Before I finished grade school, my older brother had taught me that Sega was superior to Nintendo. For nearly a decade I took this as gospel. I enjoyed playing the NES at friends houses but I always believed the Master System was better. I even convinced my best friend of this and got him to give up his Nintendo for a Master System and eventually a Genesis.
It was with this supreme confidence I first played Secret of Mana. We played all night and I left my friend’s house the next morning disillusioned. SoM was so good I needed to get an SNES, which until that point had been my sworn enemy. I quickly devised a scheme to make SoM mine. I could sell these games at FunCo Land, I could mow these lawns, rake these leaves and so on.
Secret of Mana, a Square made action RPG, is one of the highlights of the SNES’s incredibly impressive collection of RPGs. While it still has a strong following, most remember the Final Fantasys and Chrono Trigger as being the system’s crowning achievements. Luckily for SoM, I still haven’t played Chrono Trigger.
The plot of SoM starts with your character cutting down the sacred Mana Tree then being cast out of his village. This is now an RPG cliché, but at the time it hadn’t been done to death yet. So your character sets off on a journey to do something I don’t remember, and along the way teams up with a princess and a dwarf creature he buys from the circus.
People don’t love SoM because of its story. Or at least I don’t because I don’t remember it. SoM had amazing gameplay. A decade later, I am hard-pressed to think of an action RPG that is more fun to play. Mana gave you control over three characters and their weapons and spells. There were eight weapons to use, some of the more original ones were a whip, javelin, brass knuckles, and boomerang. Each character could get better at using each weapon by using them, and each new level would allow that character to perform a stronger super move.
Magic worked in a similar way. Using spells gave them experience and they leveled through extensive use. Characters could also level up and gain higher stats in the standard way of killing a lot of enemies. All of the spells and weapons having levels was a sheer joy to a power leveler like me.
Perhaps the game’s best feature was that it allowed multiple players. A quality two player action RPG is hard enough to find, but SoM was designed for three people. It stands nearly alone in the genre of party action RPG (Guardian Heroes could conceivably included in the genre).
The sequel to SoM, which was called Seiken Densetsu 2 in Japan, was appropriately titled Seiken Densetsu 3. It was never ported to the West, though, and in its place Square of America developed Secret of Evermore. I never played Evermore but it’s reportedly nowhere as good as SoM.
Square made another Mana game for the Playstation called Legend of Mana. Despite some diehard fans claiming otherwise, it’s a piece of crap. Still on their kick to design nonlinear storylines in RPGs (think Saga Frontier 1 and 2 *shudder*), Square basically left plot entirely out of Legend of Mana. The game was also extremely easy unless you cared enough to look up how to change it to hard mode. I didn’t. A game shouldn’t suck until you enter a code. Finally, what really pissed me off about LoM was that the fighting system didn’t allow you to attack facing up or down. Instead, it played like Double Dragon or Final Fight. SoM allowed you to attack in four directions so why was the system simplified for the sequel?
The awesomeness of SoM has not been replicated despite Square’s efforts. The new DS version looks promising since it seems to be aiming to recapture that first (second) Mana game, but time will tell. Even if it’s great, it will lack the three player system that made SoM so enjoyable.
Despite writing out my plan to get an SNES, it didn’t happen until I was in college. The experience of writing a Get a SNES plan helped me devise a successful Get a Playstation document a few years later, at least. After I finally got an SNES, the first thing I did was buy Secret of Mana and a three player adapter.