somgswheader.jpg[We're delighted to welcome back veteran GameSetWatch writer Alistair Wallis, who started his new 'RetroPerspective' series with a look at The Secret Of Monkey Island. Next up -- an insanely mammoth personal analysis of Square's classic SNES RPG Secret Of Mana.]

I transitioned into 16-bit gaming pretty late, by most standards. I didn't actually buy a SNES until the end of 1994, just before the release of Donkey Kong Country. Before that, it was all PC and Game Gear for me. And I was almost going to continue down the Sega route for my 16-bit purchase, too, until Donkey Kong Country started appearing in magazines. Suddenly, I decided that there was a lot more life in the SNES than there was in the Mega Drive/Genesis.

I'd have to say that I was pretty console neutral though, even at the age of 12. A couple of my really good friends owned Mega Drives, and I was pretty into my Game Gear, to the point where I bought a Sega magazine called MegaZone every month. But I'd gone through primary school playing NES games at friends' places, and then moved onto SNES games when the lucky ones amongst them did. I rented both consoles a number of times and really didn’t see that one was overtly superior to the other.

Hell, even MegaZone didn't really have the kind of snipe and sneer that a lot of the other platform exclusive magazines had at the time - and continued to have, right through to the end of the '90s. In fact, it turned considerably worse, probably because magazines started to skew younger with their content. Some of the Nintendo 64 magazines in the late '90s especially were just revolting; a real case of fans getting their defenses up when everything seemed to be heading downhill for Nintendo.

somjapanbox"You reckon the 64's a kiddie console? Well, check out this drawing I did of Mario inserting his foot into Crash Bandicoot's rectum! Nothing kiddie about that!"

Fanboys slay me, really. Hilarious bunch. I always love writing about them. That kind of thing's always amused me, just because I've always been either completely divorced from the whole system wars thing, or I've sat firmly in the middle.

I'm not entirely sure if system wars still go on now in magazines, because I've only really read Game Developer and Official Xbox Magazine in the past few years, and even then only when I've written for them. I probably don't even need to say how separate Game Developer is from all that crap. The US OXM's a great magazine, and while I can't say I'm similarly impressed with the Australian version (which definitely skews a hell of a lot younger) at least they both seem to stay well away from the pictures of Mario shooting Sonic in the testicles with a machine gun that we used to see on reader art pages in Nintendo Magazine System. There's no, say, Master Chief being decapitated by Kratos, or something.

I mean, there's bound to be that sort of thing on DeviantArt, but there's also a disturbing amount of Sonic and Knuckles slash fan-art too. Although even that isn't as worrying as the Sonic-turned-human stuff, which is really, really creepy for a reason I find myself unable to put into words. But anyway, I'm going way off topic because I can talk about my fascination with horrible fan art at length.

Arguably, back in regards to my console choice, I made the right call for the years that I owned it - there were far more interesting games that came out in the latter years of the SNES than there was for the Mega Drive. Sonic and Knuckles, Vectorman. I'm struggling to think of many others. Ristar, I guess? The SNES, arguably, had many of its best games from '94 onwards: Donkey Kong Country and its sequels, Yoshi's Island, Kirby Superstar, Kirby’s Dream Course, Super Mario RPG, and so on. And they're just the Nintendo published ones.

Personally, I can't say that I think Donkey Kong Country has really aged that well - though Donkey Kong Country 2 is a different story - but it does mark the point that people started to realise the SNES wasn't the rapidly aging beast they assumed it was. It signalled a real change for the console.

sompalboxU.S. based readers with an exceptionally long memory for unimportant trivia will know that Secret of Mana was released there in early October 1993, and will probably be questioning the relevance of talking about latter period games. European readers with similarly pedantic streaks will no doubt be shouting the answer at their monitors right now, though: the game (as was in line with standard PAL release protocols of holding off releasing software for at least a year if not more just for fun back in those days) wasn't released until November 1994. Just a few weeks before I bought my SNES, then.

Mind you, I didn't pick it up at the time I bought my SNES because - and I'm guessing here, because I can't find any actual record of it - it didn't hit Australian stores until early 1995, if not a little later. Also, I didn't know anything about it. Things were pretty different back then, unless you compulsively read every single magazine on the shelves, and no 12 year old could do that. Well, unless your parents bought them for you but mine sure as hell didn't and hey look, we're getting off track again.

From memory, the only game I did grab at that point was The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, though the system still came with Super Mario World packed in. That's relevant too though, because up until A Link to the Past I'd never played anything even close to a role-playing game, despite being a PC gamer. Okay, okay - I know it's not actually an RPG by definition, because of its action tropes. But think of it as a gateway drug: there's the story focus, the progression in terms of getting stronger, dungeons, a focal enemy, myth, magic, extensive use of non-player characters, and so on.

That's pretty much your archetypical RPG right there. Now, I could go on about the Zelda series for quite a while, but for now the important thing to note is that I liked it. A lot. And when an issue of the (at the time) very awesome local magazine Hyper mentioned in its news section that a game by the name of Seiken Densetsu, or Secret of Mana, was getting geared for a local release and fans of Zelda would like it and by the way they gave it 9/10 a few months back when they reviewed the American release, well, I was all ears.

somposterNow, unfortunately, distribution in Australia for third parties was fairly abysmal, because they were mostly all done through the same distributor. Entirely abysmal, actually. Especially for Squaresoft. I'm no expert on the details, but let's just say that if it was terrible in major capitals like Melbourne and Sydney, in a significantly smaller capital like Adelaide it was pretty much a case of grabbing games when you saw them on store shelves, because chances were you'd never get another shot. Accordingly, I never saw a single copy of Secret of Mana available at retail.

