The 12 games of Christmas #7: Secret of Mana


The Secret of Mana intro is pretty much just a metaphor for my experience with Secret of Mana. Darkness (in the form of a waning interest in video games) swept the land (my life), until I drew the Mana sword (Secret of Mana) from its resting pace and restored the power of Mana (enthusiasm for the medium). I’m not sure how the Luck Dragon figures in, though. Or the stupid little sprite.

I rented Secret of Mana with a friend from high school the first day I was back home from my first semester at college — a semester spent without access to a video game system. Secret of Mana was our way of catching up after several months of going our own separate ways, a chance to hang out and bond for a while. We didn’t do a particularly great job with the game, I’m afraid. We made it to the witch’s castle and repeatedly died to her stupid bouncing tiger thing. Eventually, we shrugged and watched a movie or something.

I still had a day left on the rental, though, so when I got home I decided to give it another shot — this time solo. It turned out much better that way, not so much because we weren’t good at cooperative play but rather because playing solo I had the patience to grind up some levels and spells.


Secret of Mana is a weird game. It offers three-player cooperative multiplayer, but it also demands players spend a lot of time toiling to buff up their spell experience. Grinding is pretty antithetical to multiplayer in a game like this. Secret of Mana isn’t comfortable in its own skin.

But it’s a great game nevertheless. Glitchy as all get-out, but it’s a sloppiness borne of ebullience. You can tell the creators were really flinging themselves at the game, trying to take the action RPG into weird and wonderful new directions. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. But it was always interesting.

How many other RPGs feature Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer tasking you with rescuing Santa Claus from a curse? Followed by a journey through a zombie-infested forgotten subway system? All in the same game where a flying battle fortress blows up an obvious stand-in for Yggdrasil? Sometimes magical books will fly around and attack you, and sometimes their pages will just open to show off porn. This game is just plain ol’ wacky at times. There are even enemies in the forest that almost certainly are meant to be sly references to Sonic the Hedgehog.

But the things it does! The story only goes in a single direction, but you can get through the opening hours in a remarkably wide variety of ways. How you end up following the primary plot thread is up to you, and depending on how you approach the first few sequences of the story you can encounter some maddeningly challenging optional fights. It’s a self-repairing story, not quite on the same level as Chrono Cross‘ determination to get Kid into your party, but in the same spirit.

And the settings can be as wonderful as they are weird, such as the surreal desert dotted by fallen stars — stars which prove to be about three feet in span. Secret of Mana plays by its own rules, and it’s so out-there that its failings don’t sting so badly.

I ended up renewing my rental for a week until I finished the game, loving every minute of it. I thought about calling my friend as I reached the final area to see if he wanted to take another shot at me, but then I realized that would be pretty weird. So was the game, of course. But sometimes, you just gotta savor weirdness solo.

5 thoughts on “The 12 games of Christmas #7: Secret of Mana

  1. I loved this game. Played through it many times. Some issues I always had with it:
    1.The game stops when you go into the menus. This sucks for multiplayer. I wish they let you scroll through the menu with the L and R buttons while the game was moving, but the ring menus might have upped the sprite count too high. Maybe just limit the L/R menu to spells and healing items.
    2. I hated it when player one would hit an enemy, and player 2 would hit them right after, the hit would not register. You had to wait 2 or 3 whole seconds for the hit animation to complete.
    3. Finally, charging the weapons took way (way) too long to be useful. I appreciated the fancy animations for charge attacks though.

    Secret of Mana and Final Fantasy Tactics are 2 great games that Square never made true sequels too, despite having some glaring flaws that could easily be patched up a second time through. I don’t even need the graphics to be any better. Square, just give us some true 3DS sequels already!

  2. Yeah, when you take a step back and look at it, SoM really is a very weird game. It’s so great though, glitches and all.

    And for sequels, I always felt both SD3 and, yes, Legend, even with all its (gorgeous) problems did a decent job of following up the spirit of the game. The weirdly wonderful world, diverging and reconverging plotlines, amazing music and art that still ends up kind of cuddly even when taking detours into angsty plot bits and epic showdowns. I wonder if we’ll ever see another like that.

    • I didn’t think much of it at first because of the brawler style combat, but in the long run I ended up loving Legend of Mana a lot more than Secret because of all the charm and weirdness and quest scenarios and special moves and various mechanics you can partake in.

      It’s a pity the series went down the crapper post-Legend.

  3. As a fan of Final Fantasy Adventure, I got SoM when it first came out. However, I found waiting a second between basic attacks to do any real damage incredibly awkward. I also recruited the sprite first and the caves aren’t really balanced for that. I actually tried to return it, but got another copy instead. Trying again, the flow of the combat gelled for me and I recruited the girl first and it became one of my favorite games of all times.

    Many years later, I replayed the game with a friend. The key was grinding spell and weapon levels between visits, so we could just play through it when we got together. He played the boy while I managed both spell-casters and we would communicate to avoid interrupting each other’s attacks.

  4. Wow – I hadn’t even realized there was no definite order to the beginning, when you get your partners. I do recall starting a re-play, and thinking that I didn’t recognize a sequence where I met one of them, but I figured that was just my memory.

    I wish they had done a GBA re-release.

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