Super NES Retro Review: 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.

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.

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).

"I live here you jerk."

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

Tagged with Retro, Retro Reviews, Reviews, Role Playing Games, Square Enix, Super Nintendo, Super Nintendo Entertainment System: Classic Edition.

Sometimes we include links to online retail stores. If you click on one and make a purchase we may receive a small commission. See our terms & conditions.

Read this next

The RPGs We Lost When the Wii Shop Closed

AXE OF THE BLOOD GOD | Examining the RPGs we lost with the Wii Shop closure, and where to find alternate versions.

Secret of Mana Defied a Major RPG Trope: A Happy Ending

25 years ago, Secret of Mana played games with our hearts.

Mana Producer Would Love to Remake or Port Seiken Densetsu 3

A potential Seiken Densetsu 3 release is on Square Enix' radar.

The Secret of Mana Remake is Being Considered for the Nintendo Switch

Also, the Seiken Densetsu collection might get an English release. Keep wishing upon that magic tree.

Axe of the Blood God: SMT V, Assassin's Creed Origins' Relationship to Witcher 3, and Final Fantasy IX Report #6

PODCAST | Kat and Nadia talk about recent releases and how they connect to RPGS, then continue the Final Fantasy IX Report.

More Reviews

Observation Review

An eerie space station adventure that's derailed by some questionable design decisions.

Team Sonic Racing Review

After having his license revoked, Sonic is back behind the wheel.

Rage 2 Review

Bullets flying, fists crunching, and bodies falling. Rage is back with its own flavor of rip and tear.

Logitech G502 Lightspeed Review

One of Logitech's most-loved designs returns.

More Role Playing Games Games

Dauntless Best Weapons - Swords, Axes, Repeaters, Chain Blades, Hammers, War Pikes Guide

Our full Dauntless weapons guide, containing information on swords, axes, chain blades, hammers, war pikes, and the best weapons in Dauntless.

YIIK Developer Responds To Accusation of Plagiarism, Says It's a Tribute But Will Update Credits

Ackk Studios will update the game's credits to reflect its influences, direct and indirect.

Skyrim Mods - Best Skyrim Mods for Xbox One, PS4 and PC

Skyrim is a great game that can be made even better through the use of mods. Here are all of the mods that are worth your time.

Starting Screen | Why 2019 Has Thus Far Been an Underwhelming Year for Games

After being spoiled for two solid years, we've hit a major lull. Will it get better in the second half?