Discovering Secret of Mana on SNES

Discovering Secret of Mana on SNES

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!

Favourite Sights in All of Gaming – Now The Top 10 (and more…)

Favourite Sights in All of Gaming – Now The Top 10 (and more…)

Ever since I put together my list of favourite sights in all of gaming, a few weeks ago at the time of writing, I’ve been giving more favourite sights in other games a bit of thought, and we’re definitely in a position now where we can add some more to the list and make up a top ten!

You can read about the original top five here, but just to recap…

1. The road opening out in the first stage of arcade Out Run
2. The sunset background in level two of arcade P-47
3. Olli & Lissa: The Ghost of Shilmoore Castle’s second screen on ZX Spectrum
4. The sunset background in level two of PC Engine Victory Run
5. Mega Drive Streets of Rage 2 third stage pirate ship

I struggled a bit to get far beyond a top five previously, but did give a single honourable mention to Super Castlevania IV’s ghost and glitter and gold level, also known as Stage IX, also known as The Treasury, so it’s only fair that we start right there at our new number six favourite sight in all of gaming!

I could probably make up another top ten only using sights from Super Castlevania IV on SNES! And actually, before I came up with Stage IX, my initial thought was climbing the famous Castlevania steps up to the final boss with the moon behind the castle. Absolutely stunning, and in every Castlevania this sight is an indicator that your’ve nearly made it! If I had to choose any game world to live in, it’s this one (or maybe Silent Hill… more later)! I absolutely adore the unique gothic art-style, the sumptuous colours and the sheer imagination. The game has already put you through the ringer by the time you get to Stage IX, but seeing this unique environment compared to everything you’ve been through before is like a reset, refreshing you for the last push! The ghosts that float up all around the screen are harmless but remind you that in Castlevania, all that glitters – and there’s a lot here that does – might not always be gold. What is gold, though, is this little tip – jump on any treasure chest in this level 256 times and you’ll be rewarded with a big meat to boost your health. It’s all just glorious, unique in the game, and you’re welcome!

If I ever do a list about gaming music, that level in Castlevania might figure too (though it might have some competition from Symphony of the Night), but what would definitely figure – and probably right at the top of the list – would be Commando on the Commodore 64. And that’s where we heading now in our favourite sights list too! This is a mid-eighties vertically-scrolling run and gun arcade conversion, where your commando (who is more Rambo than Commando) is shooting up the enemy, chucking grenades and freeing hostages. When it first came out, like many kids on many games of the time, I spent most of my time in the first stage. And that didn’t matter, of course! And at the end of that first stage, you’re clearing out a few last soldiers as you reach a huge set of double-gates. As you get close, they spring open and all hell breaks loose as masses of enemy soldiers rush you all at once. You’d start off getting into a good position to spray them down with bullets from the side, then it was a case of just never stop moving, and should one of the enemies come face-to-face with your rifle, take them out! If you’re lucky you won’t get killed by the last guy left – which seemed to be what happened most times – and you’ll run through the gates into stage two. But if you don’t, no worries, because every time you get there you’ll get that same sense of anticipation and exhileration as those gates swing spring apart and all those guys break through!

Before we move on, I’m going to quickly mention the advert for Commando too. Obviously, the advert for Barbarian was the greatest gaming advert of all time ever, closely followed by its sequel. But, for the purpose of this discussion, let’s pretend there’s no adverts featuring Page Three stunner Maria Whittaker wearing a couple of scraps of metal… As dire as that world might be, the Commando advert – complete with what appears to be a hand-painted screenshot – is definitely one my favourite gaming adverts.

I’m not sure I can write many more words about Silent Hill 2 than I did already here! I think it’s the greatest horror game of all time, which I’d also say about its predecessor if this didn’t exist! The original Silent Hill was probably as famous for its fog as its sequel is for Pyramid Head, but this was mostly there to hide graphical limitations of the original PlayStation; it just happened to create an incredible atmosphere while it did it! The second game, on the PlayStation 2, didn’t have those limitations, but it did have fog… the absolute best fog in any game to this day! At the very start of the game, you notice wisps of fog swirling around you, and then you begin your descent, and then the fog starts to envelope you. And when you’re moving down towards the town and slowly become completely surrounded by this brilliant, multi-greyed, almost living and breathing entity, you suddenly realise that you’re really back in Silent Hill. And that’s a wonderful realisation in a wonderful moment!

