Secret of Mana review
Secret of unpolished, borderline sloppy parts of a solid foundation
Developer and Publisher: Squaresoft
Ambition is a double edged sword – on one hand, it can create a genuinely fantastic game that goes above and beyond its contemporaries; on the other hand, it can create a cluster*bleep* of a game. Secret Of Mana is a mix of both. It manages to take the Legend Of Zelda style of gameplay that a lot of gamers at the time loved and added RPG elements like stats and levels, culminating in an experience that could potentially serve as a fantastic game. In practice, it's a confused mix of unrefined gameplay systems, illogically bullshit moments in combat, inconsistent computer companions and – at least in the case of the English translation – a story that's smaller than it really is. It's certainly not without its positives; there are some systems that are surprisingly well done and the production quality is pretty high, but there are far too many moments where you wonder just what was going on inside Square's headquarters during development...
Ted Woolsey, the translator for the game, had remarked that he had to significantly shrink (or “nuke”) the dialogue down to the bare essentials. It's not because gamers had ADD, but it's because there wouldn't be enough space in the text boxes for a detailed story. So essentially, if you're coming into Secret Of Mana with the expectations of there being a deep, thought provoking story, you will be sorely disappointed unless you play the Japanese version or find a really good fan translation. Instead of being an epic tale of a boy saving the world after accidentally dooming it, it instead reads like a children's pop up book. That's how badly neutered the story got - text size limitations and not wanting to do anything drastic such as adding more text boxes all but killed the story. Most developments for the relationships between our characters, as well as the motives of certain characters are lost in translation.
Not that it really matters, because even the basic shit isn't done right. It's not just the fact that so many things are lost in translation that it's impossible to invest yourself into the world and its inhabitants; it's also the fact that at times, the dialogue is so awkwardly translated that it's hard to even care. Supposedly, it's going for a goofy and whimsical tone, but it's more like the socially awkward kid who tries to be funny. Most of the jokes, which are meant to be simple in concept, are hard to understand due to such a shitty ass usage of words. That's a big problem – a story's tone is determined by its words, but when the words are minced with the eloquence of a foreigner learning the English language, it's hard to really tell if it's trying to be whimsical and goofy, or if it's even trying to be anything at all. It's further made evident in its random usage of then-current lingo and expressions in what I'd assume is a medieval fantasy world involving mana and a tree that centralizes and distributes the world's mana being in strife. Look, I understand that Woolsey was given exactly 30 days to translate the game and his style is decidedly less serious and more kid friendly (mainly due to Nintendo's prudent standards and practices I'd imagine, but I'd also imagine it's due to Americans and Japanese people being completely different gaming audiences), but this is just too sloppy to really enjoy.
In fact, that seems to be the best way to describe the game as a whole. At a cursory glance, it really doesn't seem like such an underwhelming game. In fact, it seems like a good game that just so happens to have a crap story. However, the further you go, the more that its flaws start to stick out and can, at the worst of times, piss you off. But let's start with the foundation of the gameplay – combining the action elements of a Zelda game with a streamlined inventory management and slightly more complicated stat building elements of a Final Fantasy game, Secret Of Mana is an action RPG where you go around different areas, head into dungeons and eventually beat the boss in order to acquire certain items needed to progress the story. However, one thing you'll notice immediately is a number on the bottom. That's your stamina meter... or number, actually. Basically, if you strike with your weapon, it'll go down to 0 and then climb back up to 100, allowing you to strike with full power again – strike as it's climbing up to 100, and you'll do significantly less damage. Understandably, it's to prevent button mashing, but it often feels like it just slows the game down. Doubly so since enemies have random frames of invincibility after getting hit – see, when you have allies and you hit an enemy, and then your ally hits that same enemy, that second hit may not actually register as a hit. Whether it's via some shady hit detection (yep, this sometimes pops up during the heat of combat too) or when enemies have frames of invincibility, regardless, it's just bullshit and it really serves to slow the game down.
