Square's Unsung Opus: Reflecting On The Secret Of Mana
Square is the undisputed king of 16-bit role-playing games. The legendary Final Fantasy titles, the time-bending adventures of Chrono Trigger, and the good, clean fun of Super Mario RPG have cemented the Japanese company’s legacy. Another gem often gets overlooked while recounting Square’s rich history. The Secret of Mana is about a boy, a princess, and a sprite on a quest to restore a magical sword and save the world from certain doom. While the plot may not be dripping with originality, the 1993 SNES adventure features groundbreaking real-time RPG mechanics and a sprawling world rivaling the size of Hyrule. Here’s why we love The Secret of Mana.
[This article originally appeared in Game Informer issue #233]
How Square packed such a huge, beautiful soundtrack into one 16-bit cartridge is befuddling. The Secret of Mana blends delicate, haunting melodies, bass-heavy tribal beats, and Celtic-inspired tunes into a diverse collection. The title theme’s otherworldly whale bellows and soft piano expertly introduces players to the mystical world of Mana. The robust musical variety and sheer wealth of songs places this soundtrack among the best video game scores ever. Check out our feature on the music of Secret of Mana here.
By blending The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past’s combat with a worthwhile leveling system, The Secret of Mana has a recipe for success. Players wield swords, spears, and magic spells to combat evil rabbits, bandits, and other bad guys. Gaining experience, growing stronger, and clearing the world of enemies without being teleported to a separate battle screen was a revelation at the time. The game also incorporates a unique stamina-based combat system and innovative circular command menu for selecting spells, weapons, and items – something still seen in games like Mass Effect 3 and Max Payne 3.
The Secret of Mana is technically the second game in the series. The franchise is called Seiken Densetsu in Japan, and the first game was released in the West as Final Fantasy Adventure on the Game Boy. The simplistic 1991 title features combat and an overworld reminiscent of The Legend of Zelda on the NES, but with the leveling system that sets the Mana series apart. The Super Famicom sequel, Seiken Densetsu 3, never made it overseas, but a handful of other games in the Mana series have released on handheld Nintendo systems.
The creative leads for The Secret of Mana are important figures in Square’s talented roster. Koichi Ishii, the game’s director, worked on each Famicom Final Fantasy title before starting the Mana series. Ishii’s current development studio, Grezzo, recently helped develop The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina oft Time 3D for the 3DS. Hiromichi Tanaka, producer for The Secret of Mana and other games in the series, also worked on the Famicom Final Fantasy titles along with Xenogears, Chrono Cross, and several Final Fantasy side projects.
This Square title lacks the zoomed-out overworld map seen in many other RPGs. Instead, it stitches together assorted locations to create one huge world that Link would feel at home exploring. The Secret of Mana’s world has similarities to Chrono Trigger – a fusion of medieval and high-tech elements. These contrasting themes provide players with fantastic settings ranging from ancient ruins to a futuristic flying battleship. Plus, you get to travel around the world by being fired out of a cannon and riding an awesome dragon.
The current console generation ushered in a co-op renaissance, but long before it The Secret of Mana offered a three-player role-playing experience. After acquiring all three main characters, players can plug in a second controller (and a third with a multi-tap) to blast through the quest together. Square RPGs are time-intensive commitments, but embarking on them with friends makes the hours fly by. The trio of players can develop cooperative -tactics using a variety of defensive and offensive support spells, deadly elemental magic, and swordplay.
How To Play Today
Square Enix is well aware that the RPGs developed back in Square’s heyday have a devoted fanbase. In recent years, the company has made The Secret of Mana available on the Wii’s Virtual Console and iOS devices. We suggest playing the game any way you can, but the Wii provides the best modern experience. Linking up three Wii Classic Controllers and diving into The Secret of Mana’s co-op is the way to go. Now cross your fingers that Seiken Densetsu 3 (pictured above) gets a similar treatment.