January 10, 2011

Secret of Mana (1993)

A young man recovers a magical sword from a stone, inadvertently releasing a horde of monsters into the lands around his village. As a result he is banished from his home, and winds up travelling the world visiting the eight mystical Mana Temples in order to replenish his sword’s magical energy and prevent an evil sorcerer from taking over the world.
It’s pretty tedious stuff when read from a page – certainly it was pretty tedious stuff while I was writing it down. It’s the basis, however, for Secret of Mana, a 1993 Japanese role-playing game (RPG) released for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES). For most of the people who have played it, it is one of the most fondly remembered games of the SNES era. For fans of Japanese RPGs, it remains an absolute classic of the genre.
So why, if the story is so derivative, is Secret of Mana so fondly remembered? Like most videogames, the quality of the story took a back seat to the quality of the gameplay, the graphics and the sound. In these respects Secret of Mana excelled. At the time there really wasn’t a game available for the SNES that combined such high quality images and music with such a wonderfully immersive gaming experience.

The game was published by Square Co. Ltd., a Japanese videogame developer whose Final Fantasy RPGs had become a mainstay of the Nintendo Famicom (or Nintendo Entertainment System, as it was called in English) and Super Famicom (or SNES). While the RPG market was dominated by Square’s Final Fantasy and Enix’s Dragon Quest – both of which used turn-based strategy gameplay for their combat sequences – Secret of Mana bore more similarity to Nintendo’s popular The Legend of Zelda franchise.
The Legend of Zelda was originally released for the Famicom in 1986, and was produced by Shigeru Miyamoto – whose Donkey Kong and Super Mario Bros games had already become international sensations. Zelda retained the high fantasy setting and ‘warrior fights monsters’ structure of turn-based RPGs, but all of the combat was undertaken in a more action-oriented arcade-like fashion. It was an effective blending of two genres, and one that had proven remarkably successful. After a less popular sequel, The Adventure of Link (1987), which replaced the top-down perspective with a more Mario-like side-scrolling design, the franchise celebrated its most successful title yet with The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (1991). A Link to the Past was a visually stunning and incredibly enjoyable fantasy epic produced for the Super Famicom, and was probably responsible for selling more units of the console than any other game bar Super Mario World.
Secret of Mana replicated much of A Link to the Past’s visual aesthetic and gameplay. It added multi-player content, innovative control mechanisms and menus, and its own lengthy and epic storyline. It is still one of the most popular Super Famicom and SNES titles today. Copies of the game regularly sell on EBay for more than $100.

Many people rightfully remember the game for its multi-player aspects. While multi-player games had existed for years, the RPG was traditionally a solo experience. The player may have controlled more than one character (both Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy featured a protagonist leading a ‘party’ of three or four player characters), but there was usually always a primary protagonist and a group of computer-controlled sidekicks.
Played as a single-player title, Secret of Mana let the player control any of the three protagonists at the push of a button, with the console controlling the other two. This is already a step beyond what previous RPGs had presented: most other games didn’t give the player the chance to select which character was going to lead the party. Played as a multi-player title, Secret of Mana allowed two players to control the game simultaneously. The console controlled the one remaining character.
Plug in a Super Multitap accessory, however, which allowed up to four controllers to be plugged in the SNES at any one time, and three players could participate simultaneously. It created a stunning gaming experience, and arguably foreshadowed many of the multi-player fantasy RPGs to come including Diablo and World of Warcraft.

