Square Enix Season – the secrets, legend and 30-year trials of the Mana series

By Neil Merrett

Squareblind.co.uk will be looking over the next month and a half at the output of Square Enix – a multinational games developer that has been collectively responsible for publishing some of the most acclaimed western and Japanese videogame series of all time. These range from Deus Ex and Final Fantasy to Dungeon Quest and Tomb Raider.

To begin, we look at the influence of the multiplayer action RPG Secret of Mana, specifically its direct sequel that was not officially available outside of Japan for decades. For same gamers, the prospect of playing Trials of Mana was akin to discovering a long-lost treasure – a chance perhaps to go back to a long-gone era of gaming, while also experiencing something new.

But in finally being available to a wider audience, is it unfair to consider Trials of Mana as anything other than a nostalgic retro game for those who played the original titles back in the 1990s, or is there still something compelling for gamers of all ages to go back to?

Square’s Mana series are a treasured and influential set of games that were at their creative and commercial zenith in the 1990s. These games now exist largely in the form of remakes and re-releases, rather than being a series that remains at the forefront of immersive and action-packed adventure games.

However, this doesn’t mean they are without value or merit in comparison with the latest big budget AAA Final Fantasy titles and their sometimes decade-long development cycles. In fact, they may have been essential and instrumental in getting the industry to 2020’s critically acclaimed and commercially successful Final Fantasy 7 Remake. But until recently, one of these games was difficult to get hold of outside of Japan.

Some gamers therefore may have waited decades to get their hands on a playable copy of 1995’s Trials of Mana and finally get a direct follow up to go with their treasured memories of playing through the original Super Nintendo classic. In the intervening years, their expectations of videogames, storytelling and media in general will have undoubtedly changed – so it is probably unfair to judge whether Trials of Mana is a worthy sequel 25 years after it was first released.

However, thanks to some recent experiences of transgressive cartoon storytelling and 30 hours of playing through the game, it is possible to find value in Trial of Mana’s somewhat dated approach to mechanics, character progression and narrative.

Learning lessons from ‘Wreck-It Ralph’

As a cultural behemoth, the Walt Disney Corporation is understandably not the first place one might start in looking for truly transgressive and subversive movies.

Yet in having helped define many modern tropes of western cinema, for better or worse, the company is sometimes uniquely placed as an arbiter of modern big budget blockbuster movies to begin to poke holes in and explore the long-held conventions of family friendly storytelling.

Perhaps inspired by the success of the more contemplative storytelling of the computer animated powerhouse Pixar – a company Disney acquired for US$7.4bn in 2006 – some latter era animations from the corporation have sought to ask important questions about the evergreen concepts of family, true love and ‘happily ever after’.

2018’s Ralph Breaks the Internet, a sequel to the videogame-inspired movie Wreck-It Ralph, is not necessarily considered one of the foremost animated Disney masterpieces of the last three or four decades. Yet it playfully touches on some of the modern contradictions of a permanently online society and fandom.

The movie is perhaps at its most interesting with its message of letting go of the things we most treasure or long for, by learning instead to embrace the painful and sometimes necessary changes required with the passing of time.

As an old school 1980s arcade character, the movie’s titular hero has to accept that his adoptive daughter, Vanellope von Schweetz, needs a more challenging and technically sophisticated game world to exist in than the one offered by Wreck-It Ralph and her friends.

Like many kids, Vanellope, as a younger and more anarchic piece of code, longs for the grimy, violent and chaotically open world urban setting of ‘Slaughter Race’ – the movie’s thinly veiled counterpart to the hugely influential and morally ambiguous real world game, Grand Theft Auto 5.

To a character modelled on the simple naivety of influential early arcade games such as Donkey Kong, the explosive, high speed machismo and simulated brutality of Slaughter Race is a terrifying and dangerous new world far from the comfort of his more simplistic Pixel Art home in the world of Fix-it Felix Jr.

Yet to his best friend, the game offers the promise of something new and transformative – a life of purpose and excitement where she can hone and master her skills as a driving game character. 

Stick or Twist

The film’s message is ultimately that the main character’s happy ending may lie on a different path to that of his closest friend and de-facto daughter. Forcing her to remain in the comfort of his videogame therefore will result in an ultimately unfulfilling life for her.  Vanellope von Schweetz’s hopes and dreams lie somewhere else. Ralph must learn to embrace change for both good and bad and to selflessly let go of something he truly loves so they can both grow and change.

