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20 Years of Mana: Secret of Mana's Enduring Influence
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20 Years of Mana: Secret of Mana's Enduring Influence

August 9, 2013 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

From: Christian Nutt
To: Douglas Wilson

I'd also like to ask what you think about foundational games. Many in the industry have extremely fond memories of games from when they were young and, one way or another, these seem to really shape our relationships with games moving forward. I'm no different, of course. When a designer takes this nostalgia and uses it to shape a new game, what is he or she doing, do you think?

From: Douglas Wilson
To: Christian Nutt

The idea of "nostalgia" has almost become somewhat of a dirty word in the indie scene, hasn't it? The common critique you hear is, indie designers need to stop trying to relive their childhoods and find a broader range of influences. For example, some people feel burned out on pixel art, puzzle-platformers, etc. I can relate to that feeling to a degree, but I do think the counter-reaction is often overstated. Like anything, nostalgia can be utilized both well and poorly. There's nothing wrong with jamming in a familiar genre if you can add some kind of fresh or personal touch. And there are so many ways to do that!

I suppose it partly depends on where exactly you draw your "nostalgia" from. For example, my own game Johann Sebastian Joust draws from non-digital playground games, sports, and performative arcade titles like Dance Dance Revolution (which I played somewhat seriously back in high school and college). If the game feels fresh, it's probably because not as many devs have been drawing from those particular traditions.

As a (former) academic, I'm big on "doing one's homework" -- looking to the past to draw lessons from what other people have done before you. In that sense, "nostalgia" can actually be cold and calculating! I find it fascinating to turn on a game like Secret of Mana and really study the game -- everything from the sound design to the menu design to the game feel. There are important lessons to be learned from those older titles!

With regards to Secret of Mana, I'm actually surprised there aren't more RPGs and story-based games coming out of the indie scene. I suppose it's because content-heavy games are so difficult to make, but it feels to me like the very "form" of the JRPG is still low-hanging fruit. Man, I'm still so hungry for a sophisticated, well-written indie JRPG! There are some fledging examples out there, but I can't think of anything that has totally scratched that itch for me. I'm imagining something like... Seiken Densetsu 6 as written by Richard Hofmeier. Man, wouldn't that be the best?

From: Christian Nutt
To: Douglas Wilson

You touch on this some, what but in particular made Secret of Mana have this enduring reputation? I know so many people who hold it in high regard, and to some extent it's the multiplayer -- but it can't just be the novelty. That would fade. What does the game do in particular that's of note, from your perspective?

From: Douglas Wilson
To: Christian Nutt

Lots to talk about here! You're right; the three-player co-op is only one part of the story. The game itself is just so solid, even in single player.

The first thing I think about when I hear "Secret of Mana" is Hiroki Kikuta's soundtrack. I still listen to the music regularly, 20 years later! In that sense, the game world continues to live on in my imagination. All of those classic SNES JRPGs -- Secret of Mana, Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy VI -- rely so much on melodic, infectious music. That 16-bit SNES sound has such a great texture. My take is, SNES music is "richer" than the 8-bit textures on the NES, yet still came with enough constraints that it forced composers like Kikuta and Mistuda to really "work" those harmonies.

The thing to realize about RPGs like Secret of Mana is that they aren't just "games," but also "musical journeys" of a sort. People complain about all the grinding and leveling up you have to do in JRPGs, and that critique is certainly fair, but I do think the repetitiveness serves a purpose. It's about listening to music in the context of a particular world, and really living in that musical world for an extended period of time. There's this famous Goethe quote I really dig: "Music is liquid architecture; Architecture is frozen music." For me, that quote happens to nail the felt experience of a game like Secret of Mana.

In terms of gameplay, Secret of Mana hits this nice sweet spot between the strategic menu-based combat of RPGs like Final Fantasy, and the real-time control of action-adventure games like A Link to the Past. You enjoy a feeling of accomplishment as you level up your weapons and spells, but you also face the raw physical challenge of executing your attacks at the right time, in the right spot. It's mental and physical.

It's also worth noting that the "game feel" is solid. Secret of Mana hasn't aged perfectly, but the real-time combat certainly felt fresh at the time. The animations and the sound effects feel juicy and satisfying. Executing special charged attacks feels badass. You can even dash, giving you something to "do" as you're navigating space.

And there are lots of smart audiovisual details. Take a look at how damage is rendered, for example. The font of the number text gets bigger as you do more damage. So, as you progress through the game and face more powerful attacks, you get this subtle yet satisfying piece of feedback that the "stakes" are increasing. Final Fantasy VI, by contrast, always renders damage in the same font style, even those big "9999" attacks -- how boring!

Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

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