As with those later titles, there was a careful balance between the three characters. The hero, whose default name was Randi, was not able to use magic but was an excellent physical fighter. The heroine, Purimu, could cast healing and support spells easily but lacked physical power. The sidekick character, an amnesiac sprite named Popoi, could cast an array of combat-oriented spells but was physically very weak. The choice of which character to control ultimately boiled down to personal preference, although as might be expected the solo game was most easily played while controlling Randi.
Secret of Mana boasted extremely strong character work and depth for a 16 bit RPG. While it’s commonly accepted that Square redefined the idea of characterisation and emotional effect in video games with Final Fantasy VII (1997), I think it is important to realise that Final Fantasy VII did not represent a quantum leap. Characterisation and depth had been increasing in RPGs throughout the 1990s, notably in Enix’s multi-protagonist Dragon Quest IV (1990) but also in Secret of Mana and later Square titles such as Final Fantasy VI (1994) and Chrono Trigger (1995).
Each of Secret of Mana’s three protagonists had their own story arc, and each of them developed and changed as the narrative progressed. The storyline remained a lengthy and somewhat messy bundle of clich├ęs, but that was (and arguably remains) the norm for Japanese fantasy adventures.

Great care was taken to treat Secret of Mana as an enveloping narrative experience. This experience started as early as when the player opened the game’s box, finding an exceptionally well written instruction manual and a large, folded colour map of the game’s fantasy setting.
When a player inserted the Secret of Mana cartridge and turned the SNES on, the first sound to emanate from the television was not the standard bleep or tone one might have expected. Instead there was an unexpected burst of whale song. ‘I think it starts the game off on a more evocative note,’ explained Hiroki Kikuta, the game’s composer. ‘To put it more concretely, isn’t the Mana series all about these magical creatures, these divine beasts? It felt more meaningful to place a sound there that was more deeply connected to the spirit of the game.’1
The whale song was followed by one of the most striking title screens of the 16 bit generation: a forest, the game’s protagonists, a swell of music, and a flock of birds flying past the screen. While the sequence was a bit primitive due to the restrictions of the SNES hardware, it remains profoundly effective and evocative of the game to come. It still has to my mind one of the finest musical compositions for any videogame in history. Kikuta explained the development of the sequence in a 2009 interview: ‘First of all, planning synchronicity between sounds and images was not so common in games back then. My background was in animation, so I knew the kinds of results you could get from designing an interplay between the sound and screen, but it was so hard to explain it to people in the game field. There really were few precedents for it at the beginning. That was what motivated me to give it a try.’2 Due to hardware limitations, Kikuta wound up using a stopwatch to time his music to the sprite-based animation by hand.
I am not alone in being deeply affected by the opening sequence. Writing in the gaming blog Destructoid, David Houghton recalled ‘this is clearly something very different. Within a couple of minutes, the music has swirled and evolved from fragile to hopeful, and then from there to empowered, and eventually utterly, gloriously victorious. When that opening theme ended, my younger self and my younger Dad shot each other the wordless, stunned glance that only the truly blown of mind can share, and it was at exactly that moment that the way I saw videogames changed forever.’3

The early hours of the game guide the player gently into the story. We begin playing solely as Randi, but before long we meet Purimu, and then Popoi, and the full multi-player experience begins. The game uses an exceptional colour palette, creating a visually rich environment full of interesting characters and memorable monsters.
The striking monster designs are not unexpected, since Secret of Mana’s director was Koichi Ishii, who had previously designed many of the iconic creatures in Final Fantasy – including the chocobo and the moogle. Ishii was a veteran of Square, having designed the battle system for the original Final Fantasy in 1987. He subsequently worked on Final Fantasy II and III before assuming the directorship of Seiken Densetsu in 1991.
We’re starting to get ahead of ourselves. Let’s pause on the features of Secret of Mana for a minute, track back a few years, and look at how the game came into existence in the first place.

