donating blood. Doing something with someone else does not necessarily alter the fundamental experience, or in this case, the gameplay mechanics. It is more fun with friends because you are sharing the experience with someone else, not because the experience suddenly becomes better.

Secret of Mana was not a game designed around its multiplayer component. Games that are designed to be played coop are games like Diablo II, which alters the difficulty as players enter and leave the game world, or Resident Evil V, which, despite all the crap that is thrown at it, is designed to be an all-encompassing cooperative experience both in combat and in the sharing of resources, and it works brilliantly in that context. Secret of Mana is not built with multiplayer in mind. Here, combat is still paused when you cast a spell, and two of the three characters are primarily spellcasters, which means having two players makes for double the gameplay interruptions. Same goes for the constant weapon switching needed if you want to keep all of your weapon skills properly leveled. That’s not even mentioning grinding for spell levels which is monotonous enough alone. Both players can still only be a short distance away from each other before being stopped by invisible walls, and combat is still based around just tapping the attack button after every charge time. The only benefit to having another player is that (hopefully) your friend plays better than the A.I. does, so you won’t get stuck on as many corners. Playing with others will likely make the experience more ‘fun’, but it doesn’t make the gameplay fundamentally better, because the gameplay mechanics aren’t being changed.

The other argument I see all over the internet is something akin to: “People who play it now and rate it compared to today’s games are stupid! Things were different back then and this game is great for when it was released!” This kind of thinking makes my head spin because of how ridiculously flawed the logic is, and here are just a few reasons why:

1) First off, you are right, I am playing this game now, not when it came out, and thus, I am judging how well it holds up today. Context is extremely important, and while some things are good when they come out, often times improvements are made that make old things obsolete. Guess what? DOS was a GREAT operating system for its time. Would you like to ditch your high powered PC with your operating system of choice just so you could use something that was great for its time? Now I’m sure a handful of people would say yes to this, but the vast majority would say no.

2) A lot of old games have aged perfectly fine, in fact some have gotten BETTER with age (Metal Gear Solid 2 is a good example as its plot has become more analogous with our world now than when it was released), so saying that a game shouldn’t be judged by today’s standards ‘because it’s old’ is an insult to gaming as both a hobby and an art form. Do you know what game is old, looks terrible, but still has arguably perfect gameplay? Asteroids. There are many others examples but this is my go-to. Good gameplay is timeless, and while I do agree that some leeway should be given to games in terms of what graphical capability and sound design was available at the time, the most important element, the gameplay, will still be good years later if it was good enough in the first place. It’s just like with old movies, they didn’t have the capability of the CGI we do now, but a lot of those older movies still had great plots and acting.

3) Even assuming this logic is correct and the game should be judged purely on its place in history and how good it was ‘back then’, I’m honestly not convinced Secret of Mana was ever a good game to begin with. Every element being applauded here was done better in other games of the same time period. Illusion of Gaia was released the same year and has better combat. Legend of the Mystical Ninja came out two years prior and is a better coop experience with a similar combat style. Do I really need to cite A Link to the Past for its far superior exploration? Other games handling certain aspects better doesn’t instantly make this title bad, but it does very easily dismiss the ‘things were different back then’ argument I always hear. It is very clear to me that this game falls firmly into the category of ‘Nostalgia Bait’. This game is beautiful graphically, has good animation and a beautiful soundtrack; all of that mixed with the novelty of it being a coop, action RPG had people willing to put up with a LOT of flaws to get that sort of rare experience (I had the same reaction to finding Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance on PS2 as a child), but that doesn’t make the game good. Looking past flaws and not having them there in the first place are two very different things.

Once again, the following section will contain spoilers, but this game is even skimpier on plot than its predecessor, so you really have nothing to worry about.

The Legend Unfolds

Secret of Mana’s storytelling isn’t very interesting for the most part. The characters aren’t fleshed out at all, and the main storyline is a rather simple ‘we must find the plot devices before the bad guys do’ tale, where they inevitably fail and have to stop the calamity right as it is forming. There is no emotional weight to the story and the characters aren’t even developed enough to be archetypes. Despite my negative tone, I actually think that Secret of Mana‘s brevity in terms of story is actually a good thing. I appreciate the fact that they know their plot isn’t very captivating so they don’t bog you down with it, meaning you are always close to more action. I am especially thankful for this given the rushed localization job that made the text even less bearable.

