Secret of Mana came out on the Super Nintendo during Squaresoft’s famous RPG hot-streak. In a world where Final Fantasy III and Chrono Trigger – two spectacularly popular retro gaming RPG games – were captivating gamers’ minds, Secret of Mana set itself apart by setting its combat in real-time unlike the turn-based nature of its contemporaries. The move to real-time created a combat system that is entirely unique and yet deep and rewarding. In fact, Secret of Mana’s battle system has been its claim to fame for a longtime.
Allowing up to three players to experience the adventure simultaneously, Secret of Mana opens with The Boy, a nameless hero who hears a sword mysteriously calling out to him. Fairly soon, you get introduced to the other two characters – The Girl and The Sprite. Each of these characters has a distinct play style and abilities. The Boy is more of a melee combat type and can wield and upgrade several powerful weapons. The Girl is a defensive/healer type and can cast healing and defensive spells in combat. The Sprite is the sorcerer/mage type and has access to a slew of damage-dealing spells and magic.
To get through the game, you’ll have to work in synergy with the other two members of your party (whether human or AI). Secret of Mana still works and is fun if you’re playing on your own, but having each character of the party controlled by a human just takes the experience to the next level.
The game holds up shockingly well. The way the game handles spellcasting, upgrades and leveling up is a true lesson in great game design. In Secret of Mana, your characters, your weapons and your magic all level up over time and become more powerful. It’s a joy to see the weapons/spells that you’re most fond of grow in strength as you progress through the game. The game also features a timing mechanic – your weapons do less damage if they’re used more frequently. You must wait for your weapon to recharge to an acceptable level before you swing it again. You can’t just hack and slash your way through this one.
The game also has a menu system that doesn’t get enough credit. Secret of Mana never gets in your way. There’s no break in the action if you open the inventory. The game doesn’t fill up your screen with distracting menus. Almost all the weapon/item switching is handled through a ring-system – a ring appears around your character and you can cycle through rings to find the right combination of items and spells you want to go with. Once you get used to it, you’ll automatically notice the lack of this kind of subtlety in other RPGs.
We Really Liked:
The graphics are pretty and colorful, and feature the charming art style that we all know and love. The combat animations for your characters and enemies alike are distinct and smooth. The levels are impressively detailed, and you’ll see the power of the 16-bit SNES console at work during several sections of the game. Even today the 16-bit graphics really stand the test of time, I never get sick of the cartoon look and feel of Super Nintendo games.
The music for this game deserves special mention. Square has always had great music in their RPG games (Final Fantasy, anyone?) but Secret of Mana’s soundtrack is simply amazing. There’s an epic feel to all the tracks and they really underscore the sweeping nature of your quest.
Secret of Mana is a bonafide retro gaming classic, and the innovations it introduced into the RPG genre are still being felt today. A fantastic combat system, great graphics and a delightful soundtrack make this game a joy for RPG lovers. Grab this game, invite a couple of your friends over and fall in love with retro 16-bit gaming all over again.