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

By Christian Nutt,Douglas Wilson

According to Moby Games and Wikipedia, August 6 will be the 20th anniversary of Secret of Mana! Wow! A big influence for us here at DGF.

— Die Gute Fabrik (@gutefabrik) July 26, 2013

This week 20 years ago, Secret of Mana was released for the Super Nintendo. The game has remained a favorite of fans of classic RPGs -- mentioned in much the same tones as Square Soft's other SNES classics Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI. Though the franchise continued through 2007 with installments on the PlayStation 2 and Nintendo DS, it never recaptured the popularity, relevance, or quality of this game. 

What has made the game so enduring? And what inspirations does it offer to contemporary developers? Recently, Die Gute Fabrik's Douglas Wilson (Johann Sebastian Joust) tweeted about his enduring love for the game -- so Gamasutra's Christian Nutt decided to engage him in a letter series about the game to celebrate its anniversary and to find out why it matters so much, even 20 years later. 

From: Christian Nutt
To: Douglas Wilson 

You recently tweeted that Secret of Mana is a big inspiration for you -- and this took me by surprise. Your better-known projects have no obvious connection to it. Can you elaborate a bit? 

From: Douglas Wilson
To: Christian Nutt

Oh man, Secret of Mana is such a big inspiration for me! Such a classic.

As a game developer, I've largely focused my efforts on physical party games (e.g. Johann Sebastian Joust, B.U.T.T.O.N.). But that's only one of my interests. Like a lot of other Nintendo-reared kids, I grew up playing JRPGs like Final Fantasy and Chrono Trigger. I'm not a natural storyteller myself, but I've always wanted to work on that kind of game. Now I'm finally getting my chance with Mutazione! It's an adventure game (and an entire fictional world) that my business partner Nils Deneken has been concepting for years.

As I finish Sportsfriends, I'll be transitioning to Mutazione full-time. I'm working as a producer, programmer, and game designer. Nils is a gifted illustrator and world-builder, so my role is to help him bring his vision to life. Nils, who grew up in Germany, had never played Secret of Mana, so I've been showing him some specific parts of the game that I'd like to draw from.

Mutazione.

Beyond the direct connection to Mutazione, Secret of Mana is a rare example of a multiplayer console RPG. It's a game best played with a friend... or two friends, if you had a multitap! People forget how totally bananas that was at the time -- you could play three of you all together! (Mind you, this was before the N64 made four-player standard.)

I'm sure Secret of Mana helped inspire my interest in getting people together in the same room to play video games with one another, simultaneously. There's a real lineage with the kinds of local multiplayer games I've been working on with Sportsfriends.

From: Christian Nutt
To: Douglas Wilson

So was Secret of Mana the game that defined mulitplayer gaming for you, at an early age? It's interesting, because, like you say, you're so well known for multiplayer games.

From: Douglas Wilson
To: Christian Nutt

I don't think I'd say it was the game that defined "multiplayer" for me. What I would say, though, is that Secret of Mana is one especially interesting example. Local multiplayer games were usually titles like Mario Kart, Smash Bros., Street Fighter. Secret of Mana was a multiplayer experience set in a more traditional story-based, "world-centric" game. At the time, that was pretty mind-blowing to me. I used to play RPGs and adventure games with my brother or with friends, and we'd just watch one person play. That was certainly engaging, but with Secret of Mana a few of us could play simultaneously.


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!


From: Christian Nutt
To: Douglas Wilson

So that opens up the question: What do you intend to do with the formula as established by Secret of Mana, and how do you hope to make it into something old but new?

From: Douglas Wilson
To: Christian Nutt

Our upcoming game Mutazione is more directly influenced by Another World and Majora's Mask. It's primarily character-driven, and doesn't feature any combat. Still, there's a lot I draw from Secret of Mana.

For example, I am so, so enamored with the Secret of Mana menu system -- those circular wheel menus! Swoon. It feels so good to spin those wheels, navigating between menu items. And when you switch between menu layers, the wheels "vortex" in and out via a simple but super satisfying animation. It's so tactile! To be honest, I'm shocked that more designers haven't ripped it off. It's a menu that's enjoyable to use in itself! So, I can tell you, we're drawing some direct inspiration from those menu wheels as we design and iterate on Mutazione.

Image taken from Greatest Video Games Ever: How Secret of Mana Perfected the Action RPG

From: Christian Nutt
To: Douglas Wilson

I find it interesting that you say you're not including combat, but Mana is still a big influence for you -- it's a pretty combat-heavy game, being an RPG (and I mean, it has "sword" in the title.) You've talked about music, you've talked about the menus (and the hard to articulate "feel" of them -- I agree, they're wonderful.)  In the end, as an adult and a designer, with your analytical viewpoint, how do you distill and incorporate the elements of a game you cite as an influence?

From: Douglas Wilson
To: Christian Nutt

Yes, it was a combat-heavy game, but it's not actually the battles that have "stuck" with me the most. The game features such a beautifully rendered world, as well as so many other details (yes, like the menus and the music). I suppose that's the takeaway lesson here -- the combat felt meaningful precisely because it was contextualized within an evocative world. I'm interested in all those accompanying audiovisual and design details that helped build that context.

I think "influence" operates at a number of different levels, in a variety of ways. On the most basic level, Secret of Mana was a game that engaged me at a young age, helping to spark my interest in video games and virtual worlds. But that kind of inspiration only takes you so far. As I already mentioned in regards to the Secret of Mana menu system, I also like dissecting particular systems and designs that stand out to me.

Secret of Mana's Japanese boxart.
Japanese title: Seiken Denstesu 2 (Legend of the Holy Sword 2)

And there are other forms of influence beyond direct inspiration. For example, Nils didn't grow up playing Secret of Mana, but like me he's also a big fan of the game's luscious boxart. Coincidentally, there's a lot of resonance with Nils' concepts for the world of Mutazione. Mutazione features a derelict world overgrown with tropical plants and colorful characters. At the center of the town of Mutazione stands a huge tree, not unlike the Mana Tree. Nils' concept wasn't directly inspired by Secret of Mana (the "huge tree" thing is a common folk story trope), but it's useful for us to compare our own approach to what other game developers have done before us. Doing that kind of "due diligence" can help you sharpen what's unique about your own take.

There's this small scene in Secret of Mana that has always stuck with me. Later on the game you travel to the Sunken Continent, which hides an ancient city. At some point, down in the city ruins, you enter a subway station and train that feels oddly contemporary (see above video.) It's especially noticeable because nothing else about the game world -- which is a pretty typical fantasy world -- feels so familiar or modern. It's evocative because it suggests that the story of Secret of Mana happens in our world (or some world like it), just many years later. It's certainly not the most unique plot twist, but it worked well and made an impact on me. Even as a kid, I appreciated that the designers never tried to explain what that ancient city was. It was just thrown into the mix, and we players were left to ourselves to try to explain what had actually happened. That kind of device, when used in moderation, is terrific at energizing imagination.

And, of course, that "ancient" subway resonates with the core premise of Mutazione's derelict world. It almost feels like fate that I'd gravitate towards a similar premise, two decades later! Over the years, all sorts of "seeds" of inspiration get planted in your imagination, and I guess my obsession with that Secret of Mana subway scene is one of those seeds that actually got to grow, thanks to Nils. We've got our work cut out for us, but I hope we can cultivate that seed into its own little Mana Tree! (Um, and I promise we won't write any such forced metaphors in the game itself, heh.)

Oh, and Christian, let's remember to chat again in 2019 for the 20th anniversary of Chrono Cross, yeah?

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