I wasn’t completely bored by all of the storytelling however, as one thing this game does tend to do well is comedy. Though the moments are few and far between, I couldn’t help but smile at a few moments that took place throughout my journey. Honestly, Secret of Mana is best when it isn’t taking itself seriously, and I feel this is highlighted most by a particular area in the game where you meet Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and have to go beat up and then rescue Santa Claus for him. This is followed up by a speech about Santa Claus having to turn to the magic of the Mana Seeds to get his job done because just not enough children were believing in him anymore. Yes, this actually happened. It was jaw-droppingly ridiculous, and I absolutely loved it.

There was only one real moment where I think the game was trying to go for emotional weight and in my eyes it failed miserably because of the lack of development leading up to this point. At the very end of the game, it is revealed that the last boss is actually going to be your faithful steed Flammie, as he is instinctively obligated to protect mana at all costs and basically loses control of himself. This… meant nothing to me, as Flammie is nothing more than an admittedly cute means of transportation. I guess it could have been a good idea, but for me it was definitely a swing and a miss, especially when the boss was so anticlimactic and lacked any amount of challenge or skill (even compared to the game’s other bosses).

See!? I told you I wasn't making it up!

As I stated earlier, the game’s pacing is one of its strong points, but that isn’t to say it is perfect; in fact it, stumbles fairly badly in the last third of the game. At this point the game sets you on a wild goose chase where you have to climb a mountain, talk to a guy, go off and complete a dungeon, climb back up the mountain and talk to the same guy yet again. This repeats three or four times before the game reveals that this character was basically just screwing with you the entire time, and you are shipped off to the final dungeon shortly after. Supposedly this sudden shift in pacing has to do with the game’s size being limited to the cart after the CD add-on for the SNES was cancelled. If this is the case, I don’t really see it as an excuse, but either way I don’t really think it is a big deal as this change doesn’t last too long. It is just a bit annoying; after all, this isn’t the first time this game resorts to backtracking (which becomes an annoyance of its own throughout the game when you keep the poor combat mechanics in mind), but it was the most blatant and obvious occurrence. What bothered me more than repeating the mountain section was the disappointment I felt when I realized the last third of the game was mostly going to consist of fighting the same bosses you spent the first half of the game fighting already. Things started feeling lazy towards the end in general, but that’s the nature of things I suppose.

Final Thoughts

It is hard for me to compare Secret of Mana and Sword of Mana when it comes to level of quality because they both fail in equal and opposite regards. They are both equally beautiful games with sub par gameplay, but when it comes to story one is incredibly bogged down while the other is near non-existant. I honestly have trouble recommending either of them. This leads to a rather interesting conclusion, that so far Final Fantasy Adventure is the only game in the series I actually consider to be good.

I just don’t see it. I don’t understand where this game gets its praise. If it is just the art design and the gorgeous soundtrack then I get it, but the gameplay is objectively bad. I didn’t hate this game, but the fact that it is so often listed in the top 100 games of all time has me completely baffled. Even with my cynicism, I can admit that there were brief moments where I understood why people could enjoy this game on some level, but this is very clearly a case of nostalgia beating out reason. That being said, I think I’d still rather play this game than Sword of Mana again. Secret of Mana contains far more highs and lows in terms of both gameplay and story, leaving me with moments of more fun and moments of pure frustration that Sword of Mana never touched, but I still find that preferable to a flat line of pure boredom. I guess the best way to put it is that Secret of Mana is a memorable journey due to its atmosphere, but it is not a good game. I am glad I finally played this game as it is one less game on my ‘bucket list’ so to speak, but the fact that this is considered the best game in the series leaves me rather weary for the next six games I will be forcing myself to play.

Well, thank you for reading, and please feel free to post your rebuttals in the comments as I’m sure a LOT of people disagree with me.I am very open to reasonable and well thought out discussions, even if they go against my own opinion. I would truly like some insight as to why people like this game. I hope to see you all next time where I will be tackling Seiken Densetsu 3. Wish me luck.

7 thoughts on “Stiles’ Series Synopsis: Secret of Mana”

  1. To be honest, I could follow the points made in this write-up of Secret of Mana a lot better than the previous one about Sword of Mana. I loved both games for different reasons (SwoM for its story, SoM for its world, music and multiplayer), but while I still enjoy playing SoM nowadays I could understand the hard times you had with it, which made this article a fun read, as I feel that it enabled me to look at the game from a different perspective.
    Before reading this I would’ve argued that the battle system is fast and fun, but the charging attacks where only interesting once to see the new animation and magic quickly became a chore, especially in multiplayer. I always leveled up my support spells in Inns, sleeping when my MP were empty, which was a horrible task and killed my motivation. It’s really not a great game design when you have to play less than optimal on purpose to enhance the experience, like I did when I chose to never use magic spells in boss fights.
    So thanks for your synopsis and I’m looking forward to the next one (which is already available) about Seiken Densetsu 3, one of my all-time favorite games.

