People love Secret of Mana, and I’m not sure why. I’ve heard it consistently spoken of in discussions of classic 16-bit roleplaying games, alongside such luminaries as Final Fantasy 6, Phantasy Star 4, Earthbound, and Chrono Trigger. To be honest, I don’t think that Secret of Mana is even remotely as enjoyable as any of those games.
Let’s take a step back. Because Secret of Mana is so beloved, I decided that I should probably play through the game. Right away, I could see that the Square had some pretty ambitious aspirations for the game. They seem to have wanted to pair moment-to-moment action with a number-crunchy RPG system, set the whole thing in a colorful and imaginative world, and give it an epic earth-ending conflict. As long as it managed to live up to those aspirations, it would most certainly be every bit as legendary as other games.
The problem is that Secret of Mana doesn’t live up to its aspirations.
If you want to make a turn-based RPG battle system feel more intense, let the player run around and swing his sword whenever he wants. Only then it’s not really an RPG anymore. You fix that by adding a charge gauge, so the player can hit whenever he wants but only does a reasonable amount of damage when he’s waited his turn. In theory, the result should be both fast and strategic. That’s Secret of Mana. Brilliant!
Only the fighting still manages to feel excruciatingly slow at times. To me, it seems like the game wasn’t programmed well. Often, I would swing my weapon at an enemy, and it wouldn’t hit. The little graphical representation of a sword came into contact with the little graphical representation of a monster, but nothing would happen. Other times, I would successfully strike the enemy, but it would take literally 2 or 3 seconds for the game to do it’s math and show me the amount of damage that I just did. I eventually got the hang of it, but I certainly wasn’t impressed. If 90 percent of a game involves combat, the combat mechanics should be polished to a shine, and that just wasn’t my experience with Secret of Mana.
I was hoping that, as I got accustomed to what seemed like unfortunate nuances in the combat system, I would be regaled with an epic story. That didn’t really work out either. The dialogue in Secret of Mana is terrible. Most of the time that makes the game kind of humorous, but when the story takes a turn toward more serious matters, the script doesn’t keep up.
A little bit of searching will reveal the problematic development history of Secret of Mana. The game was originally developed for the SNES-CD, a project that never advanced beyond the prototype phase. The game was then modified to fit on a cartridge, which could explain the numerous mechanical quirks in the game. Then Ted Woolsey—who localized a handful of classic Squaresoft RPGs in the mid-90’s—was forced to translate the game in a month, cutting down the English text even more to fit on the cartridge. Perhaps this accounts for the story being so obtuse and the characters having almost no personality.
All flaws and age aside, it’s completely possible to play Secret of Mana and actually enjoy it qutie a bit. Start by tempering your expectations (good advice for most things, really). Then load the game on your device of choice: Super Nintendo, Wii Virtual Console, iPhone, or the emulator that you don’t tell anyone about. Then ready a walkthrough on GameFaqs.com for any parts of the game that don’t make sense.
You’ll probably find that Secret of Mana is not so bad. It’s hard to call it the timeless classic that the internet claims it is, but it’s not a pile of garbage. This game ushered in a totally unique style of play, but perhaps it hasn’t aged all that well.