I tend to put game music on when I’m busy with dull household chores – sweeping floors and tediously dusting hard to reach corners to Alisia Dragoon‘s fantastic chiptunes or the epic choirs of Final Fantasy XIV‘s battle music makes for a mildly amusing contrast to the task at hand that helps to keep boredom at bay. I thought this time around would be no different to any other: I’d got my iPad resting on the kitchen counter, the volume turned up enjoyably loud, and this morning’s cleaning album was going to be… ah! Secret of Mana – it had been a while since I’d last heard that soundtrack and I quite liked the idea of listening to some chirpy instrumentals played through the SNES’ distinctive S-SMP sound chip as I went about my morning work.
As we all know Secret of Mana’s soundtrack opens with the same unforgettable sample the game does, the haunting whale song that marks the beginning of “Angel’s Fear” (AKA: “Fear of the Heavens”) and soon shifts into a delicate piano melody before transforming into the soaring climax that perfectly compliments the grand reveal of the Mana Tree itself on the title screen. I’ve soaked in every last note of this wonderful piece of music for so long my mind has been able to summon up its entire one minute and forty-two seconds of bliss at will for years now – it shouldn’t have any surprises left for me, but this time it stopped me in my tracks.
I really missed playing Secret of Mana.
No, it was more than that – I felt homesick.
But why? It’s far from the only old RPG I have fond memories of that I haven’t played in a long while – my house is littered with teetering stacks of shame going back [console] generations, constant reminders of brilliant games bought, played, and then casually left behind. Maybe I missed seeing Mana’s achingly beautiful locations; maybe I missed wandering through those dark forests enrobed in a hazy pink mist, missed exploring a mushroom kingdom filled with friendly funghi living under a dense canopy of trees where the mint green grass on the ground below was speckled by muted light, missed fighting ice-blue wolves in chilly woods carpeted in a blanket of crisp white snow, the paths through lined with glittering crystal trees. Mana’s almost dreamlike in places, the SNES’ rich colour palette breathing life into shining translucent waterfalls leading to shallow pools surrounded by lush green grass and vivid flowers, bringing warm earthy tones to cozy village interiors, and suitably emphasising the harsh mechanics of the Mana Fortress.
Just like so many other games, really.
The hobby as a whole isn’t exactly lacking gorgeous titles old and new in every graphical style under the sun – looking pretty is actually pretty ordinary when you get down to it. What elevates Secret of Mana above much of this artistic crowd is the charm emanating from every Moogle-cap’d kid and fluffy-tailed Rabite. Enemies don’t just roam, hop, or float around – you can find them asleep on the job and then startle them awake with the oh-so-satisfying slap sound of a heavy hit finding its target, or maybe you’ll encounter them burrowing out of or back into the soft earth, or watch magical tomes flap around like birds. There are bug-eyed bugs to look out for, enemy owls to see explode in a puff of feathers when defeated, and a good giggle to be had as our heroes express not fear but the best sort of cartoonish shock as they’re swallowed whole by monsters that clearly struggle to cope with the full-sized human in their now sticky-out bellies. Every pixel builds a picture of a positive and joyful game, a place where all corners are bursting with energy and something worth seeing. Best of all these amusing details can even be informative: It’s always easy to see why someone’s not moving even on the busiest screen when they’ve got a giant blue balloon with bunny ears on it floating over their heads or they’ve been magically changed into a rotund snowman with a carrot for a nose, and likewise the fun-sized heroes, fluffy moogle transformations, and even something as simple as a cheer of acknowledgement after being healed are as clear to read in the heat of the moment as they are adorable.
Mana feels more like a game interested in taking its fantasy cues from the fairy mischief of A Midsummer Night’s Dream than the po-faced high fantasy of serious authors who release strings of interconnected paperback books the size of a whale, this desire to capture the wonder of a magical land perhaps best illustrated by the “Walk the seasons from spring to winter…” riddle that has you trek round and round an impossible enchanted forest, crisp autumn leaves and the vivid pink blossom of spring just a short walk apart from each other and the secret path to a village of magical sprites your reward.
It’s a childlike rather than a childish view of adventure, a world where there is no enforced bedtime unless you decide you need the rest, healing is done by devouring sweets and chocolate that can be bought from talking cats (at twice the price of a regular town shop, the cheeky so-and-so) or found in mischievous treasure chests with little feet that’ll bob around the battlefield instead of politely standing still before being made to open with a vigorous shake – and if you’re really brave and good you even get to see (and save!) Santa.
