My Ill-Conceived Dream: To Play Secret of Mana for the Nintendo PlayStation

My Ill-Conceived Dream: To Play Secret of Mana for the Nintendo PlayStation

Much as I'd love to play a SNES CD-add on prototype of Secret of Mana, I acknowledge it'd be a bad move.

Everyone has silly dreams that they keep in their hearts even though they're aware these fancies can never become reality. I have a few of my own, like "own a unicorn" or "ride on a dragon like a warrior-chick in a Boris Vallejo painting."

But sometimes a fantasy is painful to think about because it seems achievable, but you actually have a better chance of domesticating a lab-grown utahraptor. For example, I badly want to play the version of Secret of Mana Squaresoft developed – and subsequently cancelled – for the Nintendo PlayStation SNES CD add-on.

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The news about the person who actually found a Nintendo PlayStation prototype in the wild (and the recent news about the person who got the CD attachment to read data) thrilled me as someone who's interested in game history, but it also made me wish someone, somewhere will somehow find a working prototype CD of Secret of Mana in its original form.

It won't happen, because this world is a cruel, grey place where angels die with the unspoken wishes of children lingering on their lips. Also, I don't think Square committed any of the game's data to a CD.

By now, most RPG fans have a rudimentary idea of Secret of Mana's tumultuous history (thanks in no small part to research done by archives like Unseen 64 and The Cutting Room Floor. Long story short, Secret of Mana was originally developed for the Nintendo PlayStation CD add-on, but was stuffed into an SNES cart once the add-on was cancelled. The transition from CD back to cartridge meant a great deal of content had to be cut.

By some estimates, only 60% of the "original" Secret of Mana made it into the final retail version – and what's there admittedly feels unfinished, especially towards the latter half of the game. Paths go nowhere, story threads die, characters vanish without serving much of a purpose, and there are bugs galore.

"We'll just stick you in a dark room and call it a dungeon. Cool? Cool."

Secret of Mana's cartridge content wasn't just cut, it was cut in a noticeable rush. Take, for instance, the fascinating riddle of the "North Town Carousel," a glittering icon that's visible on the world map when you fly on your dragon pal, Flammie, but is nowhere to be found on terra firma. Was the carousel part of some sort of mini-game that got axed towards the very end of development? We'll never know. And look at the size of the continents you fly over, only to discover many of those sprawling landmasses house little in the way of explorable territory.

Incomplete though it may be, Secret of Mana captured a lot of young SNES owners' hearts, including mine. Rarely a year goes by where I don't start a new save file and spend a day or so just wandering through the lush greens and vibrant pastels of Square's world.

Normally, discarded content and unfinished business isn't much more than a passing curiosity in video games. But fans are still breaking down and studying Secret of Mana because its development history is fascinating.

Sadly, the reasons for Secret of Mana's consistently interesting history are also the reasons why we're highly unlikely to see anything like a "complete" version of the game, or a Director's Cut: In the 16-bit era, Squaresoft traded bits and pieces of its own games as freely as teenagers swapping mouth-germs at Prom. Secret of Mana was initially born out of Squaresoft's early ideas for Final Fantasy IV, and then many of the ideas that were cut to fit Secret of Mana on a cartridge wound up in Chrono Trigger instead.

Final Fantasy IV begat Secret of Mana, who begat Chrono Trigger, who begat--

In other words, the game I envision as "Secret of Mana Complete" would probably look and play nothing like the Secret of Mana I know and love. Wishing for its existence would be like making a wish on a Monkey's Paw. Even series designer / Square-Enix veteran Koichi Ishii admits the Secret of Mana his team designed for the Nintendo PlayStation was much different from the cartridge release.

"[T]he original version of Secret of Mana was not at all the same game as we eventually released," Ishii says in a 2006 interview with the Swedish magazine LEVEL. "The first version of the game had, for example, a much darker tone."

It's fully possible Secret of Mana originally had scenarios as dark as Chrono Trigger's grim, poisoned future of 2300. Much as I love Chrono Trigger, one of the reasons I adore Secret of Mana is because it's such a bright, hopeful game. Well, for the most part. Following the Dyluck subplot to its conclusion isn't exactly a trip to Disney World.

Getting your heart's desire isn't always as easy as it seems. Though I'll continue to play Secret of Mana and push against its walls and barriers with a small, impossible hope that I'll find additional lands to explore, I know my memories and wishes will forever be thus.

Ultimately, it's better that way. I'll leave my behind in the past, and look towards the future.

(Sigh.)

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Nadia Oxford

Staff Writer

Nadia has been writing about games for so long, only the wind and the rain (or the digital facsimiles thereof) remember her true name. She's written for Nerve, About.com, Gamepro, IGN, 1UP, PlayStation Official Magazine, and other sites and magazines that sling words about video games. She co-hosts the Axe of the Blood God podcast, where she mostly screams about Dragon Quest.

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