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Super NES Classic Reviews Game by Game #10: Secret of Mana

Join us as we review every Super NES Classic game. Next up: A real gem of an action-RPG that has some rough edges.

Review by Nadia Oxford, .

Join us as we review all the games on the SNES Classic Mini Edition in chronological order!

Out of all the games on the SNES Classic Edition, I think Square-Enix's Secret of Mana will deliver the hardest nostalgia-punch to players. Its soft colors, restful music, and straight-forward fairy-tale plot all embedded themselves in my soul when I first played the game at 15, and I doubt I'm alone. Hearing the whale-call on the title screen still whisks me back to high school fast enough to give me whiplash.

Everyone has their comfort games they retreat to when they've had a hard day at work, and need an electronic blankie. Secret of Mana is one of mine. I've played this action-RPG classic more times than I can count, which makes it possible for me to appreciate every nook and nuance.

It also means I'm intimate with Secret of Mana's flaws, and I love dissecting them in the company of anyone who'll listen.

"I live here you jerk."

Secret of Mana's development history is gonzo, but it's a unique kind of craziness that was only possible during the '90s. The industry was in upheaval as developers waffled between keeping their games on cartridges, or making the jump to CD storage. Sega already had its Sega CD add-on, and Nintendo planned to answer back with its own CD add-on for the SNES (and that's a gonzo story by itself).

Secret of Mana was initially planned for the "Nintendo PlayStation," but when the add-on was canned, Squaresoft had to perform major surgery on its game to make it fit on a Super Famicom / SNES cart. Some of the cut content became Chrono Trigger down the road, but the game we're talking about now is the journey of a young outcast boy who finds a sword lying in a puddle, picks it up, and dooms the world.

"I...put my hands around it and pulled, basically?"

Secret of Mana carries the heart and soul of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. You take up a variety of arms and swing them at foes who get up in your business on your journey to save the world from a power-hungry Empire. Along the way, you learn magic spells (offensive and defensive), meet friends who help you fight, and journey through deserts, tundra, and sacred forests. You even meet a white dragon who carries you on its back, and these flights make lovely use of the Super Nintendo's Mode-7 capabilities.

But even though Secret of Mana is as imaginative as A Link to the Past, it lacks its mentor's solid form. There are a lot of bugs, possibly a consequence of the game being cut up and stitched together to fit on an SNES cart. Worse, the AI that controls your secondary characters is dumber than rocks, and it will often put said characters behind rocks. You can only progress as a team, so prepare to backtrack often and clear away blockages.

We've got moogles!

Frankly, travelling with your companions in Secret of Mana is a bit like travelling with a dim-witted friend who somehow keeps slamming the seat of their pants in every door you pass through. Unsticking them time and time again is irritating, but hey, they're your friend and you love them. The SNES version of the game lets two flesh-and-blood players take up the reins in place of the game's feeble AI, but that requires a Multitap accessory, and I doubt the SNES Classic Edition supports chunks of third-party hardware. At least the console comes with a second controller, so there can be two of you to cut away obstructive bushes and grass from the third idiot.

Secret of Mana also has one hell of a difficulty spike early in the game when you're expected to take on a boss character with the apt name "Spiky." This monstrous jerk of a tiger can deal huge damage, jump out of range, and stun-lock you. Here's a tip: Use the bow and arrow to reach him when he leaps on the towers. Otherwise, pray. I have no idea why Squaresoft decided to make this fight so hard – it's one of the hardest in the game, honestly – and I expect it's a dropping-off point for a lot of frustrated players.

Dracarys.

It's a shame, because what Secret of Mana lacks in its systems, it more than makes up for in its graphics, sound, and even its characters. The Pure Lands you visit towards the end of the game still ranks as one of my all-time favorite RPG dungeons. It carries a solemnity and awe that rises above the rest of the "Good Guy vs Bad Guy" struggle ongoing outside its green borders.