Where I did see it, oddly enough, was at a video rental shop near my sister's place. I was around there for dinner, and we'd gone to the little strip of shops to actually buy said dinner - planning ahead is not one of the hallmarks of my family, sadly - and popped into the video shop for a bit, I guess. I don't exactly remember why. Might have been my fault, because I've always been fond of video shops.

(Don't ask; I can't explain it. They fascinate me, and I imagine being employed at one is absolutely brilliant fun and probably the best job ever. No doubt that’s not entirely accurate, but don’t ruin the illusion for me, please)

I was checking out their rack of second hand games, and there it was, for $25. In Australian dollars - especially at the time, when a new game on SNES could cost up to $130 - that constituted something of a bargain. And so I bought it.

There's a kind of feeling you get when you snag a bargain like that, I think. I felt the same sort of buzz quite a number of years later when I was in a Salvation Army store and managed to pick up an original copy of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's 'The Message' for $2.

"Oh, what's that?" asked the woman serving me. "I've never heard of it. I just put it in the racks this morning."

"It's, uh, nothing special," I replied. Because that's the kind of thing you do when you get a bargain. I had absolutely no reason to hide the fact that I was getting something very awesome for a very cheap price, because why on earth would a volunteering senior citizen care in the least? It's not like she was going to rip it out of my hands and go DJ at senior citizen clubs or something. Although, come to think of it, that would have been cool, and totally worth losing the album for.

somwoodsIt's just the way it happens. You have to act nonchalant, and pretend like you don't even know what it is you're getting yourself into. You pretend you're not getting a bargain, because, hell, if the person serving you works out you're getting a bargain, they might take your bargain away. Even though they're the ones setting the price for said bargain and therefore have absolutely no reason to do so.

It's a messed up little system and I don't know why it exists. That's just how you have to play it, you know?

And I did know. So, if I said I grabbed the game excitedly and rushed up to the counter with money in my hand already babbling excitedly, I'd be lying. I hissed something to my sister about the game being supposedly cool – keep in mind, I also knew nothing about it other than the fact that Zelda fans would enjoy it - and casually paid for the game when we also paid for a video we decided to rent.

I seem to recall that the video remained unwatched that evening. I had my SNES with me, and played the game through until my dad came to pick up my younger sister and I. And even though I only made to a point just past the first boss, I loved the hell out of it. I even did some level grinding.

Funny thing is, as impressed by Donkey Kong Country as everyone was at the time, I still considered Secret of Mana to be the better-looking game. Secret of Mana's a softer game, for one thing, and the choice of colour palette in some areas is just brilliant - the Great Woods’ multiple seasons, for example, or Gaia's Navel, or the Pure Land. There's really something about the vibrancy and mood from the colours used in each area and the sense of space that makes the whole game so memorable. It's never quite as grand in its scope as, say, Final Fantasy VI, but it does just as good a job of creating locations that stick with you.

In fact, as I'm writing this I'm doing so without Wikipedia or any other resource open. Even though it’s been quite a few years since I’ve done a complete play through, there are still locations that I could sketch reasonably accurate maps for right off the top of my head.

As much as that might sound like a result of the game’s story being strong, it really is down to the art design and atmosphere of the game far more. In fact, that story really isn’t a strength of the game at all – it’s passable, but only really in the context of early ‘90s JRPG writing. In terms of more general criticism, it’s barely even what you’d call coherent in a lot of places.

snescdromThat probably comes down to the development of the game more than anything though. I don’t recall having ever read a really comprehensive article about that side of things, but my basic understanding is that the game was intended as a launch title for the proposed Sony SNES CD-ROM add-on. When the production of the system fell through, the game had to be reworked into a cartridge title mid-development, meaning that huge chunks of story had to be cut, amongst other things.

That’s interesting for a few reasons. Firstly, it suggests that the Sony developed CD-ROM add-on was a lot further along than most people would assume; for Square to be actively developing a game for it, there would have had to be fairly firm specifications, which I don’t recall ever seeing released. I've definitely seen specs for the Philips produced add-on (on which development began around the time of the dissolution of the Nintendo-Sony partnership) but that was an altogether different beast. It also suggests that the system would have been technically reasonably close to the SNES, if games could be rewritten with a relative kind of ease. I’m sure it wasn’t simple, per se, but the fact that it was financially viable to rework Secret of Mana for SNES rather than just scrapping the project gives the impression that it would have been a reasonably straightforward undertaking.

Secondly, as speculated by Jeremy Parish in an article a few months back, it would make sense that Secret of Mana was one of the catalysts behind Square’s defection to Sony for Final Fantasy VII. Square had been critical of Nintendo’s decision to stick with cartridges while other companies moved on to optical media – not just because it placed restrictions on what they were able to achieve, but also because Nintendo charged a rather substantial amount for the actual ROM chips. Especially large ones. And Square, well, they’ve never been afraid of making large games.

