theuselessgod's Secret of Mana (Super Nintendo Entertainment System) review

A beautiful game with some serious gameplay problems.

The Short

Pros

- Excellent colorful 16-bit graphics

- Fantastic music

- "Ring" menu system works well (once you figure it out)

- Lots of weapons to choose from

- Play with up to two other friends in full co-op

- Action RPG that's fast paced and intense

- Long

Cons

- Story, or particularly the translation, is horrendous

- Hit detection on enemies seems to follow it's own secret set of rules you don't get to know

- AI companions are unbelievably stupid and die frequently, even when overleveled

- When the Ring menu system doesn't work, it makes you wish for normal menues

- Magics can only be used from the menu. The SNES has like six buttons, guys.

Constipation: It can happen to you

The Long

Secret of Mana, or Seiken Densetsu 2 for those in Japan, is an action RPG made by Square back in its SNES glory days. In it, you play the role of a boy who looks a lot like Chrono from Chrono Trigger (though based on release dates, Chrono looks like him) who take the legendary Mana Sword from the stone and is therefore destined to be king of Engla...wait a minute. Let me start over.

Secret of Mana is an action RPG by Square on the SNES, and has since been rereleased on both the Wiishop and iPhone/iPad (of all platforms). There is a lot of fan fondness for this game, probably because it looks pretty and was one of Square's first games to have a heavy amount of real-time action in conjunction with its normal leveling. There was even a "companion" game made in the states for us dumb Americans called Secret of Evermore, starring a blonde haired dude and his dog. Wait, I'm getting off track again.

The point is that Secret of Mana has a LOT of nostalgia associated with it, which is why it's going to be hard for me to say this: Secret of Mana is pretty much broken. Like, in a bad way. Lots of problems here, people. Now I'll elaborate since everybody reading this review has left in a rage.

Level your Sprite! 47/47 HPs? What?

The first problems are evidenced the minute you read the first several lines of text. Secret of Mana is horribly translated. While I get it's supposed to have a goofy, whimsical tone about it, you have to penetrate the really awkward dialogue in order to even get the jokes. There's also tons of weird modern dialogue and expressions (or 90s dialogue) mixed in for good confusing measure, and everything just comes off as really disjointed. I'm pretty sure the story is the Mana Tree is in trouble or something, so they give you the Mana Sword and send you to find Mana Weapons, which are apparently a secret or something based on the title? This usually involves you doing random things unrelated to the main problem, or getting kicked out of your village despite clearly being the chosen one, and...you know what? It's a stupid story, it isn't told well, but it really doesn't matter that much. The story isn't the main focus (or at least I keep telling myself that), so just turn your brain off when people start talking and you'll probably be ok.

Hunting that obnoxious, replicating slime.

Combat in Secret of Mana happens in real time, in a style similar to The Legend of Zelda with a twist. Every time you strike out with whatever weapon you have equipped (and there are a lot of options), your "power percent" drops to zero and quickly recharges. You are free to attack again at any time, but if you do before it hits 100% you'll take a rather large damage penalty. This is done to prevent button mashing to the end of the game, which sounds fantastic in concept.The problem is the hit detection with enemies is awful, to the point where I'm actually thinking it's just straight broken. If an ally hits an enemy (and the numbers pop up) and a second later you hit the enemy with your saved attack, it seems completely random if the damage will register (popping up after the first numbers go away, because for some reason this game didn't have power to process two attacks or display two numbers over the same enemy at once). If this sounds like a little thing, think again. Imagine fighting a group of enemies, waiting patiently for your meter to fill, only to strike at that moment right after your ally hits him for an uncharged 5 damage. Your entire attack gets wasted, the meter drops, and you have to wait again. It is extremely frustrating.

Enemies don't seem to have this problem, catching you in infinite loops (especially bosses) and just bashing you to death (or standing on top of you so when you try to get up automatically you take damage forever and ever) without having any chance of retaliation. They sort of try to fix this by giving you an "evade" option that makes it so you roll out of the way automatically based on a stat, but this also will interrupt your attacks if you are trying to land a hit.

