Revisiting Secret of Mana
Wikipedia features a rather interesting page titled “List of video games considered the best.” Compiled by cross-referencing different publications’ editorials of the greatest games ever made— typically top 100 articles— said list reads like a “Who’s Who” of the most influential and genre-defining video games spanning nearly half a century. Simply skimming the list with some video game knowledge or context, it’s not hard to understand why games like Pong, Super Mario Bros., and The Legend of Zelda are listed. Not only are they important games that helped legitimize the video game medium, they’re also all mechanically refined to the point of still holding their overall quality today. Then there are games like Secret of Mana.
While a critical darling at release, Secret of Mana did not end up having the same long-term impact its contemporaries did. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past perfected an action-adventure formula that would be used for years; Super Mario World fine-tuned its platforming to near-perfect precision, essentially forcing Nintendo to have to go 3D with their next mainline entry; and Final Fantasy VI more or less set the foundation for Final Fantasy VII to take the stage all while being a tremendously high-quality RPG in its own right. Secret of Mana, on the other hand, has no real legacy outside of being a good SNES RPG.
Which is arguably an issue with how the Mana franchise was handled in the west. A sequel to Final Fantasy Adventure, Secret of Mana is the second game in the Seiken Densetsu franchise. More importantly, it’s the game that sets up Seiken Densetsu 3 (now titled Trials of Mana) mechanically. Unfortunately, Trials of Mana was not released outside of Japan until June 2019. As a result, it only makes sense Secret of Mana would lack a legacy of its own. What directly followed Secret of Mana internationally was Legend of Mana, not Trials, a game that didn’t build itself on Secret’s foundation.
More importantly, Secret of Mana is an interesting case on the “List of video games considered the best” page as general consensus very much deems Trials of Mana not only the better of the two games, but the best entry in the Seiken Densetsu franchise. Where a compelling case could be made for Super Mario World and Final Fantasy VI being better than their 3D successors, Secret of Mana doesn’t afford the same luxury. Not only because its direct, mechanical sequel was never released outside of Japan, but because Trials of Mana is just such a clear improvement all around featuring better gameplay, a better story, and better music.
That said, this train of thought ignores a very important aspect of game analysis: video games are more than the sum of their parts. Due to the advancement of technology and the relative infancy of the medium, video games are at a stage where they seemingly benefit most from sequels. After all, a sequel can iron out any mechanical kinks that slipped through the first go around. This is exactly what Trials of Mana does, laterally and logically improving Secret of Mana, but it isn’t Secret of Mana. When it comes down to it, there’s only one Secret of Mana and, for all its flaws, it will forever be considered one of the best games of all time. Why and how, though?
After all, Secret of Mana isn’t just overshadowed by its direct sequel, but by its sister game as well: Chrono Trigger. Unfortunately for director Koichi Ishii, Secret of Mana was being developed for the Super Famicom CD-Rom Adapter, an add-on for the console that would have made use of the “Super Disc.” As the peripheral was being developed by both Nintendo and Sony shortly before they parted ways, Secret of Mana had to be trimmed down considerably with roughly 40% of the game being scrapped. Of note, in “Retro Gamer”’s February 2011, Ashley Day revealed that producer Hiromichi Tanaka not only planned for the story to be much darker, but for there to be multiple routes and endings ala Chrono Trigger.
With 40% of the planned game gutted to fit on a Super Famicom cartridge, Secret of Mana was at a disadvantage at release and it shows. As soon as players gain access to Flammie, any sense of direction or pacing is thrown out the window. In hindsight, it’s easy to see the late-game focus on exploration as a crutch to overcome nearly half a game’s worth of missing content and story. At the same time, it’s important to recognize that Secret of Mana was developed in an era where game development was limited in general. The Super Famicom CD-Rom Adapter would have certainly helped bolster the game, but true creativity shines when artists need to be mindful of what they can and can’t do.