So it’s pretty simple to see Square’s perspective on this one – Nintendo promised them a platform that would deliver the space they desired (required?) and bring down production costs. They even provided specifications for the platform. But midway through development of their first game for it, Nintendo then pull the system from underneath them (and Sony, but that’s another story) forcing them to downsize the game back to the more restrictive and expensive cartridge format. No wonder they went with Sony’s PlayStation just a few years later.

Anyway, the difference in size between a CD-ROM and a SNES cartridge probably doesn’t need to be spelled out, but you’re essentially talking about a product that could have theoretically filled out a 700MB media being squeezed into roughly 2MB: a 16Mbit cart.

Of course, it’s unlikely the game would have filled out the whole disc. CD-ROM based games from around that time generally used most of the space for audio or full-motion video rather than actual gameplay content, simply because compression techniques were still fairly unrefined. And like I said, I don’t believe there’s ever been anything particularly comprehensive about the subject, so it’s hard to say exactly how much had to be cut when the SNES add-on project was dropped.

One other interesting thing to note is that Secret of Mana is one of the only SNES games – if not the only – to display at a resolution of 512 x 224. Only the menu screens actually use this resolution, but it’s almost certainly a relic of the game’s CD-ROM development.

sombetawmUnseen64 has quite a number of images of the game in its beta and alpha stages – there’s no way of knowing, unfortunately, whether or not these pictures are actually from the aborted CD-ROM version though. There’s an altered overworld map, a number of pictures of the hero in otherwise inaccessible places, and a number of locations that don’t appear in the final game, though nothing that confirms the shots are from the CD-ROM version.

There’s also a suggestion floating around out there that the game was going to feature animated FMV, though I’ve never actually heard that one before and can’t seem to find a reliable source at all, so maybe take it with a grain of salt. Presumably, if true, this would have been done in the same way as Square’s PlayStation port of Chrono Trigger, which would have been pretty mind-blowing, to say the least.

In terms of unused material left on the cart, there are quite a few sprites and the like, but that’s fairly typical stuff. The most telling clues are things that are still left visible even to players: doors that can’t be opened, staircases that don’t go anywhere, and so forth. It’s very clear that whole areas of the game were slashed at fairly late notice.

Translator and ‘90s Square mainstay Ted Woolsey once noted that “when you play it you can get a sense of areas where it seems that something might be missing”. There’s a good deal of speculation that at least two areas in the game – an island set in the middle of the ocean on the back of a turtle with just one useful item and a seemingly pointless lighthouse – were set for a much bigger role in the game. The lighthouse takes a good minute or so to climb to the top of, for example, and the only thing up there is a spinning monk who babbles something entirely forgettable.

It’s quite likely that quite a number of bosses were cut from the game. The final boss in the Pure Lands, one of the last areas visited, provides you with an upgrade for your gloves that promises to be strong against dragons. That would be particularly useful if it weren’t for the fact that the boss just defeated is the final dragon type to appear in the game – it’s pretty safe to assume that it wasn’t originally planned that way.

Detailed post-mortems, sadly, didn’t factor highly into the list of priorities for Japanese studios in the early ‘90s so the truth behind the development of the game is likely to remain shrouded behind conjecture from fans. The accepted figure in the fan community seems to be that around 40% of the game was cut, but who really knows?

sompldragonOne thing that is certain is that the pacing of the game is strangely uneven. There are plot points that are given only vague resolutions (the underground resistance in the Empire, for example) and characters that remain woefully underdeveloped. It takes hours upon hours to even get beyond the first continent, and then the final stages of the game seem to rush by in a matter of minutes. The Light, Dark and Tree Mana seeds are collected in a very, very short period of time, strongly suggesting that the ending moments were stapled together rather quickly.

Hell, the overall plot of the game wasn’t even particularly clear to me until I read a summary of it years later. Even now I’m not entirely sure that I could retell it in a fashion that would make any significant amount of sense. But hey, let’s see.

The game is the story of a canonically unnamed young man – though promotional manga for the game did refer to him as Randi, and this seems to have been taken on by fans too, despite being an all around terrible name for a hero. It’s a better name for a hero than “HERO”, though – the game freezes after about two minutes if you try naming your character that. True story.

Anyways, one day, Randi’s hanging out around the waterfall near his town with some party hat wearing kid and some fat dude and falls off or something and there’s a magic sword and also he’s an orphan as far as the village is concerned maybe? And so he takes the sword, but that’s probably bad because there’s a balance in the world’s mana and the sword shouldn’t come out of it’s stone or bad things will happen but it can only come out when bad things are about to happen anyway, so…yeah.

It’s pretty dismal, to be honest. Randi, of course, is the hero of legend: the only one capable of wielding the Mana Sword. And naturally, along his journey he meets magic wielding companions: a plucky young tomboy Princess, and an androgynous sprite thing. And together they grow strong and save the world from an evil empire known as The Empire. Except that even The Empire is being controlled and manipulated by an evil sorcerer named Thanatos who plans to destroy the world for some reason that is never made entirely clear and then he turns into a lich. High-level stuff.

Also: the hero’s mother is a tree. A magic one.

somspritepromoOkay, okay. There’s a few twists and turns in there, and some of them are genuinely surprising. There are also one or two moments that manage to hit home on an emotional level, though that’s more to do with the length of time spent with the two supporting allies rather than any sort of intense characterisation.

