Thursday, March 3, 2011

Review: Secret of Mana, by Square Enix

What started as an essay on one of my favorite games has turned into something new I'd like to try.  I'm going to experiment with writing reviews of relevant media I consume, such as books, movies and games. I won't blog exhaustively on everything I put in front of my face, but I think it's important that I am able to articulate why something does or does not work for me.  I am an easily entertained and laid-back person, but I need to improve my constructive criticism of creative formats if I want to successfully produce something of value myself.

I'm going to begin with an easy one: Secret of Mana, released as Seiken Densetsu 2 in Japan.  I just purchased the game for my iPhone, available in the App Store for 8.99 USD.  I can't say this is my first rodeo with Randi (or, as he was known back then, Justin) and the gang: we were first introduced when I was 12.  I'd won a free SNES cartridge that I already owned (Super Mario All-Stars) from a Nintendo Power contest.  I took it to Wal-Mart, said I'd gotten it as a duplicate birthday present; they took it back, no questions asked.  Now you know what a horrible person I am for ripping off a mom and pop establishment.

1993 Version

That last bullet point on the right used to haunt me as I stared at this beautiful box art: "When's the sequel coming out?!"
Secret of Mana wasn't my first RPG, but it did mark the point where I started to get "serious" about gaming.  I'd already owned a CoCo 3 and NES, and I'd played plenty of games.  But, the games I owned were the popular selections all my friends had, or were just some weird stuff I picked up because the box looked cool.  SoM, however, was the first time I researched a game and went into the store knowing specifically what I wanted to buy.

An hour after popping in the cartridge, I was submerged.  The beautiful graphics; the classic musical score; the thrill of getting weapon upgrades; the mystery of what was going to be in the next dungeon; the expansive world with different people and settings.  For the first time, the characters were well-developed, which is something that's always attracted me to movies and games.  Sure, it was no Mass Effect, but they were more dimensional than a certain Italian plumber.

Gameplay was simple and fun.  You could play as a button-masher if you wanted, or get a little more strategic by dodging and feinting.  The menu command system of Final Fantasy (loved by some, abhorred by others) is absent, in the style of The Legend of Zelda.  This casual gameplay is a reason others and myself originally took to the game so quickly.  This game and its English fan-translated sequel, Seiken Densetsu 3, remain two of my wife's favorites, and we have played both cooperatively many times.

As an angst-filled teen growing up in a small town, the story of SoM and its successors (Final Fantasy VI, Chrono Trigger, etc.) struck a particular chord with me.  The hero was brave and optimistic about saving the world with his friends, even though he was kicked out of his village by the people he loved.  He could go anywhere he wanted, and each town he visited had a neatly-packaged happy ending when he left.  He and his friends were forced to grow up quickly and leave those dear to them.  Those feelings were reflected in me even as I played the game.  I would wonder what would eventually become of my home and the things that I thought were important, once I grew older.

Even the subject of life and death was addressed, albeit in a simplified and kid-friendly manner.  But, for someone becoming self-aware and cognizant of his own mortality, it made me feel like I could handle the challenges that faced me the same way the game's characters faced their own problems.  I related to them, and felt like they could relate to me, if we were to meet.  This is a powerful storytelling device, and something I feel writers often overlook when they create sullen or hyper-stylized "cool" characters.

Looking back, it's easy to dismiss these impressions as the over-romanticized musings of someone remembering his childhood with nostalgia, because the game definitely had its faults.  The battle system was simple, but the supporting character AI was driven by a complex grid that 12-year-old me could never figure out.

My opinion of the leveling system held then as it holds today: my anxiousness to play the game and advance the story far exceeds my desire to grind magic and weapons for hours on end.  I would rather spend my time exploring castles and forests than wandering around casting the same spells over and over.  When discussing the game with friends, I realize this is a common complaint of those early Square RPGs, and I believe they've tried to address with subsequent releases in their franchises.  SoM attempts to balance some of the tedium associated with grinding by giving you destructive "power ups" for weapon attacks and increasingly fun magic animations.  However, powering up your weapon takes so long, the payoff is rarely worth the wait.