In 1987 Square announced plans to produce a massive fantasy RPG for Nintendo’s Famicom Disk System. The Disk System was a floppy disk accessory to the Nintendo Famicom, which allowed for larger games with more elaborate graphics and sound. Square’s new RPG was titled Seiken Densetsu: The Emergence of Excalibur. Seiken Densetsu translates directly into English as Holy Sword Legend. The game was set to be released on five disks, and be the largest-ever title of its kind.
This was a high-stakes gamble for Square, whose finances were looking shaky and who had not had a successful videogame in some time. There were rumours circulating that the company might even close up shop altogether by the end of the year.
Unfortunately it became clear that the Disk System’s popularity was fading, and Nintendo was clearly not planning on supporting the format for much longer. (Keep this in mind for a few pages, to see what happened the next time Nintendo abruptly abandoned a disc-based system.) Square abandoned the plans for Seiken Densetsu, in favour of a more modestly-sized RPG titled Final Fantasy. The game received its title because those working on it genuinely feared Square was about to run out of money. It was called Final Fantasy because there seemed a good chance it would be Square’s final game. History of course had shown that Final Fantasy was a breakout hit that saved the company and revolutionised Japanese videogame RPGs. It also led to what is surely the most illogically named franchise in the whole of popular culture: since Final Fantasy XIII was released for Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 in 2010, there’s not much that is ‘final’ about it at all.

Following the successful release of Final Fantasy III Square producer Hiromichi Tanaka expressed a desire to produce a game with real-time action, rather than the turn-based combat that typified Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest.
It was at this stage that an expanding Square divided its development staff into three teams. A Team, supervised by producer Hironobu Sakaguchi, would continue development on Final Fantasy sequels. C Team, supervised by Kazuhiko Aoki, would develop a number of smaller titles such as Hanjuku Hero. B Team, supervised by Hiromichi Tanaka, was free to begin developing Tanaka’s action-oriented RPG. He took with him designer Koichi Ishii, who took the directorship of the new title, as well as composer Hiroki Kikuta and programmer Nasir Gebelli. The Seiken Densetsu name was still floating around the company, along with preparatory art and design work, so it was rapidly adopted and transformed into an entirely new game. It was released on the Nintendo Gameboy in 1991, and was the first in a long-running franchise of games. While they retain the Seiken Densetsu name in Japan, in English-language territories they are known as the Mana games.
Koichi Ishii took great care in developing the aesthetic of the Seiken Densetsu/Mana universe. Since 1991 he has either directed or produced all nine games in the franchise.
Seiken Densetsu’s lead programmer was Iranian-born American Nasir Gebelli, who had moved to Japan in 1986 to work for Square. In the early 1980s Gebelli was a pioneering developer for the Apple II computer. At Square he had worked as a programmer on the first three Final Fantasy titles.
Not only was Seiken Densetsu a successful game in Japan, it was also successfully released in the USA. There it was retitled Final Fantasy Adventure.

With Seiken Densetsu a hit, development naturally progressed to a sequel. Instead of producing another Gameboy title, the decision was made to develop the new game for an entirely new format.
 At the time Nintendo was engaged in a pitched struggle with Sega, whose own 16 bit system (called either the Genesis or the Megadrive, depending on what country you lived in) was rapidly eating away at Nintendo’s market share. Looking for a way to jump ahead in the race, Nintendo partnered with electronics corporation Sony to develop a new Super Famicom accessory that would utilise CD-ROM technology. This would allow for the streaming of higher quality music, video footage and other embellishments not available in the cartridge format. It would also massively increase the amount of memory available for game data. The accessory, which was a large CD drive that attached to the underside of the Super Famicom, was codenamed “PlayStation”.
The massive amount of memory available on the Nintendo PlayStation allowed Square to begin developing the most lavish RPG ever conceived. It could use CD-quality sound and music, more immersive and complex graphics and much more rich and complex storylines.
When the PlayStation project unexpectedly collapsed, Square was caught by surprise. They were faced was an enormous logistical challenge: they were halfway through developing a massive, technologically advanced RPG for a non-existent platform. While a decision was immediately made to release the game for the SNES instead, it required extensive culling of elements from the game in order for it to be squeezed into a 16 bit cartridge. Nothing was sacred during the culling process: levels, characters, maps, dialogue, even entire subplots were excised from the game. In total it is estimated that roughly 40 per cent of Seiken Densetsu 2’s original intended content made it into the final released game.
It is tempting to speculate how the collapse of Nintendo’s PlayStation project adversely affected Nintendo’s relationship with Square, since in January 1996 Square unexpectedly walked away from a decade-long association with the company. Their high profile 1997 RPG Final Fantasy VII was released exclusively for Sony, who retained the PlayStation name and technology under their initial agreement with Nintendo and had elected to complete and release the system on their own.
There have been a number of famous bone-headed manoeuvres in the history of the videogame industry, but Nintendo’s courting and then abandoning Sony in the development of a new console – resulting in Sony entering the market themselves with the PlayStation – must rank as one of the most egregious. By 2005 the PlayStation had sold over 100 million units. The rival Nintendo 64 system managed to sell about a third of that: just under 33 million units.

