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RTTP RTTP: Secret of Mana || SNES at its best

Gifmaker

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Oct 24, 2017
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Recently, I shared my experience with PC classic Dark Forces with you and how one of the earliest shooter games still holds up in 2021. Today, I will kindly ask you to follow me once again on a journey to the glories of past days – and welcome you to the utterly magical experience that Secret of Mana was.


That fateful day​

The year is 1994, the day is christmas eve. I was age 6 at the time, so my memories are not too distinct about the day, but I do remember that my brother and I got a very special package: an SNES game unlike anything I had ever seen. It was huge!


That's what you would be greeted with when you opened up the Secret of Mana packaging. The huge box was not only decoration, but actually made sense because the game came complete with a ridiculously detailed game guide in PAL regions. Like, that game guide was packed full with in-game data, screenshots, lore and hi-res artwork. Actually, it pretty much spoilered the whole game if you were to read through it completely, but we didn't care at that age. We were delighted to get such an elaborate piece of art alongside the game; the artwork of characters and enemies helped tremendously to let the game world, with its already great and detailed graphics and animations, come even more to life in your imagination. For most sprites in the game, you knew perfectly what the pixel graphics were meant to represent. But also, the tipps in the book were very welcome; just being able to look up how many HP an enemy would have or how much gold you would get for killing them was so helpful for planning your gameplay strategies. As the cover of the guide so eloquently stated: "If you lose this book, you are lost!"

A modern fairytale​

Secret of Mana featured a very classic, some might even say cliché narrative: a young boy in a medieval-ish fantasy setting finds a sword sitting in a stone. When he pulls the sword out of the stone, a seal is broken and thousands of monsters get released all over the world. So, eventually, you will have to leave your small childhood village behind you and set out to set things right. On your quest, you will find companions who will travel with you and you will get to stop an evil empire that wants to gain control of an ancient power in order to conquer the entire world. So, you know... pretty much the plot of every fantasy story you have ever heard in a nutshell. Originality seems scarce. But did we bother? Not at all.



First of all: at that age, Secret of Mana was one of our very first experiences with a traditional JRPG fantasy story of that scope and magnitude, so things seemed pretty original. Second, the presentation was so charming and spot-on, with awesome 16-bit graphics, memorable characters, lots of humor, anachronisms and a fantastic musical score of over 2 hours of original songs, that this game and its story were instantly etched into my mind as classic. Secret of Mana became my go-to answer if asked about the greatest adventure gaming experience of my childhood. And that is indeed the best way I can describe it: it was not just another game, it was an adventure. The world felt so tangible and alive, you cared about its inhabitants, you got to know every location by heart and you could hum every single song of the game along. Many consider A Link to the Past to be the best SNES game hands down, which I can relate to as a Zelda-fan; having missed out on it, though, Secret of Mana instead takes that special place in my heart and I never regretted getting to play this game on the SNES for hundreds of hours over ALttP.

Better together​

One of the most important aspects about SoM back then was not only in the content itself, but the fact that I didn't get to live through this adventure alone. See, Secret of Mana is one of the rare action-adventure RPGs which you can actually play in coop – and with up to two other people, no less! Of course, you could play through the game alone as well; but if, like me, you happened to have an older sibling or some friends willing to play, just hit START on that second controller and P2 instantly joins the fun on the spot! And if you happened to be one of the cooler, rich kids and fortunate enough to own one of of these bad boys:

(I've never seen one live)

you could rock through the majority of the game with all 3 characters individually controlled by a human player. But don't worry – even if you are just playing with 2 players or entirely on your own, your other party members are controlled by a sufficient AI that you can instruct to a certain degree on how to behave.
So, looking back at the game, not everything that I remember fondly had to do with what was present on the screen; it's also a lot of fond memories of playing and spending time together with my older brother, sharing the same interest in this fictional world and watching the story unfold. Even though I spent lots of times with my siblings and other friends and family members playing games on various occasions later on, that was a childhood experience that could never be replicated in any sense. It is one of those special things that I look back on and realize that I was fortunate to have a very happy childhood.

