Secret of Mana
  • Genre:
    • Action RPG
  • Platform:
    • SNES
  • Developer:
    • Square
  • Publisher:
    • Square
  • Released:
    • JP 08/06/1993
    • US 10/03/1993
    • UK 11/24/1994
Score: 85%

This review was published on 04/23/2008 and updated on 08/18/2014.

Secret of Mana is an action role-playing game developed and published by Square for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. It was released in Japan on August 6, 1993, North America on October 03, 1993, and Europe on November 24, 1994. The game is known in Japan as Seiken Densetsu 2, because it's actually the sequel to Final Fantasy Adventure on the Game Boy. Final Fantasy Adventure's Japanese title is Seiken Densetsu: Final Fantasy Gaiden, which means the Mana series started out as a Final Fantasy spinoff. In fact, Secret of Mana was initially going to be called Final Fantasy Adventure 2 in the West. The more you know. Secret of Mana is a hallmark game, for it was the first RPG that introduced many Western players to the genre. It also influenced many action RPGs that came after, practically establishing most genre conventions. Secret of Mana was heralded by critics as a magnificent game at the time, and today, many fans consider it the best game of all time. Even though a lot of this game's praise is due to nostalgia, it's still a fantastic gem.

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In the world of Secret of Mana, there is an energy source known as mana that permeates all living things. Long ago, a technologically advanced civilization used the power of mana to build a massive aerial warship called the Mana Fortress. The gods didn't like this, so they sent powerful beasts to destroy the fortress. A violent war ensued, nearly exhausting the world's supply of mana. Things seemed grim until a hero appeared and used the legendary Mana Sword to destroy the fortress. Peace was restored, though at the cost of an entire civilization. Back in the present, a young boy discovers a mysterious sword stuck inside of a stone near his village. After pulling out the sword, he returns to the village, only to find that it has been surrounded by monsters. The villagers blame the misfortune on the boy's removal of the sword and throw him out. A traveling knight tells the boy that the sword he now wields is the Mana Sword, except it has lost its power and must be restored. Alone and abandoned, the boy embarks on a journey to restore the Mana Sword. Amidst this, an evil empire is attempting to revive the Mana Fortress. Secret of Mana has a spectacular intro that sets up the story perfectly, tugging on heart strings with its emotional scenes.

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Lush, colorful landscapes adorn the world of Secret of Mana. Slick, cartoony animations help add to the game's light hearted nature. And to compliment these stellar visuals is a soundtrack that portrays Square's incredible musical prowess of the time. Secret of Mana has a massive interconnected world that gives most SNES games a run for their money. Screen transitions are placed sparingly to make the different areas in the game flow together seamlessly. There are plenty of sights to see in Secret of Mana, like forests, deserts, snowy lands, and much more. Despite the colossal size of the world, many of the areas in the game are fairly linear, so the exploration never becomes overwhelming. Backtracking isn't often necessary, though there are a few times when it is. Thankfully, a method of expedient travel becomes available early on in the form of cannons. Yes, that's right; you get shot out of cannons to reach faraway areas quickly. All that's fine and dandy, but there is a snag. When walking along the ground, the screen won't scroll until you're at the very edge of it, for some reason. This makes exploration of large areas extremely frustrating, because you can't see three feet in front of you. It's a minor issue, but one that persists for the whole game.

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As I've said earlier, this is an action RPG, so the fighting is all in real time. Spot an enemy on your screen? Just walk right up to it and hit the attack button. However, you can't just strike at it repeatedly without remorse. Instead, you must wait for a sort of "stamina" bar to fill up before you can swing again at full power. Attacks can still be performed before the bar is full, but in most cases, little to no damage will be done. The good thing about this stamina system is that it forces you to be a bit more strategic during combat, as it prevents you from button mashing your way to victory. New weapons are gained as you progress through the game, and each weapon type brings with it certain advantages and disadvantages. A nice amount of variety here, as you are not just limited to the typical sword and spear; there are axes, bows, and boomerangs, too. Some weapons can also provide a few uses outside of combat, such as the whip, which you can use to cross chasms if there is a pole you can grab onto, kind of like the hook shot from Zelda. Due to the wide variety of weapons and stamina system, combat in Secret of Mana is satisfying.

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All of this sounds good, and would be great if it were not for the troublesome hit detection. Far too often will you find that you swing your sword, only to have the enemy get hit a full two seconds later. For whatever reason, your hits don't register on the enemy immediately. At times, your hits won't register at all. The same thing happens with magic. Such poor programming is pretty inexcusable, even in the early '90s. If it weren't for how fun the rest of the game is, this problem alone would be enough to totally ruin the game. Luckily, there does seem to be a bit of rhyme and reason to the atrocious way the game handles the detection of hits, so if you have the patience to do a bit of experimentation, you'll eventually "get" it and can then use it to your advantage. That still doesn't excuse it, though.

