Secret of Mana

   When the name Mana is spoken, like a whisper on the wind, a single word comes to This is truly no simple game, but a masterpiece, a story passed down through generations, perhaps altered slightly in its retelling, or embellished in its details, but always with the same theme. The power of Mana is that which fills and surrounds the universe, nourishing all life, and balancing the good and evil forces of nature. Protecting a world for generations, this life force is now in danger of being abused by those who would bend its power with evil intentions. In this RPG, the sequel to Seiken Densetsu, it is the fate of one young boy, accompanied only by a girl and a sprite, to protect the magic of Mana, and to return peace and balance to all life.

The hero discovers the Mana Sword

   All across this story can be seen the reflections of other similar tales, yet at the same time, Mana is so completely unique that one might wonder if this is the true tale of all histories. The story begins when our trusty hero falls off a bridge while exploring with some pals and follows a mysterious voice that asks him to pull a sword from a stone, in a neat twist of Arthurian Legend. The sword turns out to be a famous relic, the Mana Sword, and the village banishes the boy, as people through the ages have always banished that which they fear. A knight named Jema befriends him and begins to explain to him what his destiny is. (Do gamers get a vague sense of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker?) Along the way he meets up with a sprite, who has amnesia and is searching for his home, and a girl, who is on a quest to rescue her boyfriend, Dyluck. The sprite and girl's quests add a bit of color to the main plot of the game, as well as showing that underneath "saving the world" is the very idea of saving single people's lives. There is no true central "bad guy," rather, the evil of the world seems to grow as the heroes find out more about the past. Also to be enjoyed are the pesky characters that aren't necessarily villains so much as hindering pranksters that offer great comic relief. A memorable moment is certainly when the fire elemental, Salamando, is used as furnace to create a vacation resort in Ice Country.

A Mana seed upon its stage

   The game's scenery is delightful -- colorful, bright, and often lending the feeling it's been pulled from a cartoon. The characters actually show their anger or confusion in their expressions. The music may not be overall as impressive as Nobuo's majestic Final Fantasy tracks, but Secret of Mana still contains some memorable tunes that you find yourself humming long after you've entered this story. One of the most fluttering and enchanting pieces, which returns later on in the game as it becomes associated with the theme of Mana Magic, is the melody played during the title screen. The world seems very small at first, when travel is limited to a certain area, but just as the same few places grow boring, the game starts "shooting" the heroes from place to place so fast that it's impossible to be bored. The most touching element of the game is perhaps the fact that the adventure directly affects the fate of one of the characters. The sprite character, being a sprite and not a human like the hero and the girl, knows that he will vanish if they succeed in sealing the seeds and righting the balance in the world. Despite this, he continues to help them long after the goal of finding his home is completed. Likewise, when the nameless hero's quest leads the girl away from her search for Dyluck, she also stays with him because she knows the fate of all life, revolving around the power of the Mana seeds, depends on their actions. It is the subtleties of the game and its theme that hit upon gamers so strongly, for are we all not a part of the life around us?

Watts the Blacksmith

   The battle system moves away from the menu based modes of the Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest series, and towards action based fighting surprisingly similar to most Zelda games. Rather than one weapon for each character, as in many later RPGs, Mana grants eight weapons to the characters and lets the gamer choose which character will master which weapons (or all weapons if one so desires). The weapons range from the typical sword, spear, bow and ax, to the more creative spiked boomerang, punching gloves, whips and pole darts. Early on in the game the trio encounters a dwarf named Watts who will reforge the Mana weapons and make them stronger each time you recover a weapon orb. Adding to the reality is the fact that each time the weapon is reforged, its appearance as well as its strength changes. Another unique feature is the fact that 2 other players can tap in to control the girl and the sprite, converting this one player game into a multiple player game, rare for an RPG. Since the battles are action oriented, there's no need for a second side screen battle mode, and when characters enter a town, they simply put their weapons away.

Shade, the elemental of darkness

   Another deference from tradition are the rings that Secret of Mana uses for its menu. The hero has three rings, one to access/change weapons, one to use items such as candy or Flammie's drum, and the last one to edit buttons or check levels and equipment. The girl and the sprite each have a fourth ring for their magic. The magic elementals have their own personalities, and besides being amusing at many points (as when gnome picks a fight with Popoie), they are essential to defeating many of the bosses, and only grant certain spells to each character. The number of elementals you have determines how high a level the magic can be raised to (which simply happens by using it repeatedly). There are eight elementals-Undine (Water), Gnome (Earth), Sylphid (Air), Salamando (Fire), Lumina (Light), Luna (Moon), Shade (Darkness) and Dryad (Mana) -- and a key to mastering Secret of Mana is learning to use each character's magic while timing active blows with your weapons. Even though the gamer traditionally controls the hero (control can actually also be switched to the girl or the sprite to lead the party, the allies' rings can also be opened at any time to use their magic. In addition, the ring menu also allows each ally to be set to a specific fighting style so that you can choose who defeats the enemies to gain experience. Of course, it seems that no matter where the an ally is placed on the grid, from attack/approach to guard/keep away, they end up dying if one is not careful.

Exploring the world astride Flammie the Dragon

   Secret of Mana, like any RPG masterpiece, certainly has its puzzles and memorable quirks. Magic is used to pass crystal orbs and a sneaky cat named Neko shows up at crucial times to sell you items for ridiculous prices. When your allies die, they become ghosts that follow you around until a night at the inn restores them. (Amazing that a good night's sleep can bring a ghost back to life!) For traveling, a giant canon shoots your characters across the planet from place to place until a young dragon named Flammie is rescued by the trio and grows up to become your personal "airship". Flammie can be summoned from all over the world by shaking a drum whose little beads rattle against its sides. (Karate Kid, anyone?) So many scenes in Secret of Mana are touching because of the level of emotion portrayed in them, which until this time, had not been extremely common in games, even RPGs. The girl's loving desire to rescue Dyluck, Flammie's sad cry when the heroes first rescue him, the sentiment of the friends the trio make along the way... All these puzzle pieces reflect the various feelings of and influences on the characters, and give the gamers a feel that this is not just a game, but a legend they must create the end to.

   Secret of Mana is so beloved by many gamers because of its involving story that captures something all of us can identify with, the will to live, and the delicate balance of good and evil found in nature and in all of our lives. The occasional touches of humour keep the plot moving until the end, and the battle engine breaks the monotony of many menu based RPGs. Games like Secret of Mana should be an example to current RPGs that fancy graphics and over complicated stories don't always make a game popular, and that the true balance of both game play and story that is Mana will always be appreciated. Here's hoping that future RPGs will capture this spectacular balance, for after all, "time flows like a river, and history repeats..."

Retrospective by Tamzen Marie Baker.
Secret of Mana
Developer Square
Publisher SquareSoft
Genre Action RPG
Medium Cartridge
Platform SNES
Released 1993
Walkthrough / Script
18 screen shots
Character art
US / Japanese packaging & ad poster