What's so great about it​

Everything

Seriously, lots of great stuff​

What makes Secret of Mana such a rewarding experience, in my opinion, is that it is packed full with sweet, little, interesting things and details. Every piece of content feels unique and meaningful to a certain extent. The world and its maps are easily laid out and you get to know your way around it very quickly. Even doing research about this game and its production background seems exciting to me, because the more you learn about it, the more you fall in love with it.
On the surface, it might seems like SoM falls into the crack between The Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy, and to a certain extent, that is the truth from a gameplay-POV; but upon doing so, it becomes its own, distinct entity and feels so unique and fresh. You get to roam the land of Mana on foot and battle enemies on your way in an action battle system like Zelda, though whether or not your hits connect with the enemy and how much damage your sword swing would do was calculated and based on more traditional RPG properties such as attack, defense, agility and the likes. Having high agility would allow your character to perform automatic dodging maneuvers when attacked by weak enemies; and having good defense stats was a necessity to survive some of the nastier attack combos from enemies.



Each weapon, of which the game features eight different ones in total, each with unique properties and animations, could be charged and leveled up through continued use. Some enemies could easier be attacked with certain weapons, and some obstacles required you to equip the right weapon in order to overcome it. So, the game encouraged you greatly to vary your play style and switch weapons around often, maybe a bit too much even. It's a good thing that you have three characters in your party, though, because everyone of them can wield every weapon.
Additionally, the heroine and the sprite characters, which join the hero on his quest later on, will learn to do elemental magic once you start finding Mana spirits. Mysogyny rears its ugly head when once again the male white hero gets the short end of the stick and is not allowed to do magic at all and has to solve problems by thrusting his sword into his enemies. But on the bright side, if you play as the hero character, you get to order the other two characters around and command them when to do your bidding magic, as it should be. Fun fact: the sprite character is portrayed as a female character in the German version of the game (whereas in the japanese original, the gender is ambigous as far as I know), which ingrained the idea into my young mind back then that magic is inherently a female attribute first and foremost. Which might or might not explain why I was a lot into the Sailor Moon anime at that age.
So, you get to fight a lot and level your characters, weapons and magic spells up to prepare for upcoming challenges. Every so often, you will have to beat a dungeon in Zelda-esque fashion, though the puzzle-solving tends to be a lot less complex and does not feel very kinetic at all. You don't get to push around crates, but only have to either push certain buttons to make walls disappear or pathways appear, or have to guess which spell to use on certain switches in order to progress (luckily, there's an analytic spell which you can cast on a switch to get a hint about what kind of spell to use on it). Boss fights are plently, as almost all boss sprites tend to get recycled and colorshifted as the game goes on; still, there is a lot of variety as the game has a high number of different boss designs and facing one and beating the heck out of them until they explode in a flash of white light is an ever so satisfying experience.



This is also when you get to know the, well, weaker aspects of the battle system. As per its nature, battle does not feel as "physical" and "direct" as in, say, A Link to the Past, since the impact of your hits will not only depend on your timing and placement (though that does play a fairly large role), but also on numbers and attributes of the system that are not entirely clear to you at first. Which leads to enemies sometimes having very unclear hitboxes, damage being dealt with delay occasionally or not being able to hit an enemy at all because you have the wrong weapon equipped, the wrong elemental buff on your weapon, or because of reasons that are beyond human understanding. Conversely, though, you also get your fair share of abusive tactics that you can use against your adversaries. Critics often cite that the later half of the game gets too easy, because once you gain magic spells, you can effectively stun-lock bosses until they are dead, which is true and awesome! Seriously, magic can get overpowered, especially if you go out of your way to grind your party to high magic levels; on the other hand, some enemies use dirty combos or magic spells of their own which in turn can also get you occasionally locked dead in your track, unable to escape their physical attacks or to even call the menu to use a healing item. Late game enemies can effectively gang up on you and annihilate your party with a combination of a few lucky hits; in order to escape that fate, you will have to tread carefully, save often and always have your inventory stocked with healing items. So, in total, I find the battle to be balanced enough to make for a highly enjoyable game, even though veterans will not find it too challenging an experience.