And, despite Secret of Mana's simple story, there's a fun chemistry brewing between its characters. The male hero (Randi) is primarily interested in saving the world, while the female sidekick (Primm) is chasing after her kidnapped boyfriend. There's no forced romance between the two, which is nice, and it's also nice to see a woman character on a quest to rescue a man. It was rare to see two platonic friends of the opposite sex quest together for different reasons in the '90s, and unfortunately, it's still rare today.

Secret of Mana is a game that's best enjoyed with a pair of rose-tinted glasses, but I think newcomers will find a lot to love despite the adventure's flaws. Give it a thorough playthrough – if you can push past that damn tiger.

Secret of Mana's bugs and poor difficulty balance at the start of the game keep it from rubbing shoulders with the very best the SNES Classic has to offer, but gosh darn, it might be one of the most charming games on the system.

4 /5

Super NES Classic Reviews Game by Game #10: Secret of Mana Nadia Oxford Join us as we review every Super NES Classic game. Next up: A real gem of an action-RPG that has some rough edges. 2017-08-08T20:45:00-04:00 4 5

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Comments 20

  • Avatar for mattb0527 #1 mattb0527 12 days ago
    i've been replaying this game lately and my kids adore watching me play it, i'm sure largely due to the bright vibrant colors, incredible character/enemy design and enthralling soundtrack (the ost is also often requested during long car rides). they refer to spikey as "that mean witch's nasty tiger pet" which is pretty dang accurate.

    i also have a very specific memory of being in a boss fight, entering the menu, turning up the volume on the old crt tv i had in the room i shared with my older brother, and leaving it like that for hours while i did my chores. it was awesome.
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  • Avatar for SargeSmash #2 SargeSmash 12 days ago
    While the game is indeed a bit rough around the edges, I don't know if I even cared or noticed all that much when I first played it. I absolutely remember reading the multi-issue Nintendo Power coverage, which didn't help me contain my envy very much as a non-SNES owner at the time...
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  • Avatar for Vonlenska #3 Vonlenska 12 days ago
    This isn't my favorite Mana game (anyone who knows me has heard me gush about some aspect of Legend probably more than they'd like), but it's still one of my favorite games. It has its flaws, but the music and art are beautiful, the world is uniquely weird and it just has a certain adorable, whimsical, bucolic charm. It was the thing that made me really pay attention to games in the first place.

    Also, confession time. The AI getting stuck behind things is definitely an annoyance, but when a friend and I played the game as children we found a creative way to vent our frustrations. There's a little closed-in area in the moogle village where you can block the only entrance/exit. And NPCs can be pushed around. So, yeah, we jailed the entire village. Sorry moogles.Edited 2 times. Last edited 2 weeks ago by Vonlenska
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  • Avatar for Roto13 #4 Roto13 11 days ago
    I liked this game but I could never get that into it. I wish we'd gotten Seiken Densetsu 3, though.
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  • Avatar for Dorchadas #5 Dorchadas 11 days ago
    I played the game for the first time last year and I loved the graphics, loved the music, and hated everything else. The cuts from the surgery were just too obvious.
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  • Avatar for riderkicker #6 riderkicker 11 days ago
    I still wait for the day you and Kat can set up Netplay for some two player adventuring.Edited 2 weeks ago by riderkicker
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  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #7 SatelliteOfLove 11 days ago
    @mattb0527

