[Every Thursday is Retro Day at Gamer Limit, so kick back and enjoy the classics. Feel free to check out our full schedule right here!]
I have always been a Sega fanboy. My first console was the almighty Sega Mega Drive (Genesis for all you Yanks out there), and since then I have drooled over – if not owned – every Sega system that followed.
While I didn’t realize it at the time, I have always been fond of fantastical RPGs, despite my distaste for turn-based fighting systems. Sega was unable to provide me with enough role-playing fodder, and I wasn’t of legal age to start laboring for console-purchasing-cash. So, instead, I had to rely on relatives for my lengthy forays into the world of Nintendo RPGs. And it was there that I fell in love with a little developer known as Square.
Today, Square Enix is renowned for its Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts franchises, but in the days of the Super Nintendo, Square was a pioneer into the world of fantastical RPGs, and created a host of unique and critically acclaimed titles. You’ve no doubt heard of Chrono Trigger and Super Mario RPG – undoubtedly brilliant games, still to this day – but before that time was another prodigy: Secret of Mana.
For those who have played through Secret of Mana, you may remember the first time you pushed in that cartridge and realized that the time-consuming, and often complex, turn-based fighting system had been discarded for a Legend of Zelda-esque real-time battle system. I don’t remember how I felt when that moment came to pass, but I’d like to think that I wept with happiness.
The game begins in typical Square fashion, with you placed as the hero, and being tasked with the duty of saving the world of Mana. In any other typical RPG, I probably would have switched off the game after a few hours and never returned to it. However, the fact that this is not a typical RPG is what kept my hands glued to the controller. Writing is paramount to any fantasy story’s success, and that is exactly where Secret of Mana succeeds in leaps and bounds. Initially, you are not the hero; in fact, you are cast out of the town you grew up in for taking the Mana Sword. Even the man who raised you from an orphan turns his back on you. While I wasn’t able to emotionally connect to this game as much as I did with Chrono Trigger, I still felt a pang of sadness each time my character’s story took a turn for the worse.
There is apparently a cooperative multiplayer mode, allowing you to team up with your friends throughout the adventure. Unfortunately, I have never had any success in convincing friends to spend several hours in front of a screen playing a game without spoken words. Nevertheless, single player is still worth its weight in gold, and there is perpetual fun to be had when naming your fellow teammates. I named the first female to join my group “TITS”, and have been giggling like a schoolgirl ever since.
Secret of Mana does have its downsides, and perhaps hindsight is a hindrance in this case. You are initially tasked with visiting eight palaces in order to advance your strength and abilities, and after a few hours, the game begins to fall into a lull. Playing through it again started to feel a bit like my time with Pokemon, or even the latest Prince of Persia, in that I knew that the storyline was great, and that there was incredible potential for this title to be a masterpiece, but it simply became a matter of following tasks like a drone. However, just when you are at the point of bailing out for a quick game of Super Mario Bros., a couple of exciting missions get thrown your way, and you are back in action alongside TITS and the gang.
The fighting system is familiar and simple to use, but there is enough diversity in weapon selection for it to never become stale. At first the pesky Rabites, Silktails, and Lullabuds are frustratingly hard beyond all belief, and, if you are like me, you may very well find yourself sent back to the main menu time and time again. This is why saving is so important; simply pay a visit to your resident Basil Fawlty, hand over a few gold, catch forty winks, and wake up with full health and a nifty saved game to fall back on.
As with every RPG, depending on how you choose to play Secret of Mana, the length of the game will deviate. For those who simply enjoy the thrill of the fight and don’t care too much about the story line, you could have this game beaten within four to five hours. Personally, I enjoy reading every line of text, battling every creature, and fully immersing myself inside the spectacular world of Mana. I was only a kid when I first completed the game, and I played it in two to three hour increments during the holidays over the course of a year. However, on my second run through, about ten years later when I had earned my gaming stripes, it took me around 12-15 hours. If you are keen on earning complete level ups, and all the other accoutrements that decorate this style of game, then strap yourself in for about a 30-hour ride.
Secret of Mana not only had a huge impact on the way games are played, but also how stories are told. I hold a big place in my heart for Square, not only for kick-starting my love of fantasy, but also for having the balls not to Disneyfy Secret of Mana, and to treat a young gamer with respect.