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Secret of Mana: 30th anniversary

It's been three decades since Americans were treated to the action RPG Secret of Mana. Called The Legend of the Holy Sword 2 in Japan, it's the sequel to Final Fantasy Adventure. It builds upon some of its predecessor's unusual conventions, including a tedious weapon-charging system. What most sets it apart, however, is it supports two and even three player simultaneous play. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past can't do that!

Secret of Mana's threadbare plotline is a rehash of the first game. The Mana Tree and its eight sacred seeds are threatened by monsters, led by the villain Thanatos (Greek for "death"). A young hero, gifted with the legendary holy sword, must defeat them and save the tree. His ability to remove the sword from a stone, Arthur-like, is treated as a calamity by his village, which banishes him. But the young hero soon saves a blond girl and a "sprite." They join him as party members. A sprite is a fairy, but this person appears to be a magical halfling with red hair. He uses offensive magic, whereas the young lady is trained in healing arts. The translation is stilted and flat, on par with the original version of Final Fantasy IV. Apparently Ted Woolsey, the translator (who did a much better job with Final Fantasy VI the following year), only had a month to do it, with severe space limitations.

These two characters are AI-controlled by default, but you can switch to controlling either of them instead of the boy by pushing SELECT. The AI attack behavior is set using a 4x4 grid. The horizontal dimension controls how offensive or defensive they are, and the vertical dimension whether they approach enemies or keep their distance. For example, a character with a bow could be set to keep far away but also attack aggressively. There doesn't seem to be any reason not to maximize aggression, as there is no blocking! There's also a way to manually assign targets, though this is unnecessary since they automatically attack nearby enemies. Sometimes a character will get stuck behind a tree or other obstacle, requiring you to go back to free them.

I am not a fan of the ring subscreens.

Weapons play an important role in the game: each type has a unique effect. For example, axes can chop down trees in your way. Whips grab onto posts in the ground, allowing the party to swing across in Zorro fashion. Gloves enable karate-like hand-to-hand combat, while boomerangs, darts, and bows are ranged attacks. The most powerful weapons are the spears.

Rather than finding new weapons like in other RPGs, each weapon must be reforged into its next form. This is done by finding one of that weapon's eight corresponding orbs and taking it to the dwarven smith, Watts. A reforged weapon gets a new name, becomes more powerful, and changes its bonus effect. For example, the halberd (level 4 spear) sometimes confuses enemies.

In addition to standard XP-based leveling, each character must become proficient with the various weapon and magic types by using them (like in Final Fantasy II). If you have the level-4 spear, for example, each character can become proficient in the spear up to level 4. Weapon proficiency determines the maximum level of charged attacks. By holding down B, a character begins charging their weapon, up to the number of levels at which they have proficiency. A meter underneath the character's name fills up after attacking, taking about three seconds per charge level. For each level you charge it, the attack becomes more elaborate and powerful.

To begin charging, you must first let the weapon refresh, which it does automatically in about three seconds. If you attack before a weapon is refreshed, it does almost no damage, so button mashing is ineffective. This results in the tedious pattern of attacking, backing up for three seconds, then moving in to attack again. Any charging begins after the refresh, which means getting to the first charge takes about six seconds. Charging a weapon to level 7 takes almost half a minute! In my experience, charging weapons is not worth it. You do more damage by attacking as soon as the refresh is done. Also, the more elaborate, longer attack animations are more likely to miss!

This slow combat system is exacerbated by the fact that enemies frequently evade attacks. You can hit an enemy dead-on and do no damage. There is no accompanying animation or sound to go with evasion, which leads to the misconception that the game has "bad hit detection." I consider this a serious flaw, as it's frustrating to keep hitting an enemy and yet see nothing happen!

Magic also has levels. There are seven types of magic, each bestowed by an esper/summon-like character: Undine, Gnome, Sylphid, Salamando, Lumina or Shade, Luna, and Dryad. These are slowly acquired throughout the game (unlike the weapons, which are obtained in quick succession). Each type contains three offensive spells (for the sprite) and three defensive spells (for the girl). Each time you find a seed from the Mana Tree, all your magic spells go up by one level. To benefit from spell levels, the character must be proficient to the higher level. As with weapons, spell proficiency is gained through usage. You can check where you're at (on a scale of 0-99) for each weapon and magic type by going to the Level subscreen. Spells are more potent at higher levels.

