Retro Review: Secret of Mana

Secret of Mana

by Jason Parker (Ragachak)

So, next year we’re receiving a remake, an HD update of Secret of Mana, or as some folks might call it, Seiken no Densetsu. It’s with that in mind that I look back at a true classic, an innovator in the era of the 16-bit Titans. Arguably, the Super Nintendo Era held the greatest RPGs of all time. Chrono Trigger, Breath of Fire, Super Mario RPG, FFIV/V/VI, so many wonderful, timeless titles that people to this day still herald as some of the greatest of all time. One of the things I feel like a classic needs to do is innovate, somehow. It needs to offer us something new that other games have yet to try. What does Secret of Mana do that other RPGs don’t? That’s easy because it’s a pretty decent list. One of the drawbacks (for some) in the RPG dept. is the lack of multiplayer. You play them alone and you get lost in a story. But … Secret of Mana changed that.

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Damn Tsunamis…

Secret of Mana offered up to three player multiplayer (once all three characters were in the party) and if you had one of the multi-taps, you could have two friends over to help you control the Boy, Girl, and Sprite! I have many fond memories as a younger man of going to a friends house and playing Secret of Mana with a few people, glossing over the bad, because the bright graphics and unique gameplay really drew me in. It’s a game I’m depressed that I never owned until Adulthood. You didn’t have to have people though because you control one of the three (and can switch with Select) and if you’re playing as the Boy, you can cast the Girl/Sprite’s spells with another button on your SNES controller. So, you could do it all pretty easily. Secret of Mana offered many firsts: The leveling system for weapons, the leveling magic system, cannon travel, multiplayer for an RPG.

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It’s not a phase, Elder!

But what is Secret of Mana? It’s not even the first in its series of games! “Final Fantasy Adventure” was actually the first Seiken game, but from what I understand, it was given the Final Fantasy title to be more appealing to the American audience, who had never heard of the Seiken/Mana franchise. Because, well, it was new! RPGs were still growing in popularity in the States, so they made they choice they felt was the right one. The game is all about a boy from the town of Potos, who, through a series of events became the hero of destiny. It’s a pretty common trope in fantasy, but it works so well here. He pulls this rusty sword from the stone and after killing his way back to Potos, and defeating the Mantis Ant, he finds that his village is not so happy about him drawing the blade. Considered a bad omen, he’s banished from Potos and goes on a journey to re-energize the Eight Mana Temples and restore the world to balance and peace. Turns out, that’s the Mana Sword!

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So many times, it’s not safe to charge up. This is one of them.

Teaming up with a Girl and a Sprite (who do have names, but you can rename them of course), you start to travel the world, fighting mostly adorable enemies, invigorating Mana and Life back into the world. You even get to travel via cannon, or by Flammie, the Dragon! In the Dwarf Village you can get your weapons upgraded (you acquire a nice assortment, from Claws, Whips, Boomerangs, Axes, Spears, etc), when you find the proper Weapon Orbs. Downside? Each character has to level their own weapons separately, and it’s kind of tedious. If you can find some Slimes that regenerate, you can use them to level weapons a little faster. With each level of the weapon, it can charge up even further, for bigger and cooler attacks. You slow down while charging though and can get knocked out of it. But you might be asking… Charged Attacks? This was a mostly real-time title. You encountered enemies in the wild, and when you hit your attack button, you’ll start charging your attack, and a meter to 100% will fill up. If you swing under 100%, the damage will be minuscule. But you can hold the button to charge beyond 100, and build meters for the aforementioned attacks.

Secret of Mana - Gnome Temple

As you travel, you’ll also unlock Magic. The Boy gets none, but the Girl tends to use Healing/Status Ailment Magic, and the Sprite has the more aggressive powers. For each temple you unlock, another level of Magic can be unlocked for your spells. So when you unlock the final Temple/Magic, you can cap out at Level 8/99%, you’ll not hit 9. Your first spells are from Undine, the Water Elemental. So you’ll have Cure Magic, stuff like that. Casting spells on people/enemies that can be affected will raise the level, so the key was to find a safe/smart place to do it and spam them and go restore your MP. Raising Weapon level is the same way: You attack things to level up. Unless you want to re-level weapons all the damn time, I recommend figuring out what weapons you want a character to “specialize” in. This can be annoying because sometimes you need an Axe to cut through grass, or the Whip to go leaping across a gap in the ground. But it’s a small price to pay. Secret of Mana is very, very grindy for Magic/Weapons if you want to be powerful, but it’s ultimately worth it.

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Not altogether complex, but handy.

The actual gameplay is pretty simple, you gain levels, buy new weapons/armor, heal with Candy and Chocolate (which is awesome, by the by). However, your inventory is very small, and you might find yourself running back to a merchant often to re-buy healing items because you were crit, caught in a bad place, or even halfway through a dungeon and need to heal but can’t. You find your items, stats, etc on the “Ring System”, which is a circular menu that you scroll through to find everything you need. If you’re playing solo, there’s an option in there to change the aggressive/defensive nature of your allies. Place them on a board that feels much like a Chess Board, and you can set them to be aggressive, defensive, etc, depending on what you need them to do. They won’t cast spells on their own though, you have to do that. It’s limited like that, but it was a pretty new system as it was.

A Gem in a Pile of Gems: 5/5

Secret of Mana SPring Beak

The story itself is pretty simple, not quite as deep or intricate as many of its contemporaries, but that’s fine. It has enough rich gameplay and bright, vibrant graphics, that the story, while not a classic, is engaging nonetheless. It doesn’t have quite as many “secrets’ or hidden items to it, but there are some. The biggest example being the “Hidden Weapon Orbs”. You can power-up every weapon to level 9, if you find the hidden Orbs for them. Well, all but the Sword. The Sword becomes the Mana Sword (level 9) for the final battle only. In the Mana Fortress (the final area), you can find Orbs on some of the enemies, if you farm them. Then you take them to Watts the Dwarf, and he’ll fix them up for you. I don’t have many complaints about this game, other than the annoying nature of charging up weapons, but the difficulty spikes in this game are infuriating! Spikey Tiger is one of the most frustrating fights I’ve encountered ever. A lot of the boss battles in this game are absolutely insane. Dark Slime, Wall Face, Spikey Tiger, the list goes on and on. But if you’re prepared it’s not so bad.. but as a first-time player, you won’t be. Secret of Mana is a classic in its own right and I can’t think of anyone that would argue that. It sounds fantastic, it’s challenging, you can play it with your friends, and it’s coming back next year to Playstaiton 4 and Windows. And it’s not even a re-port of the mobile version!

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  • Herschel Pilcher III

    We’re seriously going to sit here and talk about Mana’s overwhelmingly brutal boss fights without mentioning the terror of Lich?

    There is no preparation for the Lich.. no amount of weapon/magic grinding will help, no amount of lube will spare you.. The Lich. Will. End. You.

    Great article, and a thoroughly amazing game.

  • Mike Guzman

    Absolutely a classic and so looking forward to the remake

  • Ruben Corbitt

    This game is one of my favorites on the SNES because you can play with friends, it is all the fun of Zelda but even more so because of the friend factor. This game, Chrono Trigger, Mario Kart, Super Metroid, Zelda: Link to the Past, all those games made the SNES an absolute treasure.