The 1999 PlayStation game Legend of Mana, recently remastered for the Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and Windows PC, is a bit of an acquired taste. It’s an aggressively weird fantasy game that is also half a dozen other games in one, and it’s not particularly great at anything it tries. Yet I have nothing but fondness for this strange little experiment, since it’s incredibly charming throughout. Except when it comes to Niccolo, the bunny salesman. He’s a piece of shit.
Niccolo is one of the first characters you can meet in Legend of Mana. He’s a salesman with a whole schtick about making all of his customers smile thanks to the value he brings to their lives. There is nothing true about this. He’s a conniving bastard, and he’s also racist toward the Sproutlings, little cabbage-looking bros who also inhabit the world. (There are humans in Legend of Mana, but also storybook creatures that all resemble anthropomorphized flora and fauna.) I know he’s racist because, not long after meeting him, he told me.
“I hate Sproutlings,” he said to me. It was so blunt that I laughed out loud. Then I talked to him again. “They’re the scum of the Earth,” he reiterated.
“Holy shit,” I swore at my TV. What a little prick!
Astonished at this brazen little bigot, I decided to help him out with a task (beating up some bandits) because I just ... really wanted to know where Legend of Mana would go with this dude. (This is my first time playing the game for more than a couple of hours, courtesy of the HD remaster.)
It turns out that Niccolo’s incredibly blunt expressions of prejudice fit right in with the rest of Legend of Mana; this is not a particularly nuanced or artfully written game. Going on a quest with Niccolo is a whirlwind tour of shameless swindling. For example, he’ll ask you to make a stop so he can offer to sell a wheel to someone for 50 grand, and when they say they can’t afford it, the bunny will give it to you for free, just to make them feel bad for not going for his shakedown price.
As you read this, please remind yourself what Legend of Mana looks like. It looks like a storybook. It might as well be The Little Prince. And here is Niccolo, this sublime little shithead, scheming his hateful little way through this cheery world full of sweet creatures who seem to barely register his buffoonery.
I want to see the rest of Niccolo’s story, but it’s been tricky to follow. Legend of Mana feels kind of like playing a board game at the same time as building it; you construct a map of the fantasy world one locale at a time, visiting each location once you find the artifact that adds it to your map. Because of this freeform structure, there’s no overarching story in Legend of Mana, just a large collection of short ones, some of which thread together across multiple installments in ways that aren’t really apparent. The player just has to keep building out their map and revisiting old places to see where characters pop up or run off to. Some stories are rewarding and add a new character to accompany you; others barely qualify as stories. It’s possible to stumble upon the end of a story without ever seeing the beginning. It’s also possible to find yourself at a dead end, with entire questlines cut off from you. It’s a messy game!
A quick search online tells me that Niccolo’s story continues in the game, but I don’t know when or how to continue it just yet. In the meantime, I might get distracted by other diversions, like raising my own little baby monsters (a thing you can do in this game). Maybe Niccolo reforms and learns Sproutlings are people too and greed is bad, which would be a storybook ending. Or maybe he doesn’t learn anything. That would be a storybook ending too, since storybooks often involve good people learning to deal with folks who are just plain bad.
Legend of Mana’s ambition far outpaces its elegance; it’s a video game that forever seems a few minutes away from falling apart, but also deeply worth figuring out. What’s fun about Niccolo is not his bigotry or his callous exploitation, but the way the game’s world either bends or does not bend around his presence, making it seem a little more complex, a little more unnerving. Legend of Mana resembles a board game with all of its pieces scattered across the floor, it’s true — but it’s also a board game that does a damn good job at convincing players that all its pieces matter. In other words, I’m amazed that this 22-year-old video game has reached across time and space to present me with an adorable little bunny dude who I really want to punch in the face.