In a September 2006 interview Swedish magazine “Level,” Koichi Ishii specified that Secret of Mana was “his game” in the context of his career. Even without 40% of the game’s planned content, Secret of Mana still represents the director’s vision in earnest. Although Ishii would go on to direct Legend of Mana and Dawn of Mana, he interestingly left Seiken Densetsu 3’s director role for Hiromichi Tanaka, opting to instead serve as the game’s character and game designer. As a result, even on the Super Nintendo, Secret of Mana feels distinctly unique when compared to its immediate successor.
When it comes down to it, understanding Secret of Mana’s status as one of the best games of all time necessitates an understanding of Koichi Ishii’s direction. Worth noting, Ishii did direct the original Seiken Densetsu for Game Boy, a title that featured a classically tragic story where death was a natural occurrence alongside Final Fantasy iconography and an almost western cartoon aesthetic. Starting up Secret of Mana, the aesthetic is very much alive, if not more so, thanks to its vibrant color palette and festive score, but there’s a distinct difference in how Secret of Mana presents its narrative. At first, at least.
Final Fantasy Adventure wastes no time cutting to the chase, opening with a boss battle outright and killing the character who’s meant to be the protagonist’s best friend. The English translation does muddy the impact quite a bit, but the game’s visual style of storytelling does preserve the intent. Secret of Mana, however, kicks off with a fairly middling opener. After a title crawl that explains the game’s backstory and lore, much of the early game is spent dealing with lower stake encounters. No one dies, antagonists aren’t fully identified for quite a while, and the saddest thing that happens is the protagonist Randi being kicked out of his village, something he seems to accept rather quickly.
It certainly doesn’t help that Final Fantasy Adventure puts its best foot forward while Secret of Mana front-loads its worst content right at the start of the game. Things don’t really start to pick up until the full party is formed, and it isn’t until players can access to magic that the gameplay opens up meaningfully. Until then, players are left running back and forth between Pandora, Gaia’s Navel, the Water Palace, and the Haunted Forest far longer than they perhaps should. Which is actually an incredibly important detail to consider.
What Secret of Mana unquestionably has over its predecessor, and arguably even its successor, is the promise of scope. Cannon Travel may just seem like a clever way of tossing the party around the map, but every time players use a cannon, they get a glimpse at the world around them. There’s more to Secret of Mana’s overworld than meets the eye, and spending so much time in the starting area only makes finally leaving it via Cannon Travel all the more impactful. More importantly, this style of pacing allows the game’s scope to grow naturally.
Although many might argue that an ebb and flow would have ultimately benefited the game’s pacing, much of Secret of Mana’s identity is tied to a sense of escalation. As the story progresses, stakes do raise. Randi’s role in the plot becomes much clearer, Primm’s romance with Dyluck is explored in more detail, and Popoi gradually becomes a more realized character. They’re a rather bland party in the grand scheme of things, no doubt due to a mix of the script’s rushed localization and the missing content, but there are surprising nuances and layers to each character.
While Tanaka did serve as a writer for Secret of Mana, Ishii’s character direction nonetheless shines through. In many respects, Randi’s arc follows many of the same beats Sumo’s did in the first game while also relegating his growth to the background. Someone simply rushing from point to point likely won’t even recognize that either character grows during the course of their journey, but slower, attentive players will gradually see Randi mature up until the very end. It isn’t a particularly compelling arc, but it’s an interesting one if only because it isn’t on the nose.
As was the case with Final Fantasy Adventure, though, Ishii’s creative vision is at its most clear in the moment to moment gameplay. Tanaka may have intended a richer narrative when first drafting Seiken Densetsu 2, but the fact of the matter is that story never would have been the priority with Ishii serving as director. IGN named Koichi Ishii the 97th best game creator of all time in 2009 and rightfully so. Ishii’s gameography places an emphasis on titles that understand the heart of the medium: interactivity.
No, running in and out of Gaia’s Navel isn’t particularly engaging on a surface level, but learning the area while uncovering a new culture is. There might not be much in the way of party interactivity, but the fact that every character has weapons they can level does mean there’s a constant sense of progression. Doubly so when taking into consideration both Primm and Popoi’s unique magic leveling. The antagonists lack a compelling motivation, but that hardly matters when the game makes an active effort to depict them as a legitimate threat, going so far as destroying the Mana Tree near the end of the game.