It is not a narrative that is traditionally told in family orientated cinema, but it is an important message about not slavishly clinging to things that have gone before and instead valuing the important moments and memories that have made us and sometimes making peace with them in the past tense as we move on with our lives.

The use of videogame characters as an analogy for the very human act of having to decide when to move on with our own lives is not as outlandish as it first seems. 

Games as a medium are inherently built around finding increasingly innovative news ways to create stories and challenges that asks gamers to put themselves into outlandish and new scenarios.  This may involve assuming the role of a morally grey gangster, a liberator of worlds, an all-conquering hero, or perhaps a custodian of a group of peoples, a land or a whole world.  In terms of modern gaming, a player can live out an almost infinitesimal number of experiences, such as previously unknown desire to become a farmer, pirate or power washer of unparalleled skill and expertise.

The increasing sophistication in hardware and software over the last three decades has allowed gamers to play though worlds and stories that would have been literally impossible to tell on the beloved consoles and computers of the past.  What then is the point of older games for a medium intended to continuously iterate and improve?

Understandably many gamers have an incredible attachment to their time spent playing the Super Nintendo, Sega Megadrive and home computers such as the Amiga. The sounds, feel and experience of these games can evoke an array of emotions and feelings of long-gone moments in our lives.

Yet replaying some of these games decades later in a bid to try and recapture that same experience can be a bittersweet and redundant experience. Often, our tastes may have not necessarily matured, but they still change dramatically based around the wider experience of our lives.  Much like with a human, time and age can be cruel to once beloved games as new hardware and software allow for increasingly realistic and complex takes on adventure, risk and reward.

What was once an immersive game that could swallow up hours of solo or cooperatively play can appear shallow or largely unsatisfying after years of embracing new approaches to game design and structure. The memories and experiences may still cling to our memories for the remainder of our lives, but sometimes it is ok to accept we now want and expect different things from games and other media – just as we do people.

To this end, we are all Wreck-it Ralph and Vanellope, looking for a way forward in our lives for better or worse.

The Mana series is a prime example of this. One can learn to love and appreciate the innovations it introduced while accepting the need and vital importance for new types of games and mechanics that have proceeded it.

Developed by Square Enix, or Square Soft as the company was then known, the Mana series started off as a game boy title known initially as Final Fantasy Adventure. The title was later rebranded as Sword of Mana. It’s direct sequel, Secret of Mana, went on to become one of the most acclaimed titles released on the Super Nintendo.

It combined a unique game style and look that mixed the depth and customisation of plot-heavy RPGs such as Final Fantasy, with the more immediate arcade-style combat of Nintendo’s own Legend of Zelda series.

This mix of gaming styles, as well as the relatively unique option to play though most of the game with a second or even third player, was extremely unique for 1993. It would arguably remain that way for the best part of the decade that followed and largely until online gaming became viable on a mass scale.

For those in Europe that fell under the spell of the Secret of Mana, an even more enticing prospect was promised with the release of a direct sequel at the tail end of the Super Nintendo’s life.

Long lost treasure

Seiken Densetsu 3, or Trials of Mana as it would later be known, was only ever officially released for the Super Famicom in Japan and would never come to the European or North American markets as a Super Nintendo game.  In fact, an official English-language port of the game would not be released officially in Europe or America until almost a quarter of a century later.

While PC emulation and bootleg copies of the game with fan-supplied translation would surface across the internet over the decades, for less industrious fans of the Mana series, the game took on an almost mythic quality. This was something that was potentially bigger, more complex and prettier than the beloved Secret of Mana – if only you could find it.

With the release of Collection of Mana on Nintendo Switch in 2019, Trials of Mana could finally be played by western fans with no ability to speak and read Japanese.

The reality of finally playing through the game is a fascinating, sometimes joyous, sometimes unrelenting grind of trial, error, further error and eventual gradual slow burning success.

As a sequel to the Secret of Mana, Trials had the same beautiful sprite work and engaging soundtrack that somehow sought to evoke a symphonic movie score through the technical limitations of the Super Nintendo’s sound capabilities.

Yet the game also sought to introduce a host of new gameplay innovations including a sprawling storyline that would play different depending on the three main characters selected and a focus on levelling up and choosing specific pathways for developing the skills of each character.

