I can’t put my finger on the lure of Secret of Mana in 2020 to someone who’s really not into old JRPG’s (and definitely not into new ones), and has absolutely zero nostalgia for it from 1993, but since I got my SNES Classic Mini a few years ago I’ve always fancied trying it out!
Secret of Mana was originally intended for the Nintendo PlayStation before that all went south, then ended up being crammed into a SNES cartridge with a quick and dirty English localisation. The bits that didn’t fit (or weren’t just left out) would evolve into Chrono Trigger – a game I have played, but only enough to know its not for me, and therefore have zero nostalgia for that either!
It might be the art style that got me with Secret of Mana. It’s an absolutely stunning example of 16-bit pixel art, and I’m a big fan of that, whether original or contemporary. There’s many times where you’ll enter a new kind of forest or desert or village, see some nice glistening snow effects as you walk through seasons, or just find a room in a castle full of stained-glass windows, and you’ll have this sense of wonder, like you’re being transported right back to the early nineties when it was as new and astounding as grunge music or that scene in Basic Instinct also was! And the variety of environments is so huge that this will happen over and over again! There’s this big sense of the characters actually being an active ingredient in those environments too – the animation is simple in modern parlance, but combined with the distinctive pixel-art character (playable or otherwise) designs, you feel like they’re there!
The first few hours ease you in gently, teasing you with things like magic that you’re not quite sure how it works yet, but you’re also not worrying about it too much yet either. Otherwise, it’s a straightforward story of an unknowingly messianic boy finding a sword in a pond and triggering the apocalypse. More or less! The plot never becomes anything special, but it will keep you on your toes and interested enough to see where it goes next. From the moment you’re kicked out of your village into the really big wide world, you’re happily wandering to where you’re being told to wander, fighting monsters and exploring a bit on the way. You’re soon joined by a girl and a sprite who’s stories gradually intertwine with your own. And of course, this being an action-RPG, everywhere you all go and everything you all do is chipping away at reaching the next level, getting new equipment and skills, and other action-RPG busywork .
Actually, for the first few hours it all reminded me more of SNES Legend of Zelda than any other RPG I’ve played. Then I think I was 5-6 hours in when the first hint of proper RPG grind arrived with a giant tiger boss. Up until then the regular monsters and bosses had been a cinch, and progression had been fairly linear and just happened, but now this thing was leaping around and generally battering my fledgling party. I eventually got through it, but despite not being a huge fan, I’ve played enough RPG’s over the years to know the signs… I really wasn’t high enough level for that scrap! And that put me right off playing any more – for over a week, I was done with Secret of Mana! And not with any sense of disappointment or ill-feeling towards it; I just felt I’d satisfied my original curiosity and I’d had good value out of its inclusion on my SNES Classic Mini, but I didn’t want to spend hours fighting the same monsters over and over just so I could progress an ultimately forgettable story. As I said though, I’m a sucker for this art style, and there I was looking at my SNES Classic Mini over a week later, thinking I was just past a boss so I could just have a look and see how much further I can get without going nuts on grinding…
Things then went pretty smoothly for the next 15 hours or so, but then that familiar nagging feeling that the boss I’d just struggled past was too high level for me appeared again. I was too far in this time though! But also by this point, that wasn’t a turn off – as I switched off for the night, I could think of no better way to spend the following evening than finding somewhere that conveniently spawned decent level monsters and just grinding out experience. Weird. Turning into some kind of fantasy RPG nerd before my very own eyes! Keep in mind that I’m still not quite there yet though, so to anyone that is, everything I’m saying from now onwards probably sounds like normal gameplay, but we’re talking about someone that generally likes ploughing through a game, not stopping to take in the scenery over an over before moving on! And also goes for the weapon that’s immediate and in-hand rather than something called Earth Slide that’s buried somewhere in a menu called Gnome…
Over the course of the next 5 hours or so, the importance of the magic that – with the exception of some healing spells – you kind of ignored before now comes to the fore, and following closely behind, the importance of being able to regenerate it! You’ll have been carrying stuff like faerie walnuts around this whole time without giving them much thought, but now this magic you’ve learnt that you need for another boss takes far more magic points than you can really afford to use. And when you’ve got past that boss, you need another kind of magic for the next one, and there’s no visiting an inn for a nice kip between these ones! Faerie walnut time, lots of times!
