Secret of Mana
-Schindler's List won a ton of Oscars.
Here are some things to know about 1994:
Oh, and this was officially gone after only a year on the market.
I loved my Super Nintendo. I had it for a few years by this point, but really didn't own a ton of games. Some Mega Man titles, Mario, Metroid, Castlevania and so on, but the only game I really constantly played was The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past which I already detailed here. It was a slow year in 1994, to be honest. Donkey Kong Country not coming out until November. That NIntendo Hype machine was on full-blast as everyone was anticipating it. But what about those dog days of summer? What is a 14-year-old to play with no school, no job and nothing better to do?
It was a summer month. July or June, I'm sure. My house was about two blocks or so from a small video rental store that had good deals on video game rentals. Six to seven dollars for two games, you get to keep them for three days. About a buck a day for each game. I went on a usual sultry evening, the kind where it's seven or eight at night yet you're perfectly comfortable wearing shorts, sometime during the week. I can't remember if I was driven there by one of my parents or if I rode my bike, but I know it was night, and the small video store was pretty empty other than a few old couples looking through the wall of new releases. The store was small, old tan carpet, old hand-built wood shelves. posters on the wall and a television near the front that played demos of games. I won't go into too much detail, I would find myself working in this very store when I hit high school and I'll share that experience in used-game-dealing and movie-exploration for another time. Let's just say some small, independent stores like this had "ways" to make a profit.
Anyways, I entered the store, the front counter to my right and the demo kiosk ahead, made a right and headed to the video game section on the right side of the store. It was organized about as well as a small store like this could organize it: Sega Genesis titles along the right wall, used games to buy in a bit near the front counter, and two square shoveling units a little further left. The one closest to the rental counter held games to buy as well, but also had one side set for Sega CD rental games. The other shelving unit in all it's cheap-brass glory was dedicated to Super Nintendo titles. Across all these shelves, bins and clutter - none were alphabetized or put in any section to determine what was what. You might have a Mario game next to a football game next to an RPG.
Come to think of it, all that would be fixed once I started working there. Welcome to OCD land.
I noticed right away The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. There was no particular reason, really. I just saw the box and was reminded just how good of game it was. I even picked it up and looked at it, as though I was going to rent this game I already owned, but then it dawned on me as I was looking at the back, I had seen other games on this very same ugly grass shelving unit that looked similar. Sure, I had no idea what they were, but I suddenly found myself on a small-scale investigation.
I put the box for A Link to the Past back and began to search. For what I was searing I can't recall. Something vague. An idea. Something "fantastical." Something that had the sound of fantasy and adventure. That would be a good place to start. I want to say it was a long look about the place, but in reality it was fairly quick. I turned over a box here, a box there, games that might have fit the mold, but then I came across one that hit it out of the park: Secret of Mana. A glorious box with a painting of a large tree trunk and three little characters standing in front as though the scope of the game was too grand to fit on a box cover.
I grabbed, it turned it over, and knew it was the game I was to rent. Colorful. Looking-downward to the characters like Zelda. Hero holding a sword. That's all I needed.
I don't recall what the other game was for that "rent two" deal, either way I don't remember and I probably didn't play it.
I immediately took it home that evening. I wasn't "jumping for joy" or excited. At the time, it was just another game to play. If I was lucky, it would be like Zelda and it would pass a few hours for the next few days as summer slowed to a crawl.
Take those few hours and next few days and turn it into me never coming out of my room except to eat and use the restroom.
Day one of the rental, that evening, was just me getting used to it all. I played through the first portion of the game, where you fight a large monster underground that attacks your village (attacked villages the standard for our JRPG heroes). It took a lot of getting used to. The game looked like Zelda, but it didn't quite play like it. You had multiple weapons, a power meter, menu screens and items to use that intuitively popped up. I stayed up about as late as I could but went to sleep in anticipation of playing more the next day.
Day two of the rental: I sat at the foot of my still-unmade bed in my room, eyes fixated on the television screen in front of me, Dr. Pepper and Cheetos to my side, and played. And played. And played. I was entranced. Hypnotized by this game I had never heard of. Not only was it meeting my Legend of Zelda-criteria, it was exceeding them. On this day, I had garnered two companions t oplay as and that would fight alongside you. I went to a water temple and learned my first bits of magic. I was shot into the air by a canon and found myself in a distant land ripe to explore. I know I had to have gone to bed at some point, but I don't remember.
Day three melted into existence. I knew on this day I had to take the game back the following morning. I had to get in my money's worth. What was that other game I rented? Who cares? I have new weapons to fight with. There was this evil Thanatos guy with the music that gave me nightmares and a village full of mutes. There were dwarves and blacksmiths and magic to learn and…and….
