The festive season continues with a game that you might not think of as having a Christmas connection… but it does.
In Retro Game Of The Week I pull a game from my collection and write about why it’s important or interesting. Or in some cases, badly dated and rubbish.
Secret Of Mana might just be my favourite SNES-era RPG of all. Yes, there’s plenty great to be said about the likes of Chrono Trigger and Link To The Past, of course, and debate will rage forever about “best” designations… but I’m talking favourites here, and I cannot deny that Secret of Mana holds a very special place in my heart.
If you’re not familiar with it, it’s an action RPG with the rather unique twist — for the SNES era specifically — of supporting up to three players simultaneously via the multi-tap. Imagine Link to the Past, but you’ve got multiple Links, something that Nintendo wouldn’t get to for nearly a decade after Secret of Mana. Except they’re not multiple links, because you instead have three characters to play as.
There’s the hero, strictly speaking ランディ in the original Japanese, which translates out to “Randi” (stop sniggering in the back there), but I’ve always named him something else and I think everyone else did too, your standard sword bashing character, the princess/healer (プリム, but again, she always got her own name) and the Sprite/Magician (ポポイ, but again, no) character, all of whom balance out the party as you go through a largely-but-not-always-sequential series of missions in order to defeat an evil empire and restore the balance of Mana to a critically damaged world.
That’s all standard fantasy RPG fare, really, but the reasons that Secret of Mana works, and is regarded so highly not just by myself but by basically everyone who’s ever played it, is that it balances nearly everything perfectly.
Visually it’s bright, pleasant and fun, with a really nice varied mix of character designs and environments, all played out in a mix of scrolling and flick-screen movement depending on where you’re going.
The music is astonishing (well, OK, I am still sick of the Dwarf Village music after all these years, but still…) and the flow of action works beautifully, with a mix of real-time combat and the simple and effective “ring” system for selecting everything from spells to armour.
What really makes Secret of Mana pop above and beyond is the inclusion of a three player component. Bear in mind that back in the day, that kind of multi-person engagement was nearly always limited to two players at most. Street Fighter II was two player. Super Mario Kart was two player. Most early sports games, even into the SNES era were two player… and so on.
The Multi-tap changed all that, opening up sports games, the amazing Super Bomberman series (which I promise I’ll induct one day… hmmm… I could do an entire month or two there…) and, naturally, Secret of Mana.
Working your way through an RPG with other players where it’s well balanced and interesting is a great experience. Often you’ll be stuck hoping that the last surviving player will defeat an end-of-dungeon boss so you can be revived, or arguing over what the party’s funds should be spent on, or just working out who needs help with spells, attacks and items.
Also, if my own play sessions over multiple decades with multiple parties are anything to go by you’re creating odd little backstories and in-jokes about the game as you go along. That Sprite character has had some… interesting interpretations over the years from the groups I’ve played Secret of Mana with.
So what, I hear you ask, does any of that — as good as it is — have to do with Christmas?
This dude, that’s what:
You actually not only meet Santa Claus in Secret of Mana, but you BEAT Santa Claus in Secret of Mana, because, well, spoiler alert incoming, he kind of gets turned into a Frost Gigas and you have to defeat that.
Santa never looked so buff before. Ethical disclaimer moment: Santa’s rather late in the game, and while I have played through it many times before, I was a little time poor this week. Screenshots are from this video — go give it a watch and like and all that, I do like to credit my sources when needed.
I can’t think of too many actually family-friendly games that allow you to stick a sword into Santa Claus.
If you’re wondering why all that happens, it’s because the children stop believing in Santa Claus. So children, if you’re reading this — and not already traumatised by the prospect of skewering Santa like a kebab — just keep on believing, OK?
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How to play Secret of Mana (SNES) now
The above is my copy. I haven’t owned it from new, but it is a rarity in my collection in that I know for a fact that I’m only the second ever owner.
The original buyer was the brother of a friend of mine who bought it, completed it, and then sold it to me. I’ve treasured it ever since, which is why, while it’s not slabbed (DEATH TO ENTOMBING GAMES!), it is stored in a protective plastic case, because I love it so very much.
Also because Secret of Mana was, for quite some time, one of those slightly-rare games that was quite expensive to replace.
It honestly deserved some of that value, because it was desirable on the grounds of being good, rather than desirable on the grounds of being *OMFGR@@@RE*** the way far too many stupidly priced retro games are these days.
However, that status has changed, and changed a lot. At one time I’d see the few copies — especially PAL copies, like mine — go for around $600 and more, but these days a quick check of eBay shows that it’s going for around $100-$200 or thereabouts. That’s still not “cheap”, but it does show how that market has changed.
Are there grossly overpriced sadly-sealed “graded” copies? Of course there are, knock yourself out and waste your money if you must.
But outside the glades of speculator insanity, Secret of Mana’s prices have dropped. Why?
Largely because it’s very available to play right now if you’re so inclined.
It’s available for mobile devices, it’s on the SNES Mini, it’s part of the Collection of Mana available for modern consoles (buy it on Amazon through this link and support the site!)… and there’s even a remake of it available if you don’t like the classic 16 bit art style.
My full review of that remake is now lost to the mists of Internet time/publishers who decided to delete it, but I did note that it was a rather soulless shell that added voice acting but limited animation without really adding anything of significance to the classic Mana recipe.
I stand by that review; if you’re going to play Secret of Mana, please play the 16-bit original to get your Santa-thumping fix in!