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.