It is an epic journey, though – you can’t fault that aspect of it. Yeah, the pacing is terrible, but its scope is ambitious enough that it nonetheless manages to get across the most important feeling in an RPG: that spectacular realisation towards the end of exactly how far you’ve gone.

Sure, it’s pretty much a staple of JRPGs, but Secret of Mana pulls off such variety throughout the game that the feeling of progression is really quite impressive. The start could not be more generic: small village, green fields filled with easy enemies on your way to a larger city. No doubt you’re familiar with that sort of thing.

But from there, the game goes through some pretty dramatic scene changes. There’s the desert’s oasis town, and its mysterious field of floating stars on the way to the Moon Palace. There’s the zombie filled subway system hidden under the ancient sunken continent. There’s the flying Mana Fortress – a huge, futuristic doomsday weapon – and there’s the sewers used by the resistance in The Empire as a way of secretly travelling between North and South Town.

You’ll fight shadowy clones of your own team and agents of The Empire. You’ll fight RPG prerequisite ancient magical beings and, in one of the game’s most memorably weird scenes, a monster that is actually Santa Claus trapped by his own misuse of the Ice Mana seed. He did it for the kids, you know. Poor trooper. Just trying to help.

In the end, though, it’s still very standard JRPG fare: the young reluctant hero and his friends save the world from a seemingly overwhelming foe. While Square could be credited with injecting a degree of complexity into the genre in works like Final Fantasy IV, you could pretty safely argue that it wasn’t the story that sold mass market gamers on JRPGs until the PlayStation era made hours upon hours of cut scenes a Unique Selling Point to go on the back of the box.

somsantaThe translation doesn’t help the clarity one bit, though that’s no real fault of Woolsey. He managed to blitz through the whole thing (including rewrites) on a 30-day deadline in order to have the game ready for the ‘93 holiday period in the US. And as was the case with localisation back then, he not only had to translate the entire game, but do so while making it fit within the space allocated for the game’s text windows. Woolsey estimated that it’s possible to convey almost twice the information in an equivalent amount of Japanese text as with English. Not the easiest of tasks, then.

Just to make things even more interesting, Secret of Mana’s script is completely out of sequence in the code. “As a result, it's very difficult keeping all the plot lines and story elements in your head while working out what can be lost and what needs to be changed,” Woolsey noted in an interview with SuperPlay.

Plus, there’s the fact that the script wasn’t even 100% finished while Woolsey was working on the translation. The script segments he was working on were finalised, but only seeing bits and pieces would have made it almost impossible to get a clear picture of the plot as a whole.

I’m sure translating a game is not an easy task by any means, even at the best of times and in the best of working environments. Considering the amount of time he managed to do it in and the factors working against him, Woolsey’s translation is a tremendous effort.

But think of it this way: you’re talking about a game that already had significant hasty cuts made to it in order to allow it to fit on a cartridge. Then, during translation, more hasty cuts are made. Then more again, because there are problems with fitting the translation onto a 16MBit cartridge. It’s no wonder at all that the plot is a mess.

It also doesn’t help that the game is a reasonably direct sequel – definitely the most direct of the Mana series, despite being marketed as the first in an exciting new series or some such. The actual first game (known as Seiken Densetsu: Final Fantasy Gaiden in Japan) came out in the US as Final Fantasy Adventure on Game Boy, and was released as Mystic Quest in Europe. I honestly can’t say I know many people who’ve played it – even Secret of Mana fans - despite the obvious ploy with the name. In fact, for one reason or another (chief of which would be that I never owned a Game Boy until a few months ago) I’ve never even managed to get around to playing it or its GBA remake, Sword of Mana.

sdjapanPity, actually, because if I had played it, I might actually understand why the hero’s mother is a tree, since the first game follows the adventures of the hero’s father. Presumably it’s a very sad moment, or possibly a very jubilant moment. One or the other.

The other thing that’s certain about the game’s change from CD-ROM to cartridge is that the chunks of code pried out left the game buggy as all hell. Your two allies can and will get stuck in and behind scenery with disturbing regularity. Occasionally, you’ll find that a certain unfortunate combination of status attacks from enemies (especially anything that changes your allies’ form, like the snowman attack) will cause one of your companions to disappear permanently and completely. Even their status bar goes with them.

For another example, weapons in the game are upgraded by taking weapon orbs to the blacksmith – these are either awarded for defeating bosses or, occasionally, can be found in chests. Towards the end of the game, it’s likely you’ll miss at least one of these orbs (the last bow orb, from memory) because of a glitch that turns its containing chest invisible and intangible.

It’s still possible to pick up a number of these orbs from the final area of the game – the Mana Fortress. They’ll randomly drop from enemies, assuming your level isn’t too far above theirs – there’s rather a strange algorithm for determining what will drop from an enemy. I won’t go into it now, but it basically means that you have a very slim chance of picking up anything worth owning once you hit around level 70, simply because normal enemy levels peak around the late 60s. Not a glitch, but still rather strange.

Some interesting glitches crop up while playing against the game’s two or three slime type bosses. Not only can they cause allies to disappear (due to their frequent form and status attacks) but it’s also possible that they’ll cause the game to permanently erase its save files.

somslimeSlimes also play havoc with the game’s framerate, but there’s no lack of things that play havoc with the framerate in Secret of Mana. It is, again, most likely a result of the game being pushed back to cartridge, but any time there’s more than a few enemies on screen at one time or if there’s a particularly large boss, the game chugs along very unhappily. There’s worse offenders out there for SNES in terms of slowdown, but Secret of Mana sure can do some impressive slo-mo when prompted.

