Review: Secret of Mana

It’s difficult to have a discussion about retro JRPGs without someone mentioning Secret of Mana. This game has long been heralded as one of the most critically acclaimed 16-bit era RPG titles. But despite all of the hype, it’s one game that I never managed to check out during it’s heyday. That being said, it’s also not a game that I was completely ignorant of either. Secret of Mana is the second title in the Seiken Denstsu series. The first game in this series, Final Fantasy Adventure, is a favorite of mine. So, despite never owning a copy of SoM, it’s always been on my list of games to play.

Hearing that I never played this game when I was younger is probably a surprise to many readers. For whatever reason, when I was a kid, this is one title just never managed to land in my library. Then, by the time I was an adult and an avid game collector, original copies of the game were being sold for insanely high prices. It wasn’t until the release of the Collection of Mana compilation that I was finally able to get my hands on the original version of the game. I’ve spent the last month playing through this title, and I have plenty of opinions to share.

But before I get into the details of my review, I do want to take a moment to discuss the different versions that exist and the best way to enjoy them. Secret of Mana was originally released on the SNES. Because this original version of the game is the one that is so highly regarded among gamers, this is the version I wanted to experience and review. The easiest way to do that today is with the Collection of Mana for the Nintendo Switch. But, it is also important to note that an HD remake of the game is also available on a number of other systems. Since this review is only going to focus on the original version, I’ve decided to review the remake separately at a later date.

As I mentioned above, Secret of Mana is the second game in the Seiken Denstsu (or Mana) series. But if you’ve never played the first game in the series, you’re not really going to miss out on any important story elements. The connection between the various Mana games is somewhat muddy and has never been fully outlined by the developers. Secret of Mana focuses on the character of Randi, a young boy who stumbles upon an ancient sword. After removing the sword from its resting place, Randi brings it back to his village. But the village elders decide that the removal of the sword will bring nothing but bad luck. As punishment, Randi is banished from the village. Before long, Randi encounters an old knight named Jema. Jema identifies the blade as the ancient Mana Sword, a weapon that has the power to defeat evil. Jema sends Randi on a quest to visit eight temples that are scattered across the world. By doing so, it is believed the sword’s true potential will be revealed. During his journey, Randi is pursued by by agents from the mysterious Vandole Empire. With the help of two other aspiring adventurers, Randi hopes to restore power to the sword so that he can confront the evil force behind the Empire’s nefarious ambitions.

If the paragraph above sounds like a pretty epic story, that’s because it is. Sadly, however, the localization team seems to have struggled a bit with this game. While there’s no completely boneheaded translation issues with this game, the western release of Secret of Mana feels very disjointed in its storytelling. I’m not stranger to choppy game translations, but I have to admit, there were times when I was playing this title that I had no idea what was going on. RPGs are typically very story-centric games. So this is never a good issue for an RPG to have.

But let’s put all that to side for a moment and talk about the game itself. As was the case with Final Fantasy Adventure, Secret of Mana is an action-RPG. This means that battles take place in real-time instead of being turn-based. But what makes Secret of Mana different from many other action-RPGs is the way combat works and feels. For starters, your character has a gauge at the bottom of the screen that goes from 0-100. Weapons really only do optimal damage when the gauge is at 100. When you swing your weapon, this gauge drops down to 0 and hastily begins to charge back up. This means that when fighting enemies, you have to time your swing just right so as to hit them. Then, try to avoid their attacks until your power gauge is back at maximum. The idea here is make combat more tactical. Simply button mashing your weapon is not going to be an effective strategy. There’s also a mechanic that lets you charge up your weapon for a more powerful strike.

It’s almost important to note that there are multiple types of weapons available in the game. Different weapons have a different feel to them. For example, some weapons swing slower than others. Also, some enemies are weak to certain types of weapons, but resistant to others. If you’re lucky, sometimes your blow will incapacitate an enemy for a short period of time. This sounds really great on paper. But in practice, I found the combat system to feel a bit clumsy. Getting the timing just right on your swing often feels like it’s left more to chance than to skill. It’s all very erratic. This is a problem that I never had with Final Fantasy Adventure. So I’m not sure what happened here.

There’s a total of seven weapons available. These weapons can be upgraded at various points in the game. Upgrading them increases damage output and occasionally gives them other enhancements. But the main way to improve the effectiveness of the various weapons is to simply level up your characters proficiency with them by using them.

When the game starts off, you control only the main character. But before long two additional characters join the party. It is possible to switch which character you are controlling. By default, whatever characters you are not controlling are played by AI. The AI system really isn’t all that great in my opinion. Yes, you can customize its behavior to a point. But it really leaves a lot of be desired. When it comes to the intelligence of the AI system, most of the work seems to have gone into the combat. The AI character movement is often very glitchy. It’s not uncommon for the two additional characters to get stuck behind obstacles on the screen, impeding the player’s progress. When this happens, the main character has to either backtrack, so the AI will get “unstuck”, or the player can switch the character he is controlling to the trapped character and navigate that character manually.

