Digital Polyphony

film, games, memories & random thoughts

Digital Polyphony Number Three

The Secret of Simplicity

"Simplicity is not the goal. It is the by-product of a good idea and modest expectations."
-Paul Rand




For some reason on some random day in the mid 1990s, I thought to myself. “I feel like playing another Zelda game.”

Alas, there were no other Zelda games save for the one now collecting dust that was packed in with the Super Nintendo I bought a few months prior.

I can’t recall why, exactly, I felt this sudden urge. I was enjoying the hell out of my SNES and Sega Genesis (with super attachment add-ons like life support) but I suppose, for some reason, you just get these yearnings. Maybe I was burned out on the beat-em-up Final Fight/Streets of Rage series of games. Or maybe I was just open to new genres at my recent discovery of RPGs as something actually fun to play.

I went into this little rinky-dink videogame store, a time before the franchise chains of EBgames and Gamestop now dart into every strip mall in North America, and perused the rental aisles. I went straight for the Super Nintendo section. Afterall, Zelda was on Super Nintendo, only natural to find another like it on the same system, right?

Well…sort of.

I first looked through titles. Trying to find something that was similar wasn’t that easy. There were a lot of “Legends” and “Secrets” and “Fantasy” and “Epics” abound. So, I took those, Genesis titles included, made a nice section of my own on a corner, and then promptly began looking at the backs of each one.

But one box, well…I didn’t need to look at the back of. In fact, the front told my all I needed to know. Three young people, standing in front of a massive of what I had to assume was a tree. They were dwarfed by it, showing how epic the game might be.

I turned it over and knew right away this was what I had been looking for. Another Zelda?  Is this what I was looking for? I figured why not and give it a try over the weekend. If there's anything I don't miss about gaming during the 1980s and 1990s, it's the lack of information about games. If you're lucky you might find a magazine telling you what the game was about or how good it was, but renting and buying was often a crapshoot. I rolled the dice...and came out a winner.

For the three days I had Secret of Mana I did not leave my room. Not once. Its music was endearing, although I often would put on the new Weezer Blue Album as I leveled up, the controls were spot-on and it was simply the adventure I was looking for. Note the word "simply," though. This was a time when something being simple wasn't considered a fault like it is today for whatever reason. We asked for an adventure, and we got it, no complaints. Secret of Mana was my mission after returning it to the little rental store. I needed to find it, and fast. I looked around my small town and, finally, found it in the display case at the local Sears in our small shopping mall. Overpriced, as was always the case with Sears...but I saved and bought it and relished in its simplicity for years to come...and even to this day.

 


A Glowing Shimmering Sword of Wonder
 


It’s so easy to write off early 16 bit games as simple, especially for today’s gamers who never really got the chance to experience them when they were new (and some don’t bother to experience at all, they just assume). But you know what? Many were simple. They were made to be fun and entertaining. Some today might throw aside such now clichéd notions of a magical weapon or a hero banished from a village, or a mysterious dark figure. But that’s their loss, because sometimes the simplest forms are often the grandest. Games that would take such an approach aren’t given the credit they deserve.

They draw you in quickly and you hold on by your wits and your controller as you hit buttons. You aren’t sucked into menu screen inside of menu screens, trying to figure out where certain points of experience are best used and what the best armor is for each character based on their weight. Nor do you spend hours backtracking through endless hallways, the dozens of different shotguns you can carry, or how much blood is spurted from an enemy for a headshot and how many points you get for sans blood. Developers had one goal: make games fun.

That’s exactly what Secret of Mana did.

Before the era of today’s over-complicated dialogue branches, custom beard scruffiness and experience point rationing, you had games that you put in, sat down, and whacked the hell out of enemies simply because they were in your way. But now we have to have “reasonings” and “meanings.” People would now ask questions.

"Why are there rabites in your way? " might be one such question I'll use an example.

Our hero mentions the first rabite he sees as he makes his way home after finding a sword. For those of you who aren't aware, a rabite is a standard enemy in Secret of Mana, a cross between a rabbit and Kirby. And for those of you who don't know who Kirby is, I pity.