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Akin to most typical RPG adventures, you gain allies to aid you in your cause. You can switch control to any of the other characters by pressing the select button, but due to everything being real time, you can't control more than one character at a time. An issue like this is solved with the magic of artificial intelligence: the characters you aren't controlling can act on their own, based on simplistic strategies that you can configure for them in the respective menu. Unfortunately, like almost every game with computer controlled cohorts, they are really dumb and no replacement for a real player. They tend to have problems when it comes to not getting stuck behind walls, for instance. In a twist of fate, however, you can have a friend take control of another character. You can even play the game with three players, providing you have the means to do so! It should be obvious that this can be a really fun way to experience the game. This is definitely a highlight of the game. More games should do this, especially action RPGs.

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An innovative new feature introduced in Secret of Mana is the ring menu system. Instead of standard menu screens, the game employs a system of menus revolving around a ring design. The ring menu can be accessed at any time and keeps everything on the same screen. Essentially, ring menus are icons that float above the head of your character in a ring-like fashion. Each icon represents a different menu option and they can be rotated around to pick the desired feature. Just about everything is accessible through the ring menus, such as items, weapons, armor, magic, and even game options. Ring menus allow for quick, convenient access to various things, but they're confusing. In particular, swapping weapons and armor between different characters is a huge hassle. The idea is that each character has his or her personal ring menu, signified by the character's color, and a character's equipment and abilities can only be accessed from their own ring menus. It's hard to tell which character's ring menu you're currently on, because aside from a slight color difference, all the ring menus look the same. Ring menus do speed things up considerably once you get used to them, but they could be more intuitive.

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Besides gaining regular levels by slaying foes, characters also gain weapon proficiency levels. Every character has proficiency levels with every weapon in the game, and they can increase proficiency in a weapon by using it more often. The maximum weapon level achievable is dependent on how far the weapon has been upgraded. Throughout the story, special orbs called Mana Orbs are collected, and they are used to upgrade weapons. Increasing weapon levels will raise damage output, but it also enhances the weapon's charging capability. If the attack button is held down, a weapon can be charged up to a certain level. The higher the weapon level, the higher the charge can go. Each charge level does a special, super powerful attack, with the higher charge levels increasing the damage and amount of hits special attacks will do. Special attacks differ slightly from weapon to weapon and level to level, so there are quite a few variations. This is all pretty cool stuff, as it gives great incentive to keep every weapon upgraded. There are, however, some annoyances. One, leveling up a wide range of weapons can take ages, and two, charging these high level weapons in combat takes forever. It's still a cool system, but it's not without its faults.

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The protagonist can't use magic himself, but his two friends can. Over the course of the game's story, the party will rescue magical spirits referred to as Mana Elementals. Each Elemental brings with it two or three different spells that can be cast during battle. The two characters get different magic from the same Elementals, too, so there are quite a large number of spells in the game. There are offensive spells that damages enemies, defensive spells that buff character's stats, restorative spells that heal life and cures negative status ailments, and others. Thanks to the ring menus, casting spells is quick and easy. One of the main objectives of the game is to gather Mana Seeds. The more Mana Seeds you have, the greater your magical potential. Magic, like weapons, can be leveled up through repeated use. The maximum magic level you're capable of reaching is based on how many Mana Seeds are currently in your possession. Elementals are leveled up separately for each character, so leveling up the fire Elemental, Salamando, increases the effectiveness of all Salamando's spells for the caster. Also, leveling up Elementals will permanently increase the caster's maximum MP, further adding to the benefits of leveling magic. The only downside to magic is that it's very tedious to level up, especially at higher levels. Other than that, magic in Secret of Mana rocks.

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One of the game's major weaknesses is the dialogue. According to Ted Woolsey, the game's translator, Secret of Mana's translation was completed in only thirty days, so much of the dialogue had to be greatly simplified or cut out. This resulted in a lot of the dialogue coming off as awkward, nonsensical, and silly. The poor localization has an impact on game play, as well, since it can be very difficult to figure out where to go next in the game. While the terrible dialogue doesn't make the game any less fun, it does take the impact away from a lot of key events in the plot. It's a shame a game this good had such a shoddy localization. Additionally, this game has bad character development. Characters only get a tiny bit of back story upon first being introduced, and besides the girl character, none of them get much in the way of development. Your characters hardly get any lines of dialogue, either, which makes them devoid of personality. It's uncertain if the bad character development and empty personalities stem from the poor localization, but regardless of that, these things still hurt the story. Secret of Mana has nothing on Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger when it comes to plot, character development, and dialogue.

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In short, Secret of Mana is a fun, yet slightly overrated game. It's got impressive graphics, nice animation, superb music, the ability to play with up to three players, and it's pretty long. On the problems side of the equation, the game has lots of hit detection issues, and the translation is fairly bad. None of those issues ruin the game, but they do detract from the experience. Secret of Mana may not be the best game of all time, but it's a darn good one.

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