Secret of Mana

Developer: Square
U.S. Publisher: SquareSoft
Original U.S. Release: December 1993
Genre: RPG
Format: Cartridge

Based on: A violent mash-up of Zelda, Final Fantasy, and enough bugs to fill a mattress.

Games | Super NES | Secret of Mana

Article by parish | March 16, 2009

Nintendo's NES classic Metroid might well be the single game that most shaped and influenced my tastes in the medium, introducing me to the concept of open-ended exploration and the sense of accomplishment that goes hand-in-hand not only with mastering a game's twitch challenges but in conquering an entire virtual world as well. But I've written about that before -- perhaps too much. So let's talk about something else instead. Let's talk about Secret of Mana.

Secret of Mana. It's a mess of a game, if we're being brutally honest -- like so many titles programmed by Square's favorite Iranian savant, Nasir Gebelli, Mana was basically sheer disaster in motion. In retrospect, it was completely glitch-ridden and bug-prone, and mechanically clumsy to boot.

Mind you, Nintendo is as much at fault for Mana's defects as the game's creators. Square had originally intended Mana to be the company's debut on the Super NES Play Station hardware add-on, the abortive CD-ROM project that would go on to become Sony's biggest brand thanks to some short-sighted backroom chicanery between Nintendo and Philips. When Play Station plans succumbed to dirty dealing and the SNES remained forever solid-state, Square had to reinvent its project. Localizer Ted Woolsey once admitted that if you look closely, you can clearly see the jagged edges where the development team had to rip content out of Mana in order to make it fit on a cartridge. By the end of the 16-bit era, Square was notoriously resentful of Nintendo's adherence to masked ROMs, and the chain of events that ended with the Final Fantasy series becoming a Sony cornerstone can almost certainly be traced back to its origins in this game.

Yet despite these flaws and closet skeletons, Secret of Mana is probably more responsible for my writing about video games for a living than any other game you could name. If not for Mana, I would have given up on the medium altogether years ago; instead, this jumbled mess of an adventure kindled my interest in the role-playing genre and started me thinking more about the narrative and mechanical elements of games, which in turn led me to get involved with the crew that launched the Gaming Intelligence Agency, which in turn was my key to turning this nonsense into a living. I've pinned the blame for all of this on Chrono Cross? in the past, sure, but if I'd never have glanced at the Chrono series if it hadn't been so redolent of Mana, a game I fell in love with over an uneventful winter break fifteen years ago.

I entered college in the fall of 1993, a few months before Mana's release. (I am old, you see.) While my friends and I had been pretty rabid game nerds throughout junior high and high school, our interest had waned as we neared graduation. It wasn't a matter of us feeling we'd become too cool for the medium or anything so much as the fact that gaming, back in this period of the 16-bit era, had hit a period of stagnation. The Super NES and Genesis were largely just delivering prettier versions of the same adventures we'd already bought and played on their 8-bit predecessors, and arcade conversions of games like Turtles In Time? were impressive fun for a few hours but hardly felt worth the steeply-climbing asking price of cartridge releases. Games didn't have anything new to offer, and so I didn't feel a single twinge of remorse when I sold off most of my SNES collection and left my system collecting dust at home when I headed off for my freshman year. If I really needed a distraction, I figured I could play Myst? or something...but to my mind, gaming was a fad that had run its course.

In fact, I wouldn't even have noticed Mana if I hadn't crashed at a friend's place over Christmas break. We decided to kill time by picking up a rental and selected Mana simply because it was both (1) new and (2) multiplayer. As it turned out, it was also strange and kind of sloppy, burdened with a convoluted weapon system that required juggling eight different melee tools while leveling weapons, weapon skill, and magic acuity, not to mention dealing with a tagalong third character controlled by some of the dumbest A.I. we'd ever seen. We made it as far as the witch's palace before giving up in annoyance.

And yet...when I headed home the next day, I couldn't stop thinking about Mana. As it happened, I had a bunch of free rental coupons that had accumulated while I was away at school, and I decided to go cash one in to rent Mana for a couple of days. I started on this new cartridge from scratch, playing solo, and had a much better time of things now that I'd worked out the quirks of the battle system. Before I knew it, my two-day rental was up, so I cashed in another coupon. And then another. Finally, with a few hours left on my final rental, I defeated the Mana Beast and saved the world -- at the cost of a week of my Christmas break, I suddenly noticed. Embarrassed, I slowly realized that I'd spent a week of vacation caught up in something I was supposed to have outgrown. Even more shockingly, I'd loved the hell out of it.

