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Secret of Mana Review: The SNES classic comes to iOS

At long last, Square Enix’s masterwork Action RPG Secret of Mana has come to iOS. I may as well tell you up front, Secret of Mana is one of my favorite games of all time. The question is not whether the game is any good — it’s good, and always has been — but whether it holds up on the iPhone.

For several reasons, Secret of Mana is a difficult game for me to review. Originally released in 1993 for the SNES, the game now has a 17 year legacy as one of the most highly praised games ever made. I personally harbor 17 years worth of love and devotion for the game. And while veteran gamers likely share my love for it, there are likely a lot of teenage and young-adult gamers who will now be experiencing the title for the first time on iOS, and who will be approaching the game with expectations a world apart from my own. In this review, I will attempt to cover the bases for longtime fans and newcomers alike, and will try to check my adoration for the game within reasonable bounds.

For the veterans, this is the short of it:

The iOS version of Secret of Mana is a port of the original SNES game, which is to say that the game is NOT a remake, and NOT the original code wrapped in an emulator. Changes have been made to the game’s interface to accommodate the iPhone’s touch-screen interface; these changes have some collateral impact on gameplay, but the game’s content and the gameplay itself remain identical to the original game released in 1993.
And as ports go, Square Enix has done a fantastic job. If you’re a veteran Secret of Mana fan, the iOS version of the game delivers a faithful — albeit not identical — rendition of the game you love, and some of the differences will be touched upon further into this review. If you’re new to Secret of Mana then you’re in for a treat, because the game remains fantastic after all these years.

The requisite, abridged background material:

Secret of Mana, known in Japan as Seiken Densetsu 2 (literally, “Holy Sword Legend 2”), is an action role-playing game for the SNES developed and published by Square (now Square Enix) in 1993. It is the second entry in the Seiken Densetsu series of games, which in recent years has come to be known as the World of Mana series, with releases such as Children of Mana and Heroes of Mana on the Nintendo DS, and Dawn of Mana on the PlayStation 2.
Seiken Densetsu: Final Fantasy Gaiden, known as Final Fantasy Adventure in North America, is the first game in the series and was released for the original Nintendo Gameboy, while Seiken Densetsu 3 for the SNES has never been officially released outside of Japan (though excellent fan translations may be found on the Internet). The PS2 game Dawn of Mana is known to be Seiken Densetsu 4, while the other games in the series occur outside of canonical numbering.

The Seiken Densetsu series originally drew inspiration from Square’s own Final Fantasy series — the first game even had a chocobo — as well as Arthurian legend. From the second game on, the series abandoned chocobos and blatant references to the Final Fantasy games, becoming a franchise unto itself.
At first glance, Secret of Mana may appear to be very similar to other Action RPGs already available in the app store. Such an impression would be misinformed, however. When it comes to Action RPGs, Secret of Mana is a genre classic, one of the most venerated Action RPGs ever made. It should come as no surprise then that subsequent genre entries would mimic it. And for the most part — especially wherein the app store is concerned — such games have proven poor impersonators.

For those gamers unfamiliar with Secret of Mana, I feel it important that we disambiguate the game from the many Korean Action RPG mobile ports — Zenonia, SEED, Axion, Itarus and the like — currently plaguing the app store. While Secret of Mana may be the grandfather of such games, they are embarrassing progeny.

Secret of Mana was originally developed as a top-tier title for a prevailing gaming console, and not as a budget-priced cell phone game. Square cut no corners in designing the game, and so they felt no need to recycle content, pad the game’s length with trivial tasks or level grinding, shackle the game with poor scenario writing, or otherwise skimp on production. The same cannot be said for KARPGs. Unlike Zenonia and its ilk, the player will never be subjected to an endless parade of pointless fetch quests. In striving to save the world from utter destruction and tyranny, you will never be asked to place your efforts on hold to venture into the woods to slay demonic squirrels in an effort to collect 10 bags of flour so that some idiot townswoman can bake her autistic fiance a cake. The world is in peril, and cakes aren’t going to save it! Secret of Mana propels you ever forward, from one location and encounter to the next, and always in service to the greater narrative. The game is excellently paced, and the story comes together very nicely without the extraneous distractions that RPGs have become known for in recent years. And that’s brilliant, because let’s face it: fetch quests are bollocks.

Secret of Mana puts a great deal of emphasis on its overarching narrative, that narrative being used to fuel and inform gameplay.

