games / Columns

Retronomicon 07.13.11: Secret of Mana

July 13, 2011 | Posted by Lee Price

Hello ladies and gentlemen and welcome, once again, that touches you in all of your happy places. Your mouth may voice no, but you’re eyes scream yes, yes, YES as they are surrounded by the wordy goodness of the Retronomicon. That intro sounded awfully rapey didn’t it? I think I may have to not use that again in the future. Anyway I am your host Lee Price and I am here to talk about games that people liked more than a decade ago. I’d love to provide you with a bit of interesting stuff about my life, but not a lot has been happening truth be told. I’ve started playing Persona 4 again because I quite simply can’t get enough of that game. It truly is one of my favorite RPGs of all time. Other than that my life has been work with a little bit of gaming thrown into the mix. I did also go and see Transformers 3. It was about an hour too long, I zoned out in the middle to the point where I missed a supposedly important event and my arse got numb. However I did get a bit of a kick out of the ending sequence, even if there was a little too much Shia running and not enough Transformer ass kicking. Oh well, that’s enough babbling for this week because it’s time for the…


We ended up with a bit of a rap battle in the comments section last week. I think you guys have gone all 8 Mile on me or something. Before that though, let’s kick things off with Missy Lansik

“Other than that the only noteworthy game in the genre would have been Dance Aerobics , which utilized a special controller that allowed players to create their own music via button presses.”

You mean the Power Pad game? I…wanted that game for my birthday one year but got TMNT instead. I had no idea it was a music game, and now I’m mad lol.

Anyway…PaRappa is one of my all time favorite games. Jason bought it for me when we were dating as a gift (speaking of birthdays!) and although my copy is now more scratched up than Seal’s face, it still holds a dear spot in my heart. Fun fact: The 2nd level with the DMV instructor features a transsexual moose. Why? It’s supposed to be female and acts as such, but only MALE mooses (moose? meese?!lol) have antlers. The section with the rapping frog who has to go drop a deuce but pawned his toilet is also a barrel of laughs.

Never played the sequel, and until this column had completely forgotten about it.

I do mean the very same. There wasn’t a whole lot of info about the game but, from what I could gather, it seemed to be about making your own music using the power pad. As for the moose, that little tidbit should definitely have been in the Fun Facts section for the game. I might have to give you a job Missy.

Next up we had Guest#1893;

PaRappa the Rapper is a very addictive and fun game. I’m shocked the game isn’t available as a PSone Classic yet.

As am I. It seems like the perfect candidate considering that it has a cult following and great reputation. Maybe one day.

DeimosMasque followed up;

I loved Pa-Rappa and I also loved it’s spin-off Um Jammer Lammy. It’s two of the six games I still have for PS1

I must admit that I am yet to play Um Jammer Jammy. I keep meaning to buy it and I’m sure I will at some point.

Guest#9168 provides a little criticism;

Wow, you managed to mention in almost every paragraph that this game was genre defining. Sometimes more than once in the same paragraph. I am stunned.

Usually i love the column, but this was extremely shoddy writing. I forgive you though, because the game is damn cool (although i first saw it as a parody on Robot Chicken), and i have been hooked since.

In all fairness methinks you’re exaggerating my “genre-defining” mentions a little bit. Besides, the game is notable for basically inventing the tropes that would be used by so many later on.

Having said that, criticism is duly noted. I will have to try harder.

411’s own Jimmy Chavez lit the spark with;

This game taught me that I can’t rap. I’m still sad to this day about that.

AG Awesome then turned up to make Jimmy feel even worse;

Kick, punch, it’s all in the mind.

Nuff said 🙂

Cheeky, but it drew Missy Lansik  back into the fold and a full rap battle ensued;

“Ribbit ribbit I cannot hold it; the last toilet I had my grandmamamama sold it; in the rain or in the snow I got the funky flow but now I really got to goooooo”

I *still* remember that one ^_^

Jimmy Chavez having been thoroughly out-rapped added;

WOW! I prostrate myself to both of your rapping greatness.

Missy Lansik finished us off with a witty aside when she replied;

Careful, you can go blind from that 😉

I’ve heard something about hairy palms too, though that may be mere conjecture.

