RPG Club Plays Secret of Mana: the Mana Beast Unslain

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This week Reid and Tom rejoin the discussion while Mike moves on to focus on preparing for next month’s game, Fire Emblem: Awakening. But before we go on to tackle nearly everyone’s favorite little 3DS RPG of 2013, Reid, Tom and I try to hash out where exactly Secret of Mana dropped the ball and how other developers could successfully pick it back up again.

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Reid McCarter: After bailing out on Secret of Mana I thought I’d perform an (highly scientific) experiment to finish out the month: playing The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Since these games are often mentioned in the same context, held up as precursors to modern action adventure games, I thought a little compare and contrast might make my own opinion on Secret of Mana a bit clearer.

I’d only played an hour or two of A Link to the Past before–I didn’t have a Super Nintendo growing up, so I only spent time with the classics in snippets at friends’ and cousins’ houses. Because of this I think I got a pretty decent, nostalgia-free look at the SNES favourite. Probably because of this, my impression of A Link to the Past is pretty similar to Secret of Mana. While Zelda is maybe a bit easier to understand (the quick-select maps go a long way) it also has a fair share of problems that likely stem from its age. Its combat is, like Mana‘s, a bit clunky and heavily dependent on understanding where “hit boxes” are located on enemies; its story, too, is archetypal adventure stuff that suffers from too few interesting characters.

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The thing is, faults aside, A Link to the Past also feels like an essential game. It is one that I didn’t find much fun, even though I appreciate how much of its DNA has been passed down to some of my favourite modern games. (I did stick with Zelda a bit longer than Mana probably because it puts more emphasis on its often satisfying environmental puzzle solving than it does on the finicky combat system.) If fighting enemies was more fun in these games or if they made a few extra concessions to player friendliness, I probably would have genuinely enjoyed them instead of just appreciating their contributions to the medium.

Basically, I’d argue that modernization (not in technology, but in general game design) has helped the action RPG immensely and that this modernization owes a lot to the existence of games like A Link to the Past and Secret of Mana. And that seems like the main thing I took away from the month’s RPG Club. Mike and Ethan discussed Mana‘s legacy last week so I won’t re-tread what they’ve already written, but I will add that, despite finding the game an absolute chore to play, the elements it does get right feel enormously influential in many subtle ways.

The systems that Mana introduced continue to find their way into games, even beyond RPGs. The use-based weapon/skill leveling is echoed in Modern Warfare‘s multiplayer mode; the interconnected environments feel like (as noted before) a forerunner to Demon’s/Dark Souls‘ sprawling worlds; the mixture of combat, exploration, and character growth is found in countless action titles to this day. It’s easy to see why Secret of Mana is an important game and one that is revered by so many. I enjoyed thinking about it because of this. It’s only too bad that I found actually playing it such a drag.

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Tom Auxier: Reid’s got me thinking, now. Because while I’ve never gotten into Secret of Mana, I may be the biggest Link to the Past booster on the planet. And I love janky Mana “sequel” Secret of Evermore and actual Mana sequel Legend of Mana. What is it about Secret that’s never grabbed me? Is it just nostalgia? It’s can’t just be that.

I think, maybe, it’s the world. It’s part nostalgia, then. Link’s Hyrule felt like a real place to me as a child, but even now I know there’s mystery there. There are secrets waiting to be uncovered. It’s generic, but it’s powerful in its commitment to its tropes. Characters are stilted and weird, but that’s to call to mind the NPCs of The Legend of Zelda. Secret of Mana wears its generic nature a little too earnestly for me. Its tropes–an evil fantasy empire, a magical sword, a boy, a girl, a snarky sprite–feel used up. Maybe they wouldn’t have in 1995, but I didn’t play it for the first time until five years after its release.

Evermore, meanwhile, I’ve always loved in spite of its best efforts. It’s an incredibly awkward game. Its plot is a B movie nightmare, but that’s what makes it charming. Secret of Evermore belongs in the pilot episode of gaming’s Mystery Science Theater 3000. Like Mana, it has good ideas that don’t quite jell, but its tropes are more my speed. I’ve never been able to tolerate straight fantasy anime, but I’m a sucker for time travel and American science fiction cliches.

Maybe it’s as simple as that. Mana comes from the same stock as other classic Square games, but it sells its foundation with an earnestness that doesn’t jive with me. And without that narrative maybe I don’t have the patience for its off-putting mechanical core.

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Ethan Gach: I will admit, Secret of Evermore has aged better. Partly, that’s due to it’s role as sci-fi video game satire. Contrary to SoM‘s earnest romanticism, SoE takes a witty and haunting approach to pulpy science, fantasy, and historical fiction. The combat is also a bit tighter, with only one ally to manage, more precise animations, and a battle system that isn’t made obsolete by the game’s magic abilities (alchemy recipes which require consumables in order to “cast” them.)

Similarly, while I think the art direction and combat of SoM trumps Link to the Past, the latter’s  overall elegance, from dungeon design to the layout of its world map, makes for a finer, more acute and less clumsy adventure game.

What SoM does have going for it, in addition to its sublime pairing of sound and graphics (something I dwelled on earlier in the month), is, contrary to Reid and Tom, its story. The narrative is poorly paced, filled with non sequiturs and often creaks under the weight of its all too familiar tropes.

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That said, there are individual moments in the game that help give rise to something special: the main protagonist getting banished from his village for removing a sacred sword from a nearby waterfall, the crew of bungling mercenaries who set their mechanical golem on you to capture a giant acorn, the icicle forest filled with wolves and the snow gigas at the center of it keeping Santa hostage, the cult of death worshippers praying for the end of the world, floating over the space sea at the edge of the dessert to collect moon magic, up through and including discovering a still working subway system underneath the ruins of the Mana Fortress, and the fights against an apocalyptic lich and a rabid mana beast once its in the sky.

Buried within all of the menacing empire, snarky sprite, whimsical faerie  minutia is a much more interesting and elusive premise. SoM‘s protagonist has a tree for a mother and a sword for a father, and his pet luck dragon is actually descended from, and still part of, a race of divine animals tasked with regularly obliterating huge chunks of humanity once it becomes too arrogant and modern.

SoM has parts of an Homerian epic situated deep within its DNA–just not enough to sustain a 30+ hour game. Perhaps someday someone will write a story worthy of the poetry SoM‘s hints at, with the robust exploration and modern fighting system of a Dark Souls or Kingdom Hearts that nevertheless evokes the bucolic eccentricity which to this day I still find so charming. I hope it comes sooner rather than later.