A Second Look: The Secret of Mana (Square, 1993)

The Secret of Mana (Seiken Densetsu 2) is a game well-liked by many, and it has an overall aura of positivity around it. The soundtrack by Hiroki Kikuta is amazing and legendary, just read the wonderful review over at Chudah's Corner [ED NOTE: Site is gone forever!].

I can still vividly remember the first time I saw the game. Somehow, I was already excited about it before it was released. Maybe it was because I was waiting for a Zelda-like game on the SNES from Square (that was one of the team's important design decisions - to make a Zelda-like action RPG), or maybe it was the already great reviews of Final Fantasy 6. Square was a company to watch.

I put the SNES cartridge in, and for the first time, I heard Angel's Fear. Back then, this caliber of music was rare. The song portended quality and an experience not to be missed. Then, as the opening lines appeared with white swans flying across the screen, I saw the credits begin...... PROGRAMMED BY NASIR.

That stopped me.

For so long, I wondered what had become of my game programming hero, Nasir Gebelli. I didn't know that he had moved to Japan in 1986 to program the Final Fantasy games, and that he almost single-handedly saved Square from extinction. I didn't know how many games he made at Square before Final Fantasy I. This was the first evidence I had that he was alive and well and still making games.

Jumping into the game, I immediately noticed the innovative ring menu system. Everything was crisply programmed, Nasir-fast, and the graphics were at the height of SNES quality. They would be bettered in subsequent years by only a few games, Seiken Densetsu 3, Final Fantasy 6 and Chrono Trigger among them. So far, everything was what I had hoped for.

I started playing the game and loved having two players able to co-op. I played until I was distracted by something else. I came back later and played some more, but I didn't get very far. Years pass.

The legendary Nasir Gebelli

Eventually, I started playing the game again and made a conscious decision to start at the beginning since it had been a while since my last play. Again, the same thing happened - after a while, I got side-tracked and eventually stopped playing. I even gave it another shot after a few more years had passed with the same result.

Why wasn't I able to finish this game?

I had to think about this for a bit. It most definitely wasn't the music, because that part was great. The ring menu wasn't laborious either. So, no user interface issues for me. I did have some difficulty getting through the castle, because the werewolves moved very quickly and dealt harsh damage. But, the final time I played, I did get past that part.

No, I finally figured that the game just wasn't that engaging. It didn't feel cohesive; it didn't flow like a game of high quality does. High quality design never has the player wondering what they should do next - they should already know the next step. They should not wander aimlessly in the world with everything inactive except the one object they need to click on. The reason the game felt this way, I suspect, was because the game was originally developed for a Super Nintendo CD system that Sony was developing for Nintendo. When the deal went south and Nintendo decided not to release a CD add-on for the SNES, Square had to make the game fit on a cartridge. So, they cut and cut and cut the game down: story, maps, dialogue, everything. The game had to fit and fast. The deadline was approaching.

Anyone in game development can tell you that this is a recipe for disaster. The end of development is so crucial to the finished game becoming itself, taking on its ultimate personality, that shipping it before it's a cohesive experience is basically throwing years of effort and money into a fiery pit.

It was also likely affected by the English translation that Ted Woolsey had to do in record time that, due to a fixed-width font, greatly limited the words he could put on-screen and kept a great story from English-speaking audiences.

Secret of Mana retains a positive aura with the caveat that the experience can be messy to navigate (just focus on getting past the first 30% of the game) but may be worth the time invested if only to say you actually finished the game.