TroubleGMR’s Favorite Games: Secret of Mana

Holy crap I can’t believe it they’re re-releasing Secret of Mana no oh my God it’s a 3D remake with full voice and new musical arrangements and local multiplayer . . .

Deep breaths, girl. You’re starting at the wrong end of the story here.

It’s 1994. I’m thirteen years old and a new resident of Colorado, having just moved there from the East Coast. My sister and I are lonely and deeply unhappy at being uprooted from the deep, ancient forests of Virginia to be seemingly carelessly planted in the comparatively sterile, brown plains and sharp mountains of Colorado. It grew on us, later, but at the beginning, it was horrible. It was dry and barren, and all that sky, the sun shining with sharp and unceasing brilliance over . . . nothing, really, at least, in comparison to the soft, maple-leaf-filtered sun and shadow I was used to. Everything was different.

So that lonely summer my sister and I turned one eighth of our brand new, unfinished basement into our hideout. With my parents’ blessing we took the box from the new refrigerator, spray-painted it black with silver sparkles, and arranged it over our TV tower to make it look like an arcade machine. We punched holes in a flap to thread our game console controllers through to complete the effect. Paper chains and Christmas lights, an old card table, the spring-green rug from our old bedroom back home . . . Mom and Dad even let us have the old gray couch from the living room. We lined up wardrobe boxes and turned them into a bar, our drawings of our favorite video game characters adorning the fronts. A cheap but effective karaoke machine– good enough to play tapes and the radio, anyway– sat on one end of the cardboard bar. I wish I had a picture of the place, it turned out surprisingly well. I have many, many good memories of being down in our little hideout.

And one of the very first is playing Secret of Mana, leveling up magic in the Upper Land Forest, in the temple in the Sprite Village, with Ace of Base’s The Sign album playing on that dinky little karaoke machine in the background.

Secret of Mana is one of my very favorite games of all time. From the bright, colorful graphics to the captivating soundtrack– more than one song of which I learned by ear on the cello at school– to the simple but effective ring menu system, it grabbed me from the very first moments. My sister and I each took parts and read for different characters, doing our own voice-overs. We talked to each other in character as we leveled up, even made up marching songs. I found the leveling grind quite satisfying in this game, even though I realize in retrospect that charging up by holding down the attack button to do a long combo wasn’t exactly riveting game-play. The higher level combos take so long, I almost never did them, honestly. Combat was essentially just being in the right place and button mashing. You couldn’t even block, though your character sometimes did it on his own.

These shortcomings were made up by how fluid the game control was. My sister, who almost never actually played video games, preferring to watch and guide me, played this game with me. But who would play the third character? Well, you could easily switch between characters while in the menu, allowing us to have full control over which character was doing what.

Our RPG experiences up to that time had been with menus that took you to a different screen entirely, breaking the flow of the game as you navigated a wall of text to manage your inventory. When you were done, you exited out and reentered the game world. But in Secret of Mana, you didn’t go to a different screen. The screen dimmed, right in the middle of battle, if that’s where you paused, and a ring of icons appeared around your character, giving you menu options. Pressing up or down lead you to different rings, items clearly and simply displayed by name and colorful icons, armor, weapons, everything you needed. While paused, you could switch to a different character. You didn’t have to, you could just program them to behave a certain way, if you preferred. My sister got very good at switching between spellcasters, firing off a healing or damage spell before switching to the other, while I piloted the Boy, who was main physical offense.

Not being taken to a new screen for the menu was incredibly powerful to us, at the time. You could pause right before a giant mechanical dragon breathed fire at you, and could see the dragon poised, threatening impending doom the whole time you were getting the items and queuing up the spells you wanted. I loved not having the narrative, the feel of the game broken up by menu screens.

I also loved the graphics. Wow. The sprites were detailed and gorgeous, the backgrounds lush and colorful. The world of Secret of Mana seemed, compared to previous games I played, to be bursting with life. And the music! Secret of Mana is right up in the top three for me for music. Check out and you’ll see I am by far not the only one who adores it.

The translation . . . was blunt force trauma. It wasn’t the worst I had ever seen at the time, but it seemed . . . sparse? Like things were missing in translation. It turns out my instincts were right. According to Wikipedia, the English translation for Secret of Mana was completed in thirty days, just weeks after the Japanese release. According to the translator, a lot of the game’s script was cut out in the English version of the game due to lack of space; apparently the fixed-width font really limited the amount of space available to display text on the main game-play screen. The text was pared down to the bare minimum in the original US release. We didn’t even get the characters’ names in that version. For years I didn’t even know they had names!

Much to my delight, Randi, Primm, and Popoi (the Boy, the Girl, and the Sprite) are coming back to us in full 3D glory on February 15, 2018 on the PS4, the PlayStation Vita, and Steam. I’ll miss reading the parts for the characters, since apparently they will be fully voice-acted, but I will very much look forward to reliving a story with all the missing parts filled in, hopefully. Even with such strict limitations in the original translation, the story of Secret of Mana was full of triumph and tragedy as Randi journeyed to learn about his mysterious origins, Primm desperately tried to find someone dear to her, and Popoi tried to find its (the Sprite, in the game, was often referred to as “it”) way home . . . and even more I’m not going to spoil for you. I’m so excited about this remake for the enhanced storytelling alone, let alone everything else we’re supposed to get!

Apparently there are preorder bonuses, by the way. I will sure as heck be signing up for mine! I had always intended to write about Secret of Mana at some point, but I am very glad to have an excellent reason for doing so right now. Whether you’re in it for the nostalgia, trying to share something awesome with your kids or young people dear to you, or whether this will be your first Secret of Mana experience, I’m happy for you! It’s truly a game worth picking up, for so many reasons.

Here’s the link for the article I found announcing the remake:

And here’s the Wikipedia article: Did you know unused features of Secret of Mana went on to be used in Chrono Trigger? Yet another reason to love that game . . .

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