Anyways, I digress. As I mentioned, our hero acknowledges the rabite he sees as follows: “Whoa! What's a Rabite doing in a place like this?” Then you promptly dispatch it with your newly found sword you found glimmering in the river. No expose on rabites secretly being altered rabbits due to the Empire sucking Mana from the world to create a hybrid rabbit-man that kills for carrots. Afterall, the dwarves mention combining the two therefore they must be in cahoots with the Empire, backstabbing to soon follow.

No. The fact is, it’s there. Kill it. Move on. Screw the reasons and backstory, I’m making my own story. It's that sense of adventure and simple effectiveness that is lost. 

The game is a classic journey. Secret of Mana is a top-down, colorful and vibrant 2-D adventure game. You have three characters: a boy, the knight. The girl, a princess-like warrior. And a sprite, a small little hobbit-like creature. We really don't know anything about them other than that (although some things are revealed later). You start off as the boy, as I mentioned, then find the other two. You then can freely control all three (or have a second player control one while you do) by switching between them. You also gather weapons, such as a sword, the standard for this type of game, a spear, a bow and arrow, a boomerang, a whip and so on. You also gather spirits which grant you magical powers as you free them from their prisons.

Each of the weapons, magics and items are selected through a ring menu that you can bring up at any moment during the game and for each character to tell them what you want them to use or cast. It never gets cumbersome or complicated as you journey through the entire world killing things. There are dozens of locations ranging from snowy mountains and forests, towns made of gold, temples of cults, hidden dwarf villages in the mountains, rivers and waterfalls, misty valleys and haunted forests, towns and cities, and even a flying ancient fortress. It's continuous as you go from point to point and it's always like walking through a new door and into a new world. That sense of wonder never leaves nor does the intuitive nature of the controls and gameplay. It easily could have, though, and a lesser developer wouldn't have streamlined it all so fluidly. Square wasn't a lesser developer back then, as their track record showed.

While the path itself is great to go through with the gameplay, it's the atmosphere and story that is to hook you and get you to chug through. As mentioned, it's nothing over-the-top or full of plot twists. It's rather straight-forward and easy to get into. It's about adventure. It knows it. We know it. And thankfully that doesn't change once.The design is simple but effective. I have to ask if it's "effective" then who cares if something is deemed "simplistic?" It works, it's fun, and it's that element and sense of humbleness that is all lost, especially when it comes to a narrative.



A One Act Story


For games like this, a story is secondary, but let’s discuss Secret of Mana’s.

A long time ago, there was once a great civilization in the world. At the height of their prosperity, they created the ultimate weapon, a Mana Fortress (that flies). This angered the Gods, and they sent their beasts to destroy it. War breaks out, human civilization is destroyed, a hero with the Mana sword decided to just end it all apparently…and now we’re back at square one.

Now we’re in the present and a young boy stumbles upon the Mana Sword embedded in a stone. As any boy would, he takes it. Unfortunately this unleashes monsters into the world, that were once at peace and that the Mana Sword kept at bay. Banished from his village (as so many RPG heroes are) he goes on a quest to restore the seal that once protected the world.

There’s your story. There is honestly not much else to say about it. But for a game like Secret of Mana, who really cares about the story? Or even the characters' histories? It’s all about exploring, kicking ass and taking names. You travel the world via cannon (yes, a cannon), or a Mana beast a little later that you can fly around. You learn a dozen weapons and magic abilities and eat candy. The world is lush, colorful, vibrant and is populated by humans, witches, fairies, dwarves and shrewd merchant-cats. While I might love a game such as Mass Effect or Final Fantasy XII for the depth and breadth of their world, story and character, there’s something to be said about the lost art of simple, fun gameplay and design. Today’s gamer would take one look at Secret of Mana and call it a clichéd story with dated graphics (that dare use the color pink in its palette).