Shit. I'm was out of time. The three days were up. I never had, and never again, would actually contemplate never returning a game like I did Secret of Mana. It was a revelation. Everything about the games I would play and my own gaming persona would change from that point on.
I know what you're thinking. "It's just a video game." If you're saying that, then you're pretty out of touch of what my generation was in to. It's like saying The Beatles or Led Zepplin were "just a band." It was unlike anything I had played before. Yes, even The Legend of Zelda. For all the similarities I had in my checklist of finding a game like a Zelda title, I ended up finding one that exceeded them and added even more than I could have expected. From the few days I had, I knew I needed more. I wanted to know where its as going, where I would travel to, what new things I would learn and what screen-size bosses I could vanquish. By the end of the third day, I had just learned about the dragon, Flammie which, later on, you use to travel on in glorious Super Nintendo Mode 7 as only a video can truly express:
I considered re-renting Secret of Mana. I still had a saved game on that rental copy, I wanted it back. I decided not to, though. Instead, I decided to take a leap: buy it. That way I wouldn't feel rushed like I was when I had rented it. I could sit down with my Dr. Pepper and Cheetos, the cornerstone of any healthy 14 year old's diet, and spend a couple of weeks of this boring summer playing it.
Well, it didn't quite turn out that way. My plan was to return the game, then buy a copy they had. They had none at the rental store. My next plan of action: try Wal Mart. It's Wal Mart - they had everything right? No, apparently not. None were there either. Then it was the every-dying toy-store in my town's every-dying mall that is primarily used for old people to exercise (and still is). They were absent of any Secret of Mana too. Like Forrest Gump in 1994's biggest movie, I was getting turned away like children on a school bus telling me "this seat's taken."
Trying to do any research on Secret of Mana was impossible. In the back of a few gaming magazines, I found some advertisements to order the game via mail. Just send a check or money order…but damn were they asking a lot. Games were expensive, but they wanted ninety bucks for it. Plus shipping. Probably tax too, now that I think about it. I didn't have ninety bucks plus shipping plus tax. I looked over the ads and saw all sorts of games that looked interesting, including a little purple one with a white cat on it about a final fantasy. "Some other time" I thought. It was time to hunt down Secret of Mana in desperation.
Not all was lost. There was one final, albeit completely random option.
Buy a dress, a lawnmower and find overpriced videogames in the middle of a clothing department for some reason.
The desperation was ripe once you decide go to Sears as a last resort, which was about the only other department store in town. There was K-Mart, but I knew they wouldn't have the game because they barely had any video games anymore. It was during a day that I went to the mall with my parents. I can't remember why we were there, but I know my point was to go and check out Sears, which I had overlooked when I stopped by the toy store a few weeks prior. You can't blame me, it's Sears. That's not a store that comes up to any early 90s kid as a place to buy cool things. That's where you dad went to buy a lawnmower.
Ducked back in the middle of a clothing section, women's clothing section mind you, was a square glass counter full of video games. Keep in mind, I didn't have high hopes I would happen to stumble upon Secret of Mana. I was there to see if they had it, sure, but I was planning on ordering it once I saved money. I looked at the Gameboy games, I tested out the amazing Virtual Boy which was guaranteed to be the next big thing in gaming, then glanced over the Super Nintendo games in the glass shelf.
There it was. That box. That tree. Those three little figures. There was also the price tag: 80 bucks.
My heart sank. There it was, within reaching distance, but I only had about twenty or thirty dollars saved from allowance and chores that I had been doing that summer. That's not enough for the game. What was worse, is that it looked like it was the only one left.
Like any kid with video games around the, I stood and just stared at it for a bit. Then it hit me: make a deal.
I ran down my step-dad somewhere in Sears. Again, he was probably looking at lawnmowers. I can't remember how, exactly, but I know it went something like this:
"Say, ummm…my birthday is in four months."
Naturally this was stupid, but I was desperate.
"There's this game I want, it's the last one they have and I can't find it anywhere else. I only have about 30 dollars…but it's 80"
And it has Santa! Trust me...it all makes sense! (kind of)
He looked at me. Maybe it was a moment of pity. I didn't have much, to be honest. I owned a couple of systems, but only a few games…and I paid for all those myself. Truth is, my parents rarely bought me any videgoames at all. I bought them all on my own by saving. This was probably the first time I actually acted impulsively when it came to them.
He walked over to the counter with me and took a look at it in the case. "That's the one you want?"
"Yeah. I'll do extra chores. I'll mow the lawn. I'll pay you back for the rest of the summer."
He took out his wallet. "Ok," he said. He then handed me the money needed. The woman behind the counter walked over from some kid that just broke the Virtual Boy, smiled, and asked if she could help. "I'd like to buy that game there, please." She took it out, put it in a small plastic bag and rang up the price. 80 bucks and some change thanks to taxes. I had more than enough.
I was acting out this meme years before it existed.