The dimensionality of the characters seems to have diminished, but the villains, in particular, are simple caricatures.  Imagine the worst Scooby-Doo bad guys if their dialog were reduced to one or two sentences ("Take care of my pet!  Remember to feed him, HA HA HA!!"), and you've got an accurate picture of SoM's antagonists.  I'm not demanding Colonel Hans Landa-levels of sadism in a light, Japanese RPG, but for all that great adventuring and exploration, it would be nice to have a credible threat to back it up.

2010 Version

As you would expect, it's a huge thrill to be able to revisit a favorite game of mine outside the confines of a PC-based emulator (too bad a certain jerk-faced noob couldn't get his threads together for playing it on the Xbox).  Imagining the old setup of my CRT television, Super Nintendo console and controllers, and particle-board stand all being condensed down to a hunk of metal not much bigger than a credit card amazes me, and I work with "Technology and Cyber Bits" for a living!

The game has been given a subtle face-lift, but, mercifully, this is no "Special Edition."  Colors and textures are richer and the "cartoon-y" feel has been enhanced, while a few enemy sprites have been inexplicably redesigned.

One of the most obvious graphical upgrades is a reflection of the sky and animated clouds in standing bodies of water.  It's a simple effect, but makes the scene feel much more dynamic.

The touch interface is mostly intuitive and welcome.  One of the best side effects of this new gameplay mechanic is a shortcut toolbar on the side of the screen.  Commands are dragged and dropped from the ring menus.  Tapping on a shortcut appears to execute a macro which drills down through the menu system to the selected location.  The cryptic supporting character AI grid has been replaced with a "multiple choice" selection for controlling behavior, making it more suitable for younger players.  Gameplay remains well-balanced, as long as you don't mind spending some time leveling up between dungeons.  Unfortunately, the cooperative mode for which the game was so well-loved, has been removed.

Some elements of the touch interface feel as though they could have been streamlined and improved.  In particular, the ring menus seem as though they've been shoe-horned into the game for the sake of nostalgia and continuity.  A look at the description in the App Store page for SoM gives one the impression that this is a selling point for Square.

This wouldn't be so bad if the menu didn't rotate when you ran your finger around it.
With touch interfaces, scrolling through menu choices is unnecessary, and becomes a liability.  Rather than preserve each ring menu as it was in 1993, I would have preferred to have the top of the menu hierarchy presented in a table, laid out for quick selection.  Bringing up the menu system already interrupts gameplay, so I'd rather not derail it completely by panning to the menu and option I'm searching for.  Additionally, some choices in menu and store interfaces generate a "popup" message, which is a particular thorn in my application developer side.  Once the popup is displayed, you have to tap to dismiss it, which is completely unintuitive and slows down menu transactions to a crawl.

I would have rather silently assumed I was feeding his family with my continued patronage.
Perhaps the most disappointing element is that the script for the game remains almost identical to the version released in 1993.  Ted Woolsey's translations of the old Square RPGs are golden oldies, but it's no secret that they were rushed.  Original material and plot was omitted, due to the technological constraint of limited text.  Thankfully, the font has improved, but those mysterious plot elements must remain lost in the janitor's closet of an Oslo mental institution, along with La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc and my innocence.  Hélas!

In conclusion, I couldn't be happier that Square Enix has started to revisit some of their old IP, which they've defended for so many years.  With the release of this game, Chaos Rings, and a few of the older Final Fantasy games, the company has made it clear that they won't be participating in the "< $0.99" casual games market on the App Store.  If that business model includes the release of high-quality, compelling experiences such as this, I believe they will continue to have success.

It's easy for me to geek out when I think of the possibilities of Square Enix investing in the 2D mobile market: porting their backcatalog of RPGs (Final Fantasies III-VI, Chrono Trigger, Secret of Evermore, and all the other GameBoy releases); official translations of Japan-release-only games (Seiken Densetsu 3, Star Ocean, Bahamut Lagoon); and finally, most unlikely but most mouth-watering of all: new games based on these incredibly successful franchises, developed in 16-bit, 2D graphics.  C'mon, Chrono fans, you know you'd buy an iPhone just to play that long-overdue sequel.

But, that's just wishful thinking.  In the meantime, I'll continue to enjoy Secret of Mana for many more years to come, and praise the developers responsible for this port with jealous (of their jobs) admiration.


  1. Excellent review of the game, I advise you to try to play it, a fun game of the past. I recently found a quality and working emulator Very simple and easy to use. There you can find games for him. I hope it will be useful.

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