Jon Gracey's

Games That Rocked…Tom Hyatt’s World – #38: Secret Of Mana

In iOS, SNES, Virtual Console on June 7, 2013 at 3:33 pm

Today’s post is by Tom Hyatt.

Title: Secret Of Mana

Format: SNES, Virtual Console, iOS

Released: August 6th, 1993

Mana Box Art

I have been playing video games since I was two years old, getting my first toddler taste of pixel black magic back when my mum and dad brought home a Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) in 1991. Some twenty-two years on, there is one game more than any other that I would say rocked and continues to rock my world… so lower your voices, and let me give to you the Secret of Mana.

Put yourself back in a time before true 3D, before the domination of the first-person shooter, back to the golden years of a genre known as Japanese Role Playing Games (JRPGs). Secret of Mana, an offshoot of the genre-defining Final Fantasy series, is a huge self-contained universe built to tell an epic tale. An orphan boy accidentally discovers the rusted Sword of Mana and in doing so unwittingly unleashes ancient beasts into the world. Exiled, he sets out to both put things right and search for the truth about his origins, beginning a journey filled with ancient magic, forgotten worlds, eternal friends and fantastical foes; the latter hell-bent on harnessing the power of mana for themselves. So big was this game, in fact, that it didn’t even fit inside one of Nintendo’s SNES cartridges in a complete form. Originally developed with CD in mind, chunks of the adventure had to be lopped off for edited distribution on Nintendo’s machine.

Mana Map

Although this latter fact may seem like a recipe for disaster, it inadvertently resulted in one of my favourite storytelling devices, often employed deliberately (I believe) in Studio Ghibli films, of which I’m also a big fan. The audience are presented an imperfect, incomplete picture of a world, and like so much in the real world our minds are invited to either fill in the details ourselves or experience it in imaginative, childlike wonder.

Late on in the adventure, exploration yields a lighthouse out in the open ocean (you navigate the globe first by giant cannons, then flying dragon) and climbing to the top you find nothing more than a bald spinning monk called Pecard, with a bit of history to say. Elsewhere, an island sits with what looks like a fairground on it, but you are forbidden to land. Or, scale a mountain to find at the top a temple housing orbs imbued with soundbites from a world and war long ago – was that the TV show Jeopardy!? Whether incomplete ideas or intentionally obscure extras, the world of Secret of Mana is one you never end up fully understanding, nor being able to forget.

Secret Of Mana Village

A Zelda-style, real-time battle mechanic ensures the gameplay is fluid and your connection to this vast and engrossing world is uninhibited. No artificial turn-based weapon blows here; slash and cast away all you want (though patience does yield more powerful blows). The hero’s two AI companions – a girl searching for her lost love and a Sprite child searching for its lost memory – are able to wield various magics, and character switching can be done on the fly to launch all sorts of elemental attacks in tandem using an innovative ringed-menu system.

Better yet: connect multiple controllers to the SNES and drop in to play cooperatively, each player moving and fighting independently. For me, Secret of Mana had my sister Lizzy and I saving the world together at same time. Countless hours spent around a CRT conquering one colossal beast after another, or searching for the infamous ‘Flammie Drum’ (capable of summoning the aforementioned flying dragon that we’d read much about in the manual), culminating in an unforgettable final showdown literally years after we’d begun – all time well spent.

Secret Of Mana Flammie

I’m conscious of this beginning to read too much like a trip down memory lane, so let’s bring this write-up into the present day. Despite the SNES being safely holed up in my childhood home, Secret of Mana continues to rock my world with its brilliant and inspiring soundtrack.

Composed by Hiroki Kikuta, the music you hear during Secret of Mana is one of its finest and enduring qualities and ensures its regular inclusion in symphonic retro-game concerts all around the world. Over forty compositions of magnificent MIDI can stop your heart one minute and set your adrenaline pumping the next. Dancing piano lines filled with mysterious intervals convince you that you really are on top of a lofty mountain. Impossible funky drum and bass riffs contrast the whimsy when you’re storming a fortress. Vivaldi-esq strings soundtrack a forest area with, fittingly enough, a puzzle of four seasons.

It has to be heard to be appreciated of course, alongside playing the game for that matter, but let me give you a quick taste to tie up this piece. Not wanting to spoil anything, at one point in the game there is a heartbreaking goodbye, unavoidable and yet unforeseen. A song which translates from the original Japanese as Now Flightless Wings begins to play, beginning with obviously pained and anguished strings but eventually succumbing to a soft, bittersweet melody, sounding almost like a child’s music box, as acceptance of the sad situation occurs.

I am a songwriter myself, and this song eventually inspired a lyric in a song of my own, which ended up sharing the same title. My Now Flightless Wings deals with the uneasy forecast of pain and loss, and the protagonist begins the narrative with:

Who dare say where we may lead?
What becomes of you and me?
Future sings Now Flightless Wings.

After the final chorus, a lone harmonica plays out a variation of the Secret of Mana melody, satisfyingly (and by chance rather than engineering) fitting over my chorus chords. An obscure and subtle reference, unlikely to be picked up on by anybody without prompting, but still a personal nod to a very formative game of my childhood. I hope you get a chance to play and enjoy it as much as I did.

Tom Hyatt

Tom Hyatt is a London-based singer, songwriter and artist; graphic and web designer for (amongst others) comedy sketch-group The Beta Males; teacher of physics and philosophy and owns a cape. Check out his website or see what he has to say over here.


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