Square Enix released a lot of interesting titles in the early-to-mid 90s. Seeing that the Final Fantasy franchise was quickly gaining popularity after the recent release of Final Fantasy III, Square quickly began work on a game to introduce the Western (that is, Europe) audience to the now-popular JRPG franchise. This game we know as Final Fantasy Adventure, but in Japan it was known as Seiken Densetsu. Secret of Mana, as players in the West know it as, is the sequel.
Secret of Mana is a JRPG that discarded many of the concepts we were familiar with, and quite frankly, introduced many of the concepts we see today in MMOs and Action RPGs. You play as three characters, starting with Randi, a boy who lives without his parents in the small village of Potos. As he follows two other boys to a hidden “treasure,” Randi falls into a nearby stream and finds a rusty sword. Upon pulling the sword out of a water-logged stump, monsters start attacking his home and with relative haste, the mayor banishes Randi and is told by a man named Jema to go see Luka at the Water Palace; and so your journey begins.
I’m going to be honest, the story is rather basic for a Square Enix title, and for good reason. Most of the development process went towards the gameplay, and the story takes a backseat because of this. It’s rather predictable at times, it’s very light-hearted in comparison to Final Fantasy, and at times it’s essentially ridiculous.
As I said, there are three characters. Along with Randi, you gain control of Primm (the blonde-haired girl) and Popoi (the sprite that everyone mistakes for a girl). The reason for this bizarre party size is un-explainable, however understandable. See, the screen is always zoomed in and since the size of the sprites is so large (more on this later), this was probably done to reduce screen clutter. Also because the game has drop-in, drop-out co-op.
Back when the Super Nintendo was in full swing, accessories started coming out. One of them was a nifty little plugin called the “Multitap,” and Secret of Mana uses it. So you and two buddies can play together, once the characters join your party, which takes about 2 or 3 hours of gameplay. Once the gang’s all together, then the fun truly begins. Every player can use whatever weapons they prefer out of a pool of eight weapons, and these weapons also have environmental use. You start with the sword, which is used to cut down shrubbery blocking your path, for example. More often than not, you’ll use weapons based on preference or convenience.
As you progress through the game, you’ll gain the ability to upgrade your weapons, and every weapon can be upgraded seven times. This is tied to the progression system of Secret of Mana. Along with upgrading your weapons, you also gain the ability to use magic with Primm and Popoi; Primm gets support magic, making her the white mage, while Popoi gets offensive and status afflicting magic, making him the black mage. Randi, on the other hand, is basically a tank, getting health and attack at larger intervals than the other two members.
So what if you don’t have three players? Well, if you have two players, you get to play as two characters and either player can switch seamlessly to the idle character and back. This also applies if you’re playing alone, where you can switch between any of the two idle characters. While idle, they’ll be controlled by AI, and you can customize this, too. Say hello to the Action Grid.
The Action Grid allows players to set the AI behavior of each character. Also, since you can access any characters inventory, you can set them to use different weapons and change their behavior to accommodate; set Popoi to keep his distance with a bow, or get aggressive with an axe. The choices are up to you. The numbers on the right indicate charge levels, which go along with that progression system I mentioned earlier.
As you attack and slay enemies with a weapon or spell, you’ll gain experience for it. Once you get 100 points (this is exponentially decreased with each successive level), the spell or weapon becomes stronger. Weapons get a special upgrade as well; charge levels. If you hold down the attack button while your charge percent is climbing, you’ll begin a charge. When you get a charge (indicated as 1/-), release the button and you’ll do a special attack. Each level has a different special attack, and those are stronger and occasionally situational (like being able to knock enemies far back or to knock airborne enemies out of the air).
Along your journey, you’ll face several groups of enemies and bosses, each with a different attack and movement pattern. This of course doesn’t apply to palette swaps, but every enemy has a unique combat flow regardless. Some cast nothing but magic, others are airborne or have very high evasion, or simply take a ton of hits. The gradual difficulty curve from area to area is very smooth and easy on the player, and having enemies that also follow these rules is a nice thing to see. The bosses are even more unique, even though you will re-fight some of them exactly, just with two or three at once, or a palette swap with a different element strength and weakness.
The combat is something that is rather peculiar. You attack in a similar matter to Final Fantasy VI, with its Active-Time Battle system, but you can attack whenever you want. However, you must wait for your attack bar to hit 100% and for your character to flash to get the full power of an attack. This means that while you are waiting to attack, you can move around and avoid enemy attacks. Or you could hold the attack button and possibly block an enemy attack. You can also sprint, but that uses up your attack.