While I tend to fall on the side that believes most of the game’s problems stem directly from its interrupted development, Jeremy Parish attributes a lot of these flaws to the game’s lead programmer, Nasir Gebelli. “It's a mess of a game, if we're being brutally honest,” he notes in the article previously mentioned, “like so many titles programmed by Square's favorite Iranian savant, Nasir Gebelli.”

Personally, I’m not so sure about that, and I’d be interested to know where that statement stems from because there’s not really any other criticism of Gebelli that I’ve been able to track down. I’m willing to concede that his work on 3D Worldrunner and its (reputedly horrific) sequel JJ left something to be desired in terms of design, but for the most part I’m under the impression that he has a reputation as a fairly solid programmer. His Apple II work, which obviously preceded his time at Square, seems to be particularly well regarded – he was something of a figurehead for the scene for a time in the early ‘80s due to his ability to coax full screen animation from the system. Still, Parish is undoubtedly a lot more familiar with Gebelli’s NES work – most importantly, Final Fantasy and its two NES sequels – than I am, though, so it’s entirely conceivable that I’m missing something here. Wouldn’t be the first time.

Back on track, it’s worth pointing out that the PAL version of Secret of Mana (rather oddly) fixes a number of bugs. There’s still more than enough to keep things very interesting of course, but by all accounts it’s a vast improvement over the NTSC version. The sword has a nasty habit of regularly disappearing from the hero’s hand in the final battle in the NTSC version, for example – as far as I know, this was completely fixed in the PAL version. It’s certainly not something I ever encountered, despite going through that battle numerous times.

nasirI say “oddly”, by the way, because it really is peculiar that the obligatory PAL delay would actually be used for some productive purpose. Normally, PAL versions of games are delayed simply because PAL distributors have black, black hearts that can only be appeased by consistently destroying the hopes and dreams of PAL gamers.

You’re probably getting the impression that Secret of Mana is a game filled with flaws. That’s not inaccurate. It is a flawed game – often frustratingly so, and often in ways that would be completely unacceptable in a retail game these days.

I mean, the outcry over the recently released Xbox Live Arcade game Worms 2’s habit of erasing saved games if users attempted to load a save on more than one console is one thing, but it was pretty quickly patched. It’s not really a huge deal to lose a Worms save, either (though those later single player levels are pretty damned tough, and you do need to save those coins if you’re going to buy multiple colours of cheese hat and seriously why wouldn't you?).

Imagine if, say, Infinite Undiscovery or Lost Odyssey had similar problems – saved games were erased randomly through an issue with a specific enemy type. I don’t think people would be particularly charitable. Sales would undoubtedly suffer.

And yet somehow, despite its numerous problems, Secret of Mana is still an endearingly popular game; it’s regarded as a highpoint of the genre. I’d suggest there are three conclusions we can draw from that.

The first is that standards have changed. Sure, we might be finding more games are released with bugs that should have been fixed before release, simply because it’s easy enough to patch fixes in these days. However, there does seem to be a blanket disapproval of this method of working (on console anyway – PC gamers have been putting up with it for years). Gamers tend to completely ignore games that have reputations for being too buggy.

I think we’re more fickle about that sort of thing these days. The instant gratification that the Internet has brought into people’s lives means that we want fixes sooner. That’s partially because we move on from games sooner than we would have in the past. It’s not quite as prevalent as it was in the earlier days of this generation, but you still find people tend to move from game to game in groups. We don’t have time to wait for fixes, and we don’t have the patience to work past the bugs and glitches. It’s an odd kind of social migration - would make for a fascinating study.

somfortressI played a hell of a lot of Secret of Mana. An insane amount. I don’t tend to do that much these days. I still play RPGs, but it’s rare that I’ll finish one, let alone put hundreds of hours into it. Actually, at the moment I have far too many RPGs that I’ve only put half an hour or so into: Persona 4, Lost Odyssey, Dragon Quest V, Final Fantasy IV. Should work on that.

Secret of Mana didn’t have a timer, so I don’t have any idea how many hours I put into it, but I can’t think of any other game I’ve played with such a focus on absolute completion. All of my characters were at level 99, all of them were at level 8.99 with each of the game’s eight weapons (the highest level possible), and the two magic users were at level 8.99 with each of the seven elements they control.

Actually, now that I think about it, I might not have had all the weapons up to the cap of level 8.99 – there may have been one or two that I was only able to reach level 8 with, because of that glitch with the invisible chest. Certainly not for lack of trying though, as I spent so, so many hours in the Mana Fortress trying to get those extra orbs and slowly grinding to level 99. It was the game I went to when I had half an hour to spare, or a few hours to kill. Mindless grinding is kind of relaxing, especially if it's down to that or doing homework for high school.

The save file I managed that on is the same one I started playing the first time I started up the game. It lasted from 1995 through til some time around 1999, when – you guessed it – the game decided to randomly erase all save game content. And yet, I don’t curse its name, which brings us rather neatly to the second point: Secret of Mana is a truly brilliant game, despite its numerous bugs and glitches and terrible story. The underlying gameplay is strong enough that it’s not even difficult to look past the flaws.

