Retro Scope: Secret of Mana

Anthony takes a look at the game that revolutionized action RPGs.

By Anthony Vigna. Posted 07/31/2014 09:00 Comment on this     ShareThis

Take a second to think about your favorite action RPG games. I bet that in one way or another, Secret of Mana helped shape the design of that game.

Secret of Mana had a huge hand in bringing action RPGs to where they are today. In the early ’90s, a lot of RPGs featured turn-based combat that required a ton of menu navigation, which was influenced by the popularity of Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy. However, there weren’t many RPGs that let you directly take control of the characters themselves. The ones that previously existed were either not true RPGs, like The Legend of Zelda, or not very well designed, like Hydlide.

One of Secret of Mana’s biggest strengths is delivering a solid action experience while staying true to its turn-based RPG roots. In a regular action game, you can continuously use the attack button without any kind of penalty. But in Secret of Mana, you have to wait for a gauge to fill up on the bottom before your weapon can do full damage, which is similar to the Active Time Battle system introduced in Final Fantasy IV. This makes battles feel like a combination of action and turn-based gameplay, which works out quite well. But, attacking at the right time isn’t your only concern, as you’ll also have to manage the health and magic of your party, cast spells unique to each character, and defeat enemies to level up. So, while the gameplay was a radical change from standard turn-based RPGs, it still felt like one at its core.

Issuing commands to your party was made simple thanks to the innovative Ring Command menu system. Whenever a player pauses to open this menu, every selectable option appears in a circle with little sprite images and a short description on the top of the screen for easy identification. The best part is that this menu doesn’t bring you to a second screen, making it easy to choose spells and items quickly in a heated battle. Secret of Mana greatly simplified many of the linear, lengthy menu systems from past RPGs, making the overall experience a lot more accessible to new players.

While playing as the character of your choice, the rest of the party will be controlled by computer AI. However, to make sure that the player still had control over every party member, a system was implemented to change the behavior of the AI. With 16 differing behavior settings, you could specifically alter how offensively or defensively a character acts. You can even set them to approach enemies directly or stay far away from them! This is perfect for Secret of Mana‘s battle system because each character has their own unique stats and abilities. For example, you may want your strong warrior to always be in the action while your supporting mage applies status buffs from a distance.

Secret of Mana Screenshot - Ice Area

Or, if you don’t feel like managing the AI, you can always invite two friends over for three player co-op! This is arguably the most important feature that Secret of Mana brought to the table, as the game is known for being one of the best co-op games created for SNES. Not only were co-op RPGs practically nonexistent, the experience was vastly superior to others like it because players could drop in and out at any time. This fantastic innovation created an incredibly seamless experience that made multiplayer a lot more enjoyable. If you are going to play Secret of Mana, then I highly suggest that you play it with friends to get the most out of the game.

Secret of Mana is one of the best action RPGs I’ve ever played. Even years after its release, it holds up as one of the finest games in its genre. Secret of Mana left a legacy that inspired developers to create new games like it, making it an important part in the history of action RPGs. If you like RPGs and own an SNES, you absolutely need to play this game! Or, if you don’t own an SNES, buy the game on Wii’s Virtual Console. Whatever you do, just make sure you own a copy of Secret of Mana. You’ll thank me later.

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