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Why we still haven’t seen anything quite like Secret of Mana

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No one has never quite managed to recapture the magic of this Super NES classic

Square Enix

Last summer, Square Enix published a collection of 8- and 16-bit Seiken Densetsu games for the Nintendo Switch, but only in Japan. The package contained solid renditions of Final Fantasy Adventure for Game Boy, Secret of Mana for Super NES, and the Japan-only Secret sequel Seiken Densetsu 3. The last detail caught many people’s attention. After all, for more than two decades now, Seiken Densetsu 3 has been the lone import-only holdout in the entire Mana franchise, the one game that has never officially been localized from Japanese into any other language ... despite fan demands.

For a brief moment, Mana devotees held out hope that Square Enix would bring Seiken Densetsu Collection to American and European Switches as well, at last filling the critical gap in one of the company’s most beloved franchises. Yet they quickly found those hopes dashed once again on the cruel rocks of reality. The package would not be released in America. Instead, Square Enix took a different route entirely, including the original version of Secret of Mana on the Super NES Classic Edition (for Nintendo fans) and releasing a Secret of Mana remake for PlayStation 4, Vita and Steam (for everyone else). Here in the West, Seiken Densetsu 3 will remain an exclusive for the import- and fan translation-savvy. And that means 1993’s Secret of Mana continues to be the last great Mana game released outside Japan.

Secret of Mana remake - Randi Square Enix

The series has seen many sequels through the years, but aside from Seiken Densetsu 3, nothing to bear the Mana name has ever captured the spirit that made Secret of Mana such an enduring classic. Legend of Mana for PlayStation dumbed down its combat to resemble a brawler, with mechanical complexity coming instead from a confusing and frequently superfluous world-building system. Contrarily, Children of Mana for Nintendo DS focused entirely on dungeon combat. And Dawn of Mana for PlayStation 2 gave a strong first impression of returning to form, only to wander off and get lost in a pointless fascination with Havok physics puzzles — because what people really loved about Secret of Mana was fussing with the placement of boxes in 3D space, right? There have also been strategy games, remakes and inevitably, a joyless free-to-play mobile effort.

Ironically, the lack of a quality heir has benefited the publisher in one capacity. Square Enix can get away with remaking a 25-year-old action RPG in 2018 and charging $40 for it because, frankly, there’s never been another game quite like it. Even Seiken Densetsu 3 — widely considered the best-designed and most substantive entry in the entire franchise — misses the original’s mark in a few critical ways.

There’s something special about Secret of Mana, a rare alchemy that even its creators don’t seem to understand. The series’ original designer, Koichi Ishii, oversaw last year’s Nintendo 3DS adventure Ever Oasis, which had the right look but still didn’t get it right. Given the history behind Secret of Mana’s development, it’s entirely possible no one has ever managed to replicate its appeal simply because the game itself turned out the way it did more or less by accident.

The box art for Secret of Mana on SNES Square Enix

Squaresoft originally intended Secret of Mana to ship for the Nintendo Play Station, the collaborative Nintendo/Sony peripheral that would have added CD-ROM support to the Super NES. The Play Station seemed like a perfect fit for Squaresoft; the company spent much of the 16-bit era grousing about how it couldn’t squeeze both the story and visuals for its ambitious role-playing games into Nintendo’s high-priced, low-capacity cartridges. Indeed, Seiken Densetsu 3 and several other late-16-bit-era creations by Squaresoft never made their way West simply because of memory limitations. The difference in data storage needs for written Japanese, versus English or European languages, would have forced the company to remove huge chunks of content from the localized versions.

Nintendo, of course, scuttled plans for the Play Station venture in a messy public divorce from Sony, which made things tough for Secret of Mana’s creators. Square decided to complete the project, but it would now ship on a 2 MB cartridge instead of a 650 MB disc. That likely accounts for the extreme bugginess of the game, which is susceptible to glitches and exploits literally from the very first town through the final battle. Even without knowing the game’s behind-the-scenes history, you still get the impression the whole thing is barely being held together with the digital equivalent of string and duct tape; it almost seems a miracle that the thing runs at all. The game’s programmer — Iranian computer savant Nasir Gebelli — is rumored to have retired off his royalties from Secret of Mana, which seems a well-earned victory.

In most games, the rickety sensation that characterizes Secret of Mana would be despicable — unforgivable, even. In Secret of Mana, though, it seems fitting. The game does all kinds of things no one had ever attempted to do in a video game before; it may be glitchy from start to finish, but those flaws are matched by an equally ceaseless stream of innovations and clever hacks.

Secret of Mana SNES - walking through water Square Enix

Not only does the game combine action-driven combat and nuts-and-bolts role-playing systems with far greater depth and ambition than anything that had come before, it pulls it off while allowing for simultaneous cooperative play. And it doesn’t stop at two-player co-op. No, Secret of Mana allows anyone with a four-player “multitap” controller adapter to bring a third adventurer into the action. The drop-in/drop-out design allows anyone to jump in anytime to control the first player’s companions, who otherwise tag along as computer-controlled helpers.

Each of the player characters has their own distinct combat specialization. The boy, Randi, has the strongest physical attributes but no access to magic. The girl, Prim, casts healing and buff spells. The sprite, Popoi, wields attack and debuff magic. Together, they comprise a full RPG party, despite working in an action-driven milieu.

While the prospect of three players teaming up to use RPG systems and mechanics in real time would seem logistically unwieldy within the bounds of the Super NES, Secret keeps it brisk by minimizing the need to cut away to separate menu screens; instead, players can access essential combat functions by calling up a simple ring-style menu of icons for their active character without disrupting the action. And the game encourages players to use magic and swap weapons on a regular basis, giving each character access to eight weapons and eight classes of magic (for those who can use magic, that is), which grow in power through individual mastery.

These elements add up to a fast-paced journey through a fascinating world in which it’s both essential and (mostly) painless to change up your tactics and keep all three party members buffed up for the challenges ahead.

Secret of Mana - high shot of game world Square Enix

The original Secret of Mana has a rowdy, chaotic element to it, but the game works — even now, decades later — because the superficial sketchiness of the tech is underpinned by thoughtful interlocking systems and clever interface innovations. Secret of Mana certainly isn’t perfect, even discounting the loopy tech: The most strategically planned playthrough eventually becomes bogged down at some point by the need to stand around spamming disused magic spells in order to bring them up to the party’s current level. Yet the game rises above its shortcomings, and its sequels, thanks to its brash design, lush visuals, stunning music and, above all, its joyous camaraderie.

Secret of Mana has been widely imitated, and now even regurgitated, but it’s never been matched. Perhaps the problem is that it can’t be matched, at least not deliberately. Many of Secret of Mana’s strengths feel almost accidental — one of those rare, miraculous cases in which flaws somehow enhance a game rather than diminishing it. Though that may not precisely bode well for the future of Mana, it certainly makes Secret of Mana all the more remarkable.