Like I said a few thousand words ago (sorry readers!) the closest I’d come to playing an RPG before Secret of Mana was A Link to the Past. Even Mana isn’t a typical Square RPG – it’s closer to Zelda in its real time action oriented combat than any other Square game, though it is far more in-depth in regards to stats and levels and magic and so forth.

Nonetheless, there’s a real ease to its gameplay. It’s not easy, per se, but it is simple to play and quick to learn. Attacking is exactly the same as in Zelda, and magic is selected from the ring menu – a circular menu that surrounds the appropriate character and pauses the game, without moving away from the gameplay screen.

sommanualartIt’s simple and quick with good reason, of course, being not only the first multiplayer action RPG, but the first to support three players to boot. Few people who bought the game would have been able to play with two other people, mostly because no one actually seemed to own a multitap. Seriously – I knew so many kids who had a Super Nintendo, and not one of them had a multitap. I don’t think I’ve even seen one in the flesh, so to speak.

Two player mode received a reasonable amount of use from my friends and I, though, and it definitely was the kind of game that anyone could just drop in and out of after just a few seconds of instruction. Even having to deal with coming into the story midway through wasn’t an issue because, well, I didn’t even understand the damn thing myself. I mean, who cares? Let’s kill some things with swords, right?

Mostly though, it was a game I found myself playing in single player, because despite the horrendous plot, I still found myself drawn into it deep. The art is a big part of that, but it’s mostly the gameplay – it’s such a smart mix of action and RPG. The action is fast, but there’s a huge amount of depth to it. Right from the start, Secret of Mana had me watching stats and levels, and loving it.

It’s not required, I’m sure. You can probably get through the game without checking the status screen or caring about what level your magic is at in the least. Turns out I actually really enjoy that sort of thing, however, and Secret of Mana is without doubt the game that dragged me into that, simply because it’s so accessible. And fun.

Did I mention fun? I don’t think I did. Secret of Mana is a genuine blast, and again, it comes down to the way that it mixes depth with accessibility, as well as that feeling of progression that I mentioned earlier.

And, of course, let’s not forget the music. The soundtrack to Secret of Mana remains one of my favourite video game OSTs ever. The project was actually composer Hiroki Kikuta’s first full game soundtrack – he’d done soundtracks for television prior to joining Square in 1991, however. His first game work was as sound effect designer for Romancing Saga before he was given the Secret of Mana project to head as composer and sound director.

somcdIt does seem like rather a short rise to the top to be doing sound effects one year, then heading up sound for the company’s SNES CD-ROM launch title. Square was clearly a little different back then – Kikuta decribes it as being “small and homey” in 1991 when he started. “I remember that Nobuo Uematsu and Kenji Ito interviewed me in their office,” he recalled in an interview a few years back. “We talked about progressive rock music and famous guitar player Allan Holdsworth with each other.” Sounds like it would have been a hell of a meeting. The image of Kikuta, Uematsu and Ito talking prog is pretty fantastic, huh?

Also interesting is his discussion of his other influences in another interview a couple of years ago. “Early on in my career, I was really influenced by the progressive rock styles of Yes and ELO, and also by techno-pop like Devo, but it was really listening to Prince's music that formed my musical aesthetic and made me aware of the need for originality.”

Probably not what you were expecting, but it makes a good deal of sense, really. Kikuta’s work is unmistakably heavily influenced by progressive rock. Secret of Mana’s polyrhythmic compositions aren’t too far removed from the melodically focused percussion of, say, Mahavishnu Orchestra or Gong (appropriate, seeing as “famous guitar player Allan Holdsworth” played with the latter for some time).

It’s particularly obvious when you hear the pieces re-imagined as part of the 'Secret of Mana +' album, a one track, 50-odd minute CD compiling songs from Secret of Mana and its sequel into one single movement. It’s about as prog as it gets – the whole thing starts with sampled telephone tones.

The influence of Prince, maybe, isn’t so clear in Kikuta’s output. Kikuta’s comments suggest it’s more to do with Prince’s constant hunger for invention and innovation in the late ‘70s and ‘80s than anything else, though there is a definite sign of a pop influence in there. It’s more apparent in the lighter, less grandiose pieces, as you might imagine – towns, shops, that terrible dwarf village theme, moments of comic relief, and so on.

sompluscdIt tends to be the more ambitious songs that impress the most, however. The title screen’s a particularly good example – the music stirs and rises as the camera does, scrolling slowly around the heroes pictured in front of the Mana Tree. It’s a pretty amazing statement of intent. Definitely grabbed my attention when I first saw it, since I’d never seen a title screen that promised so much scope. Kikuta counts the piece – Fear of the Heavens - as one of his best as a composer. “It is so simple but so lyrical, isn’t it?” he enthused in his interview with RocketBaby.

It’s the third conclusion that we can draw that interests me most, though. I’m not suggesting that every person who cites Secret of Mana as a favourite feels this way, but I think there’s definitely a subgroup of fans who are still obsessed with it because of its mysteries, both in terms of the material cut from the game and the way the game can be manipulated through its flaws.

I talked about this on GameSetWatch briefly and obliquely a while back, from memory: the idea that something we love has elements yet to be discovered is endlessly fascinating. Especially if it’s something that we’ve invested tens or even hundreds of hours into.

