They do not even have default names in the English version and so have instead have become retrospectively known by their Japanese names: Randi, Purim and Popoie. The trio find themselves far from home, estranged and with only the vaguest of purposes early in the game. But from this well-worn start the narrative get progressively more interesting and involving, ending on an acute note of tragedy. The team may secure victory but they do so at great and unbearable cost. It’s a game that, despite its sweet charming nature, doesn’t hold back. By the conclusion of ‘Secret of Mana’ many people had died, including dearly beloved characters and best friends.
Considering the final thing you see when playing the game is the image of a character’s ghost you would be forgiven for thinking the overall tone of the game is one of sadness and despair. However I would argue that to see the game like this is to misinterpret its intentions. Despite the odds, evil can be banished, mistakes can be rectified, broken families and villages can reconcile. The game’s ending offers a beautiful sense of symmetry, as the hero returns the same sword that he removes at the start of the game. This nameless hero, once so weak that he gets mocked by his friends has been the saviour the world needed. Hope exists within pain.
Backtracking though will not be unfamiliar to anyone playing ‘Secret of Mana’. A great deal of the game seems to require the party to return to earlier dungeons, simply to have a conversation that ultimate sends you back to the location you've just come from. This isn't as frustrating toward the end of the game when fast travel options are available, but at the start it seems laborious. It also wasn't always clear what the game was asking you to do to advance the narrative. We have been spoilt by modern games with their waypoint markers and handholding but I found myself lost and confused far too frequently- surprising considering how often I have played the game. Of course help online is never far away, but that's never very satisfying and rather robs the thrill of adventure. Maybe the game has always been like this and my memory of it is coloured by contemporary JRPG with their set routes down predetermined corridors. Having the whole world to explore and having to find the path to walk, rather than being explicitly told or shown it, sometimes is a bit overwhelming.
People often cite the Mana tree title screen as being awe inspiring, but the reality is somewhat less romantic. Yes, it may be simple and understated but it's also frighteningly low resolution - to the point where I thought my cartridge was broken. My expectations for this opening were certainly elevated owing to the love that everyone piled upon it at the time. “The opening scene has to be seen to be believed” wrote Total! Magazine, “never has a game been so beautiful” agreed Super Play. Ever the games’ composer Hiroki Kikuta, struggled to talk to Reddit about the game’s start without being overcome. "When I talk about the beginning [...] showing the Mana tree and the calm surrounded the landscape I fill with sentiment.” Kikuta admits. “I wanted to compose music that tries to build on that calm. Much like the Mana tree stands tall over everything on land, whales are also one of the biggest animals of the seas and towers over everything in the water. So I thought it was right to make the song of whales a proper representation of the Mana tree, almost like a crying voice for the undying mana tree and for the love inside the player”. If the visuals of this once impressive opening have not stood the test of time, the audio has certainly not suffered. The music of ‘Secret of Mana’ is a love letter to Super Nintendo audiophiles and you would certainly have a case for saying that the game has one of the most impressive and unique soundtracks of the 16-bit era.
Genuine care, thought and love has been injected into every track, with a soundtrack that feels familiar yet surprising. Taking inspiration from Balinese and other Indonesian cultures, the final score was not something that came quickly for Kikuta and his colleagues. "‘Secret of Mana’, was a two year long project and for about the first 6 months nothing was actually made" he once remarked. As with the graphics, the movement of the game from CD-ROM technology to the standard Super Nintendo hardware, meant audio compromises had to be made. Unlike the proposed CD Rom upgrade, the Snes’ audio processor is only capable of producing eight sounds at once. It was Kiuta’s intention that the ‘Secret of Mana’ would have a richer textured complicated feel. Seven of the console’s eight channels are dedicated to music, but this has the unfortunate result of the game having to drop channels of music when producing sound effects. "Of course, there were limitations to what could be done with the Super Famicom” Kikuta has since said. “However, as long as you can come to terms with the limitations of whatever equipment you use, great music can be made. Consider art as an example. Using a lot of colours does not make an art piece greater. Thus, even with limitations, great music can also be made."