Secret of Mana
Secret of Mana, a gem from the heyday of the Super Nintendo, is an action RPG that moves at what could now be considered a gentlemanly pace. As the genre has sped up to include combos, rapid-fire button mashing and other frenetic features, this 1993 release is content to slow things down with a hint of strategy and lulls in the action. That’s not a bad thing, but it’s particularly noticeable in the iPhone port of the heralded game. A great game will always be a great, but this port is missing some of the magic.
To the uninitiated, Secret of Mana looks like a Zelda clone because of the bright, colorful graphics and the need to slice down shrubbery with a sword. That’s about where the similarities end – aside from the simple storylines the games share. Secret of Mana stars a trio of characters that work cooperatively and can be switched on the fly. At the time, the AI settings for the characters were impressive. The supporting cast could be ordered to stay back and avoid the fray, to attack wandering foes or to support the lead character. It was a glorious time in 1993.
Those AI settings have not aged so well and the characters have to be babysat to avoid being slaughtered by zombies or humanoid fish. The SNES version brilliantly offered multiplayer, which made the questionable AI inconsequential. The iPhone port scraps this inventive feature and doesn’t even offer local multiplayer. Another issue lies in the touch-based controls. The iPhone hardly ever works as well as a controller. That’s the case here, as the controls feel lose and navigating the circular menus requires far too much finesse. New hotkeys alleviate this and actually make the action move faster. That, along with the better graphics, are the only additions to the game.
Now I’ve been complaining about some of these relatively minor changes, but it’s partly because I’m a purist nerd that was forced to emulate this game when I couldn’t find an SNES version years ago. Playing Secret of Mana on an iPhone after years of obscurity is a delight despite the antiquated elements. The music is still wonderful, the hokey writing is still amusing and the depth of options is better than most games on the system. Each character can equip – and level up – eight different weapons. The mixing and matching of armor, swords and strategies was a novel idea in the young action RPG genre at the time.
While it can’t be quantified, there’s a certain level of old-school bliss associated with Secret of Mana that most newcomers probably won’t care for. The destination to advance the plot is often obscure and can be easily forgotten. Even the much-improved graphics show their age but remain pleasant to this day. After all, it’s glorious the Mode 7 graphics we’re talking about. The iPhone port is far from perfect, but it’s Secret of Mana. You can do much worse.