Secret of Mana is an adventure RPG for the Super Nintendo in which *dun dun dun* (voiceover): Long ago, Mana was a powerful force on the planet. Humans harnessed its power and made the Mana Fortress, a great machine to harvest Mana more easily than they had been able to previously. Mana, however, is a finite thing, so in Mana’s desperation, it summoned the Mana Beast to destroy the Fortress and purge the world. A hero wielding the Mana Sword destroyed the fortress and the beast. Mana seemed to disappear and so did the sword. But these events will occur again, but differently! This time the hero and his allies, a young and feisty girl, an amnesiac sprite, and the eight spirits of Mana must restore the Mana Sword and prepare to save what they hold most dear and eventually the world! (Mana appears so many times in this introduction it barely registers as a word any more.)
I’m sure this pristine moment will last forever… forever… yup.
Secret of Mana was developed by Squaresoft and designed by Koichi Ishii. It was the sequel to Final Fantasy Adventure for the Game Boy, which was also designed by Koichi Ishii. Koichi Ishii has designed all the games in the “Mana” series and is responsible for the Chocobo and Moogle creatures. It was originally planned to be released for the Super Nintendo’s CD add on platform but when that project fell through they had to try and cram the game onto a cartridge.
The game was localized in only 30 days. It is suspected that this happened because Squaresoft wanted to release it for the holiday season. Compared to Earthbound’s year of localization, it’s plain to see why translator Ted Woolsey had his hands full with the project. The translation is marred by its censorship and strange word choice. The changes had to be made due to the size limitations of the cartridge and the strange font choice for the American version, which only allows 2 lines of text in each text box. That’s enough room for one sentence, or two very short ones. This means the conversations in the English version are cut to their bare bones as translators try to cram sentences into as few words as possible. (These days, this issue can be fixed with a patch of the ROM file if you’re using a SNES emulator. It’s called the FUSOYA enhanced version, so named for the internet personality that made it. If you play this game then I highly recommend that you use this enhanced version. The emulator and the ROM file are legal if you own a copy of the cartridge, so keep that in mind.)
It was scored by Hiroki Kikuta (the first game that he ever scored) and he felt at odds with the technology, trying to overcome the limitations of the Super Nintendo. He wanted to make a soundtrack “which would be neither pop music nor standard game music,” so instead of using pre-made MIDI samples, he made his own so that he would know exactly what they would sound like on the SNES. The title track, “Fear of the Heavens”, and the whale calls preceding it, were meant to try to “more deeply connect” with the player. Its music was so good that it released a soundtrack later that year.
The game released against Sonic and Knuckles, Warcraft, Donkey Kong Country, and King’s Quest VII. It sold very well in Japan but when it was released in the US, rushed and translated hastily, it wasn’t advertised or hyped to the American audience which lead to great reviews but less than stellar sales.
My aunt owned this game, I still don’t know why she owned it (One of life’s little mysteries). I remember that I would always want to go and see her so that I’d have a chance to play it. It’s a two player game—three player with the multitap—so we’d both be able to play. It was a sort of revelation for me at the time, the first game that I’d ever played that allowed two players to play cooperatively. There were so many sports game, fighting games, and games where two players took turns, but none where both players were playing at the same time. I liked playing the sprite because he was the smallest and had all of attack magic. I’d give him the spear because I liked seeing the smallest guy with the biggest weapon.
My aunt usually didn’t want to play it because she wanted to do something with her nephew besides playing videogames, so I asked her if I could borrow it. It took a lot of convincing and a little growing up before she trusted me with it, but I finally took it home when I was about ten-years-old. She also had the strategy guide with full color pages for the bosses and I’d look at them and think, “I want to fight that.” I didn’t have many friends growing up, and none that wanted to play the game anyway, so I usually played it alone. I’d try to make sense of the translation, curse my AI companions, and die a lot.