So, that's the majority of the gameplay for you. There are several villages and other "civil" places to visit and explore, and lots of characters to talk to, even though only few add to the game's plot in a meaningful way. There are cutscenes, but they are not overly elaborate and more often than not serve as a setup for a bossfight or for expository dialogue, which also means that you will not get bored with overly long introductions or battle aftermaths. So, this is a very gameplay-centric game, pretty oldschool; though a little more story bits here and there may have served well to break up some long and occasionally monotone gameplay sessions of hacking and slaying away at hordes of enemies. But then again, most of the times you will be totally fine with letting yourself get lost in the beautiful scenery and the moody atmosphere and the outstanding soundtrack, and once in a while a surge in enemy levels will keep you on your toes to keep up with them.



Travelling the world on foot is a big undertaking, especially in a relatively huge world like in Secret of Mana. Luckily, from very early on in the game, a fast-travelling system is well established that allows you to greatly reduce travel time to locations you have visited before; and sometimes, you will progress in the game by fast-travelling to entirely new locations you haven't seen before. You are, however, stuck to whatever locations the travel agency is currently offering; that is until a certain point in the story, when you receive an instrument which allows you to summon your very own dragon.



And this is when the game gets really good. Like Falcor in The Neverending Story (but a lot better), you get to mount the white dragon and in finest mode7 fashion, you can fly all over the entire world map, allowing you to visit each and every last space on it. There are not even that many locations, and most of them you will have visited before at that point of the story; but there are definitely new spots to discover that you simply could not reach before. And even though the world is not quite as huge as the map you fly over might lead you to believe, still, for our childhood standards, this was an infinitely big and exciting world to discover, filled to the brim with locations, secrets and things to do. There was nothing quite like it on the SNES in our limited library, nothing that gave us the same sense of scale and wonder. As stated before: this was more than a game, this was an adventure, in every great and exciting sense of the word.

The legacy​

Secret of Mana released 28 years ago, so it's ancient, a dinosaur if you will, by videogame standards. But still, to this day, I am drawn to it regularly; in my opinion, it is just a prime example of a 16bit game. It executes almost all its ideas so well, it draws you in with its charme and sense of adventure, that I cannot help but play through it again once in a while. It is what I perceive to be about the gold standard for a retro action adventure; one that I in fact aimed to recreate in spirit when working on RPG Maker projects. As someone who does not like turn-based battle system outside of the Pokémon franchise, I never accepted anything less than a solid real-time action battle system for my RPG Maker projects (suffice to say that to this day, I have never finished an RPG Maker game). And I came pretty close in the past, too:


Creating a world as lively and elaborate as the land of Mana, with gameplay as action-oriented and satisfying, and with characters and storylines as classic and memorable; that's a childhood dream of mine, and I hope that one day, I will finish a project into which I will have put all that inspiration and love that I drew from this game so many years ago.

My most recent playthrough was just last month; even though Secret of Mana saw a visually slightly updated re-release on mobile a couple of years ago, as well as a full-fledged 3D remake with voice acting and such, I prefer the original, 16bit rendition. I got the Mana Collection on Switch on release day and for me, the game is still as enjoyable as it was when we first popped that cartridge into our SNES.
But there is even more to SoM's legacy; because after many, many years of waiting, of envying the Japanese population and of turning to the darker side of fan hacks and emulation, a personal dream came true two years ago when the Mana Collection saw an official release of Secret of Mana's incredible successor, Trials of Mana, for the first time in the west. It was something to dream of, something I never actually thought would happen; that I thought was just one of the lost, obscure games which will forever be stuck with no official localization outside of Japan. But here we are: Trials of Mana is real, it even received a full-blown 3D remake way superior to SoM's. And it's a big deal, because Trials is one of those very, very rare occasions where the successor to an already incredible game did the absolute unthinkable: it surpassed it. Trials of Mana is an improvement over its predecessor in about every single aspect, be it technical or gameplay- or story-wise. With a cast of three main characters, which you get to pick out of six available ones, it has high replay value as you get to experience the story in a different light each time depending on who you pick for your party. But even though I know, rationally, that ToM is technically superior to SoM in about every way, I still value the latter just a little bit more because I have such nostalgia for it.
Secret of Mana will forever have a soft spot in my heart and I will always look back on it as an exciting adventure that fueled my imagination and gave me countless hours of fun with my older brother; it will always be my goal to aim for when crafting fantasy worlds, contemplating gameplay ideas or striving for a joyful experience. If you are fond of 16bit classics and have missed out on this one, give it a try; it is one of the greatest.
 