If you’re playing as Primm or Popoi, you have the option to use magic as well. However, for early game, MP is really limited, and you only get more from leveling up; there’s only one item in the entire game that restores MP, leaving you to make constant return trips to an Inn to restore MP. This can be bypassed if you spend time grinding your magic so your spells are less potent and as such require less uses.
On the note of items, let’s talk about Secret of Mana’s other special quirk; the Ring Menu.
Instead of forcing players to navigate a normal RPG menu, Secret of Mana features a non-intrusive Ring Menu, which allows you to easily find what you need. Everything is categorized as it should be; a ring for menus (places to check stats, change options, and equip armor), one for weapons, one for items, and one for magic (only for Primm and Popoi, as mentioned before). It’s a really great menu system; although confusing at first, it is very easy to get used to. The only issue comes from using it when playing with friends.
A common complaint from my group when playing it was that using the Ring Menu caused constant pauses and breaks from action. Although this is a fine thing to have for single-player, it does cause some rather irritating interruptions with multiple players; especially during the end-game, where the Popoi and Primm players are spamming their magic attacks, leaving the Randi player to sit idly by while waiting for an opportunity to get an attack out.
The RPG progression is rather standard. The best armors are dropped only by specific enemies at the very end of the game, there is a gradual experience and stat curve, and as you activate the Mana Seeds in each of the eight temples, you get stronger magic. In specific locations throughout the world, you’ll find side-quests and occasionally Orbs which you can use to upgrade your weapons from Watts, the blacksmith that manages to be there whenever you need him.
In various parts of the game, you’ll also find a special merchant named Neko, who will offer special items and gear along the way. You can also get these things from shops in various towns, but Neko is special since he carries exclusive items like Royal Jam, an item that heals all of a party member’s HP. About halfway through the game, you’ll get a way to travel freely from place to place; a dragon called Flammie. Before this, though, you have to use the Travel Cannons, which are sprinkled throughout the world.
Finally, the one thing I can’t quite explain is the controls. As I’ve mentioned, a lot of stuff is customizable. However, along with those things, you can also customize the controls to basically any control scheme you want; this applies to all three players if they choose to do so. Everything plays very well with minimal occasions of extreme slowdown, and it plays at a smooth 60 FPS.
Secret of Mana looks beautiful for an early SNES title (this game released just two years after the SNES debuted in North America, and one year before Final Fantasy VI hit the stage). The designs of each character and boss are great and bleed detail, and the environments are so much more so. The message window is a tad large, however, but it can’t be helped.
This game uses the Super Nintendo’s iconic Mode 7 to create some wonderful cutscenes and even allows for the travel system with Flammie to be mystical and fun. Various things like the Travel Cannons use it as well.
All of that is shadowed by the immense sprite detail; I’m not kidding, the amount of frames in every animation is staggering. Allow me to show you an example of one character using one weapon. The amount of detail is amazing by design standards, and every enemy type has their own special animations as well. It’s worth noting that the lead game designer, Koichi Ishii, also directed and designed the monsters in Secret of Mana, also making full use of the Mode 7 feature in the SNES, as I mentioned earlier.
Monster designs will catch your eye, especially the boss designs like Thanatos or Mantis Ant, but the environments and areas you will go to are one of a kind, and all of them look gorgeous. This whole game must be seen to fully appreciate how well everything flows; nothing seems out of place, and each pixel is intricately placed so everything is lush and colorful.
The music was created by composer Hiroki Kikuta. His most notable works are Secret of Mana, Seiken Densetsu 3, and Soul Calibur V; not quite a large list, but it’s worth a look. Either way, the entire soundtrack is just great, and it’s unique as well. Each song strikes a special chord; one of wonder, of mystery, but especially of adventure.
If you’ve never heard any of the tracks, I’ve embedded the entire soundtrack above. I’d recommend “Into The Thick of It,” “Danger,” “Ceremony,” and “The Oracle.” Each track is full of life, and really sells the feeling you get while experiencing each little moment without feeling repeated (save for one or two tracks).
As for the sound effects, they’re pretty par for the course for Square. Nothing much of note. A common issue is that both sound effects and music will occasionally cut each other out, which is a shame, although this is apparently not an issue with the iOS version.