This translation is really bad, but I know it’s not Woolsey’s fault. I knew just enough of where I needed to go and barely knew what I needed to do when I got there. The companion AI is usually pretty good but sometimes they’ll get caught on walls and the terrain. There are tricks to get them unstuck, but it took me a long frustrating while to figure them out. When I didn’t know what equipment was, or how to use it, I got knocked around. (I remember going to all of the lower leveled areas and grinding magic levels on the weak monsters and seeing the ridiculous amounts of damage add up.)
When I was a kid, a lot of the bosses scared me. There are giant monsters that take up most of the screen, casting dangerous spells and unleashing attacks [that could cover the screen]. But I was able to push through them. I fought zombies, vampires, walls trying to crush me to death, giant razor taloned chickens, plain giants, lightning giants, oozes, and finally I met the second to last boss.
There are scarier bosses out there but not many.
I’d seen his entry in the strategy guide, but when his music hit I froze up. And I didn’t think I was going to make it—and sure enough I didn’t. Then I had to go back, and fight through the enemies just for another chance to fight this guy. I looked through his entry in the guide and it said he had “??????” health, so I just knew that I had to keep whaling on him until the fight was over. When I beat him I was so stoked, I was convinced that it was done. Alas, there’s a twist…which I won’t reveal because I’d hate to deprive anyone of such a heart string puller.
I eventually returned it to my aunt, but every once in a while, I’d borrow it again. When I got older though, I realized that the game’s ending wasn’t so happy. In the end, Mana is destroyed, as described in the legend at the beginning of the game. It’s such a sad ending. No longer would the people of the world know about the magical places and beings of the world. I imagined the Hero in a tavern, deep in his cups, where someone would say, “Didn’t you save the world? You’re a hero!” and the hero would start crying.
When I got into college I played through it with my girlfriend at the time—I played the hero and she played the sprite. She had so much fun blasting enemies with spells. When I got to the end I went to explain why the ending was so sad, but I realized that I forgot more pieces to the story. I forgot that at the end of the legend, Mana returned to the land; I just thought that the people in that story would have to use Mana more responsibly that time around.
I love this game, I love it to death. There are three characters and eight weapons, it’s all about what weapons the player wants to use for which character. I really like the monster design and was always waiting to see what the next enemy was. Playing the game with the bare-bones plot kept me going but when I got the expanded script, I was able to see parts of the story that were only hinted at.
The poor translation can really sour the game.When the game begins there’s a knight in town for some reason and he’s very helpful. The continued translation informs the player that he was looking for the Mana Sword and now he feels like he should help you because you have it. Without that added information, his presence in the village makes no sense in the story. The badness doubles down in the AI control menu. It took me a long while to figure out how it was supposed to work and I doubt that the word choice made that better. (The menu icon is named ACT. That obviously means AI control.)
The music in this game is phenomenal. It completely deserved to have its own soundtrack. The music can be pulse-poundingly terrifying, moody and atmospheric, inquisitive and playful, or can highlight the blissful and happy townsfolk. The music does whatever is best for the actions it accompanies. I was humming and whistling these tunes for years, and still do sometimes. When I went to piano lessons, it was music from this game that I wanted to learn.
I will say thought that I feel like I’m done with the game. Unless a friend wants me to play it with them, I don’t think I’ll be taking this title for a whirl. There’s only so much a guy can do after he levels up all the characters, levels up all the magic, and discovers a few of the hidden weapons.
And this picture encapsulates my feelings for the game.
It’s a game that has its flaws. Between the frustrating AI and the frustrating translation, the gameplay can get seriously marred. These flaws have their fixes—the translation can be patched and the game can be played multiplayer to overcome the wonky AI—but they’re still there. The player shouldn’t have to overcome this sort of thing to get to the fun part. But behind those flaws is a game with great art, fun gameplay, visually satisfying special attacks and magic, and a simply wonderful adventure.
Next week’s game is Bubsy for the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis.