Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Blasts from the Past: The Secret of Mana

A timeless gem, or old-school fans only experience?
As a gamer from the 90s raised on an NES and SNES it is my own personal belief that every well-rounded gamer should be in touch with the roots of their hobby. It really bugs me whenever people are frightened away by a game it doesn't have current level graphics, or isn't online multiplayer capable. I do however understand some people's plight when it comes to some games that just don't hold up that well these days, and as a fan of the genre, a lot of 8 and 16 bit RPGs are guilty of not holding up very well. While some like the Final Fantasy series are decently timeless, there are a few that feel incredibly dated to the point of being difficult to play. Secret of Mana is certainly one such game that the current playablity quality can be debated over; and now allow me to present my case.

A young boy and his friends are trespassing in their village's forbidden territory which culminates in the boy falling down a waterfall and stumbling across a rusted sword embedded in a stone, needing a weapon he takes up the sword and accidentally unleashes a swarm of monsters upon the world; and after returning to the village he is banished for this grim omen and sent by a mysterious man named Jema to the water shrine where he discovers that an evil empire is trying to activate all of the mana seeds, enshrined in each of the elemental temples in hopes of returning mana to the world and using its power for war. The boy along with a girl, and a genderless sprite must re-energize the Mana Sword and fight back the evil empire to prevent the world's inevitable destruction.

If this plot sounds familiar, then congratulations, you are familiar with basic JRPG cliches. This game's plot by today's standards is practically one giant cliche, and even back then it was rather lackluster since the game's script was horrible translated, and for the most part the plot was non-existent for long stretches of gameplay. Plot threads are introduced with little to no explanation and the characters are very undeveloped; and while this would get a free-pass in the 80s, games like Final Fantasy IV came out two years before this game and still managed to have decently developed characters with backstories, and arcs to their personality. Even for its time the story is remarkably underwhelming, and practically unfollowable in places other than the generic "good guys fight evil wizard" plot.

Art Style
One thing about this game that utterly baffles me is that the soundtrack is so beloved. To be very frank it sounds downright terrible. With the exception of a few pieces like Meridian Dance, and the opening theme, not since the 8-bit era have I heard such an irritating soundtrack. Most tracks are incredibly high-pitched and repetitive, with many being just downright completely unmemorable.

Visually the game is nice to look at with its colorful backgrounds and character models. Animations flow decently and there is a fair amount of enemy variety, even if most later on are just recycled and recolored. The many dungeons of the game are also very well varied, if a little uninspired from following the traditionl JRPG cliche of elemental themed dungeons.

The best way to describe Secret of Mana's gameplay is a hybrid of Zelda, and Final Fantasy. At its core Secret of Mana is an action RPG played with a 2/3 overhead perspective, and is comprised of two major gameplay elements, exploration and combat. There are three playable characters starting of with the boy, with the girl and sprite joining up decently early in the game, the player can switch between the 3 of them at any point to take advantage of their respective combat abilities, or to move a specific character out of dange or to a more precise location.

 Combat takes place in real time, but with a few twists; each character can swing their weapon, but after doing so a meter will appear, and the character will have to wait until it fills up 100% to deal any actual damage with their next attack; characters can also perform a delayed power attack (depending on their skill level with the weapon) by holding down the attack button and waiting until the required additional meters for the attack fill before releasing the button. This is where the gameplay shows a lot of its age in that the hit detection in close combat is highly wonky, and many times seems flat out broken. You will hit enemies far out of reach, and miss point-blank enemies on so many occasions, and the same holds true for the enemies. But where the game truely becomes rage-inducing are many occasions you will be stun-locked in a corner with no possible means of escape, destined for a swift trip to the "Game Over" screen

 In addition to melee combat, the Sprite, and girl characters have the ability to use magic spells from the game's ring menu (more on that later) with the girl specializing in healing and enhancement, while the Sprite wields mostly offensive spells. Spells are learned after completing the respective elemental dungeon, and cost "Magic Points" to use like in any other traditional RPG. Once again diving into the signs of this game aging horribly is the fact that magic (from both players and enemies) is practically unavoidable and uninterruptable, meaning that it can be used to stomp all over enemies and bosses, but can also be used to quickly send you to the previously mentioned swift "Game Over" screen; in fact, I'd go as far to say that the ONLY way to survive this game is to constantly keep magic points high and spells spammed constantly. It is also important to note that when the AI is controlling the spell-casters, it will NEVER have them use magic.

As with any other JRPG, equipment and item use comes into play with both being purchased in the various towns and shops throughout the game with equipment such as armor and accessories raising specific stat points above their natural levels, and items being used to restore health, magic, and normal status. Weapons however are gained through story progression and come in eight different varieties which are upgraded to more powerful forms via magic orbs found throughout the game in dungeons; some even have out of combat benefits such as cutting through tall grass with the sword, or crossing chasms with the whip. The characters also gain skill points as they use each weapon, which eventually leads to an increase in skill level and the acquisition of a new charge attack unique to that weapon, although most of them are just spin attacks, or double strikes.

Where Secret of Mana is revolutionary in its gameplay is in the possiblity of three person multiplayer (with the use of a multi-tap) in what was typically a one player experience. However while this seems to be an excellent idea on paper in bringing a "role-playing" game back to its table-top roots as a multiplayer experience, it ends up being rather maddening and clunky. The two magic-users cast their spells through the game's menu, which results in the game being paused everytime someone needs to cast a spell, thus bringing the other two players out of the game by forcing them to wait for the casting player to make his/her decisions. This especially annoying during intense battles when the Sprite, and girl need to be spamming their spells constantly, leaving the poor player controlling the melee only boy very disoriented from the constant pausing and unpausing.

When it comes to item, equipment, and spell management, the game's Ring Menu system is indeed rather handy. Everything is on the same menu, but is sorted according to category and is very easy to locate specific items on. It takes a litte while to learn where each category is, but once learned, the ring menu is a darn convenient and fast method of choosing items, and equipment. However if I must criticize one other thing negatively it is the space size of the inventory. You can't carry many copies of one item, which in a game where you have to manage three different characters' health and magic reserves is rather annoying.

I don't think Secret of Mana is a bad game by any means, in fact I really enjoyed the game; but that is taking into account that I am a fan of old-school RPGs. This game will win over hardly anyone from this new generation due to the undeniable signs of age this game holds. If you want a good old-school RPG to instill a newcomer with a love for games past, try Final Fantasy 6, Chrono Trigger, or Super Mario RPG before handing them this game.


Back in 1993- A

By today's standards- C+
Its still a dang good game, but its mechanics are just too clunky and dated to recommend for newbies.

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