In 2020, Star Wars: Squadrons came very close to the thrill of flying an X-Wing, but a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, something else came even closer! When you sat down in the sit-down Star Wars arcade cabinet in 1983, you were Luke Skywalker climbing into the cockpit of an X-Wing. And you’d never seen graphics like this before – you were in a 3D colour vector dogfight approaching the Death Star, then you were navigating your way across the surface of the Death Star, and then, in one of the most exhilerating moments you’ll ever come across in the history of gaming, you dropped down into the trench! You’re being shot at from side-mounted cannons and you’re avoiding beams up and down and in the middle, and it all feels wonderfully claustrophobic and so dangerous, until that moment of absolute panic when you need to fire your proton torpedo down the exhaust port. “Great shot kid, that was one in a million” then rings out as the Death Star explodes and you start all over again with the difficulty ramped up. Never before did a few coloured lines spark so much imagination!

We’re closing out our top ten with a game that took the giant leap into filling-in those coloured lines, and not only that, but doing something else you’d never seen the like of in a game before… especially a racing game! I have absolutely no recollection of Hard Drivin’ in any arcade, but it was a huge deal when the conversions hit in 1990, and the undisputed highlight of Christmas that year was the Atari ST version (more on that here)! Even though I’d never played it before, like everyone else that played it, I knew exactly what I was looking out for the very first time I loaded it up. Go up the hill from the start, do a right towards the Stunt course, take the bridge (again and again until you realise the speed limit signs at the side of the road aren’t just there for decoration), one more right, and there it is in all it’s majesty – the legendary loop-the-loop! I still think it’s a technical marvel every time I play it, and I still every time I go around it I still wonder quite how I did it! And there you were thinking I was going to say the cow that moos when you run into it!

As we had an honourable mention in our previous top five, which is now our number six, before I summarise the full top ten I just want to award a replacement honourable mention! I struggled to not include this, but if I had included it, I’d have struggled to decide exactly what I was not going to include, or, indeed, what from this game I would! Before stuff like Halo (RIP) or Uncharted or Tetris or various Marios became system sellers on their respective consoles, a game called Defender of the Crown was exactly that on the Atari ST. I don’t think there was ever a graphical leap between computer or console generations like that one. One minute you’re prodding monochrome ghosts in Scooby Doo on the Spectrum, and the next you’re looking at this jaw-dropping vista with the most realistic medieval castle you’ve ever seen recreated on anything!

I’m also awarding another honourable mention because if the first instalment had one, then surely this one deserves one too? This time we’re talking about the arcade version of Gradius II, known as Vulcan Venture outside of Japan. I’ve dabbled with Gradius and its offshoots (such as Salamander, also known as Life Force) for years, and I’m equally terrible at all of them, but fortunately this sight comes midway through the first level, so even I get to have a gander! This is a 1988 side-scrolling power-up shooter, and you’re quickly dodging these stunning suns that fire-breathing fire serpents occasionally slither out of. Then at one point you’re surrounded by three of these fiery planets and it just looks terrifyingly beautiful. If only I could get past the flaming boss at the end of the level, because who knows what incredible sights lie ahead?

Finally, unless I think of anything else that urgently needs to be included in the next five minutes (like stage one of 3D Fantasy Zone II W, or a mass of ghosts in Gauntlet, or the cemetery in Resident Evil 4, for example), I’m going to further preview what’s potentially already turned into the inevitable top fifteen! It would be be here right now – and in all probability be a lot more than something after the honourable mentions too – except I reckon there’s a better version of it waiting in the arcade game, and that’s the wonderful scene from Stage V of Splatterhouse on PC-Engine with the flying scarecrow pumpkin skeleton thing and it’s bony zombie army. I’ve just never got that far in the arcade game, but there’s a challenge for me one fine day…

In the meantime, let’s just run down our all new top then!