This may sound fairly standard for a modern adventure game, yet some of these features were quite unique for a console RPG of the mid-1990s.  In trying to create a more in-depth and sophisticated RPG to follow the action heavy Secret of Mana, Trials of Mana removed the option to swap between different styles of weapons on the fly and instead required hours of play and levelling up to unlock magical and special abilities to make the game less of a slog.

For the first few hours, whenever a player encounters baddies on the world map, they must control one of the characters around a battle field and choosing whether to hit or poke bad guys with character-specific sharp objects, or instead select a series of magic attacks or buffs to strengthen a fellow player character or weaken an enemy.

While the player has full control of being able to move a player in all eight directions of the game’s beautifully realised pixel worlds – up, down, left, right or diagonal, Trial of Mana’s combat feels a little less real time and exciting as it does – or rather did – in the Secret of Mana and Sword of Mana.  Instead, the game seems to lean more into the turn-based action and strategy of Square’s Final Fantasy series. To this end, combat becomes less about split second timing of attacks, dodges or defensive moves.  The only option really is to attack, heal or use magic. 

This can make taking damage from an enemy inevitable, rather than something the player has control over and can avoid.

Strategy becomes more about slowly unlocking new abilities and magic spells to weaken your opponents and strengthen players, while limiting their attacks so the player can bludgeon and smash them into pieces without losing too much health.

Secret of Mana seemed to more successfully marry the otherworldly ability to summon elemental magic attacks and buffs, with engaging combat strategy based around selecting specific weapon types that can offer long range or shorter more powerful attacks.

Progression in Trials of Mana can therefore feel at times like a somewhat unrelenting slog and a battle of attrition spread over hours of backtracking and fighting the same enemies in order to get stronger. In doing so, the player can hope to more quickly dispatch enemies and limit the almost inescapable rigours of battle and taking hits.

As the player levels up, new attacks do become available that offer a little more choice and variation on how fights play out. But unlike more modern games that gradually allow the player to unlock and master new abilities as a reward for gameplay – Trials of Mana requires hours from a player before these new abilities are unlocked in a way that has a meaningful impact on the game.

Rough edges

Unsurprisingly then, a game that was released 26 years ago has some rough edges.  While these can be frustrating to play through, and feel quite a slog compared to more modern gaming mechanics, it is undeniable that this painful approach to progress and innovation within the game were necessary steps in the ongoing development of the medium.

Similarly, the game’s sprawling world of verdant cliff-top forests, icy tundra, cursed jungles and tropical beaches can quickly become labyrinthine and opaque to navigate without the more dynamic maps modern gamers are used to.

Should a player fail to be paying intention to the in-game dialogue at crucial points of the story, they will struggle to know where to head next. At some points, this can require the player to sail around the entire game map to try and find the next character they are required to talk to progress the plot.  Confusingly, this might be at the back of a shop that the player briefly visited a few hours ago and long forgot or up an enemy filled mountain the player has already escape.

What a modern gamer wouldn’t give for a hand on-screen prompt or set of directions for where exactly to go.  But these are mechanics that were iterated and developed in the years of game development that followed Trials of Mana.

It is also a game that benefits from a vast number of online guides and blogs written in the intervening decades to explain its more complex and sometimes bafflingly obtuse mysteries such as how to equip new weaponry or unlock new character classes that are barely, if at all explained by the game itself.

It is fair to say that after hours of playing, the respective beauty and esoteric mechanics of the game can be more frustrating than thrilling after decades of playing other games.

Like Vanellope von Schweet, the needs and expectations of modern mainstream gamers are very different to what they were back in 1995 or 1985 for that matter. But it is alright to both love and cherish the experiences of the past, while accepting a need and desire to move forward and try new things.

It is easy to be dismissive or critical now of some of those less than user friendly features in a game such as Trials of Mana.  Likewise, the somewhat simplistic motivations and personality traits of the game’s mix of male and female protagonists can also seem a little outdated and old fashioned. What might have been a great and thrilling game in the past just doesn’t quite work when compared to more modern titles released since 1995.

But as a time capsule of an earlier era, it is interesting to see the genesis of some of the more sprawling, complex and large scale open world adventures that have become a staple of modern gaming slowly emerging in the imperfect, ambitious Trials of Mana.

There is a reason why more modern day 2D and 3D adventure games do not slavishly seek to recreate the techniques pioneered in this long-lost sequel. Yet at its best, the game paved the way for the mechanics of decades Square’s adventure games that have followed. So what then would an attempt to modernise the Mana and Final Fantasy series look like – join us next time to find out…

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