Anyway we have all talked enough so it is time to get down to business. This one has been a long time coming so strap on those rose-tinted specs as this week the Retronomicon takes a look at Secret of Mana.

Music to Read Your Retro to

There are so many great tunes to choose from when it comes to Secret of Mana. I couldn’t really decide on one so I found this list of some guy’s top 10. There are plenty of YouTube vids floating around with the songs from the game in them though;

Fun Facts

There are a few interesting bits of trivia floating around for Secret of Mana so let’s tuck in to some factoids before we get to the main course;

  • The game was originally intended for release on the CD format that was being co-developed by Sony and Nintendo. When that fell through, indirectly leading to the creation of the process, Secret of Mana had to be downscaled to fit on the traditional SNES console. Some see this as one of the reasons that Square jumped to the PlayStation for Final Fantasy VII.
  • This scaling down led to some exploitable glitches, one of which was the game only being able to load three enemies on the screen at any one time. Players could exploit this to ensure only weak enemies stayed on screen and prevented harder enemies from spawning.
  • Secret of Mana was one of the first RPGs to support multiple players, with up to three gamers able to play if they happened to have a multi-tap.
  • Secret of Mana’s hero is possibly a clone of Chrono Triggers hero. Or is that the other way around? What I’m trying to say is that their sprites are very similar.

The Background

Square had slowly been building a reputation amongst Japanese gamers in particular as one of the foremost developers of RPGs in the business. Their Final Fantasy series in particular was slowly becoming the juggernaut that we all know it as today and the company’s ability to craft a story and merge it with the traditional RPG gameplay that had first been brought to gamers by Dragon Quest, with their own slant of course, allowed Square to position themselves as the market leader when it came to RPGs.

The Final Fantasy brand was so popular that, when it came time to bring the first game in the Mana series to the US and UK, it was used in place of the traditional title. The first Seiken Densetsu game was essentially a handheld spin-off of the Final Fantasy series, leading to it being renamed Final Fantasy Adventures for the US and Mystic Quest for the UK audiences respectively. However it offered a more action oriented gameplay style to the Final Fantasy games, and attained a level of popularity that made a sequel a very viable prospect.

Thus, when Nintendo announced that they were teaming up with Sony to create a brand new CD add-on for the SNES, Square jumped all over it and began producing a game that would utilize the increased levels of power and allow them to deliver an RPG experience that was unlike their previous games while still being familiar to longtime players. The turn based combat systems used in the Final Fantasy games were replaced with a real-time system that would make the title more reminiscent of the Legend of Zelda titles, while still maintaining the leveling system and other RPG tropes that fans of the genre had come to know and love.

All was going swimmingly until the concept of a CD add-on for the SNES was shot down after Nintendo broke of its relationship with Sony. This left Square with a near-finished title that was now too much game for the SNES. After much chopping and changing, Square were finally able to provide Nintendo with a finished product and, to the surprise of some, it still managed to be one of the greatest games of all time. Despite not being the game that Square had intended from the get-go, the Action-RPG genre was still shook up with the arrival of Secret of Mana.

The Game

There aren’t many games that can legitimately compare with Link to the Past when it comes to 16 Bit Action-RPGs. In fact, it could be argued that Secret of Mana is the only title from the era to put up any serious competition and many would go so far as to claim that it is actually the better title and should be lauded as such. The Retronomicon isn’t here to make such distinctions though, so let’s just get to the business of waxing lyrical over a great SNES title.

The game’s plot centers around a past war between the old civilizations of the game world and what were apparently gods of the world over the use of mana to fuel a warship named the Mana Fortress. The game lets you know that the gods were appeased when a hero appeared and used the Mana Sword to destroy the Mana Fortress, thus appeasing the gods and teaching the world not to misuse mana for their own gain.

Fast forward a few years and you are introduced to a gang of three boys as they trespass into a waterfall where villagers claim a treasure is being kept. Of course, one of this group just happens to contain the hero of the game and he just happens to find the fabled treasure, which turns out to be the Sword of Mana that was used to destroy the Mana Fortress some many years ago. The boys run back to the village with their new discovery, but are cast out as the villagers believe the reappearance of the sword to be a bad omen. After a bit of encouragement from an elderly knight who recognizes the blade for what it is, you set out on your way to re-energize it by visiting an array of Mana Temples.

