Nothing fancy. Had the worst time trying to get the Zoomify export function working properly in Photoshop … for some reason it screws up the aspect ratio for some images and squashes the tiles in Storymap.JS (even though it works fine with the default Zoomify page that Photoshop generates). Eventually I got it working when I did the export using the original .GIF instead of converting to .JPG and then tiling it out. Weird?
Christmas 1993. Secret of Mana is the game to have, and it’s in my hands. After a quick flip through the manual, I’m watching the story of an ancient civilization that sought to control mana, and finding myself in control of a young boy who is in over his head. Needing to cut through some bushes to find his way home, he finds a sword seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Doing what any normal kid would do, he takes it and starts to hack a path home. But, as it often is in situations such as this, things are not as straightforward as they seem. The boy runs into a hopping yellow rabbit-like creature; he mutters, “What’s a rabite doing in a place like this?” And from there, we hear the opening strains of a 12-string guitar as he begins his quest to save the world.
Thus begins Secret of Mana, and one of my cherished memories from childhood.
On October 6, 1993, Secret of Mana was released in the United States for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System; 20+ years later, the adventures of the Boy, Girl and Sprite endure. Thanks to the Virtual Console and iOS ports (not to mention SNES emulation), it has remained in the conscious of gamers. However, in many ways, Secret of Mana is my game, a deep memory and connection to my past.
By that Christmas I’d already been indoctrinated into the cult of Nintendo for many years; RPGs and action games were some of my favorites, and everything aligned perfectly in Secret of Mana. In it, Square found a way to merge the traditional JRPG format of Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior with more action-adventure-oriented games like The Legend of Zelda. The game was fast-paced yet encouraged growth and exploration. The mechanic of waiting for a fully charged weapon forced a bit more tactical approach to attacking. The ring-based menus were innovative and intuitive, keeping the action on the main screen instead of forcing a move to a subscreen to access items, weapons and magic. While the action was paused, there was still a sense of urgency to find candy for healing or cast Lucent Beam to attack. The balance was exceptional and made the game feel fresh.
Even though I probably didn’t admit it much, I loved being outdoors and hiking with my family; we visited countless state parks and wineries when I was growing up and I loved the exploration of nature. Perhaps for that reason I love the world of Secret of Mana as well; it is lush and full of life, full of vivid colors and moving backgrounds. The enemies are cartoonish and bright, with varied movement and attack animations. Riding on Flammie, with the Mode 7 ground beneath you, is one of the thrills of this game, and get a real feeling of speeding across the treetops.
Secret of Mana is bright and colorful, yet it has some dark themes, and Hiroki Kikuta’s organic and minimalist soundtrack really ties the game together; it would simply have not been the same experience if Nobuo Uematsu or Yasunori Mitsuda had scored it. The music does what good video game music should–it enhances the experience, and yet it stands alone as well. Since I didn’t get the physical CD version of the soundtrack offered directly through Square’s mail-order store (although I did manage to grab Kefka’s Domain), I found a way to connect my SNES to a tape deck and record parts of the soundtrack on cassette so I could have it with me anywhere I went.
Kikuta has a gift for melding playfulness and melancholy not only through the melodies, but also via the instruments he chooses for the songs. “The Boy Aims for Wild Fields” evokes a sunny day, tall grass blowing in the wind, and a hint of danger lurking in the underbrush. The simplicity of the music box of “I Closed My Eyes” fits well with both a night at the inn and the death of your characters after a fierce battle, never to be seen again. “A Wish” scores a white winter landscape, desolate and cold, best viewed from inside a warm house next to the fire with a cup of hot chocolate. The sparse piano and choir of “A Whisper and a Prayer” is interspersed with cries of beasts, suggesting sanctuary and the importance of the quest at hand.
Secret of Mana is not without its flaws. The localization was rushed and hampered by technical issues. Spellcasting can be exploited, especially when it comes to bosses, as it is relatively easy to stack spell after spell, freezing the enemies and maxing out damage. Grinding weapon and magic levels is tedious, albeit optional in most cases. The AI for your computer-controlled companions is pretty awful (they often get stuck and can’t even cast spells independently). Despite the flaws, however, they do not necessarily detract from the game. Bad AI is just an incentive to plug in the MultiTap, seek out two friends, and explore together, and sometimes the fun of an RPG is spent leveling up, watching the characters grow and abilities improve.
