All young men need something to scare them straight


Secret of Mana (1994)

I had a tough start with Secret of Mana. Things seemed so rosy – the year was 1995 and my mother had gone into town with the promise of bringing us home a new Super Nintendo game. What she brought us was the green wonder that is Secret of Mana, a game that was advertised as being like Zelda! That was all I needed to hear. I probably near took the glorious woman’s hand off and clambered up the stairs to play it immediately.

As I often did as a 4-year-old gamer boy, I pressed my little golfball head as closely to our 1970s television as I could without my hair standing on end. Then I pressed the Power button to load up the game, a chilling roar that must have surely come from the bowels of hell blared right in my face, and I screamed to the high heavens and left Mana alone for several years.

As I was now far too frightened to even go near the game, it was up to my brother to play through it and have me watch instead. And he didn’t do a good job as such, not getting very far. He was displeased, you see, that the game wasn’t really like Zelda at all, and there were numbers and stats to keep up with, weapons and armour to equip, dialogue to skip through, all that.

It would be up to me to bluster my way through, once I’ve summoned enough testicular fortitude. I was quite a ‘fraidycat as a child, and it makes me wonder how kids of today cope, given the graphics have gotten far more realistic. A young child once told me that Skyrim is his favourite ever game. That’s a game I can’t even play because there’s large spiders everywhere, but here he is running through the game, in first-person view and everything, VR even. How’s that for making me feel like a wetty?

Secret of Mana was a shining example of the fledgling Action RPG genre. The gaming taste in Europe didn’t seem to really be enamoured with the idea of text-heavy RPGs and intricate battle systems, which may very well explain why the first Final Fantasy game we received over here was VII. How can a series make its debut at number seven? I’m not sure, but Squaresoft managed it over here.

I suspect some of the reason behind it is that we have a truckload of languages to translate to here in Europe, but as it happened we did receive the more action-oriented, Zelda-reminiscent likes of Secret of Mana, Secret of Evermore, Illusion of Time and Terranigma. At least we didn’t get The 7th Saga; that would have caused Brexit all by itself.

The colourful world of Secret of Mana combined with one of the greatest soundtracks of all time, a whole host of fantasy monsters and a battle system that never gets old all come together to form one exceptional package that, in retrospect, we were quite lucky to receive. At the time, the game was to be developed for a piece of hardware that never materialised, the SNES-CD. This eventually went on to become the Phillips CD-i, and you will have seen what the boys over there did to the Mario and Zelda franchises.

It’s therefore not too inconceivable that my favourite ever game would have been relegated to the Phillips CD-i. I may not have ever even played it. Luckily, or in some cases unluckily, the game was pared down to fit onto the SNES early in the planning stages, meaning a stripping-out of planned content and a clear rushing of the game towards its end.

Indeed, the corporate stress caused by Secret of Mana’s development and the SNES-CD rigmarole, combined with the N64’s use of severely limiting cartridges, contributed heavily to Square’s decision to leave Nintendo at the altar and run off with Sony instead. That sounds awful, given how the PlayStation brand has become a behemoth thanks in no small part to Square’s contributions. But you’d better believe that I can spin this positively: Secret of Mana is directly responsible for Final Fantasy VII. Indeed, while I’m at it, it’s probably responsible for Final Fantasy VI as well. Now that’s a legacy.

A note on the PS4 remake of the game. I could hardly have imagined, back as a prepubescent boy squinting at that 70s CRT television (and it was a fine telly, with the loudest white noise known to man), that I’d one day be playing a 3D, HD, voice-acted, reskinned remake of my all-time favourite game. And on a Phony GreyStation console to boot! That’s what the propaganda-laden official Nintendo magazines of the time referred to the PS1 as. Even more maturely, when the Dreamcast came along, that got the natural moniker of Dreampants, but maybe they were right on that one.

The PS4 remake took flak early on, first of all for graphics that people thought more befitting a PS Vita or even a mobile game, and secondly because of the redone music. Now I did a full-on sex wee when I saw the almost subdued announcement of the game, but even I had to be a bit hesitant when I saw the soundtrack was going to be redone by all manner of different musicians with different ideas. Even the voice-acting, which the JRPG playing weebs tend to deride when it isn’t Japanese, came a dim and distant third when it came to aspects to give SOM Remake grief over.

As it turned out, most of the contentious new additions could be edited or turned off. If you didn’t want the new music, just play the game with the old soundtrack which is fully included and you may switch between the two at any time. As unmissable as the original OST is, obviously there’s no point in using it on your first run through the remake, although it is objectively better and there really are a few stinkers in the new compilation. If you don’t want the voice-acting, just turn it right off or switch to Japanese, your choice. And if the new graphics harm your delicate eyes, just stop crying and play the original game.

I think everyone was hoping for the game to be a fuller remake that pasted in the missing content, and to have less freezes and glitches as well as more imaginative Trophies would have been nice also, but that’s your lot. And I enjoyed the new experience thoroughly, even if it does mean that we won’t get another remake now until at least another 24 years down the road.

It was 1993 when Secret of Mana was completed. But no, completed isn’t exactly the right word to use here. After all, Leonardo da Vinci didn’t “complete” the Mona Lisa. No. As he was finishing the last strokes, he convened a meeting of the Arts Council and all of the top Patron of the Arts living in Florence. Better than that, he asked – nay, demanded, that the Pope himself come down and feast his eyes upon his masterpiece.

Once they were all assembled, da Vinci then brought in 40 of Florence’s bustiest courtesans and had them all sink to their knees. I won’t spell out what he did next, but he did it forty times in a row, with His Holiness and all of the other assembled parties watching. Not only that, da Vinci told them all not to look up at him but to fix their gaze at the glorious painting on the wall behind him. When he was finished, and had adequately made his point, he threw his paintbrush on the ground or whatever the Renaissance equivalent of a mic drop was, zipped up and went on his way, leaving a trail of amazed spectators in his wake. The Pope was said to be “appalled but hugely proud of his son nonetheless”.

Da Vinci had every right to be proud of himself as well, for he had just completed a work that would endure the ages and eventually become known as the most famous painting of all time. Secret of Mana, though I hate to admit it, probably isn’t the most famous game of all time. But it has mystery and detail and even blemishes like the Mona Lisa. Like all great works of art, Secret of Mana terrified me and awed me in equal measure. And believe you me, I’m working tirelessly to get this game demoed on a permanent basis in the Louvre. This game is an art masterpiece.

11 December 2018

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