RPG Club Plays Secret of Mana: Left Out in the Cold

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Having lost both Reid and Tom this week, Mike and I take some time to dwell on Secret of Mana‘s flawed legacy and the future copy-cats it never sparked.

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Mike Barrett: I’ve said a lot this month about how I see Secret of Mana as an obvious source of inspiration for many later RPGs, but it’s difficult to pin down exactly what qualities affected what games. 90s era JRPGs were an incestuous bunch, heavily borrowing ideas from one another with wildly-varying results.

Secret of Mana itself takes cues from Final Fantasy 2 in its combat system; namely, the ability to level individual skills through use from FF2, which SoM made functional through simplification. Despite the universal praise SoM’s cooperative multiplayer earned in 1993, the concept had successfully been pioneered in 1989 by Dungeon Explorer for the TurboGrafx-16, only now with drop in-drop out utility and no cumbersome save codes to keep track of. And let’s not forget the ubiquitous “boy leaves home to fulfill his destiny and defeat ambiguous evil” premise seemingly required of all RPGs that decade. That part didn’t change much, but at least it doesn’t distract the player with hamfisted “emotional” shenanigans like in many games.

Maybe what makes Secret of Mana so notable is that it took many of these concepts together, made them its own, and was successful enough to perpetuate them as a whole throughout the industry.  It’s an atmospheric lineage, one that defies simple categorization, but anyone who has played anything that draws on SoM will instantly recognize that je ne sais quoi. And that’s in addition to the thing SoM did actually invent—the ring menu, which can be seen today in games like Dungeon Siege 3 and Dragon Age: Origins.

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In that light, many RPGs and action-adventure titles have at least a few of Secret of Mana’s genes. The most clear benefactor (to me) would be Chrono Trigger. So many of the subtler standout traits in Chrono Trigger fall right in line with Secret of Mana’s aesthetic—world exploration through zones rather than a reliance on bland over maps, a fast paced combat system demanding attention and planning, and a robust environment loaded with people dealing with their own problems instead of spouting “helpful” tips. They both fall into a higher echelon almost effortlessly while still adhering to the conventional rules of RPGs and feeling comfortable to the uninitiated.

Ethan Gach: Mike, where did everyone go? It’s gotten lonely up in here this month! I have to say, while I was sure there would be some frustration with Secret of Mana’s more clumsily executed bits (like its AI and script), I would never have guessed that two of our most stalwart companions would abandon it only half way through the month.

Am I that blinded by the rose-tinted glare of yesteryear? A Mana maniac pining for an era that I wouldn’t recognize, much less appreciate, even if I could somehow re-inhabit those magical SNES years in the early 1990s?

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This week is the Gameboy’s 25th anniversary. I never got my hands on one until it was already obsolete, but when I did the first game I played on it was Final Fantasy Adventure, the first entry into the Mana series which was localized in North America under a more familiar moniker in an attempt to boost sales.

The game is basically the first Final Fantasy if its skin were taken and stretched over the basic framework of the first Legend of Zelda. But like its sequel, SoM, the game included new enemy types, like the series’ iconic Rabite, as well as the ability to store up attack power in order to unleash more devastating combos, as well as a single, continuous level design. The game is brilliant, which is why Square re-made it for the Gameboy Advance years later and called it Sword of Mana. Despite the relative success of these two titles, in addition to PlayStation’s Legend of Mana, which played more like the never localized sequel to SoM, Seiken Densetsu 3, the action-JRPG structure that these games so inspiringly emulated never saw the same renaissance that more traditional JRPG sub-genres have.

Indie games like Below, Hyper Light Drifter, and Bastion certainly contain nods to the format explored in the first half of the Mana series (let’s forget about all of the franchise missteps which occurred later on). But in a world where small teams consistently output RPG Maker-style Dragon Quest clones, and something like Link Between Worlds can successfully compete for game of the year on a Nintendo handheld, it would be nice to see more people take the things that SoM was so close to getting so right, and build on them in a way that reflect contemporary sensibilities and preferences.

  • NorthWulf

    I agree. Secret of Mana is one of the most under-appreciated Nintendo RPGs ever.