GameSpite Journal 10 | Seiken Densetsu 3

Seiken Densetsu 3 | Dev.: Square | Pub: Square | Genre: Action RPG | Release: Sept. 1995 (JP only)

It was during the reign of the Super NES that a lot of American video game fans first became aware that perhaps they weren’t getting all of what their favorite systems had to offer. Company magazines sometimes alluded to new Japanese games that never quite materialized on our shores, but it was the revelation that our Final Fantasy II was Japan’s Final Fantasy IV, and our III their VI, that really drove home the point to RPG aficionados that, “Hey, something sure amiss here.” American gamers began paying more attention to new releases that might or might not ever make their way across the ocean—and hey, look, is that a sequel to the much-loved Secret of Mana that we spy, tantalizingly out of reach?

It was this mindset that gripped me when I happened to set foot in Osaka as part of a college exchange program during the summer of 1996, and I soon set about scouring electronics and game stores for promising Super Famicom cartridges which I knew could be adapted to fit my SNES back home by breaking off a few plastic tabs. Tokimeki Memorial turned out to be a bust once the exotic otherworldly appeal of a “dating simulator” quickly wore thin and my rudimentary knowledge of written Japanese made it mostly impenetrable, but Seiken Densetsu 3 was just right.

See, it turns out fantasy worlds, especially colorful, whimsical ones not tied to historical settings, are a boon for those just dabbling in the waters of the native language. Made-up terms for places, characters, and items count as “foreign words” and thus get written in the katakana syllabary alphabet, which isn’t all that hard to learn to read phonetically. And the Seiken Densetsu series in particular has a further short-cut to understanding in that many of the plot points and key items revolve around the eight traditional elements of the Mana meta-verse, meaning learning just eight kanji characters will take you far. Scanning dialog for those elements and sounded-out names will get you most of the information you need about where to go and what to look for, even without understanding much else.

All this makes SD3 more approachable than most import games designed for players over the age of six, but how does the game actually hold up as a sequel to a beloved classic? Pretty darn well, as it turns out. Seiken Densetsu 3 keeps Secret of Mana’s action-RPG gameplay and gorgeous sprite art intact, but improves on and adds to it in countless ways. It also benefits from not being moved off an aborted CD add-on like its predecessor, making for fewer glitches and a much more coherent plot and setting.

SD3’s battle system features mostly subtle improvements, keeping the iconic ring menus and basic fighting mechanics. However, it ditches the tedious system of leveling spells through repeated use, relying instead on more traditional magic power stats. In another bid to keep things from dragging out, the battle gauge used to unleash special attacks now charges when hitting an enemy rather than over time, discouraging the practice of running away from enemies while powering up. Finally, a storage menu that can be accessed outside of battle is added, so you’re not limited to carrying only what fits in the ring menu’s immediately accessible inventory.

Battles are also improved by providing more options to govern your allies’ A.I. control—instead of just setting their aggressiveness, you can direct them to support another character, for example. And to keep you on your toes, time now passes on the map, adding both a day/night system that alters enemy placement and behavior, and days of the week which amplify the effect of a certain element: A feature that persisted in most later Mana games.

The biggest change by far, though, is to the characters and plot progression. Instead of a preset party, the player gets to choose three main characters from a total roster of six at the beginning of the game. The characters are tied into pairs by the plot, and which pair your first chosen character belongs to determines not only how and where your plot starts but also radically alters the ending of the game to the point of facing completely different final bosses. The interweaving of disparate plots here directly presages the somewhat polarizing multi-plot system of Legend of Mana, though in this case losing the threads isn’t a problem, since your ultimate path is determined from the start.

That arrangement does mean that it takes at least three full play-throughs to see most of what the game has to offer, but that fact is made much more enjoyable by the other major character innovation, one unique in the series: Class changes. Twice over the course of the journey your characters will have the opportunity to use mana crystals to progress to a more powerful class, each time choosing either a light or dark path, which means four possible final classes per character. This leads to a ton of different play-style opportunities, as each character’s various classes not only have tweaked stats, but usually have access to completely different sets of spells and abilities.

While true munchkins may need to resort to a FAQ to tweak out their party precisely either to make things easy or try an esoteric challenge run, in truth almost any party is workable with the right strategy. On top of that, the choices generally conform to expectations, with light paths including more healing and defense, dark ones favoring raw power and dangerous magics, and middle choices focusing perhaps on status spells or interesting techniques. In short, even though all three major plot-lines overlap during the middle sections of the game, replay value is never a problem with so many character strategies to explore. The game even helpfully lets you to tackle a set of eight late-game elemental bosses in any order, allowing veteran players to tackle ones more suited to their current party first while powering up to handle the others.

In the end I’m confident in saying Seiken Densetsu 3 is one of the “games that got away” that is not over-hyped out of sheer misplaced longing. It’s as gorgeous and fun as Secret of Mana (with another great bouncy score by Hiroki Kikuta), with even more robust gameplay backing it up. Also, one of your mid-game transportation options is a goofy giant sea turtle wearing scuba goggles named Booskaboo. Who could say no to that?

By Ben Elgin | March 17, 2012 | Previous: Mega Man 7 | Next: Clock Tower