Of course things are never that simple. As it turns out, an evil empire (what else?) is also looking to undo the seals on the Mana Temples in an effort to raise the Mana Fortress and plunge the world into war once again. So as you can  imagine, the emergence of a kid whose running about with the Mana Sword that has the capability to destroy said fortress is pretty bad news. Thus the empire will be trying to stop you at every turn.

Along the way the hero is joined by a small sprite child who has lost its memory but seems to be inexplicably linked to Mana and a girl, who is the daughter of a nobleman, on his quest to recharge the Mana Sword and thus help bring about the end of the empire’s schemes. However, after a plot twist that would later be pretty much reused in Final Fantasy VI, the empire’s threat is destroyed and a new threat emerges for the group. Now not only do they need to deal with this new threat, but also its own attempts to raise the Mana Fortress. Of course you say the day, though there is loss along the way, and all ends fairly happily ever after.

While it’s not the greatest RPG plot of all time, its still more than serviceable for the game and more complex than I give it credit for in such a brief synopsis. Its certainly of a higher caliber than that seen in most Action-RPGs of the time, though Square themselves would go on to surpass it in pretty short order soon enough.

The gameplay is where things really started to heat up though, especially when it came to the battle system. This being a Square game, there would always be elements of their beloved ATB system, however they managed to incorporate bits and pieces of it into a real time battle system to create something that played entirely differently.

That something was given the moniker ‘Ring Command’ and does a great job at integrating the game’s RPG sensibilities with its more action-oriented combat. From the Ring players can choose to use magic, change their equipment or utilize any number of items before carrying the fight out in real time.

When it comes to actually fighting, each character has a weapon, which can be upgraded multiple times throughout the course of the game. A percentage bar appears under the character which indicates the power of their strike, with each swing of the weapon knocking the bar back down to zero and forcing the player to wait for it to recharge. As you can probably tell already, this is a tad more complicated than other Action-RPGs of the era and it only gets more involved.

This being a Square game, they had to place a leveling up system in their somewhere. Thus each member of the party can gain experience which can be used to level up in a similar fashion to traditional RPGs. This is where the game really begins to make use of its RPG elements, as stats such as Evasion and Strength are raised and will then directly affect how well you perform when it comes to fight time.

The player is also given the option to command any character within the party of three. Each member of the party has their own strengths and weaknesses, thus making smart switching between them essential if you’re going to make any real progress through the game. Of course you can make things a touch more difficult and simply control a solitary character throughout the game, though if you play as the hero throughout you won’t be able to use magic, while playing as the sprite will see you avoiding attacks as much as possible while casting offensive magic.

It is, in essence, a traditional class-based RPG system transplanted into an Action-RPG and it'[s something that was previously only workable if there were multiple players involved. With Secret of Mana, this is both played straight and averted as the game provides you with the option of playing with friends or having A.I. controlled partners. While these are both features that are used in a bunch of RPGs in the current day, back in 1993 these two concepts were very new in the world of RPGs.

Firstly, we have the A.I. characters. As mentioned, utilizing such a class based system without a turn based combat system would have previously placed gamers in a bind, forcing them to switch between classes in a desperate attempt to play them all at once in a real time setting. Square saw that this was unfeasible and thus ensured that whichever two characters weren’t being controlled by the player would instead be controlled by the computer. This means, in theory, that the player could be whichever character they wanted while trusting the computer to know what it was doing with the others. In practice this didn’t always quite work out, though the fact that Secret of Mana was one of the first attempts to bring in computer controlled characters as an integral force alongside the player in an RPG setting should be noted here. The system works surprisingly well for the most part and would go on to be copied by an array of RPGs in the years that followed.

Of course, the real joy in the game comes when you get some friends together. Both the RPG and Action-RPG had traditionally been single player genres, for good reason as turn based systems weren’t multiplayer friendly and most Action-RPGs only had a single protagonist. Secret of Mana changed all that by offering gamers the opportunity to play with up to three players, assuming they had a multi-tap, thus controlling each of the individual party members. Not only did this have an advantage in that players didn’t have to rely on the A.I. controlled party members, but it also allowed for a certain attachment to form between gamers and their characters if the same group worked through the game together. It is another concept that has been worked into a bunch of RPG titles since, with the Tales series especially making good use of both of these innovations, and it is yet another thing that helped Secret of Mana really stand out from the crowd.