    Btw.: I’m a game creator myself and my current game SwapQuest, which you can find by clicking on my name, was also inspired by Secret of Mana in some ways. ^^

    1. Thank you very much for your long and in depth response, it is greatly appreciated and I loved reading it. I also appreciate the constructive criticism regarding the Sword of Mana write up, looking back over them I think I understand what you are talking about.

      Anyway, I genuinely thank you once again as generating discussion is one of my key goals with this project. I love hearing the opinions of others as well and you just made this experience a great deal more enjoyable for me. I will definitely have to check out your game as well as I am now genuinely curious.

      1. I’m happy to hear that. I’m already writing down some thoughts on your next synopsis, which inspired some of SwapQuests mechanics (especially the class system) even more.
        But enough of the shameless self-promotion! 😀

  2. Thank you very much for this article!
    It is refreshing to see somebody else’s opinion on one of my personal favorite games of all time. I have to admit, though, that the place this game has in my heart is definitely to quite an extent due to nostalgia. Back in the days, playing this together with a friend was great fun. The mixture of low difficulty, beautiful music and vivid colors made this a gateway game into action rpgs for me. To this day, the theme of the Purelands still gives me shivers.
    From a game design point of view, you are certainly right on the strange difficulty curve, with one of the earliest bosses (the witch’s tiger) being the most difficult, whereas the late bosses became easier the later they appeared. The balance between raw power and magic is unsatisfying, and leveling up the spells was a chore, no fun.
    I guess the rather limited amount of MP was, at least in parts, to avoid constant breaks in the flow tue to pausing the game for casting, because it does not serve to raise the difficulty.

    1. Thank you very much for reading, and even more so for commenting! Reading people’s comments on here always makes my day. Secret of Mana was certainly an interesting experience, and I don’t feel like my time was wasted when I played it. I was genuinely happy to have been able to play it and I feel like it will be a memorable title even for me in the future despite having no nostalgic attachment too it, but I couldn’t ignore the issues the game had. As much as my style of writing and personality makes me come off as rather cynical, I didn’t hate this game, I just wanted to write as thorough an analysis as I possibly could.

  3. I don’t know if you know this, but the story for Secret of Mana was very badly pared down due to the translator being given a mere six weeks to get everything done. The result is a lot of background and plot details had to be slashed to the bare minimum, resulting in a story with more disconnection than cohesion. Why the characters are doing what they’re doing and the rich lore of the world in Secret of Mana has been sadly lost in translation, and despite the second chance they had with the mobile port, Square never bothered to retranslate the game to make the story more appealing. In all honesty, there’s a very strong plot in this game, but it was paid the least mind because back then, it was believed people in the U.S. were more interested in action gameplay than reading a “boring story” (a sad and stereotyped attitude that affected many JRPG translations throughout the 90s).

    I personally find SoM a lot of fun to play even to this day and I certainly did a lot better with it in recent years than I did as a kid, when I was confused about a number of things in the game. Honestly, the weapons system isn’t as bad as you think and grinding in this game is a lot less time-consuming than it is in other similar games.

    1. I am indeed aware of that, and it is unfortunate that the circumstances were so stacked against the game. Knowing the reasoning for the game’s lacking plot does not EXCUSE said lacking plot, however.It was an issue not just of time, but also character limits, as is often a problem with translations because Katakana takes far fewer characters than English does. The story wasn’t even one of my biggest concerns however, the terrible gameplay was, which is something I feel I covered in great detail above. I’m glad you and others enjoy the game, there’s no real logic in me wishing that others didn’t, but from an objective stand point, I don’t understand how people can look past the multiple, obvious flaws. The comparison I like to use is that I enjoy the original Family Guy video game on PS2 because I have fond memories of playing it with friends, but that doesn’t make it GOOD. It has terrible controls, bad graphics and bad writing even when compared to the show it is based on.

      Either way, thank you very much for reading and I do appreciate you taking the time to comment back! I enjoy reading others opinions, it’s just been so long since I wrote this that I felt the urge to re-write my stance once more lol.

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