The most important aspect of any adventure RPG, meaning, to me at least, an RPG with an emphasis on puzzle solving, exploration, item collecting and real-time battles, is the control system. Secret of Mana introduced the ring system. You hit one of the buttons, and the ring-menu pops up. From here you can easily choose your items and spells. It was fluid and intuitive. Most importantly, though, is the fun-factor of attacking and beating the hell of things. In a way, games like this are a top-down beat-em-up. But you aren’t limited to one sword and some arrows. No no no…you have swords, whips, javelins, gloves, boomerangs, axes, spears – all that can be used by your three characters and all that can be upgraded over time. The more you use them, or the spells, the better you become at them. Simple, efficient, easy.

The world, shown to us in beautiful mode-7 and sprite based graphics was vibrant and truly felt alive. Animations were top-notch, surpassing all other 2D RPGs at that time for the style and quality. Then you have the memorable soundtrack, cute, light with a touch of dread when needed (Thanatos’s theme still echoes in my ears as well as the haunting Ceremony theme, but the songs Phantom and the Rose, Fond Memories, and What the Forest Taught Me are just flat-out beautiful ). The soundtrack was one of the few Hiroki Kikuta did before falling into obscurity, but he left his mark with this and Seiken Densetsu 3, that is for certain.

Secret of Mana had all the parts to make a great game. However, outside of the Zelda series, Square or any other developer for that matter has failed to repeat the quality they had with this little adventure RPG in 1993. But that quality simply isn’t “cool” anymore, I suppose.

 

What is Cooler than Cool?


There’s no room for simple adventure RPGs anymore. Or well-designed ones for that matter. Look at Kingdom hearts. Bad controls. Purposeless stages. Cumbersome. Annoying. But it sure does have its fair share of spiffy action and angled camera shots. Not to mention the now clichéd approach to a story that is ripped from you standard low-grade anime serials, as many RPGs enjoy doing in this day and age. I wish that, like Secret of Mana, they kept the story simple, but they have to throw in arcs and try and find a reason for everything with over-the-top action and how “badass” they can make Mickey Mouse. If Walt Disney was in a grave, he’d be rolling over right now (we all know he’s cryogenically frozen inside the castle at Disney World, so any rolling is physically impossible).

Now look at its grandfather from 1993. In Secret of Mana, there are no reasons, you just play and have fun. Empire is evil, Mana is good. Get Mana, kill Empire, Ride a Mana Beast. Because of this simple approach, it draws you in. It doesn’t try and force the issue and bring attention to itself. You aren’t there trying to scratch your head and figure out what’s going on. You are the hero(s) and you go on an adventure. As a result, you get attached to them. While there is not story or character development that today’s fans would accept, you still find yourself loving these characters and the world they inhabit. Final Fantasy VII might have tried its best to get me to shed a tear for Aeris’s demise, I was more saddened that my little sprite companion had to sacrifice himself just for me in this game. Cue the music, credit scroll and my surviving friends revisiting the world and one last, quick shot of my fallen comrade’s spirit.

To me, while games are evolving their design is regressing. While our top designers today try to plaster on as much into a game as possible, they are forgetting the one inherent thing about games to begin with: make them fun. For games in general today, more is less. Instead of making a game we can pick up, these days we need games that spend 30 minutes on a tutorial to explain everything to us, then we get into it and find that the designers like to add in sections that have you needing to know exactly what to do to proceed or survive. Whether it’s beating a boss , knowing which of your thirty weapons to use in some shooter, or spending hours trying to get through some mundane sidequest to get the ultimate weapon so you can defeat some ultimate monster in some other side quest that you don’t even have to do. They're cheap. there's not better example of this than the games with scenarios where you Push A not to die or Push X to kill a boss. Lazy...but at least it looks cool, right?


The point being, games aren’t focused on being fun anymore, especially RPGs. Not only that, for some reason gamers feel that if something is “simple” to them, it is therefore “childish” and, oh what’s that internet lingo you kids use these days…”kiddie.” Instead of judging on enjoyment, we judge by how “complex” something is and how many hours we can put into it. Rather, I find the best games those that aren’t a chore and I put importance on the quality of those hours spent rather than how many hours are put into it. Perhaps this is why I like the Wii (at times) and perhaps it’s also why I accept the fact that games like Secret of Mana will never be seen again. Fading into obscurity like 2D shooters and puzzle games.