1. The road opening out in the first stage of arcade Out Run
2. The sunset background in level two of arcade P-47
3. Olli & Lissa: The Ghost of Shilmoore Castle’s second screen on ZX Spectrum
4. The sunset background in level two of PC Engine Victory Run
5. Mega Drive Streets of Rage 2 third stage pirate ship
6. Super Castlevania IV ghost and glitter and gold level (Stage IX)
7. Gates opening at the end of C64 Commando first stage
8. When the fog engulfs you at the start of Silent Hill 2 on PS2
9. Dropping into the trench in Star Wars arcade (sit-down)
10. The loop-the-loop in Atari ST Hard Drivin’

As a final aside, when I was playing Star Wars again recently to get some screenshots, I noticed something that I’ve never noticed before in all these years! After you’ve done you’re business in the trench, check out the Death Star just before it explodes… May the Force be with you!

Favourite Sights in All of Gaming

Favourite Sights in All of Gaming

A year or so ago I was playing P-47 on Amstrad CPC (and that’s P-47 Thunderbolt or Freedom Fighter depending on where you’re looking in that package at any given time), and thinking what a great job they’d done on capturing the atmosphere of the sumptuous, sun-setting second level of the 1988 arcade version… Far more so than the Spectrum version I was far more familiar with, where atmosphere by complex colour gradients was a bit more of a challenge! And then I thought about the arcade version and how that level was still just one of the best-looking things I’d ever seen as I approached my sixth calendar decade of gaming.

Being a bit useless with MAME and arcade emulation, I went straight to the next best thing with the PC-Engine version, quickly remembering that this was a bit more of its own interpretation of the original. My old band rarely did cover versions, but when we did, we’d make a point of not listening to the original and just going from memory and what we thought it sounded like (which is how our Brown Sugar ended up being an 8-minute goth-punk odyssey)! And that’s just how this feels! You know what it is, but, for example, the train “boss” at the end of the first stage is now the big plane that briefly drops into the arcade version mid-stage. Fortunately, they remembered the sunset background on the next level and got it pretty spot-on; actually, the second level is a pretty good conversion, though overall, for a machine so well-known for its shooters, it does feel a bit floaty to control, and the CPC and Spectrum versions are more fun to play, if not quite as fun to look at.

Since then, earlier in 2020 we got the Arcade Archives release of the orignal P-47 on Switch and elsewhere I expect too, giving us that ancient holy grail of the arcade-perfect version to play at home. And also the holy grail of that wonderful, sumptuous, sun-setting second level in all of its glory on the TV in our living rooms! Now, as regular viewers will know, I like a list. And all of this has had me thinking for months about my favourite sights in all of gaming, and here we are!

I wanted to keep this focussed on quality over quantity, so I’ve been thinking about top five rather than top more. But interestingly, that five was pretty straightforward for me to come up with, where a top ten, for example, would be more of a challenge because I’m still struggling to really come up with anything else that has had the same visual impact on me. Actually, the only thing I have come up with in those months as a potential number six is that glittery ghosty gold level in Super Castlevania IV on SNES (also known at Stage IX)!

I’m also not sure about the right order yet, so I’m going to start with the undisputed winner then just see what happens! And the undisputed winner is, of course, a very specific moment near the very start of the very first stage of Out Run, where you’ve just hit the first hill and then the initial dual three-lane bits of road you’ve been driving on come together into this vast, exotic six-lane coastal highway, giving you the first of many exhilerating moments of speed and gravity as you take in that glorious view. And whilst I’m talking about the arcade version here, the Spectrum version – which I’ll defend forever (see here) – had a similar visual impact at that exact moment! The more I play Out Run, the more I think it’s perfect, which is an accolade I’d maybe only also apply to Tetris and Super Mario World aside from that. And whilst that’s very subjective, I think I can be less subjective when I say that this 1986 vintage arcade machine is still an absolute stunner!