Mana had captivated me in a way few games had ever accomplished, going from clumsy enigma to addicting obsession without my even realizing it. In hindsight, I was probably powerless to stop myself from loving it, because it combined two genres that I liked, but that felt lacking on their own: the top-down action RPG a la The Legend of Zelda? and the number-crunching RPG a la Final Fantasy. If I'd owned a Game Boy, Mana might have come as less of a shock to me -- after all, despite the game box's claims that it was the first entry in an exciting new series, it was in truth a sequel to Final Fantasy Adventure?, which (had I known the full story) would have explained everything. But as it was, Mana was a revelation. Here was a Zelda-style game in the vein of Crystalis? and Soul Blazer?, but with even more depth than those other games. Here was something with the substance and intricacy of Final Fantasy IV, but with much more interesting pacing and far more attractive graphics. Here was a brisk action game with a huge story. A fantasy RPG with a decidedly futuristic bent. A game that was alternately tense and mellow. It had an amusing supporting cast, the requisite dose of personal melodrama, and some unexpected plot twists. It bundled together just about every sci-fi, fantasy, and video game clich´┐Ż imaginable -- but in an era when action-heavy games rarely offered more than a sentence or two of motivation, climbing to the top of a ruined mountain to discover the last doomed transmissions of our own world in its final apocalyptic moments was incredibly powerful. Learning the hero's true past only to watch the life-giving world tree that housed his mother's spirit annihilated by an ancient superweapon left me speechless. It was a grand adventure, yet at the end no one enjoyed a truly happy ending, even though the world had been saved.

So what if that stupid sprite kept getting hung up on the scenery? So what if brainless NPCs kept blocking my way? So what if I could never seem to hit foes with my charged up super attacks? So what if the magic system was so glitchy that it was difficult to predict when a queued-up spell would actually activate? So what if I had to stand outside the inn and cast healing magic over and over to keep my heroine's spell levels up? These were minor nuisances when weighed against the fact that I was traveling through surreal fields dotted by fallen stars, that I was waging war for a rebellion by sneaking through underground tunnels connecting areas of an imperial capital, that I could go from storming a castle one moment to fighting zombies in a forgotten, ancient subway tunnel the next. And that's to say nothing of the soundtrack, which brilliantly mixed polyrhythmic percussion and haunting piano to create something wholly unique in the history of gaming. Or the memorable foes. Or the fantastic flavor text. Or the screwball humor that lightened the game's darkest moments. And the verdant beauty of the title screen art, so perfectly realized within the game once I reached the Sacred Land.

Secret of Mana was amazing.

Looking back, playing it with a more cynical eye, it's easy to see the game's flaws. But it's also easy to give them a pass, because so many of them stemmed from its creators' ambitions. Secret of Mana was Square's attempt to combine two schools of console game design into a single, ultimate hybrid...and by and large, it was a success. Although Akitoshi Kawazu isn't credited for the game, I can see a spirit here that's kindred to that of his works -- Final Fantasy II, SaGa?, and the like -- namely, a sense bold of innovation that offers the player both intricacy and flexibility, albeit at the expense of polish.

But it was innovation that I needed at the end of 1993 to convince me that games weren't a dead-end prospect, not polish -- hope that there was room for fresh ideas, space for existing genres to come together into something new and perhaps even better. The first few years of the 16-bit era had offered plenty of polish, lots of spinny, scaling special effects embellishing the same-old, same-old. But Mana was the first time these machines had offered me a glimpse of something genuinely different.

Mana's a lesson that's lasted with me through the years -- gaming is an iterative, imitative medium, and there's nothing wrong with that. But sometimes, someone will spice up the predictable sameness with something that defies expectations. And even when bold new efforts don't play out the way you hope, it's these fantastic yet flawed creations that keep me looking forward to every E3, every TGS, every fall release season. After all, I never know when I'll stumble upon the next Secret of Mana and have my faith in the medium restored all over again.

Images courtesy of VG Museum