We all have a game or series that we just seemed to miss entirely for one reason or another, and for a long time, the Mana series was that for me. This RPG series always interested me, but I never really got around to trying any of them until now. I wasn’t really sure what to expect outside of a few typical RPG staples, but it was certainly nice to finally be picking up a game that had only been a curiosity up until now.
Secret of Mana is an action RPG that plays a bit like Legend of Zelda if it was actually an RPG instead of just called one occasionally by people with loose genre definitions. Its battle system has that same basic formula of just striking repeatedly from older Zelda titles but with some layers of complexity added to it so that the game can focus more on combat than puzzle-solving. Unlike many of its contemporaries at the time, this RPG focused on real time battles where you can strike and flee from most opponents at your leisure. Your attacks are pretty simple, with all three of the controllable characters capable of a basic attack or charged attack to deal damage. After an attack, you have a meter on the screen that needs to fill back up before you can deal decent damage again. This is a pretty smart way of limiting you from just swinging wildly at your opponents and helps accommodate the otherwise freeform combat pretty well, leading to an attack and retreat style that makes battles more tactical. Your partners also can use magic, with one primarily focused on support type spells and the other leaning towards offensive magic. You can access these spells through a menu that is the only way to pause combat, which can give you time to select the proper spells or items you wish to use in the situation before getting back into the thick of things. You can also switch between your three characters on the fly or give orders to your partners as the game’s AI controls them, and you can even adjust their tactics to make them fight more in line with what you want them to do. Swapping between mostly aggressive or completely defensive will usually make the AI behave as you would want your partners to behave, although they do have a few issues with standing in the paths of attacks that can only activate if you’re positioned wrong or just getting stuck in spots during normal navigation. For the most part though, once you’ve figured out the AI adjustment grid, you can have some pretty helpful and reliable allies!
Were this the extent of the battle system, I’d say it’s pretty decent, perhaps even downright good! There is a lot of potential present in the system… potential that is wasted by the game’s injection of RPG elements and other flaws that turn battles into frustrating inconsistent nuisances. The main issue has to be the way the game implements the typical RPG stats. Most the stats are done properly, but for some reason, this action RPG where you actively slash opponents has implemented not only an accuracy system, but an evasion one as well! If you’re lucky, the game will give a visual indication that an attack missed, with a foe blocking, dodging, or just having a 0 appear as the damage dealt. However, while your player characters thankfully always show their dodges and blocks, this is not true of your opponents, especially bosses, who already have one of the game’s other huge issues: hitboxes. Not every enemy is completely vulnerable across their entire body, with many bosses especially having only a tiny sweetspot for dealing damage. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to determine these sweetspots because of the accuracy and evasion issues, where a strike will completely whiff with no visual indication of why it dealt no damage. Your AI partners can be helpful here as they will inherently know where the weak spots are and you can just sic them on the boss, but there’s more than a few foes where it’s risky to send them in against. Sometimes, you’re just better off doing nothing the battle and letting the AI do the work, since your attacks are too unreliable due to this mix of hitbox trouble and stats that allow foes to just avoid damage for no reason.
You might think there could be a few ways to smooth over such issues, but the RPG mechanics sweep in to sabotage those as well. The game offers many different weapon types and magic types, which is nice and could’ve added variety, but each weapon must be leveled up per character and the magic goes through the same system as well. Unless you want to spend your time grinding through the flawed combat, you’ll probably have to commit to only a weapons and magic spells full-time, and the time it takes to level them up through natural use makes it a losing game to try and use less risky battles to strengthen yourself up. One big problem with the magic also comes in the limited mana pools of the two mages. There is only one cure spell in the game, locked to your support mage, and that will be her primary use of mana, meaning her other supports will stay low leveled as you retain that magic power for when you actually need it. Your attack mage suffers as well because of this, as the ways of restoring mana boil down to resting at inns which aren’t the easiest to return to while in dungeons or using items. The inns are also the primary means of saving, making sure that deaths caused by this flawed combat system can lead to some tedious running through the same areas you just faced. The game heavily limits how many items you can carry, meaning not only do you have a max of a measly four mana restoring items, but the same goes for your reviving items, the game withholding the revive spell until near the end of the game. Essentially, it forces the support mage to devote her time to healing and the attack mage to only using a few spells for fear of running out of mana and not being allowed to use the precious items the healer needs!
