Super NES Retro Review: Secret of Mana

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

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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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