The game begins with Randi, our protagonist, and his friends involved in childhood shenanigans at the falls. He slips on a log and falls headlong into the cascading waters. Shaken but alive, and in a nod to the legend of King Arthur, he discovers an aging sword embedded in a stone in the middle of the lake beneath the falls. The sword calls to him and he draws it forth, claiming it — and unwittingly claiming a world of responsibility — as his own. Randi slashes his way back the village, through weeds and rabites, only to find that his actions have set off a series of escalating events ultimately resulting in his banishments from the village he has long called home, and his acceptance of the responsibility of restoring the diminished sword to its former power, and using it to put down an empire and its evil schemes now threatening to consume the world.

Randi begins his quest alone, but doesn’t stay that way for long. He is soon joined by Primm, a headstrong, young girl searching for her boyfriend — a soldier sent on a witch hunt — and later joined by Popoi, a sprite child having joined a dwarven fleecing act after losing his memory. For reasons of their own these characters tag along on Randi’s quest, and become a major point of play in Secret of Mana. As Randi and company encounter guardian spirits throughout their quest, these spirits will lend our heroes their powers. To Randi, they imbue their power into the Sword of Mana; to Primm, they grant support and restorative powers; and to Popoi, they give attack spells capable of delivering direct and devastating damage to opponents. At any point during the quest, players may take control of Randi, Primm or Popoi, may command them to equip weapons, use items and cast spells, or may customize the AI behavior of uncontrolled characters to be either more or less aggressive in combat, to use charged attacks or not, etc. If at any time the primary character is defeated in combat, the player will automatically take control of a remaining support character to carry on in combat, or to restore the other character to life using magic or a Cup of Wishes. The dynamic created by controlling and maintaining these three characters becomes a major part of gameplay, and the player’s success in Secret of Mana will wholly depend upon their capability to manage and command the three characters at once.

Secret of Mana is not a hack-n-slash, button-mashing Action RPG. In Zenonia, you can get by pretty well by pounding away at the attack button, wailing on enemies and allowing the game to adjust your character’s facing accordingly to strike at nearby targets. That doesn’t work here; at best, mashing the attack button will result in a rapid succession of very weak blows. To achieve full damage, a charge gauge must be allowed to fill between attacks. After delivering a blow, the gauge will begin to climb from 0 to 100 percent, after which characters may attack for full damage. This mechanic encourages players to move around during combat, choosing their moments, making a strike and then withdrawing to await another opportunity. Because of this mechanic, combat plays out at a slower pace than in similar games, but keeps the player more involved in combat by forcing them to attack opportunistically and to utilize evasion tactics between attacks. While I have never taken issue with this aspect of combat, gamers and critics have had mixed impressions. In essence, the charge gauge is a real-time implementation of Square’s Active Time Battle system from the turn-based Final Fantasy games.

There are no side-quests in Secret of Mana, but fret not over things to do. The main story line offers plenty of action, and will constantly propel you into new and exciting places, rather than stalling you in any one area for too long. The story will see you revisiting areas, though, particularly early on as you will be traveling between the Water Palace, Gaia’s Navel, the Haunted Forest and the town of Pandora quite a few times in resolving the Pandora story arch.

Travel is one point of contention gamers may find with Secret of Mana, though, as there is no map on which to track your progress or navigate. The player will simply have to memorize where locations lie in relation to one another and traverse the ground between them, at least until the point at which Flammie comes into the story and it becomes possible to travel quickly to any location by air. Overall not a big deal, but it could potentially be difficult to find your way around the game if you were to put it down for an extended period and come back to it having not played a while.

Likewise, there is no quest log that tells you where to go or what to do next. Generally, this information will be provided within the context of the story by speaking to NPCs or in scripted conversations. But again, if players should return to the game after a long hiatus, there is nothing in the game to remind you where you should be heading next, except to talk randomly to NPCs in hopes that one of them might drop a clue. The best and only solution to this is to pay attention to what you’re told in the game.

It sometimes pays to meander about, rather than proceeding straight on to your next destination, though. For example, there are two weapons orbs in Pandora castle which may be obtained after defeating Thanatos. If the player should listen to Jema, however, and travel directly to the water palace rather than delaying their departure to search the castle and speak with the king, these important items would be easy to miss. It’s important to keep your next task in mind, but also to explore areas thoroughly. Return to important story characters after completing related tasks, and you may find rewards awaiting you. But do not expect to see yellow exclamation points floating over important NPCs, nor to see windows awarding your bonus XP and items when completing quests.

At this point, I think it should be clear how the game plays out and — for those unfamiliar — some significant ways in which Secret of Mana differs from other Action RPGs they may already have played from the app store. Now to address some of the differences veteran players may expect from the SNES original.