The troubles certainly don’t end there. Casting magic in general can be an issue if you aren’t controlling the user, as the AI will sometimes decide it’s too busy to execute it and just go about whatever it was doing before. This can be quite troublesome as the enemies in this game have a few aces up their sleeves. When they are physical fighters, you can expect a pretty even playing field, a decent battle that you can perhaps enjoy… but if they have spells, things can take a nasty turn in a split-second. Bosses especially usually have some damaging magic that not only will completely freeze a character until it’s done being executed, but the boss technically has no limit on how many times they can cast it in a row. Your healer can get devastated in an instant by consecutive magic attacks, or the boss might have magic attacks that hit everyone and can wipe your party if it feels like it. There are some defensive spells that can technically protect from this, but then you have the mana issues again, and the limited items too. So many fights hinge on the boss not remembering it can just instantly win if it casts consecutive magic! These bosses are only made worse by their constant repetition. Almost every boss type you will encounter three times during the course of the game. RPGs will sometimes take a boss character and make them a common enemy later when you’re so strong they are now pitiful by comparison, but Secret of Mana just recolors the boss, ups its stats, and has you face it again and again. Sometimes, it will even set up what looks like a more interesting boss battle, only for an enemy to step aside and have the same monster you’ve fought twice before take you on, but this time it’s got ice attacks instead of fire ones!
What seemed like a combat system with promise is dragged down so hard by bad stat implementation and the imbalance found in your repetitious foes, and sadly the game’s story isn’t enough to rescue it. The story hinges on simplicity, which isn’t necessarily a draw back, but it doesn’t elevate it either. A long time ago, Mana was used by man to elevate itself and tempted them to draw on it in excess, so the planet shot down their greatest creation, the Mana Fortress, by way of a Mana Beast. An empire has set out to restore man’s former glory and restore the Mana Fortress by draining the planet’s Mana once again, and you must stop them before it’s too late. There’s not much more going on in the plot than that. You encounter mostly basic fantasy staples along the way, but it does have a few moments of charming absurdity that set it a bit apart. After all, this is a video game where you can talk to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. I do wish the game had leaned in harder towards the absurd ideas it had, because while it does have a race of mushroom people who once upon a time rode on the backs of dragons, it mostly just has generic things like knights, kings, and sorcerers populating its simple world. The main characters could certainly use a bit of work as well. Your main character bumbles into destiny by finding the Sword of Mana that chooses him for this adventure to save the world, and I actually found it rather fun and silly that the moment the village he was raised in realize he has the sword, they absolutely want nothing to do with him. After a token resistance to being a hero at the start though, he slips into the role fairly easily and never does much more character-wise from there.
Your partners are a bit more interesting. One is a girl whose husband-to-be was captured by the evil powers, and she’s got a bit of spunk to her that makes her a bit of fun when she does speak up. Your other partner is a sprite who lost his memory, and while his personality hinges on the brash, kid-like comedy relief angle, it’s actually a bit refreshing to see rather than annoying since the game so rarely takes a moment to have characters show personality. For the most part, conversations are utilitarian and about conveying information, although this doesn’t mean the game always guides you in the right direction to where you need to go next. The inspired and creative moments are definitely charming, and while the story as a whole isn’t all that noteworthy, the world and characters are memorable, albeit simple and shallow.
THE VERDICT: Secret of Mana is an unusual pick for a classic. I do believe part of the appeal came from the fact that it was an RPG that allowed multiplayer support, and the charm found in some of its design choices do sit well on the heart, but the gameplay itself mires the experience quite a bit. The trappings of the game are all simplistic, and while it’s easy to tell the translation from Japanese to English lead to a lot of trimming and a few adjustments to make it more kid-friendly, the game itself is so flawed that the story could not hope to save it from its troubles. The English story may be average, the Japanese story may be better, but the gameplay that takes up most of the game’s time is disastrously designed.
And so, I give Secret of Mana for the Super Nintendo…
A BAD rating. The combat system feels like it could have been so much better if a few things were adjusted or removed, and it is my hope that later games in the Mana series had the wisdom to remove such troublesome issues as the poor enemy hitboxes and the frustrating evasion system, but as the original stands, the combat is such a necessary part of the experience that it bogs down any hope of the game winning you over with its simplistic charm and catchy music. There is a remake on the horizon, one that will hopefully make those changes this game so desperately needs, but the original version seems like it needed a lot more polish and a lot more thought put into it to make it an RPG classic deserving of such high regard.