    Them kids have good taste.
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  • Avatar for NiceGuyNeon #8 NiceGuyNeon 11 days ago
    I tried playing this game on my phone and got about halfway through before the novelty that I was playing JRPGs on my phone wore off. Part of me wants to give it another go because I did thoroughly enjoy what I played, but part of me is also like, but yeah there are other games to play....
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  • Avatar for JackPonting #9 JackPonting 11 days ago
    Thanks for letting us know that you are regularly reviewing review every Super NES Classic game. And you are right about video games are way to being relax and enjoy the time after all the hard working & stressful day. I also used to play a games after working hours as By profession, I work as a dissertation writer at Quality Dissertation and been helping students in their dissertation since many years and have done required research in writing a good quality dissertation. I also worked as various academic companies in London and helped thousands of students by providing best dissertation writing services, besides that I am also a good blogger, former lecturer as I pursued a PhD in Communications and Media Management and love to read, write and cooking in my free time.
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  • Avatar for sabalex #10 sabalex 11 days ago
    I played the game for the first time last year and I loved the graphics, loved the music, and hated everything else. The cuts from the surgery were just too obvious. mc jacka
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  • Avatar for VotesForCows #11 VotesForCows 11 days ago
    @Vonlenska Its good to make villagers fear you when you're an RPG hero(ine).
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  • Avatar for Nuclear-Vomit #12 Nuclear-Vomit 11 days ago
    The game has the two best enemies in a RPG... The Duck Soldiers: Mad Mallard and Captain Duck.
    They are Badass.
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  • Avatar for Gamer-Law #13 Gamer-Law 11 days ago
    Secret of Mana is arguably my favorite game of all time. Yes, it contains many of the flaws that others have noted here, but those are largely superficial imperfections in an otherwise deep and meaningful experience.

    The game's story and character interactions stand the test of time. The characters were well-developed and memorable even decades after the game's release. In fact, many of today's game developers could learn from Secret of Mana.

    Nadia may very well be right--the time and place you are at in life when you first played Secret of Mana may have shaped how you felt about the game. I can remember when it released and how drawn in I was from the outset. I cannot wait to pick up a SNES Classic and experience this gem again.Edited 2 times. Last edited 2 weeks ago by Gamer-Law
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  • Avatar for sylvan #14 sylvan 11 days ago
    Some of my fondest gaming memories are of my first play-through of Secret of Mana. In fact I think that game is responsible for my long love affair with JRPGs. FF VI and Chrono Trigger just sealed the deal. Despite its bugs and insane difficulty spikes I still think this game is a near masterpiece. Almost nothing quite as creative and inspired as Mana comes out of Japan any more. And the game has had major influences on action RPGs and JRPGs in general.

    I will agree with the ridiculous tiger battle. Actually, all of the boss fights in this game were pretty goddamn tough. But that tiger... no joke that fight basically boils down to luck. So, so worth it though.
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  • Avatar for mattb0527 #15 mattb0527 11 days ago
    @NiceGuyNeon i would 100% recommend playing it on anything that is not a mobile phone/tablet. touch controls + action rpg = sadness. grab it on wii vc and give it a go.
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  • Avatar for Monkey-Tamer #16 Monkey-Tamer 11 days ago
    Co-op RPG before it was cool. My brother got it in the 90s and found another copy in a bargain bin at a record store he gifted to me. I'll probably play through this game every few years until I die.
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  • Avatar for MARl0 #17 MARl0 10 days ago
    Huh, I don't remember there being any difficulty spikes in this game. It's been awhile since I last played it, but I've played through it 5 times over the years.
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  • Avatar for Pandalulz #18 Pandalulz 9 days ago
    @Vonlenska I thought i was the only one who liked Legend. Sure it's absurdly easy and systems like crafting are completely pointless, but it's absolutely gorgeous, and I loved how there are a billion ways to complete the game that weren't at all obvious, so many wonderful side stories.
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  • Avatar for Vonlenska #19 Vonlenska 8 days ago
    @Pandalulz
    LoM is sincerely one of my all-time favorite games! It looks and sounds beautiful, and the writing is actually pretty strong once you shrug off expectations of a standard JRPG Epic Journey. I like the "short story collection" format; there's a lot more charm and depth to its world and storytelling than it often gets credit for.

    Brownie's new game Egglia is probably as close as we'll ever get to a sequel. I've been playing it off and on for the past week, and it's hitting all the same notes--gorgeous art and music, super charming world and characters, breezy but fun systems.
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  • Avatar for Pandalulz #20 Pandalulz 8 days ago
    @Vonlenska I have not heard of Egglia, but I'm looking it up right now.
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  • Avatar for warrenzephaniah #21 warrenzephaniah Yesterday
    Deleted Yesterday by warrenzephaniah
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