Adapting the game to the SNES in mid-development put additional pressure on an already tight production schedule. Square was intent on releasing Seiken Densetsu 2 in 1993. The situation was exacerbated when Nasir Gebelli’s work visa expired. When he was forced to return home to the USA, Square was so intent on completing the game on schedule that they shifted the Japanese programming team to California with them. The programming was completed in Sacramento.
Thanks to overwhelming effort by the design and programming teams, Seiken Detsetsu 2 was released in Japan on 6 August 1993.

The English translation of the game was undertaken by Ted Woolsey. Although there was an initial announcement that the game’s English title would be Final Fantasy Adventure 2, it was ultimately released as Secret of Mana. The exact reason for Square swapping the title at the last minute is unknown, but I think it was the right decision: Secret of Mana is, despite its origins, very much its own game. It lacks any direct connections to the Final Fantasy saga other than production personnel and development studio, and as such deserves to be thought of very much as its own thing. The seven subsequent games in the franchise, including the Gameboy Advance re-release of Seiken Densetsu/Final Fantasy Adventure, all utilised the Mana name.
‘This game was extremely difficult to translate,’ Woolsey said, ‘as there was very little sequential text: it was just pasted together in clumps. Imagine shuffling a novel and having to translate the resulting mess!’4 The difficulties of adapting the text in Japanese videogames to the English language were already well known, and often led to delays of as much as a year in releasing Japanese RPGs into the American market. The problem was usually one of memory: since Japanese kanji is a logographic written language, each character generally represents an entire word and takes up the same amount of space. English, on the other hand, is an alphabetic language. It takes a much larger number of characters to express a single word or concept, but most games were programmed so close to the wire that there was simply no memory left in the cartridge for more characters – or no time or money to develop a new text system.
In a 1994 interview with SuperPlay, Woolsey recalled ‘I was given just 30 days to translate the Secret of Mana text. This meant that I had to fly out to Japan for a month with my wife and kids and just get on with translating the original scripts practically just as soon as they were completed. There’s really no time to do justice to these games.’5 In another interview he added that ‘some games, like Secret of Mana, were being written and rewritten at night, and I’d come in the next day and have to re-do any number of text files.’6
Woolsey’s 30 day deadline was set when Square decided Secret of Mana needed to be on sale by the September or October 1993, in order to capitalise on the Christmas sales period. The game was ultimately released on 3 October 1993, rushed beyond belief, and saddled with a grossly truncated English language translation, but nonetheless right on schedule.

Square followed Secret of Mana with a string of exceptional SNES games, including Seiken Densetsu 3, Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger. When Seiken Densetsu 3 failed to sell more than a million units in Japan, Square put the franchise on hold. While they did subsequently revisit the Mana universe for the Playstation and Nintendo DS platforms, producer Hiromichi Tanaka moved on to other titles including Xenogears, Chrono Cross and the massively-multiplayer online game Final Fantasy XI.
Seiken Densetsu 3 was never adapted for English language territories. In fact, at the time of writing it still has not been officially released in any format outside of Japan. The reason for its absence is entirely due to the aforementioned language problems: the game featured an even lengthier and more complex narrative than Secret of Mana, and there simply was not a feasible or cost-effective method of translating and presenting the sheer quantity of text on screen that would have been required. Square did develop a USA-centric title, Secret of Evermore (1995), which was widely perceived as a replacement for Seiken Densetsu 3, but the timing was coincidental.

