RPG Club Plays Secret of Mana: It’s Dangerous to Go Alone
Reid McCarter: Secret of Mana takes an absolutely breathtaking nosedive after its first few hours. Ethan, our resident Mana devotee, will no doubt debate this. But, despite appreciating the unorthodox combat systems and narrative introduction, the minor flaws of the game’s beginning become emphasized to the point of distraction with time. After the basics of its real-time combat system have been established–charge up attacks by maneuvering around enemies, navigate a crummy menu system to use magic, and switch through characters to take direct control of them–Mana, like most games, begins introducing more difficult enemies that test the player’s mastery of its systems.
The problem is that this increase in difficulty is matched by a drastic decrease in fun. The more aggressive enemies are capable of repeatedly whacking party members into stunned animations that make taking any further actions impossible; determining which area of an opponent will register damage seems almost entirely random; allied characters are programmed with artificial intelligence so boneheaded that they almost never contribute anything helpful. All of it comes together to make for an extraordinarily frustrating experience.
I’d deal with a poor battle system if there were other game features to make up for it, but there isn’t much else in Secret of Mana that holds my attention. The same plot that started off in such an interesting, subversive manner deteriorates as it progresses, shrugging off the unorthodox writing that had its otherwise typical main character an outcast rather than a hero. As time goes on the few snippets of plot revealed to the player are the worst kind of Japanese RPG nonsense: an evil empire is planning something nasty; a series of magical powers have to be collected. It’s all boring and, worse, either terribly translated or based on a bad script. These problems add up to make Secret of Mana my least favorite kind of game–one that makes engaging with its mechanics frustrating and taking in its story tedious.
Tom Auxier: I don’t find Secret of Mana grating so much as I find it not to be my Mana. On the other hand, all Mana games are kind of grating, right?
My Mana is Legend of Mana, the PSOne variant which ripped out the intense 90′sisms and replaced them with watercolors and mystery. It’s probably just as bad: none of these games control well. That’s the biggest problem I’ve had with Secret of Mana here: the controls feel so frustrated. The technology wasn’t there yet for them. Or maybe it was, and they overreached.
Whatever the case, punching dudes (95% of the game) feels like trying to barehand fish from the water. For me, it is–and always has been–a core concept issue. It’s why I put Secret of Mana on my inaugural Mount Rushmore of “Games I Should Like But Don’t.” Two of those games (Final Fantasy VIII and Chrono Cross) graduated off shortly after I put them there, but Secret of Mana, once again, looks destined to remain, glistening like Washington in the sun.
And I’m not confident in the payoff. Legend of Mana doesn’t work much better, but gives you splendid vistas to see, weird people to talk to, and golems to build. Secret of Mana has…the nineties. In their most intense, cliched form. Which sounds appealing–I love the nineties!–until I remember I like the things that twisted the prevailing aesthetic, not the ones that used it whole-hog.
It’s been a trip, but I don’t know if I have this much floatiness and nineties in me.
Mike Barrett: There’s ultimately only one problem that irks me with Secret of Mana—it doesn’t work as intended. There’s a big pile of (mostly brilliant) ideas, such as real-time combat and allies who fight based on adjustable A.I., but it overexerts itself reaching for those concepts. The speed of combat falls completely flat since every hit is followed by a lengthy stun animation, and party members simply mash themselves into monsters and die regardless of your commands. There’s little strategy or development, things just happen on screen as you desperately try to hold the team together and hack your way through.
It seems likely that the technology held the creators back. After all, pioneers rarely get it right on the first try. 20 years later and we’re still trying to steer ideas like computer partner A.I. towards fun and away from foaming-at-the-mouth-frustration. Still though, I stick by my initial assessment that the seeds of other RPG classics can be found in Secret of Mana. Unfortunately, rather than being a beloved source of inspiration, it seems more like developers played this game, saw a great concept, and said “Psht, I can do that so much better.” And I think history has proven them right.
Ethan Gach: I will concede upfront that Secret of Mana is, like single malt bourbon or slow smoked brisket, a delicacy best enjoyed in the company of close friends. The ally AI is often laughably daft, and sometimes downright infuriating (like when it gets itself killed, and then gets its ghost stuck behind a rogue level asset). The plot is riddled with fantasy clichés which are incomprehensibly stitched together, rendered all the more esoteric by whichever shredder the script’s original English translation got lost in. And for a game where 95% of it revolves around punching dudes, Secret of Mana’s combat system is hardly fluid or intuitive. Like the weapons our Mana heroes first get their hands on, its rusty and lacks balance.
But the fundamentals are still sound, and can be reworked into some truly glorious stretches if given the attention of a patient player. A chef is only as good as her ingredients, but there’s no soufflé without the contribution of her own sweat and tears. In less florid and not so subtle language: I think you guys are playing the game wrong.
First the enemies. Secret of Mana’s bestiary achieves the right ratio of unique designs to palette shifted clones, with monsters that run the gamut from locally invasive Rabites and short bow wielding chipmunk Chobins to floating eggplants that birth zombies and green helmeted ducks that lay bombs. What keeps the game from devolving into a Zelda-style beat’m up is the combat’s deliberate pacing, inscrutable enemy defense patterns, and occasional rule-breaking buggy-ness. It’s proto-Demon Souls set in Candyland. The attack gauge cool down forces the player to bob and weave, while holding down B and storing up attack power can be vital to breaking through the defenses of tougher enemies.
Like all games, Secret of Mana has its choke points, made all the more painful by incapable allies. The key is to recalibrate secondary character tactics to flee/stay away, while also programming them to store up their attack gauge at least through level 1 before every attack. This leaves battles like those with the werewolves outside the witches castle, or the blue, tongue flailing lizard inside Undine’s cave, challenging but not impossible. Similarly, grinding is a sin familiar to most RPGs, especially those from beyond the recent past, and Secret of Mana is no different. Fight all the enemies along the way, collect all the GP you can, and buy as many chocolate bars and Cup of Wishes as you can.
“An evil empire” that’s “planning something nasty” and “a series of magical powers” that “have to be collected” is the plot summary of the most beloved RPGs I can think of, including Final Fantasy VI and VII and Mass Effect 3. That doesn’t make it alright, but it does make it forgivable, especially for one that came out in the mid-90s. Furthermore, rather than bog the player down in made-up jargon or trumped up melodrama like so many other RPGs, Secret of Mana is, intentionally or not, a tribute to narrative minimalism. It is an adventure game first and foremost, a string of creatures and places stitched together by chance. If the game must rise or fall on how well it accomplishes one core conceit, let it be that one.