By this point though, you’re going to be thinking you’re on the home stretch. The story is starting to wind itself up towards a climax, and you’re running out of slots on your little inventory rings for more types of magic, and you’ve got some crazy expensive armour, and all your weapons have been upgraded to death. And in theory that is absolutely the case! But what you now need to realise is that your character levels might be getting towards a decent level, but your magic levels as a whole and for each individual magic type aren’t, and we’ve got a whole new level of grinding to do!
Around 30 hours in and you realise that the story was indeed stating to wind itself up a while ago, but the last few levels are just sprawling boss rushes. A good measure of how ready you are for these is how easily you can beat the monsters between them; when you realise you can’t, you’re back to grinding again – same monsters over and over! For some context, your characters after all that time are going to be around level 50. They need to be closer to 60, and there’s no story to distract you from the numbers this time. Then for the final level they’ll need to be closer to 70. Then there’s this magic stuff – all of these bosses are susceptible to a certain kind of magic, but it needs to be high level. And in the case of some of them on the penultimate couple of levels, it’s going to be magic you’ve had no real use for yet, so you’re starting this particular grind from scratch. Also note we’re talking about loads of bosses on each level! As said, you’re done with the story now, and are literally spending hours fighting the highest level monsters you can access, levelling up characters and a certain type of magic, then heading off to replenish your supplies, have a rest at an inn, then doing it over and over again!
And by this point, it’s all just to crawl towards a stamina-draining (in more ways than one) final boss battle and the game over credits that you’ve now spent so long getting to that there’s no going back! But also by this point, none of this is really a chore; in fact, you now know its just delaying the hole in your life that this is going to leave when its over, and that makes it fine! Which I’m still finding to be a very disturbing new behaviour in me!
I’ve mentioned the graphics, but the game design is also equally worthy of praise. While you’re wondering what those magic rings and other RPG trimmings in you character menus are all about for a good portion of the game, eventually everything becomes completely second nature and intuitive. The combat feels great, and before too long you’re effortlessly chucking magic about with your more traditional violence. Same for just finding your way around – when this vast world first opens up to you, you’ll be clueless for hours about where stuff is – even with the map – but by the end it’s like the back of your hand. Interestingly though, even after all this time finishing the game there’s still stuff in the menus I’ve not had any cause to open and find out what it does, magic I have tried, and places on the map I’ve had no inkling to try and land on! The soundtrack deserves a mention too – it is very 16-bit, and while I didn’t experience it at the time, you can tell exactly what a sonic treat this would have seemed back in 1993. It’s grand and complex and perfectly fitting; this would have been as good as video game music (as well as impactful sound in general) got back then.
Technically it’s definitely not perfect! There’s loads of bugs to be found, with characters getting stuck on things that aren’t there, walking through things that are there, crashes and game freezes and things like that which are definitely mitigated by being able to save more regularly than was originally intended with the SNES Classic Minis save-state functions. What that doesn’t mitigate, though, is your party’s dodgy AI! You’re only ever in control of one character, and can switch between the three of them easily with a press of Select. But the ones you’re not in control of will often drive you crazy! You can set them to act to be all guns blazing or stay away or many variants in-between, but in reality the other characters in your party are following you about. Or at least trying to! You’ll be forever backtracking so they can follow you down some stairs or around a tree or whatever, and even then they’ll still end up getting stuck again on the way until they’ve precisely retraced your steps. But even worse than this is that it still happens when they’re dead and haven’t been revived yet – they’re supposed to be a ghost at this point but still get stuck on every bit of scenery! They’ll also regularly ruin any combat strategy you have in mind… Three sleeping goblins? Now, I’m even less of a stealth fan than I am an RPG fan, but I do know that you take them out one at a time while they’re still asleep. But not these guys – if you’re in sword swinging distance, then you’re game for a scrap! Same if you’re just trying to get through somewhere without a fight – if they get close to a monster, they won’t be able to resist. And unless they’re right on your tail, there’s no way the game’s allowing you into the next area!
But for a game of its ambition in its time, all of this is forgivable. In the end I had a great time with Secret of Mana, though it didn’t have quite the impact on me I thought it might once I got properly hooked. As I write, just after finally finishing it, there is definitely a void where it was, but I think that’s as much from the amount I played in a short space of time than any compulsion to keep playing. That said, I definitely developed a disturbing compulsion for its grind; just less of one than I’d find in Stardew Valley or Animal Crossing, for example, mainly because they’ve had decades to work on perfecting it! And for that reason I doubt I’ll be back now I’ve seen everything it has to offer, or even give it that much thought again in future, but I’m glad I can finally tick it off the list!