The most evident difference is of course the new controls. Lacking a gamepad, the iOS version of Secret of Mana implements virtual on-screen controls. For the most part, the controls work very well. They are responsive and relatively tight, though certainly not a perfect replacement for a physical controller. Movement is allowable in any direction, and action buttons are used to attack or dash. I do have one complaint. On the SNES, double-tapping the d-pad in any direction would allow the party to run. This “double-tap” code is still a part of the iOS version, despite the lack of a physical d-pad and the presence of a dedicated dash button. More often by accident than by intention, sloppy command of the movement stick — a double-flick — will cause your character to dash. It’s one of those things that really is easier to do by mistake than on purpose, and it can potentially cost you an attack in a critical moment, as dashing depletes your gauge the same as attacking.

The game’s innovative Ring Command menu remains intact on iOS, though it’s less of a joy to use than it once was. You can access the menu for each character by dragging their portrait to the center of the screen. There you can navigate the character’s rings by pushing their portrait up or down, and switch to another character by pushing the portrait left or right. Swiping up or down outside of the ring spins it, and tapping an item allows it to be used, equipped, etc. It’s all very functional, but takes some getting used to. And you had better get used to it, because you will be spending a lot of time in the menu managing your characters, or using spells and items.

When using spells or items, players do not push a cursor around the screen as in the SNES version to select a target. Instead, target icons appear on the left side of the screen and allow targets to be selected with relative ease.

One very nice addition is the new quick-use slots on the right side of the screen. Four slots are available, and any menu command — equip a weapon, cast a spell, use a particular item, or even access one of the command screens — can be dragged to these slots for easy access during play, without having to rummage through the ring command menu.

The SNES version of the game contained a multiplayer feature, in which a second player could join the game to play as one of the support characters. Sadly, this aspect of the game is lost on iOS. Secret of Mana is single-player only.

The AI program has also been pared down, and support characters are now limited to five preset behaviors. Sufficient, but I do miss the more flexible system in the original game that allowed me to tweak behavior more to my liking for creating aggressive ranged attackers.

On the SNES, Secret of Mana is a very pretty game. Aside from the new virtual controls and the minimal presence of some drawn artwork in the menus, the iOS version retains the same graphics from the original, and is still a very pretty game. Those 16-bit pixels don’t look quite as sharp at modern resolutions as they once did, though. Nonetheless, Secret of Mana looks fantastic — a beautiful girl having become a woman, having gained a few wrinkles over the years, but not lost her charm.

And man, can she still sing. Hiroki Kikuta’s score is exceptional, a timeless and magical soundtrack that stands up with the very best game music ever made. Quite a welcome departure from the raspy, repetitive crap that passes for music in most Korean Action RPGs.

So, what’s the bottom line?

Seventeen years after its initial release, Secret of Mana remains the gold standard Action RPG. The SNES version of the game will forever be the definitive version of the game, but Secret of Mana is certainly no slouch on the iPhone. The game has been competently ported to iOS, gameplay intact with necessary changes made to effectively accommodate device input very different from that of the original game. Despite its age, Secret of Mana manages to outshine the many impersonators that have come over the years, including those very recently introduced to the app store. Age can’t touch this classic, and I sincerely hope that Square Enix will continue to give similar treatments to deserving titles from its glorious back catalog.

Aralon has been all the rage this holiday season, and I will admit it’s an impressive game. But I bought it day of release, played for thirty minutes or so and promptly lost interest in it. It may be a marvel on iOS, but it feels like so many other role-playing games on other systems that it struck me as rather generic and lacking in personality. I then purchased Secret of Mana day of release the following week, and have hardly put it down. Of all the quality releases this holiday season — and there have been many — Secret of Mana is the only game I’ve made a concerted effort to spend time with. It’s the only game I’ve found myself desperately wanting to play when I’m not playing it. It’s the only game that keeps me in the restroom twice as long as I should be when at work (don’t tell my boss). The game is just that good. It’s an endearing title that captures the simple magic of gaming, which so many modern releases — for all their fancy graphics and complex systems — have come to lack. Secret of Mana has a lot of heart, and I [heart] Secret of Mana.

Secret of Mana [$8.99] is published by Square Enix. Reviewed at version 1.0.0 on an iPhone 4.

Square Enix makes dreams come true

MY dreams, anyway. Square Enix has announced at E3 that classics Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions and Secret of Mana will be released later this year for the iPhone.

Secret of Mana first debuted on the SNES in 1993 and is revered as one of the finest Action RPGs of all time. Final Fantasy Tactics first appeared on Sony’s first PlayStation console and is revered as one of the finest Strategy RPGs of all time. Needless to say, iPhone gamers will be in for a treat later this year when the games hit the app store. Let’s just hope they get the proper port treatment, and fare better than Square Enix’s earlier ports of Final Fantasty 1 and 2, by which we were not impressed.

Zenonia never deserved its throne; I will definitely be looking forward to Secret of Mana taking its rightful place. Check out the teaser trailers below.