NeoIkaruGAF

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Replaying SoM in recent years was harsh. The story and dialogue is super simple and the hitboxes are simply infuriating. It’s a nice game, but it’s lost a lot of lustre since then.
 

Animagic

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I hat the walk and run cycles in the main character sprites. It’s like they removed frames right before publishing. Other than that, very fond of this game. I enjoyed the Trials of Mana remake also.
 
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Kupfer

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Nov 20, 2018
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Tried to play it for the first time 3 years ago on original hardware.
Couldn't beat the tigerboss on the bridge and quit forever. I'm weak, but the game is gorgeous.
 
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Jun 23, 2020
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Probably nostalgia but I've always prefered Secret of Evermore.

Never beat it as a kid tho, maybe I should give it another go someday.
 
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Remake because of the graphics
I only tried the demo, but it just didn't do it form me, unfortunately. =/

Probably nostalgia but I've always prefered Secret of Evermore.

Never beat it as a kid tho, maybe I should give it another go someday.
Oh damn, I forgot all about that game somehow. Was pretty fucking amazing, imo.
 
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Gifmaker

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Tried to play it for the first time 3 years ago on original hardware.
Couldn't beat the tigerboss on the bridge and quit forever. I'm weak, but the game is gorgeous.
Forgot to mention it in my OP, but we were actually stuck on this very boss for over a year. That was back in a time when you had so little games that you would actually bother to try progressing in a game for over a year, lol.
 

Rat Rage

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This game... It is so good. Everything about this game is awesome. Lovely graphics, godlike music, great gameplay. The ring menu is cool. You can charge weapon categories (which there are plenty of) up to level 9 I believe to unleash super attacks. Every level for every weapon category is a different super move.
 

RJMacready73

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Excellent write up, really enjoyed reading that and it brought back the memories of playing it myself back in the day, defo one of my fav games of that generation
 
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jshackles

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Love this game to bits, one of my favorite SNES RPGs. I need to replay this so I can unlock some sweet sweet Retro Achievements

 
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Moonjt9

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Hard to compete with SNES Squaresoft. Simply the greatest. I’ll never forget getting Secret of Mana for Christmas. That game was really hard to find back in the day.
 

NeoIkaruGAF

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I gotta say though, hearing Angel’s Fear for the first time was one defining moment for me. It’s one of the most memorable intro themes ever, setting the tone with just the first few notes. I’ve listened to SoM’s OST more times than I can count, and that track in particular is just magical. It’s a very powerful score, all the more memorable thanks to it having relatively few tracks for such a sprawling game, so you’ll hear each track a lot. Flammie’s theme and the final battle theme are also true classics.

Hiroki Kikuta is a very underrated video game music composer. He didn’t compose many OSTs, but his style is immediately recognizable.
 

Reality Czar

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Great write up on a great game! I have so many good memories of this back in the day. The music and art was so charming. I think I even preferred this to LTTP.
 
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yuadesa

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Tried to play it for the first time 3 years ago on original hardware.
Couldn't beat the tigerboss on the bridge and quit forever. I'm weak, but the game is gorgeous.

No shame in that, hardest boss in the game by far. No magic to cheese the fight, hits like a truck, very wonky hitbox, and spends like half the fight on those elevated platforms so you can only hit it with your crappy ranged weapons.
 
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I think it’s greatest strength is the ability to play with friends and family. Adds to the nostalgia factor and was more fun for me instead of playing solo. Beat it back in 95 with family member after grinding all summer. Felt like we conquered the world if only for a few minutes when the Mana Beast was defeated.
 
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DonkeyPunchJr

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I absolutely loved this game back in the day and have some fond memories of it. But honestly I find it borderline unplayable nowadays. The story is pretty barebones and the gameplay is super janky and broken.

Not sure what it is. Almost like there’s some hidden time “tick” happening behind the scenes that acts like a turn in a turn-based system. Sometimes you’ll attack and it’ll be a full second before the enemy takes damage. Plus the whole flow is bad. Do 1 hit, wait for gauge to recover to 100%, repeat.

I decided I will never play this game again because any time I do, it just ruins my nostalgia. I do listen to the soundtrack frequently though. There’s an arranged soundtrack called Secret of Mana Genesis (on Apple Music) that is excellent.
 
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