Whether it be story, gameplay mechanics or just the design itself, a game should be something you can sit back, after hours of playing, and say “man, that was fun.” I’d rather not judge a game based on some nifty gimmick or how much gore there is, or how much customization and missions there are. Something fun and interesting to play, compelling enough to entertain but not over-abused to the point of me having to read giant synopsis to understand the plot or spend an hour going through a tutorial to figure out how to control my character.

Now for those games that are arguably overproduced for their own good, God of War, Gears of War and the Xenosaga games come to mind, don’t misunderstand: there are always a place for those. But developers are too keen on trying to emulate each other with those notions. Put more money into it. Put more man-hours. Put more mini-games, love interests, sidquests, more more more…

Less is more for games like Secret of Mana. Or even Chrono Trigger, Mario, Sonic, most games of that era and a few select today. They're simple designs, simple gameplay…and those are considered the best games ever made. Is more really necessary?

 

A Long Time Ago


There was a time when Star Wars was simple, fun, hugely enjoyable. Then you have the prequels that attempted to bring reasons, backstory and complicated plots into the mix. Sometimes, giving us the basics is all we really need. Many players, though, feel opposite. More explaining. More conversations. More love stories. But despite all the excess that might be crammed into the latest RPG or action title, one thing seems to have disappeared.

I want to bring up something I mentioned earlier. “Adventure.” I rarely go on adventures in videogames anymore. That sense of wonder and exploration is all but dead save for a few exceptions in a Zelda game here and there or something rare like BioShock or Deus Ex. Rather, we’ve given way to button combinations and moving from point to point just to get a little snippet of a story that is supposed to draw us in with contrived dialogue and character rather than that sense of “what’s over that next hill.” Even the characters rarely acknowledge the adventure their on. Instead, it’s a task to be done like an IRS form.

But a story isn’t an adventure. A story is just a story. It’s there to help bring a purpose to it all and can either help or hinder with too much. I suppose it’s dependent on what the game calls for. But now I think many of our games are starting with story first and "sense of adventure" arbitrarily  stuck between “item selling” and “saving.” While many gamers today enjoy going through their tasks, I can’t help but think about that sense of adventure that seems lost. It’s hard to describe, in a way it’s intangible to even bring up in a thread about it. There was a time when a simple adventure was all we really needed.

However, I think it’s something that is still needed. Many might refute that, and developers obviously couldn't care less at this point, but it is. Some might say it's very much alive and well, but there's no wonder to it and I think that wonder stems from the player, not the game, and trying to explain everything, be detailed with controls and menus and fill your story up with a dozen plot twists to where they are predictable takes that wonder away. I sometimes think that developers today find the gaming audience rather ignorant and stupid, with how htey handle their games I would have to say that's exactly what they think, or maybe that's what gamers want. You see, I think gamers expectations are too high to begin with where the developers feel obligated to be excessive. They would view Secret of Mana as an insult, it's too bad I think games like it are exactly what they need to maybe be a little less focused on what is cool looking and focus on what is just plain fun. I'm willing to bet, though, that if they gave it time they'd find they aren't that good at older games because those older games were actually challenging to a player (as many found out when playing the recent release of Mega Man 9 and many complained it was too hard...welcome to my era of gaming, kids).

A stripped-down, grab a sword and head into that cave adventure would be a warm welcome in my house. But our times have changed, and gamer expectations ten-fold. A game like Secret of Mana would never get past the concept stage today. A mind might bring something up at some development meeting, and the company CEO would go

“Okay, and then…”

Truth is, despite all they might say otherwise as I play them, that’s my response to most games today. It can throw all the flash and exposition and I simply go "and...." as I sit there and wonder when the challenge will begin or when I can sit back and just enjoy it. An ironic response as I grab my Super Nintendo controller once more and hop aboard Flamie, by trusty Mana Beast, once again.

 

 

 

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