In the face of things, the Secret Of Mana probably won’t do as well as it deserves to, which is a shame as it’s such a well-crafted piece of software. lt’s better than Ys I & II on the PC Engine. Better than Zelda on the SNES. And yes, better than Landstalker on the Mega Drive. But it arrives in the States completely un-hyped and mostly unheard of. Ironic, when the Super Famicom version, Seiken Densetsu 2, was far and away the most widely covered game of the year in Japan, generating huge levels of interest, and selling to avid gameplayers by the truckload.
At a cursory glance Secret Of Mana looks like an average Japanese RPG with a preset storyline, and translated text. That is, your time’s either spent wandering around the place killing things, or talking to small cute characters. But within this well-worn framework Mana includes some of the best game design and features ever seen: simultaneous threeplayer action, the best combat system ever designed, the best player interface ever designed, a superb control system, and yes, some of the most engrossing and rewarding gameplay yet. It really is in a class of its own as far as action RPGs or adventures go.
And that‘s the point to stress here. It’s essentially an adventure – all the traditional RPG elements are included – but it‘s fast, and combat plays a far greater role. Something that’s far more skillfully handled and enjoyable than it was in Zelda, for example. There are 64 different types of weapons, 58 types of armour, 27 different spells and all this detail is handled by a superbly designed player interface. Selection rings rotate around the player and don’t obscure the action onscreen, while the ability to select something and then give it to one of your companions is simplicity itself.
And as if all that wasn’t enough, Secret Of Mana looks great too. For a start, it’s great to see that the Americans have kept the brilliant Japanese artwork in the packaging – usually the first thing to go. And the game graphics are unique and appealing, reflecting the artist’s surreal vision of the game perfectly. Some of the nicer graphic effects are saved until much later in the game, though. What can’t be conveyed here is the beautiful sounds in Secret Of Mana. The wide range of folky, ethereal soundtracks really create a wonderful atmosphere, even if a few of the tunes get a little irritating at times.
Of course, the sheer size of Secret Of Mana is staggering. It’s estimated that the average player will take around 70 hours to complete it. And for that reason alone it’s a serious gameplaying proposition, offering great value. The fact that it’s also an immensely entertaining game, makes it an unmissable experience.
This review originally appeared in E4, January 1994.