As you level up your weapons from using them, you'll be able to charge up attacks. By holding down the attack button after you get your stamina back to 100%, a bar will replace the number and fill up, and once it's full, you let go of the button and use the attack. The more you level it up, the more times you'll have to fill up that bar. Each of these attacks have their own animations and given that the hit detection is a bit on the fussy side of the fence, you need to get down the exact timing and positioning. Otherwise, there goes five or so precious seconds that you could've used kicking ass! The thing is, at certain points, charged attacks are all but necessary in order to do a significant amount of damage to your enemies. This isn't an issue unless the game starts being an asshole by either making your attacks arbitrarily miss as if your enemies have a high evasion rate, or not technically connect due to oftentimes inconsistent hit detection! I'm not playing a *bleep*ing turn based RPG – if my sword connected with the enemy, it *bleep*ing connected with the enemy! No ifs, ands or buts! On the contrary, the enemies and bosses can combo you much in the same way you'd be combo attacked in Tekken – by getting juggled. Okay, so let me get this straight, enemies can hit me as much as they please, but god forbid I do the same? Whatever you say. Furthermore, magic always hits, regardless of whoever it comes from. Like your weapons, magic levels up the more you use it. The only thing is that you don't have heaps of MP to burn, so prepare to go back and forth between a designated grinding spot and the inn if you find yourself required to level up your magic! It also stops the game for a few seconds to cast the spell. At first, it's no big deal, but eventually, oh boy, does it add up...
It sounds like I'm making a bigger deal out of all of this than I ought to, but wasn't the idea of Secret Of Mana – and indeed, the original Seiken Densetsu series - to move away from the turn based combat of old? That we'd drop the old, archaic structure in favor of real time combat to ensure speedier results? If so, then we're in trouble. That's not to say that an action game can be deliberately paced – after all, the Monster Hunter and Demon's Souls games are best known for having slower combat. However, those games achieved their speed through more realistic physics with monsters that compliment the speed. Secret Of Mana, on the other hand, “achieves” this through a stamina meter in conjunction with something of an emphasis on charged attacks at times... combined with questionable hit detection, chances of outright missing (so the game says, anyway), magic conjuring stopping the game for a few seconds and the fact that allies ganging up on one enemy is detrimental to success as successive hits may or may not connect due to enemies having invincibility frames. Bosses are especially problematic in that regard as your allies are dumber than a sack of bricks and will hit them regardless of how much stamina they have and render your charge attack useless. Look, the idea of the stamina meter is great as it prevents button mashing, I get it. Perhaps it could've been implemented a bit better to make way for combos (and looking at Demon's Souls, it sure as shit can be), but if it was just that which prevents button mashing, then this would be a fine stepping stone towards a brighter future for this subgenre; unfortunately, it's just far too unpolished for it to work anywhere nearly as well as it had intended to.
That's really the take home message of this review – Secret Of Mana has a solid foundation, but it's too sloppy to really consider it anything above average. Whether it's due to Square having to redesign the game to fit into a Super Nintendo cartridge after the CD add on was 86'd or there were just some oversights in general, there are just too many times where it seems like it's not as tightly designed as it could've been. The sequels, spinoff and even the first goddamn game play out much more smoothly as the hit detection is much more consistent and you're not worrying about imaginary difficulty. Regardless, there is some fun to be had with this game – doubly so if you have a multitap and two friends to play with. Not just because groups of friends can make anything fun, but also because your computer controlled allies are... well, stupid. Getting stuck behind rocks which halts progress, rushing in when I've clearly set their AI to attack from afar, not even knowing whether we're in battle or not – yeah, two friends are a goddamn necessity in order to alleviate some of the tedium that comes with this game.