Thankfully, you’re not stuck with the AI system. One really cool feature of this game is the ability for the other characters to be controlled via local multiplayer. If you have a friend (or friends) that want to join, all they have to do is a grab a controller and press start. Next thing you know, they will be in control of one of the additional characters. This local co-op function is a major asset to the game. And if I’m being honest, really increases the potential for fun.

Each of the three characters share the same pool of weapons. So if one character is equipped with the sword, that weapon isn’t available for the other two to use. All of the characters play and feel similar to each other. But the two additional characters have one distinction that make them unique – magic use. As the story progresses, spells are made available to these other characters. Some of them are functional spells like buffs and curative magic. Others are combat spells that deal damage to enemies. As is the case with physical weapons, magic is also leveled independently. Using a spell frequently will increase the power level of that spell.

Secret of Mana is a game filled with a lot of really interesting ideas. But overall, I feel like it falls a bit short on nearly all of them. The storyline is a mess, the combat system is flakey, the menu system is confusing, etc. The way that weapons and magic have to level independently make the game more of a grind than it needs to be. Still, despite these issues, the game does manage to have a special charm to it. I can certainly see why so many people found the game to be revolutionary upon release. Still, I can’t ignore some of the glaring issues that this game seems to suffer from. For me, this is one game that failed to live up to the hype.

Version Reviewed: SNES

Difficulty: Hard –  This game turned out to be quite a bit more challenging than I expected. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I feel like that game is hard for all the wrong reasons. For starters, the awkward combat system makes everyday fights much harder than they need to be. Also, the clumsy AI often results in the other party members being put in peril. It is quite possible to grind away the difficulty. This is especially true once the magic system is unlocked. But, if playing this game like an average person would, it’s no walk in the park.

Multiplayer:  Local Co-op.

Story: The actual storyline for this game is very well done and deserves a place next to any number of treasured RPGs. Sadly, much of this grand storyline seems to be lost in translation. I can’t help but wonder if the HD remake fixes this issue.

Originality: Secret of Mana is not short on original ideas. Everything from the menu design, to the combat system has a unique feel to it. Now admittedly, several of these concepts seems to flounder a bit in practice. But I have to give the developers credit for their willingness to try new things.

Soundtrack: This is one aspect of the game that I find very hard to judge. On one hand, the music in the game is well composed, catchy, and interesting. On the other, rarely does the soundtrack seem to fit the gameplay. Secret of Mana is a fantasy game, yet the soundtrack has elements of funk, rock, and occasionally “carnival music”. It’s a really mixed bag and I’m not quite sure how I feel about it.

Fun: There were certainly moments of the game that I found to be fun and enjoyable. But there were also plenty of moments that I was bored to tears. I think the majority of the game would have been much more enjoyable if the combat system was a bit more traditional. One way to really increase the enjoyment of this game is to play with friends. I can’t stress this enough. If you have a friend who is competent in the game, the co-op experience is the way to go. It really does add something magical to the game itself.

Graphics: This is probably the best part of the game. The graphics are colorful, well defined, and all-around pleasing to the eye.

Playcontrol: The control scheme for this game is a bit of a head scratcher. The ring-based menu system is a confusing mess that occupies two separate buttons on the controller. Character movement is loose, which I’m sure is by design due to the nature of the game, but it often leads to problems with positioning during combat. And the overall feel of striking at enemies in this game feels unpolished.

Downloadable Content: None

Mature Content: None

Value: If you’re playing the Collection of Mana version of the game, you’ll actually end up with three full games for only $40.00. All things considered, that’s a pretty great price. If you’re looking for a copy of the original SNES version, prices can vary anywhere from $60-$100. In my opinion, the Switch collection is the way to go.

Overall score (1-100): 70 – I know many gamers will say this score is blasphemy. But it’s my honest answer. Secret of Mana, while revolutionary, suffers from a number of issues. The combat system feels bi-polar, the storyline suffers from localization issues, the playcontrol is wonky, and the leveling system is unnecessarily grindy. But still, it has a unique charm to it that I cannot deny. If you like action RPGS, this might be a game worth checking out. Just know going in that it’s far from perfect.

Original System: SNES

Available today on:  Switch   – (Updated as of Summer 2022)

Best Experience: Switch   – (Updated as of Summer 2022)

Other Games in this Series: 

Final Fantasy Adventure    –    Secret of Mana    –    Trials of Mana    –    Dawn of Mana

Legend of Mana    –    Children of Mana    –    Heroes of Mana

Sword of Mana (FFA Remake)    –    Secret of Mana (Remake)    –    Trials of Mana (Remake)

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