That’s the story of how Secret of Mana was made, but what are the reasons that we should continue talking about it 17 years later?
We’ve already looked at the game’s beautiful visual designs and evocative music. We’ve covered its groundbreaking three-player mechanic and strong sense of character. What else is worth noting about it?
For one thing it has a gorgeous ring-based menu system. Usually when you need to have your character drink a health potion, or cast a spell, or re-arrange the order his or her party is walking around in, you press a button and the game screen flips over to a text-based menu. In Secret of Mana you never leave the game screen – a series of nested rings pop out, and you simply use the controller to roll them around and select the option you need. It’s instinctive and elegant, and should absolutely have been co-opted by subsequent games of this type. It, like the real-time action combat, makes the game so much easier to engage with and play.

There’s also a wide array of different weapons your characters can collect and use. These can also be upgraded and improved through the discovery of ‘weapon orbs’. All of the weapons – sword, spear, bow, axe, boomerang, glove, whip and javelin – have their uses, and most players rapidly gravitate toward personal favourites. Magic can also be improved by rescuing ‘elementals’, magical spirits that are hidden about the game.
The game makes effective use of the SNES’ ‘mode 7’ effect, which rendered a scaleable three-dimensional version of a two-dimensional graphic. This enabled images of characters flying up into the sky at great velocity, with a fairly convincing sense of three-dimensional depth for a 16 bit game on an effectively two-dimensional platform. Either while being shot across continents in a magical cannon, or flying on the back of a dragon, the mode 7 effect worked wonderfully.

I am not alone in loving Secret of Mana. When it was released in 1993, the prestigious gaming magazine Edge gave it a score of 9 out of 10. SuperPlay gave it a score of 94 per cent, and three years later ranked it #8 in their “100 Best SNES Games of All Time” feature. Electronic Gaming Monthly named it “Best Role-Playing Game of 1993”.
The game sold 1.5 million copies in Japan, as well as an additional 330,000 in the USA, Europe and Australasia. It is currently available, as I’ve mentioned, as a rather expensive second-hand proposition on EBay, but it is also downloadable on the Nintendo Wii’s online Virtual Console service. An adaptation for the Apple iPhone was due by the end of 2010 – I’m not sure if it’s come out yet or not (not having an iPhone strangely reduces my desperation to check).
Some games make an enormous impact on you when you play them, and time and technology do little to diminish that impact. I feel that way about quite a few games: Elite, Super Mario Bros, and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time are three that immediately come to mind. Secret of Mana is without question a fourth.

1 Jeriaska, “Sound Current: 'Magical Planet - The Music of Hiroki Kikuta & Yoko Shimomura”, Game Set Watch, 19 August 2009
2 Jeriaska, Game Set Watch, 19 August 2009
3 David Houghton, “New interview with legendary Secret of Mana composer Hiroki Kikuta”, Destructoid, 11 June 2007.
4 Brendan McGrath, “Ted Woolsey Interview”, Square Haven, 29 April 1999.
5 Quoted in SuperPlay, September 1994. Reprinted in www.chronocompendium.com.
6 Chris Kohler, Power-Up: How Japanese Video Games Gave the World an Extra Life, Bradygames, 2005.

1 comment:

  1. It is out on iOS (i.e. the Apple mobile platform - so both the iPhone and the iPod touch.)

    I'm reluctant to get it though, because I lost most of a day to Game Dev Story, the last game you reviewed.

    Keep up the excellent reviews (inimical to my time management though they may be.)


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