It’s the reason that director’s cuts of movies sell, and the reason that people re-buy albums they own when demos or outtakes or bonus tracks emerge. I bought a second copy of Whiskeytown’s ‘Stranger’s Almanac’ last year simply because it was re-released with a second disc. As one of my all-time favourite albums, the thought of new songs from that period that I hadn’t heard and demo versions of songs I had was a little too much to resist. There’s a Fleetwood Mac cover. Hard to put that back in the rack.

A Secret of Mana director’s cut is out of the question, of course. Even if it was possible, it would make absolutely zero business sense, and Square is definitely one company with a tendency to (justifiably, for the most part) prioritise business sense well above anything else. We’re never going to see the content that was cut, and in a way, it’s better that we don’t – mysteries like this tend to be more powerful before they’re revealed.

rswsActually, as a little side note, there was a version of Secret of Mana planned for Bandai's WonderSwan handheld back in 1999 which was never actually released. There was also a port of Romancing Saga that did make it out which featured content cut from the original release. There's not any word as to whether the Mana re-release would have been treated to the same, unfortunately - it was only ever mentioned by Square once, maybe twice, and then never again.

In terms of mysteries retaining their power, take for example Brian Wilson’s 2004 release ‘SMiLE’. It's spoken of in rightfully reverential tones (it’s brilliant, seriously) but it’s never going to have the same mystique that the unreleased 1967 Beach Boys version has. Similarly, the obsession that Secret of Mana fans have with the cut material would fade if that material were ever reconstructed. Not so much because it’s likely to disappoint in a relative critical sense, but because once it exists in the public sphere, its mythical status is no longer applicable.

Truth be told, aside from the hints of cut content, there’s not a great deal of hidden secrets in the game. There’s nothing like the Final Fantasy series’ ultimate weapons, and nothing like the hidden bosses that populate that series. It’s the manipulation of the games glitches and bugs that most obsessive fans have really jumped on.

The best known would definitely be the glitch that allows you to obtain a ninth sword orb. Normally, you’ll never actually receive one, and the only way to power the sword up past the eighth level is to use the appropriate magic in the final battle (by actual design, just for the record). However, by flying your characters to a very specific area you shouldn’t even be able to land in and saving with the merchant there, then resetting and starting a new game, then resetting again, you can trick the game into letting you fight the first boss again. This means you can get another sword orb, and keep the sword in its most levelled up form constantly.

Technically, you can get as many sword orbs as you want this way, but the game doesn’t much like it when you use that method to level it up more than once and has a habit of corrupting every save on the cart. Actually, it’s possible that even doing it once can screw things up royally, but that’s to be expected when you’re purposefully breaking the game like that.

This seems like a rather opportune time to move onto discussing the sequels briefly. After all, there’s definitely a connection between the last point there and sequels – they play directly into the idea of being able to extract more from something we dearly love. That’s why there are always such high expectations of them, and why they so often disappoint. People expect and think they want more of the exact same – a direct extension – but can’t help but be let down when it’s too similar. On the other hand, if it’s too drastically different, that can be even worse.

sd3boxThe first sequel to Secret of Mana – known as Seiken Densetsu 3 in Japan – would have fit almost perfectly into expectations. The game changes enough to feel fresh, with three possible storylines and six characters to choose from, but retains enough of the basic gameplay mechanics to feel familiar. For various reasons, however, the game was never released in the west.

Contrary to popular belief, one of those reasons was not the impending release of Squaresoft USA’s one and only title: Secret of Evermore. Despite the obvious links in terms of title – not to mention the fact that it uses the same basic gameplay mechanics as Secret of Mana, ring menu and all – Secret of Evermore was never intended to be part of an either/or situation with Seiken Densetsu 3. “Secret of Mana 2 will be an action/adventure title, as will our first US-developed game; both of which are currently in development,” Woolsey hinted in his interview with SuperPlay back in 1994.

Unfortunately, the issue of cartridge space once again reared its head – Seiken Densetsu 3 would have proved too much to fit in a reasonably priced cartridge once translated. The Japanese cart was 32Mbit, but translating would have likely pushed that to 48Mbit (the next step up). Only Star Ocean and Tales of Phantasia were released with SNES cartridges of that size, and neither game made it out of Japan, likely due to projected costs of translation and manufacture versus sales predictions.

There were also concerns about the buggy nature of Seiken Densetsu 3. Secret of Evermore’s lead programmer Brian Fehdrau noted in an interview last year that it “had some bugs” which would have run up against Nintendo of America’s “zero bug policy” at the time. “I think they might have had a difficult time getting it through certification,” he hypothesised.

Whatever the basis behind the decision, it certainly wasn’t a result of Squaresoft USA utilising resources that should have been committed to translating Seiken Densetsu 3. According to Fehdrau, not only was Squaresoft USA effectively a separate entity from its parent and staffed by new hires, but Chrono Trigger, Breath of Fire and Final Fantasy VI were all translated during the time Secret of Evermore was being developed. Squaresoft was clearly not lacking in resources for translation.

soeboxWithout an easy resource to straighten the story out, though, speculation ran wild and Secret of Evermore’s reception was frosty to say the least. “We'd taken a lot of flack for not being Seiken Densetsu 3,” Fedrau recalls. Secret of Evermore was put into an unenviable position – not only was it being judged with the expectations normally reserved for a sequel, but it was being blamed for not being that sequel even before people had played it.