Nothing is left untouched by this festive spirit of adventure: Our playable trio are a boisterous bunch, charging across the land like an unstoppable force of nature. They’re a surprising group too, even if they do at least visually appear to comfortably fit within the familiar boundaries of Sword Boy, Pink Girl, and Magic Sidekick. Randi’s initial reaction to the Mana Sword is to try and give it away and when faced with the final boss he voices reluctance to attack the Mana Beast and concern for his friend instead of enthusiastically charging ahead. Primm – long blonde hair, covered head to toe in pink – decides she’s off to rescue her beloved Dyluck from the witches castle, Randi is definitely coming with her whether he wants to or not, and her default weapon is nothing less than knuckle dusters – the closest she ever comes to the typical damsel in distress scenario is when she’s (optionally) backflipping away from werewolves. And then there’s Popoi, the cute little sprite boy who seems to be mostly a puff of bright red hair – you’d think being all of three foot tall and good with magic would mean he fell into some sort of shy/intelligent personality type but instead he’s a cheeky con artist with a big laugh and an even bigger belly – but not without his softer side either.
There is one significant pitfall to avoid when your breezy tale is centered on a bold trio of teenagers: There’s always a danger their grand idealistic speeches on peace and justice will come across to those playing as ignorant rather than innocent, literal children who have never had to make a hard decision in their whole lives berating the battle-hardened and the scholarly on poor choices they made in less than ideal circumstances a lifetime ago. Secret of Mana avoids this by sticking closely to “comic peril” style issues – such as the time poor old fire spirit Salamander is trapped in a stove and used to transform what should be a freezing cold area into a balmy novelty amongst the snow. This tonal leaning doesn’t leave Mana so concerned with being light-hearted your efforts have no weight to them: The game is never afraid to make you pause your whirlwind of spears and spells and silly faces from time to time and remind you that the world really does need saving, your achievements are having an impact on a global scale, and you aren’t trying so hard for nothing. For all the frivolity elsewhere there’s no doubt Dyluck’s sacrifice has meaning, that the Mana Beast’s tidal wave of righteous fury will destroy not only the Mana Fortress but also take the whole world with it, that Popoi’s fade from Randi and Primm’s world is the saddest way to part, friends separated forever by a barrier neither can cross.
Part of the reason why these moments have such an impact is because the game refuses to linger too long on any event – good or bad. The relentlessly swift pace sees many life-changing plot points occur in quick succession without extensive buildup or reams of dialogue (in any language) over-egging an obvious point; instead a firecracker of scene changes, fresh encounters, and tense battles give the impression you’re tumbling through a beautiful fantasy – or flying high above one as Flammie swoops in and whisks the party away after being summoned by the joyful banging of a denden daiko. It’s this determination to never pause for breath that sees a simple trip and a fall soon lead to a holy sword reclaimed, a clash with an enormous monster under the earth, and the exile of a boy who did nothing wrong all get bundled up as simply small parts of the opening sequence, a momentum that’s kept rolling all game long by a to-the-point script and well-planned area maps. Everywhere is easier to get to than you’d think – even “long” treks can be cleared within single-digit minutes even pre-Flammie – and there are plenty of convenient post-boss health refills, end-of-dungeon warps outside, helpful breathing space in tough environments provided by Neko’s shop/save points, topped off with a wealth of shortcuts just to make sure everything flows smoothly. There are no “Oh I’m sorry the person you came to see just left for that miserable beast-infested dungeon to the west and I couldn’t possibly help you!” wastes of your time and even when things don’t quite go to plan – like the time our heroes end up cannon’d into the middle of the desert – it’s all part of the adventure and merely an excuse to pack even more fun events, more chances for our trio to get themselves in to and out of mischief and have a grand old time doing it, in its already compact tale.
This is what I’d missed, this story begins with a song, a sword, and three friends standing before the most beautiful tree in the whole wide world – I’d missed the energetic rhythm of a high-spirited story stuffed with oodles of positivity bouncing along to Hiroki Kikuta‘s warm earthy tones of wood and wind. I’d missed pretending to be the hero on a truly enchanted adventure, scenarios playing out like treasured old picture books filled with mystical wizards, playful fairies, and great dragons guarding mountains of gold. I’d even missed those brief periods of time where the smiles fade and the weight of the whole world rests on the shoulders of this mismatched trio, those sad occasions that only urge you to fight even harder to protect them and their flower-filled world.
I’d missed spending time with an RPG that felt so happy to have me playing it.
I’d been homesick for Secret of Mana because playing it feels like coming home.