When something this fundamental is broken, it's hard to look back on this game positively.

Nostalgia-fans will argue that this is part of the game, or makes it more fun, or it's just something you have to get used to. Ok, sure, but riddle me this: why does it work just fine in all the sequels, prequels, and even spinoff Secret of Evermore? If this totally broken hit detection was part of the game, why didn't it teach me this? Say something like "when an enemy is flinching, down, pausing, casting a spell, being hit by somebody else, blocking somebody else, dodging somebody else, eating a burrito, or watching the evening news, than your charged up power attack will do literally nothing at all?" It's because it isn't, and because this game is broken.It is possible to get around it, it's just really frustrating. Since you don't know if you are hitting stuff, often on tricky bosses you aren't certain if you are doing damage. There's a wall boss that will instant-kill you if he pushes you to the bottom of the room. Ok, sure. But with on instruction you have no idea what to hit, with its eyes (weak points, obviously) squinting closed and open and you aren't entirely certain when you are supposed to hit them and when they die. Then you try and mash the heck out of him and you die instantly, back to the save point at the start of the dungeon. Keep in mind we were probably 4-5 levels higher than the game expected at this point and still lost. And I consider myself pretty good at action RPGs. It's very obnoxious, to say the least.

At least the game is easy on the eyes.

So what else is in this game? It has a unique "ring" menu system that lets you equip yourself and other characters, and you can switch to playing as your two sidekicks with a single button push, which is good. The Ring system works decently throughout, until you hit a situation where comparing armors or knowing who wears what can be a bit of a drag, and you wish you just had a normal menu system back. Also, the only way to get to magic is through the menu, which is tedious, but since attacking with your weapon is the primary concern here I guess it's somewhat forgivable.

The game supports up to three players in co-op (you'll need one of those SNES splitters if you want two of your friends in on the action), which is both cool and highly recommended, because your ally AI is dumb as a box of bricks. You can customize their settings between being aggressive and passive, and whether they'll close the distance or not, but this has problems. First, they have a tendency to follow me close to enemies and then the AI will kick in for a "far" ally, and by that point it's too late; they've been hit. It's like they don't know we are in a fight yet. And second, they love to just straight up ignore whatever setting I put them on and do whatever they like. I set somebody to the most passive, far away stance and even gave them a ranged weapon, and they still ran up to the boss and proceeded to get stuck in an infinite loop straight to death in the first couple of seconds.

This is exacerbated by the fact that your can only hold a limited number of healing items, meaning keeping them alive is expensive and also annoying. So yeah, don't play with the AI if at all possible. Find some friends and burn through it with them. Then you all can hate the bad hit detection, but at least you are doing it together, which is sort of entertaining. I guess.

What? His allies are dead? On a boss? What a massive surprise!

There are some positives here. The game looks really good, with a soft pallet and a lot of colors that sort of bleed together. It's a bit too soft in places (need some black outlines in the environment and enemies, people, not this weird muted gray), but it fits a theme and overall looks very nice. Characters animate decently, as do enemies, and everything just looks really good.

The music is also catchy and provides a soft, subtle background noise, hitting the right highs and lows. It is a bit too mellow at times, but that might just be personal preference. It's still very excellent, and anybody who digged Squaresoft midi tunes back in the SNES days will feel right at home with this soundtrack.

I hate you, wall boss.

As it stands, however, this game has not aged gracefully. It's still a decent run with friends, though in this world of co-op RPG games you have lots of other options if you decide to give this one a pass. It sets up a good framework, but the frustrating combat coupled with the moron AI really makes this game a test of patience. If you haven't played it and are a Squaresoft fan I highly suggest giving it a run anyway, since every other Squaresoft fan will outcast you if you haven't played it. But if you are looking for a strong co-op RPG, I suggest looking elsewhere. And if you are looking for a single player action RPG that isn't bad, Secret of Evermore is basically the same game as this one only more interesting and with better combat. So pick that up instead.Sorry, Secret of Mana, but hindsight really is 20/20. Two out of five stars.

At least Gnome took it well. Cue the hatemail!

More at http://nathanvsvideogames.blogspot.com

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