Some boss fights are rather hard, so it's imperative to have your allies cast spells frequently to level them up. Unfortunately, the AI does not cast spells; you have to do it manually with the menu every time. This, combined with lengthy casting animations, makes casting spells feel even slower than charging weapons. The situation is made even worse by the confusing "ring" menu system the game uses. Though elegant looking, the rings are less convenient than a traditional subscreen because you have to navigate through multiple rings to get to what you want—and each character has their own set of rings.

This somewhat laborious combat/magic system occupies most of the game. Unlike The Legend of Zelda, Secret of Mana is not about puzzle solving. The closest thing it has to puzzles is activating switches and using certain weapon types to open up paths (cutting down trees, for example). Dungeons are short and almost completely linear. You fight lots of enemies that stand in your way until you reach the boss. You can avoid enemies, though this may leave the characters underpowered for the boss fight. It's best to fight everything you encounter, even if it is tiresome. Enemies sometimes drop treasure chests, though many are booby-trapped and contain no treasure. Furthermore, since you can't carry more than four of each item, the item inside is often unusable.

Like Final Fantasy V, the game features a Moogle village.
Armor and items can be purchased at shops in villages, where you can also stay at an inn. Inns are the only place where you can save your game, which feels restrictive even by 1993 standards. There are three kinds of armor: headgear, body armor, and armbands. The list of items is relatively short: candy restores 100 HP, chocolate 250, and royal jam all. The herb cures ailments such as poison—but not being turned into a cute Moogle! That ends after a few seconds anyway. The cup of wishes restores a deceased party member. When dead, a character "sees the reaper," and it shows a ghost of them with a grim reaper floating overhead! The expensive barrel makes a character briefly invulnerable, and the magic rope warps you out of a dungeon. This last item has an unlimited number of uses, so you just buy it once at the beginning of the game.

The game has a world map (which looks similar to the overworld in FF4), but you can't look at it whenever you want. You catch a glimpse of it whenever you use the caveman-operated, cannon travel system, which shoots everyone from one area to another! A Mode 7 animation shows them blasting through the air and landing on their butts. Although the map looks large, the actual screens in which the game takes place are relatively few. They can be a bit maze-like in places. The game isn't particularly long, taking around 20 hours to complete.

I was disappointed replaying Secret of Mana; unlike Zelda and Final Fantasy, it hasn't aged well. The lack of puzzles, grindy leveling system, too-slow weapon charging, uneven difficulty, weak plot, bad translation, clunky menus, lack of a world map, and excessive back-and-forthing in the first third of the game all add up to a mediocre experience. Don't get me wrong: judged against the other 700 SNES games, Secret of Mana is really good. But it's flawed and falls short of Zelda or Final Fantasy.

Secret of Mana may be overrated, but the reason for its high reputation is clear: simultaneous multiplayer. Playing this game with three players is a lot more fun than playing it alone. For one thing, it spreads the slow and cumbersome spell-casting across three people. With no puzzles to speak of, Secret of Mana is basically a pretty hack-and-slash game. It looks and sounds fantastic. The nostalgia is fueled by the aesthetics and memories of playing it with friends! Replaying it alone in 2023 is underwhelming. If you're gonna play it, find a friend or two!

Grade: B

Linked Reviews
"The action combat stylings of this game may take some gamers a little time to get used to, but in the end what you're left with is a great action-rpg that will leave you feeling quite satisfied when you've finished it."
— Corbie Dillard, Nintendo Life, 9/10

"Secret of Mana allows for co-op gameplay, which was highly unique for an RPG at the time. Throw in beautiful music and a timeless story and you have a delightful mash between Final Fantasy and The Legend of Zelda that shouldn't be missed."
IGN, #11 of Top 100

"Crowned by colorful graphics and competent music, this superb tale of the Mana Tree and Seeds is one to root for."
— Asheton Phinney, Ultimate Nintendo: Guide to the NES Library, 4/5

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