GameSpite Journal 10 | Secret of Mana

Secret of Mana | Dev.: Square | Pub: Square | Genre: Action RPG | Release: Oct. 1993

It’s hard to believe now, but long ago, RPGs were not known for their graphics. Complex gameplay? Deep experiences? Sure. Maybe even an epic storyline or two. Their graphics, however, remained simplistic. Enemies didn’t animate, player characters stood 8 pixels tall outside of battle, expansive villages filled with people were the same size as aforementioned tiny heroes, and magic spells held all the enchantment of two animation frames and a screen flash. The genre was, in a word, abstract. And though we role-players felt smug in our imaginations and intelligence, so were we secretly, violently jealous of the huge pretty pictures every single other genre in console gaming seemed to be capable of. Then Square decided to change the genre forever: They released Secret of Mana.

In screenshots, Mana did not look like an RPG. It more resembled a fantasy-based action game. Or, to put it bluntly: Zelda. However, where Zelda quickly distanced itself from RPG elements after a single clumsy experiment, Mana completely embraced them. Not just one type of experience system, but three. Gold! Hit and magic points! Equipment! A three-character party! Yes, Mana was a 100% authentic role-playing game, sometimes to a fault, as players could not effectively attack without waiting for a gauge to fill (an analog to the genre’s turn-based propensities)—but who cared when everything animated? Characters enjoyed a handful of attack animations per weapon. Spells allowed players to witness their character chanting, summoning a patron elemental who then actually appeared to send the spell toward its intended target (which also animated)! The world expanded as well, towns and fields existing side-by side with nary a change in scale to be found. What’s more, all this could be enjoyed with two friends—substituting the typically lonely RPG grind with a fun multiplayer experience. At the time of its release, Secret of Mana truly felt like a huge leap into a glorious future.

Much of Mana’s ambition can be traced back to its origin as a launch title for the never-released Super NES CD platform. The fact it retained so much of its content in the downgrade without major, crippling bugs is a debt owed to Squaresoft’s programming savant at the time, Nasir Gebelli. Which isn’t to say no bugs slipped through—plenty did. Mana is probably the buggiest major release in Square’s pantheon, and those glitches tarnish the game when viewed from a modern perspective. While time and progress have taken a toll on Mana’s legacy, one element has proven beyond timeless: Hiroki Kikuta’s amazing score. The tracks ran the emotional gamut from silly and celebratory to mysterious and morose. Diverse enough to spawn an experimental album (composed in keyboard clicks and ringtones), and powerful enough to still give me goosebumps every time I sit at the title screen, it’s one of the finest soundtracks on a console known for great music.

Affecting music, detailed graphics, complex gameplay systems, and amazing special effects—these are all the defining qualities of the modern RPG. Gone are the days of having to squint and pretend you could see everything unfolding onscreen. No longer do role-players have to settle for “less than” other genres can provide. RPGs are now the full package—something that can be traced back to Secret of Mana. Or, as my friend said at the time of its release, “maybe just the best game ever.” It’s truly a shame that despite the genre’s advancements these last two decades, Square has been unable to repeat that Mana magic. Maybe there’s hope, though. After all, time flows like a river, and history repeats...

By Tomm Hulett? | Jan. 17, 2012 | Previous: Sunset Riders | Next: Mega Man X