Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Secret of Mana Review

There aren't a lot of good things you can say about the year 2020, but if I had to find a silver lining, it's been that I've had plenty of time to tackle my gaming shames and backlog. One of the glaring oversights in my background as a retro gamer and RPG buff was the Squaresoft classic Secret of Mana. Part of what has kept me from getting to this game was not having a convenient way to play it. Thankfully the Collection of Mana for Switch went on a steep sale earlier this year, providing a cheap and easy opportunity.

Secret of Mana is a fantasy action RPG that was originally released for the Super Nintendo in 1995. The game tells the story of a boy, a girl, and a forest sprite who are on a quest to stop an evil empire from activating an ancient weapon called the Mana Fortress. Combat in the game takes place in real-time but uses a cooldown meter for physical attacks and a ring menu system for casting magic. This review is based on the UK version of Secret of Mana which was included in the Collection of Mana for Nintendo Switch.

  • This is an especially pretty game, especially considering it came out in 1993. I loved the cute sprites, bright color pallet, and rich, varied environments.
  • As you would expect from a 16-bit Squaresoft RPG, this game features a great soundtrack. It features everything from traditional fantasy pieces to some interesting experimental tracks. A few of the tracks have loops that are a little too short for my taste, but overall, it's a great listen.
  • Some of the writing is pretty amusing. While the dialog can be a bit stilted at times (more on that later), each character has a distinct personality that shows through. I also liked the way some of the characters inverted traditional RPG tropes (e.g. NPCs being prejudicated against the legendary hero and a princess on a quest to rescue a knight).

  • For lack of a better word, the gameplay of Secret of Mana feels janky. The hit detection in combat always seems little off and the AI for your party members is wildly inconsistent. I often ran into issues with my characters getting stuck on objects in the environment or zoning out in the middle of a boss battle.
  • Combat doesn't flow smoothly due to having to wait on a cooldown meter for basic attacks and the action freezing every time you open the magic menu. This game is ambitious for attempting to do party-based action combat with a magic system in 1993, but we've come a long way in terms of action RPG battle systems since then.
  • While some parts of the dialog are entertaining, the overall story and script are very disjointed. As a result, certain lines of dialog and, even a few major plot events, feel like they are coming out of nowhere. (Upon reading about this game's development, I found out that this may be the result of some rather extreme constraints placed upon the English localization staff.)
  • The nested rings that serve as the game's menu system work ok for battle but I would have liked more organized traditional menus for use outside combat. The ring menus off so little information that it makes it necessary to use the game's manual to look up the attributes and effects of items and spells. Several of Square's RPGs that predate this one offered more informative and practical menus.
  • The world of Secret of Mana is very large and intricate, but there are no maps in the game. I'm pretty good at memorizing the layout of areas in games so I was able to work around this (I am far too stubborn to draw maps, however). I just don't understand why in-game maps were omitted when most other SNES games had them.
  • The ability to save your game is very limited in this game, which can lead to a lot of frustration and lost progress if you're not careful. Since I was playing via the Collection of Mana, I was really glad that save states were also an option.

Secret of Mana's strong presentation and personality helped a lot with this game's appeal and were just enough to balance out the gameplay issues to make it a decent experience. I can see why this game made such an impact back in the day but it doesn't hold up nearly as well as other 16-bit RPGs like Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy 5 & 6, or Terranigma.

Score: ⭐⭐⭐
Completion Time: About 30 hours

In classic fantasy fashion, pulling the sword from the stone signifies that you are The Chosen One.

Unfortunately, being The Chosen One doesn't make you popular in this game.

The full party: Boy, Sprite, and Girl (they don't come with default names)

Every good SNES RPG needs some Mode 7 aerial travel. 

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