Unlike many games at the time, the ending of Secret of Mana doesn’t try to bring the story to an upbeat resolution for all involved, content to be bittersweet. Dyluck, the girl’s love, kills himself (and doesn’t come back to life) to avoid being possessed by Thanatos. When Thanatos is finally destroyed, the Mana Beast appears to destroy the Mana Fortress and return mana to the world, only doing what it is driven by instinct to do. The Beast’s rampage will cause mass destruction, forcing your team to attack and kill the Beast; however, the death of the Beast will also cause magic to disappear from the world, and with it, the Sprite. Yet, in a strange way, the death of the Mana Beast still brings a gift, as it turns into snow, and as the game concludes, we see the Boy and Girl revisit the ones they met during their journey amidst the snowstorm.
Does the snow represent a fresh start, a clean white slate that they can write their lives upon? Or is it a reference to the manna found by the Hebrews during their exodus from Egypt, giving sustenance, yet disappearing with the sun? Regardless of the meaning, the events of Secret of Mana are permanent in that world, and cannot be undone. The hero’s journey has not only changed them, but transformed the world as well. While the Boy and Girl are welcomed back into their homes in the end, their journey has defined them not just by the experiences they have gained, but what they have lost in the process as well. Secret of Mana ends with the Sprite sitting in a tree, having faded from the world of the Boy and Girl, gazing at the moon and stars, “Now Flightless Wings” underpinning the scene, speaking to both loss and joy. In that sense, the ending captures the experience of the game itself–the accomplishment of beating the game, yet also knowing that even though you’ll be able to play it again, it will never feel the same as it did the first time.
When writing this, I didn’t really intend to review Secret of Mana; others have done that far better. The fact that I am writing about it at all should show how it still resonates with me 20+ years later, but it’s not just the game that has a hold on me, but the memories and circumstances surrounding it. It is a catalyst of nostalgia, a wistful desire to return to a simpler time in life, a way to avoid confronting mortality and the fact that I am getting old by holding onto something from my past.
In a story that may or may not be apocryphal, my parents sought the game throughout the Christmas 1993 season, finding a copy at a local video game story on December 23. Usually a video game was the “behind the tree” gift, the last one on the roster, wrapped in clothes or a strange box to try to misdirect me from the contents. But mom and dad always delivered on the best game of the year, a difficult feat, I have come to understand.
Several years ago I sold many of my classic NES and SNES games, a prudent, yet difficult, decision in the face of financial difficulties. Ogre Battle, Earthbound and Chrono Trigger were among the lot I placed on eBay; while I prized these collectables (especially the complete in-box Earthbound with intact scratch-n-sniff cards in the strategy guide), I wasn’t playing them on the SNES console anymore and I needed the cash that fans were willing to pay.
However, Secret of Mana didn’t end up in the “for sale” pile.
Its hold on me was too strong, a reminder of a time when games were a constant companion and the love of my parents sent them out into the cold to try to find the perfect gift. Other games have come and gone on Christmas, but this is the one that stays with me. Recently, when cleaning out various boxes that have survived several moves without their contents being molested, I came across the Secret of Mana poster that was included in the game, long assumed to be lost; I found a frame and put it on the wall above my desk.
Are video games art? Roger Ebert debated with video game fans about this very point; I enjoyed following the discussion and weighing the arguments of both sides. Games like Secret of Mana may not be art in of themselves, but they do contain elements of artistic measure. One of the factors that I believe is vital to this discussion is the evocation of emotional response, and indeed, Secret of Mana has that emotive property, not just because of the visuals, music, and story, but also because of its value to me personally. In that sense, it is art to me.
I pick it up and play Secret of Mana from time to time; rarely do I get very far into the game before other pressing matters come around. However, it is not necessary for me to interact with its world to return to the memories and emotions surrounding the game. Having the poster on my wall and knowing my copy of the game is still around allows me to a brief escape from the worries of life, providing me with a fond memory of aiming for wild fields.