“Legend: A lie that has attained the dignity of age.” – H. L. Mencken
You never forget your first.
Your first kiss. Your first love. Your first pregnancy scare. Your first RPG. The story of my first RPG was quite similar to most of my other firsts in life: incredible at the time, memorable, and irreparably flawed. Close your eyes and imagine the illegitimate lovechild of The Legend of Zelda and Dragon Warrior (or Dragon Quest to the kids among us). Then imagine Final Fantasy came along and agreed to be the godmother. That’s what players got in 1993 with Square’s Secret of Mana, also known as Seiken Densetsu 2. And it could have been epic.
I first played Secret of Mana at the age of eight, and was instantly enamored. The game held a very dear place in my heart until I revisited it as a teenager. I was heartbroken to discover that, despite the impact it had on me at such a young age, Secret of Mana did not hold up under the scrutiny of time.
A brief bit of backstory: an ancient village had successfully utilized the powerful resource of mana and crafted a flying warship, the Mana Fortress. The gods were angered and sent beasts and monsters to go to war with the humans. A hero came along, used the Mana Sword to destroy the warship, and everyone shook hands and moved on with their lives.
The game opens many years later when Randi (who was unnamed in the SNES version) from the village of Potos removed the Mana Sword from a stone (where have I heard this before?) resulting in the release of all of the evil it held in place. After this massive “uh-oh” he was banished from his village. He meets Primm, the defiant daughter of a nobleman who is searching for her lost boyfriend Dyluck, and the androgenous sprite Popoi, who has forgotten a majority of his past. Both Primm and Popoi become additional playable characters, with all three characters having very different abilities – Randi is excellent at combat, Primm uses defensive and healing spells, and Popoi damages enemies with offensive magic. Throw in a fierce Emperor, a fiercer sorcerer, dungeons, and a journey to the tree that is the focal point of all the world’s resources, and you’ve got the skeleton for a spectacular plot.
The game is an exciting wonderland of exploration and discovery. Yet, once you meet Flammie, the adorable child of the legendary white dragon, the script and story just…. stops. You are abruptly launched from a game of adventure to “fly here, do the palace, move along.” Sadly, this is because North American players like myself missed out on a large portion of the game.
Secret of Mana was originally designed to be released in North America via SNES CD add-on. Near the end of development, the deal between Nintendo and Sony fell through, with Sony deciding instead to develop the SNES CD into PlayStation. The designed game was salvaged by cutting a significant amount of data in order to make it fit onto an SNES cartridge. A large portion of the story’s script was cut after a certain point, as well as possibly a few mini-games (the carousel, for example) and sprites (like the melting snowman.) Various different routes which would lead to different endings were removed and substituted with linear gameplay.
Designer Koichi Ishii estimated that roughly 40% of the game’s content was cut, and producer Hiromichi Tanaka has stated that the original storyline had a much darker tone. Due to the drastic cuts, there is virtually zero character development present.
The graphics were a bit repetitive, the sprites were bright but lacked detail, and the palaces had almost no accompanying additional tasks. You fly to an island that is essentially completely vacant with the exception of the Tree Palace – nothing to see or do here, guys. Just beat the big house and move along! Likely the most disappointing was the Moon Palace, which was made entirely of a five-minute star maze to the orb and the elemental Lumina. It drastically differed from what game enthusiasts had come to expect from a Square title.
Several glitches are present as a result of the content cut, the most frustrating being the glitchy combat system. While not making the game unplayable, your allies might accidentally get stuck in a wall after using charge attacks, and both your damage delivered and your weapon hit direction will be inconsistent. In extreme situations, you may be forced to soft reset and possibly lose progress. There is also an instance where you enter Sage Joch’s cave amidst green fields, and leave moments later to find yourself atop a cliff surrounded by sky – this could have either been a scrolling error or an additional explorable area that was cut.
In 1995, Square (now Square Enix) seemingly went into overdrive to make up for the flawed Secret of Mana, releasing the cult classic Chrono Trigger, which many of Secret of Mana’s removed features were incorporated into, the RPG masterpiece Secret of Evermore, and Seiken Densetsu 3, one of the finest games of its time. Seiken Densetsu 3, despite its positive reception, was never officially released outside of Japan. It has been speculated that the unfortunate circumstances present in the development of Secret of Mana were the cause of Seiken Densetsu 3 not being released outside of Japan, as well as Square moving the Final Fantasy franchise from Nintendo to Sony consoles.
The relationship many 90’s gamers have with Secret of Mana is often one of reverence and respect. However, nostalgia often clouds the judgement of even the most objective of critics, and hindsight has not been kind to this title.
Square Enix has been widely renowned for its exceptional games and masterful storytelling. A player does not simply play a Square Enix game – they experience a Square Enix game. Unfortunately, falling victim to the brutal villain of technical capability limited their ability to fully deliver the life-changing tale of Secret of Mana, instead settling for a heartbreakingly brutal hack job.
On it’s own, Secret of Mana was an acceptable and fun game with a brilliant soundtrack. However, coming from a name with as much acclaim as Square, it was hard to get beyond the sudden shift from plot depth and explorative adventure to “hurry up and finish.”
Lizzy Finnegan is a ginger gamer, with an irrational love of food trucks, and a completely rational love of bacon. More than 15 years later, she still hates the Water Temple. Puns welcome.