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Secret of Mana

Recent RPGs haven’t been as good as the older ones. Maybe I’m becoming old and senile, or maybe nostalgia clouds my judgment, but most recent RPGs just haven’t had that much of an impact on me. I find myself always going back to the classics, which include Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy III and Suikoden II. After playing through the disappointing Suikoden IV I decided to go back and give Secret of Mana a try after neglecting it for years. This Squaresoft games hails from the golden age of RPGs, but it’s not the classic some people say it is. Instead, it’s merely an enjoyable action-RPG with some amazing multiplayer.

That pink bandanna sure is cute

The only part where Secret of Mana really fails to deliver is in the storyline department. The hero, a boy with a stylish pink bandana, is banished from his village after mistakenly obtaining a sword in a stone. This wasn’t just any sword though- it was the sword of mana! Now that monsters have been unleashed due to the removal of the sword, it’s up to the hero to embark on a quest and save the day, all while forming powerful allies and defeating an evil empire (known only as The Empire). Clichéd isn’t the only word to describe the plot. Incoherent also works. The translation is less than adequate, as was the case in many games of that era. Another adjective would be childish. One of the quests involves you rescuing Santa Claus. I wish I was making this up.

That’s not to say I hate the storyline. I enjoyed its light-hearted tone and confusing dialogue, despite the silliness of it all. There’s even a scene or two that isn’t that bad. While it certainly isn’t a memorable narrative, its quirky, campy charm makes things reasonably entertaining.

However, the plot definitely isn’t enough to carry Secret of Mana. Fortunately, the gameplay fares much better. Think of Secret of Mana as a cousin to Zelda. The combat is done in real time, but there’s a bar that must be fully charged in order to do a powerful, accurate attack. If you don’t wait a couple seconds for the bar to charge and just attack anyways then you’ll find the attack to be rather ineffective. Waiting slows down the speed of the battles, but it adds some welcome strategy and pacing.

Three to one? I like those odds

Essentially, you travel through area after area, fighting cutesy enemies, obtaining experience and getting to the next town or dungeon. It’s a simple formula that could get boring quickly, but the diverse locales you visit make things interesting. Those lovable moogles from the Final Fantasy series make their way here and they even have their own village. The vibrant colors of the obligatory desert area make for a visually pleasing time, as do the beautiful crystals in the snow area. Towards the end of the game there is a stunning, lush forest with just sneaking through the dense foliage.

In comparison, some of the many dungeons look bland. Not only do they become repetitive in terms of looks, but very early in the game they come across as boring. The puzzles are nonexistent, and it doesn’t look like there is going to be any variation in the gameplay. Fortunately, things become much more exciting a little ways into Secret of Mana. Unlike the rival Link, the Hero of this game isn’t on his own. Two other characters join the party. One is a sprite with mastery in offensive magic, and the other is a tough girl skilled in combat and support magic. The magic system works rather well. Simply open up a menu and pick from one of the many spells, and the more you use the spell, the more powerful it gets. There’s many different spells, ranging from fireballs to increased defense, and figuring out the best spells for the boss battles is necessary to win the fight.

This forest looks amazing when actually playing the game

You can switch to any of these characters with the touch of a button, so you’re not confined to control the main character. There are also some customizable AI options, so deciding how aggressive the characters are is a useful technique. Despite the helpful AI techniques your allies can still behave stupidly at times. They get stuck behind objects far too often, and you can’t advance without them. Going back to rescue them becomes a major pain.

Though the AI can be frustrating at times, everything becomes redeemed in the legendary multiplayer mode. It’s not too often that an RPG features any sort of multiplayer, but Secret of Mana absolutely delivers. Not only is there two-player action, but up to three people can join the fray. The sense of teamwork, which is especially evident in the boss battles, is a rewarding experience. It’s too bad more action-RPGs neglect this exciting feature.

Believe it or not, I’m walking on air. I never thought I could feel this way

Another thing that makes Secret of Mana stand tall is the memorable soundtrack. The ever-popular “sad theme” works wonderfully despite the inane plot, and the intense boss battle music gets the suits the action perfectly. A few of the other pieces are magnificently done, such as the tranquil ice continent music and the mysterious Pure Land theme. After more than ten years the music here still remains better than many recent game soundtracks.

Despite all the years since its initial release, Secret of Mana is still a good game. It’s not necessarily a classic due to a weak plot and occasionally lackluster singleplayer experience, but if you can find two friends to play with then this game becomes gold. It’s not an engrossing epic like Final Fantasy VI or Chrono Trigger, but it still makes for a lighthearted, memorable time.

8 out of 10

The author of this fine article

is a Senior Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in February 2003. Get in touch on Twitter @akarge.

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