From that moment on to the time I got home and opened it is a blur to me now. I'm sure I was on the edge of my seat, wandering and pacing around Sears as my family wrapped up whatever they were doing. It didn't take but a second as we pulled into the garage that I leaped out, ran through the door, past my dogs that I didn't even bother saying hi to, and back to my bedroom. I knelt down in from of the TV and slid out the box for Secret of Mana.
There was nothing like a crisp, pristine new Super Nintendo box back then. It gently took off the wrapping and pulled out the cart, jammed it into the Super Nintendo slot and powered that puppy up.
I knew exactly what to do and where to go to get back up to the point I had left on the rental copy. It only took the rest of that day and most of the night to get there. I "owned" that game, or as internet lingo would soon create "pwned" it. Swords. Lances. Whips. Sprites. Thanatos. Gold City. Mana Beast. King Truffle. Niko the Cat. Dwarves. Giant Bosses. The Old Witch. Flammie. Flying! Puzzles. Seasonal puzzles. More Dr. Pepper! Rabbites. Death to all Rabbites! How do you pronounce "Rabbites" anyways? Rabb-it-tays? Rabb-ee-tays? Rabbi-tits? Who cares? Kill them! And those mushroom things! Hours upon hours of leveling up my weapons as I listened to the Weezer Blue Album. Death to Thanatos! Giant slime! Vampires! Everyone will fall before me!
Then, two days later I beat it.
Worf facepalm is the best Star Trek facepalm.
I didn't care, though. Sure, I felt like shit because I just spent two or so week trying to buy the game when one more rental would have allowed me to beat it, but I still wanted to own it. I loved the game that much. Owning it was kind of a validation on my part in just owning something great and was something I appreciated and admired. After I played it once, naturally I had to play it again. Do better. See and do more. Kick ass and take names. Just admire the quality of the game as a whole, from it's still-gorgeous sprite graphics to the beautiful soundtrack that ranged from emotionally melodic to calmly haunting to charmingly fun to darkly sinister.
Not only did I replay the game that summer, over the years I played Secret of Mana religiously. Few games achieved that in my long timeline of gaming history, and Secret of Mana might very well have been the first. More importantly, though, is how much it not only changed my gaming habits, but my gaming preferences. I shifted hard from fun, simple platforming and action games to the role-playing genre and sought out every Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis RPG under the sun, and did so for the next decade or so. Not renting them, but buying them, because that's all I cared about playing anymore.
...and yes, I still own them all.
The Mana series suffered hard ever since. It never really got the attention it deserved over the years. It was actually called Seiken Densetsu 2 in Japan. Yes, it was the second game, the first Seiken Densetsu was on the original gameboy which was re-titled Final Fantasy Adventure in North America. There was a great third installment on the Super Nintendo as well that never made it out of Japan, and I can vouch for its quality (there are ways to play it, and I'm sure you them).
There were other Mana games, but none really recaptured the elements of this one. Legend of Mana is a great, unique little title on the Playstation, but it still didn't feel like this title. Any every Mana game after that have had a bad case of diminishing returns. Then, in 2007, the director/producer/creator of the Mana series left Square Enix entirely (as many have done) making the odds of getting this series back on track out of the question. This one, though, was his baby and though the third game in Japan is superb, the charming, sweet quality of this one really hasn't been repeated.
This isn't the first time I've written about this wonderful game. Many, many years ago I wrote up an essay focusing on why Secret of Mana was a great game: The Secret of Simplicity. In that, I touched upon the story I just shared but also detailed the fact (yes fact) that just because something is simple, doesn't mean it's simplistic. Simplicity is a great attribute to have. If it's done well, then what is there to complain about? Games don't need to be overly complex with convoluted stories. Secret of Mana starts like a lot of JRPGS start:
It was even cliche in the early 90s...but so what?
Take the time to read if you like, it's a companion piece to this more personal approach about my classic gaming experiences, but seeing how far JRPGs have fallen even further than when I wrote that piece (nearly seven years ago) consider it a bit of a bookend as well. Everything is full circle, because writing this far more personal series today leaves me with a sad realization, even more than in 2006 when I wrote that one, that Japanese RPGs are a dead genre hanging on to existence much like my memories of how great and approachable they once were.
Oh, it's not all their fault. Gamers today are far more cynical and demanding. If there was a game today with a screen like the one above, gamers today would scoff at it. Simpler times and simpler games...yet they were wonderfully better in their design and approach. Never tried to do too much and just wanted you to have fun. I had fun with a lot of games, but never as fun and revealing of an experience of Secret of Mana. As a kid and teenager, you have a lot of things new and fresh that are awaiting now. Now as an adult, even though you wish to have that experience again, it'll never come, and I know the odds of ever encountering another Secret of Mana in my life will never happen again.