Graphically the game looked gorgeous. Sprites were chunky and well detailed, while the top-down perspective that was a staple of the genre in the 16 Bit days is once again used to good effect. This is especially noticeable in battle, as at no point will you find your view obscured, thus allowing you to focus on the enemies at all times without having to worry about bits of scenery getting in the way.

The game is also one of a number of Square titles that would utilize the Mode 7 graphics capabilities of the console to display an overworld map. In a similar fashion to Final Fantasy VI, Secret of Mana’s world map is rendered to appear 3D thanks to the rotation abilities offered by the Mode 7 graphics capability inherent in the SNES. It’s a neat little trick, though it obviously looks dated these days, and serves of a fun reminder of how developer had to manipulate the graphical capabilities of a system to achieve the desired effect before the days of 3D.

Of course, we then get to the soundtrack. This being a Square title, you know its going to have a lot going on musically and Secret of Mana certainly doesn’t disappoint in this respect. While not quite on the level of Final Fantasy VI, the soundtrack can certainly stand toe-to-toe with just about anything else you will find on the SNES.

All told, Secret of Mana stands amongst the elite of 16 Bit Action-RPGs. In fact, it may be one of the few games that truly deserves that moniker as it melds a traditional RPG stat system with real time combat, alongside a host of innovations and a compelling story, to create a game that was one of the single best experiences on the SNES. It may be a sod to find in its original form these days, but Secret of Mana is worth a crack by anybody’s standards.

The Aftermath

As was becoming the norm for Squaresoft titles, Secret of Mana sold extremely well in Japan, breaking the million sales mark in the process. This led to Square making the shocking decision to not only import the game to the US market but to also make it available to UK gamers, who had previously been denied the Final Fantasy series, and would be until Final Fantasy VII was released.

The title achieved cult status in the US and UK, shipping just over 300,000 units in the two locations, quickly becoming a collector’s item in the process. This was especially true in the UK, where the game’s obvious quality clashed with its increasing rarity to produce a game that was massively desired by a small sub-section of the gaming audience but not always readily available.

The success of the title saw sequels commissioned, however it seemed that Western audiences were destined to miss out on the best of them. Seiken Densetsu 3 was released in Japan in 1995 and offered players a similar experience to Secret of Mana, but also incorporating 6 characters to select from and offering multiple story paths depending on who the player chose. It wasn’t brought to Western shores due to Western SNES carts being smaller and the game itself having a number of bugs.

After this straight sequel, it seemed that Square felt a bit more experimental in the games that followed. Legend of Mana, which never saw release in the UK, changed the formula and received mixed reactions because of it, while Sword of Mana was essentially a straight up remake of Final Fantasy Adventure (The original Seiken Densetsu). Since then there have been a number of titles in the Mana series, though none have really come close to the greatness of Secret of Mana and few have made their way to UK shores, having only seen limited release in the US.

As for Secret of Mana itself, the game experienced a small revival over the last few years. The Wii’s Virtual Console was the perfect platform to bring the title to the masses that may have missed it the first time around so it naturally saw release there. More surprising was the release of the game on mobile platforms. Secret of Mana is now available on iPhones as well as the SNES and VC. As for the series itself, the last title to be released was Heroes of Mana way back in 2007. For now it doesn’t look like there are many plans for a new game in the series and, if there were, chances are it would never reach western shores anyway.

The Price is Right

If you aren’t insistent on owning the original cart then the Virtual Console is really the way to go with Secret of Mana. The game is a bona fide collector’s item and the prices will reflect that. As usual more money for better condition.


SNES – £40 – 70
Virtual Console – 800 Points
iPhone – £5.49


SNES – $40 – 70
Virtual Console – 800 Points
iPhone – $8.99

The Guy Who Can do it Better than You

Just to be contrary, here’s the German commercial for the game. It’s a touch more interesting than gameplay footage I suppose;

Enjoy and see you next week.


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Lee Price
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