Next up I’m going with the aforementioned P-47’s second level. I’ve just always thought that use of colour here is absolutely jaw-dropping, and couple that with loads going on on-screen and at least 7-8 layers of parallax-scrolling clouds going by under the setting sun, and you’ve got a sight that will keep you coming back to the game for that alone. Good luck getting past it, but if you do get a bit further along there’s some more really nice cloud effects to swoon over, but they’re grey not orange, which means they’re not quite as good!

We’ve been from 1986 to 1988 so far, and now we’re landing right back in the middle with 1987’s Olli & Lissa: The Ghost of Shilmore Castle on the ZX Spectrum. Apart from Feud on the same machine, more than anything else this is my go-to gaming comfort food, and whilst the first screen is my chicken wings and garlic bread, here we’re talking about the second screen and a giant ham, mushroom and pineapple (yes, pineapple!) pizza all to myself! The game itself (more here) is old-school brutal and unforgiving pixel-perfect platforming. And it’s also absolute vintage ZX Spectrum colour scheming, and I can’t think of any better background colour than yellow for the final atmospheric flourish in this beautifully detailed haunted castle! If I could live in any computer game, it would be a toss up between here and the aforementioned Super Castlevania IV. And as for this screen, I could just sit staring at it all day!

Even now, I still think of the PC-Engine as being a graphical tour-de-force, and can still remember every untouchable screenshot that Computer & Video Games had a habit of shoving down my throat every month in the late eighties! For the next entry we’re still hanging around 1987, albeit in the last couple of days of the year, with the release of Victory Run. And yes, it’s another racing game, and yes, it’s another sunset, and yes, I might be some kind of orange pervert! The PC-Engine (or Turbografx-16 if you prefer) isn’t exactly stacked with racers, but this one is unique. It’s based on the Paris-Dakar Rally, it has a deep vehicle maintenance system (but not in a car-nerdy way) and it’s tough, but my favourite thing about it is that it’s also totally unpredictable, which gives it real longevity too, even after you think you’ve cracked it. The sight we’re looking at now is in the second stage, generated by the day-night cycle that accompanies your progress. The look isn’t a million miles from Out Run or a load of other contemporary racers, and actually you’ve had a preview of the sunset effect in the previous stage, but here in the mountains as you head south through France the effect really comes to life as this brilliant solid orange sky appearing over the top of perfectly tinted clouds. I can only imagine how it looks if you actually make it to Dakar, but until then I’m happy for my game to end around here just about every time I play!

We’re going to conclude this tour of my favourite sights in all of gaming with something that I was going to say is a bit less orange until I looked at it again just now, and that is the pirate ship in Stage 3 of Streets of Rage 2 on the Sega MegaDrive. At the time of writing in October 2020, Streets of Rage 4 is sitting in my top three games of the year so far (spoiler, the other two are In Other Waters and Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon 2). And that is a looker! Best looking toilet graffiti I’ve ever seen in real-life or a game, and such is the attention to detail that you’ll be noticing something new (or old!) play-through after play-through. Speaking of looker, Blaze has only strengthened her case as the hottest video game character of all time too! Anyway, in Stage 3 back in the second game, you’re in an amusement park and eventually you’re going through a door with a “Pirates” sign over it, through the inside of a ship and ending up on the deck full of ninjas. Not pirates. Ninjas. Don’t worry, the only thing that could have made this pirate ship deck look any better was ninjas coming down the rigging at you! This ship is such a contrast and such a surprise after the gritty journey so far, with so much detail in the wood and the ropes and the general ship’s decoration. There’s also a lovely touch with the dark blues of the night-time sky and coastal town in shadow in the background, swaying around like it’s been painted onto a canvas sheet on poles behind an amateur theatre production. And yeah, pick Blaze and she’s also there, all muscle and violence with her eye-catching minimal martial arts-wear, and if you’re lucky maybe a sword pick-up in her hand as well! Thank goodness for pause, because that ship moment is all too brief (and yes, who’s the pervert now?) and you really need to slow down the fighting and take it all in every time you get there.

And there we are, but you didn’t think I was going to let you escape without that Spectrum Out Run moment did you??? Hope you enjoyed the tour, and I would be truly fascinated to find out about your favourite sights in all of gaming!