Word was beginning to spread about Seiken Densetsu 3, meanwhile, which only made the situation worse. Reviews from Japan were glowing. And with some genuinely incredible looking previews still fresh in the audience’s mind (upon seeing them in a magazine in 1995, I could barely believe that I was looking at a SNES game, cliched as that might sound) Secret of Evermore never really stood a chance. The very connection that Square tried to get consumers to make with the choice of name proved the game’s biggest stumbling block in terms of sales and perception.

Fortunately, while Square’s mind may have been made up regarding Seiken Densetsu 3’s fate in the west, the burgeoning emulation and fan-translation scenes weren’t going to give up so easily. Neill Corlett and his team began work on translating the game in April 1998, following the success of other groups on games like Final Fantasy II and V. Translating Seiken Densetsu 3 proved a little more challenging, since the game “obscures its text behind numerous layers of compression, putting it well out of reach of the casual hex editor,” according to Corlett. Nonetheless, just over a year later in July of ’99, an English patch was released for the game.

I’ve played a little of Seiken Densetsu 3, but hardly as much of it as I would have thought. For some reason, it didn’t grab me in the same way Secret of Mana did. Possibly, it’s because I didn’t start a playthrough until 2004 or so. I liked it well enough, and there’s no doubt that the game walks a great line between series progression and stability – it would have been the game Secret of Mana fans hoped for, without doubt. Maybe it’s just that I find the whole thing a bit daunting. It’s a huge game, after all, and like I said: time isn’t exactly on my side for huge games these days.

lompixelI missed most of the PlayStation era, so Legend of Mana, released in Japan in 1999 and the US in 2000, passed me completely by. Doesn’t help that it didn’t even get a PAL release, of course. I played a borrowed copy very briefly in about 2005 or so and it’s an interesting game, but it doesn’t really feel like it comes together in the right way to me.

In a way, I think there are similarities to the connection between Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross – Square tried a few sequels in the 32-bit era that attempted something really different with the game world, though the level of success of them depends on which fans you’re talking to. Chrono Cross, of course, was a big departure from Chrono Trigger because it switched focus from time travel to dimensional travel, and completely replaced the cast. The Mana series tends to be a little less set in continuity, however, so plot is less of concern – series director Koichi Ishii commented at one point that the connections between the games are more karmic than set in a distinct timeline. That is, each game has a Mana Tree, and each game has the Mana Sword, but they’re not necessarily the same ones (with the exception of the first two games).

The gameplay differences between Legend of Mana and Seiken Densetsu 3 are well pronounced, however. Most notably, it removes the open world that its predecessors used and replaces it with a map screen on which area tiles are placed, almost in a Carcassonne-like manner, though naturally without anyone competing against you. From there, you visit the area, complete certain tasks in each, and move on.

It’s not linear, exactly, but it’s certain a lot more streamlined feeling. In a way, the separate vignettes of each area remind me of Atelier Iris – it’s got that same sense of things being focused on smaller events than in more epic games. There’s nothing wrong with that – I quite like Atelier Iris, in fact – but it’s a very different form of narrative than in previous Mana games.

Maybe it gets better later in the game. I only put 10 or 15 hours into it, all up, so maybe later in the game it all comes together and explodes into a brilliant climax. Probably not though.

domboxFrom there, well, I’m not entirely sure about the Mana series. I’ve avoided picking up any of the rush of games that came around the middle of this decade simply because I’ve heard they’re a bit crap. Children of Mana and Heroes of Mana for DS, Friends of Mana for mobile phone and Dawn of Mana for PS2 all came out within about a year of each other in 2006/2007, but few people have anything particularly positive to say about them.

I’ve been tempted to pick up an import copy of Dawn of Mana – again, no PAL release – but it’s hard to get excited about something I’ve heard is fairly horrible, even if the first screens I saw did give me a flutter of hope. Word is that Heroes of Mana is an okay DS real-time strategy, and is an improvement over Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings, but that all sounds like damning with faint praise from where I’m sitting. Improving Revenant Wings wouldn’t be too much of a challenge.

And now? The Mana series is probably dead. Koichi Ishii left Square just after the release of Heroes of Mana, and seeing as he’s headed up the series from day one (despite not really doing a great job of it post-Legend of Mana) it’s likely that means that there’s not going to be another revival of the series. Honestly, that’s probably not a terrible thing. Ishii was more focused on taking the series in as many different directions as possible than he was on actually appealing to fans.

Obviously, there’s a danger of pandering too directly to series fans – you lose the ability to expand your audience after a while. See, for example, the Dynasty Warriors series. But there’s also something bizarre about Ishii’s refusal to create something that too directly resembled Secret of Mana.

Still, we got some good games out of it, and at least one great one, depending on personal tastes. Secret of Mana may be buggy, it may be a pain sometimes, and it may show more than its fair share of signs of a tumultuous development period, but it’s not a surprise at all that it has the fan base it does. It's a game with a whole lot of heart - the very definition of a flawed gem.

Once again, I’ve rambled away thousands of words. Thanks for sticking with it this long. The next column’s going to be a shorter one, mostly because I know a whole lot less about the 1989 3D strategy game that's the subject in question. Also, I don’t plan on catching swine flu again so it should be out a good deal quicker too.