The Mana Tree specifically is an interesting beat to linger on as it’s perhaps the best example of Ishii’s direction in action. Over the course of the entire game, players are told that their only hope is restoring the Mana Sword in order to stop the Mana Fortress’ revival. Closer to the end, the heroes latch onto the idea of using the Mana Tree to power up the sword, a concept that would bare a considerable amount of meaning for anyone who played Final Fantasy Adventure. The journey to the Mana Tree is a grueling one, done entirely through gameplay, and it all ends with a quick scene of the Mana Tree being eviscerated before the heroes can properly arrive.
In a game where improving one’s weapons is a core mechanic, there’s something very powerful about watching the one thing that could have powered up the strongest weapon in the game being taken away at the last possible moment. Pure Land is the longest dungeon in the game, featuring six bosses and an onslaught of enemies in-between. With barely any dialogue happening in the dungeon, the story plays out through gameplay exclusively up to the point the Mana Tree is burned down. This is a trend that Secret of Mana uses for most of its dungeons, allowing gameplay to take center stage, but it pays off most when the stakes are high and telegraphed clearly through gameplay.
All that said, while Ishii’s gameplay leads to incredible moments, the gameplay itself would need to be quite good to pull off such a feat. Unfortunately, Secret of Mana’s core combat isn’t all that intuitive, but it is something better: interesting. What Secret of Mana will always have over its far more fluid successor is the stamina meter. An impatient player will find themselves immediately frustrated with the fact that Randi can’t just wail on enemies that should be dead in a few seconds flat, but that creates an intimacy not just with the combat, but with the enemies inhabiting the overworld.
Secret of Mana’s combat lives and dies by its natural rhythm. Randi, Primm, and Popoi can attack at any time so long as their stamina meter is full, but they have to wait through a cool-down before they can strike again. Enemies also stagger when hit, meaning that players also have to wait for monsters to regain their composure before they can be attacked again. It can be called padding as it forces the player to spend more time with the game than they’d otherwise need to, but a little bit of patience is hardly a bad thing. Secret of Mana is an adventure, and adventures take time. More importantly, this back and forth adds to the idea that Secret of Mana takes place in a living, breathing world.
Alongside the stamina meter, attacks can be charged up in order to inflict more damage. The higher the weapon level, the longer the weapon can be charged. By the end of the game, charging up one’s weapon is incredibly important when it comes to dealing damage. As the game progresses, how someone plays the game is bound to naturally change, either out of necessity of curiosity. For as interesting as the stamina meter and charge-up system are, it’s the vast variety of weapons that keeps Secret of Mana so fresh. With eight different weapons to choose from, players have full range over how their party controls.
Randi will need to use the Mana Sword during the final boss fight, but it’s anyone’s game up to that point.This goes double for Primm and Popoi as they have their own sets of magic to level and use. Not every weapon or spell is necessary for completing the game, but they’re not useless either. No two playthroughs need to be the same, and it’s entirely possible to get through Secret of Mana focusing on just about any weapon or spell. Secret of Mana, by its very nature, is a game that gets better the more it’s played. Koishi Ishii’s touch is one that lingers all the way to the very end of his games, and Secret of Mana is the clearest depiction of his vision.
It’s entirely possible that if Trials of Mana released in the west in the mid-90s, it would have usurped Secret of Mana’s place on Wikipedia’s “List of video games considered the best,” but ideally both RPGs would be featured. Secret of Mana might be as hyper-competent on a mechanical or narrative level, but not every game has to break the mold to be considered a classic. Likewise, Secret of Mana does not need a legacy that extends past itself. It’s an incredibly important entry in the Mana franchise, one that would directly influence what’s considered to be the best game in the series, but it’s also its own game with its own vision. A gripping, charming, and at times even frustrating adventure that understands its medium better than most, Secret of Mana might not be one of the best games ever made, but it is undeniably one of the best games of all time.