Outside of multiplayer, there is a saving grace to be found in the weapon levelling system. As I've previously mentioned, you can level up weapons via killing a lot of enemies with them, but what I neglected to mention is that there are orbs that you'll find on your journey. As you defeat bosses, find certain treasure chests, talk to certain story characters and hopefully harvest them out of certain enemies, you'll obtain orbs that correspond with one of the eight different types of weapons. From there, you must find Watts either in a village or in the middle of a bigger dungeon, pay him some gold pieces and give him the orb to forge it into a stronger weapon. Then there are the weapons themselves, which take into account different statistics like strength, range, accuracy and additional status effects. Then there are the characters that must be considered. You, yourself, don't use magic, so should range be considered as a safety measure or should you be a shock trooper? One of your allies casts supporting magic while the other uses offensive magic; how would you go about them attacking? Again, keep in mind that magic stops the game dead in its track for a few seconds, so it's not like you have to keep them really far away; just a moderate distance at best, but then there's the small MP problem, which will force them into the line of fire. Not to mention the goddamn invincibility frames – no, I'm not letting that go when the rest of the series doesn't have this problem! But in retrospect, the weapon system is what gives the game a surprising amount of depth as there's a good amount to consider. It's just a shame that it doesn't fully redeem the game.
Ditto for the ring menu system. Besides having your traditional status, weapons, etc type of choices, pressing up or down on the D-pad will allow you access to your weapons, armors, items and magic so that you can conveniently compare them to one another or use magic... yeah, I forgot to mention that you can only use magic via the menu, which further slows the game down, though thankfully less than if you had to use the traditional menu system. If there's something to gripe about, it's that it tends to be a bit sensitive when you're “turning the wheel”, so to speak, as it's easy to miss bits of each of the menus while scrolling, unless you basically tap left or right on the D-pad. It also takes a little while to get used to this system as you have to press up and down to really make use of it, but once you quickly get past that hurdle, it becomes second nature and you begin to wonder how you've managed to use the traditional system without going crazy. But like the weapon system, it doesn't fully redeem the game; it feels more like a nice gesture than anything else.
I must say that the presentation is relentlessly *bleep*ing awesome! Understandably, it was meant for the more powerful CD add on until it got cancelled (hmm I wonder why that may be – I don't know, ask Sega), so in retrospect, Secret Of Mana pushed the SNES to its limits. The game looks brilliant! It may have a more serene palate with parts of the scenery blending in together, but it goes well with the tone that the story had tried to set. It's bright and full of life... almost to its detriment. The darker areas tend to still look bright and colorful, which clashes with what that part of the story or that area may have been trying to convey. Ditto for the soundtrack – when the moment calls for such, the calm, folksy happy go lucky soundtrack works out rather well and a few songs here and there are quite memorable. Sadly, when it's time to get serious, it doesn't quite make the mark as it's still a bit too happy. God, what a shame that it doesn't quite work out on an ambient level because technically speaking, it's just amazing! Each of the songs are masterfully crafted and would sound brilliant to have as background or even foreground music while you're doing something around the house, and the graphics, from the colors to the animations, are smooth with a good eye for detail. Sadly, “reads like a children's pop up book” isn't just an insult towards how bare boned the story is...
Don't get me wrong, this isn't a bad game. It has a very solid foundation with some excellent features and high production quality. It's big, bright, colorful, exciting and memorable; for better or for worse. The multiplayer, ring menu and the weapon system make for some very nice touches, but it's really the marriage of Zelda and Final Fantasy that many a gamer had been wanting to see in the early 90s like somebody wanting to see The Beatles live back in their heyday. Sadly, it's just too unpolished and borderline sloppy at the worst of times to really have fun with, and given the dissonance between its happy atmosphere and its more serious moments in conjunction with the borderline hackneyed translation, it's certainly not good enough to pass itself off as an experience. So... I guess, if nothing else, it can be looked at as a stepping stone for action RPGs, as it did kick off a bunch of the tropes that get used in the subgenre – besides its sequels and Secret Of Evermore (the spinoff), you have the likes of Threads Of Fate, Kingdom Hearts, Demon's Souls and the Tales series that not only learn from Secret Of Mana's mistakes, but also learn from what it does right, and in that regard, you could say that it was an influential game. But being influential shouldn't give it a free pass, and at the end of the day, it's a game that just doesn't quite cut it on its own terms.
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