This month marks the 25th Anniversary of the Mana series, which began on weird terms. The first game launched for the Game Boy in the U.S. sometime in November 1991 as Final Fantasy Adventure. In Japan it was released as Seiken Densetsu: Final Fantasy Gaiden on 28 June 1991. Seiken Densetsu roughly translates into “Legend of the Sacred Sword” and Gaiden, for those who don’t know, usually refers to a side game in most Japanese releases. Funnily enough in Europe it was called Final Fantasy Mystic Quest for its 1993 debut, which is the name of another Final Fantasy spinoff for the Super Nintendo. That game in Europe is called Mystic Quest Legend and in Japan its Final Fantasy USA: Mystic Quest. Confused yet?
Putting aside the baffling game names, Final Fantasy Adventure was set up as a Zelda-type hack and slash, but with more RPG elements. The camera is set with a top-down perspective; you begin fighting enemies with a sword and shield, wherein you gain levels and magic via experience. It has dungeons, but it’s definitely not puzzle focused compared to the aforementioned Zelda series.
For my 14th birthday in 2001 my brother bought me a teal Game Boy Color with Final Fantasy Adventure. Now while this didn’t take advantage of the Game Boy Color’s new graphical prowess, I loved it regardless. I remember being stuck with a particular puzzle wherein the game hints at palm trees and the figure eight. It was obscure, but eventually with the power of GameFAQs, via a friend’s Internet connection, I was able to figure it out. Weird puzzles aside, it’s a fantastic game, but it actually wasn’t my first Mana game.
The second game in the series, Secret of Mana, was released for the Super Nintendo on 3 October 1993. In Japan it was simply titled Seiken Densetsu 2 and marked the previous spinoff for Final Fantasy turning into its own series, which was dubbed “Mana” in the west. It built onto the lore of the previous game, but is about its own set of new characters. Overall it’s a more fully-realised vision in terms of the mechanics, story, music, graphics, and everything inbetween. It even offered up to three-player co-op. For me, and many others, it’s considered the best game in the franchise.
I first got my hands on Secret of Mana when a FuncoLand opened up around my area. I wanted to buy Chrono Trigger, but it was about $80 so I settled for Secret of Mana instead around $30. While I had never heard of it before, I was familiar with Square so I tried it out and was pleasantly surprised. It offered co-op, but I never found that out until College when a friend told me how he played it all the time with two others. I was blown away more to my lack of knowledge than the actual implementation for a SNES game.
Seiken Densetsu 3 is the third game in the series which released only in Japan on 30 September 1995 for the Super Famicom. It has since never been released anywhere else, though a fan-translated version has been available online since 2000. It’s gorgeous and even more ambitious than Secret of Mana. Like Final Fantasy, the trend with Mana seems to be experimentation with each new title. At its core Seiken Densetsu 3 is an action RPG, but at the outset you are tasked with choosing three out of six playable characters. Of those three you choose who to begin with while the other two join later as you progress. As customisable as it is, it narratively goes the same direction no matter what, but the journey is definitely different.
Another feature setting it apart from its predecessor is the class system and allocation of ability points. When you level up you can increase stats, then at the eighteenth level, a hero can choose a Light or Dark class to align with. There’s also a day and night cycle along with an in-game calendar that affects the game in myriad of ways. For a 1995 Super Famicom game, it was incredibly innovative.
The next Mana game the west would receive would be Legend of Mana for the original PlayStation on 6 June 2000. Like those before it, Legend of Mana tried to do something new with its world and RPG mechanics and because of this, it received mixed reviews. Personally I find the watercolor-esque visuals astounding to this day and the actual combat is true to its action-RPG elements. There are problems with it though.
Instead of offering multiple characters, players can choose between a male or female avatar along with a weapon class ranging from a knife, sword, axe, two-handed sword, two-handed axe, hammer, or spear wielder. The perspective is more 2D, getting rid of the top-down perspective, and the story has been put aside. Depending on where you place dungeons on the map, this will affect the world in some way, i.e. in order to 100% the game one must take caution. Altogether it’s confusing and even with a perfect allocation, the plot is barren, which in itself is okay to allow players a more flexible adventure like the original Zelda to dial it back a bit, but it doesn’t evoke the classic appeal of the first three Mana games before it.
Sword of Mana, released for the Game Boy Advance in the U.S. on 1 December 2003, is a complete remake of Final Fantasy Adventure. It’s essentially the same game but with an elaborated story and beefier gameplay mechanics along with a graphcial overall looking something similar to Seiken Densetsu 3, and like Legend of Mana you can decide to be a male or female protagonist. To clarify for those unwilling to do the math, Sword of Mana is a remake only after four games in the span of little more than ten years after it’s initial launch. For me, it’s a fine remake, but the narrative inclusions kind of get in the way.
Children of Mana, the sixth or fifth game depending on if you count Sword of Mana as the fifth, launched for the Nintendo DS on 30 October 2006 in the U.S. It’s still an action RPG, but rather than venturing out on a magical globe-trotting tour, you instead dive into a dungeon. The maps are randomly generated as you dive deeper and because of this and the one basic set of locations, it gets repetitive fast. I will say it looks great for the handheld though.
One game I have no experience with, along with seemingly most of the Internet, is Friends of Mana. It debuted on Japanese phones sometime in 2006 and the servers shut down on 28 February 2011. It was essentially a smaller scale 2D MMORPG from what I’ve seen.
Moving onto the next game, Dawn of Mana amazingly released for the PS2 post launch of the PS3. It launched on 24 May 2007 in the U.S. While it is the eighth released game, in Japan it was titled Seiken Densetsu 4 to market it as the next big step for the franchise. It’s remarkable for being the first and only 3D Mana and is very similar to Kingdom Hearts’ combat system, wonky camera and all. While there is stat progression, Dawn of Mana emphasised platforming, throwing objects, and a reliance on monster allies so technically I would dub it as an action-adventure rather than an action-RPG, but genres, especially in RPGs, are arbitrary on many levels.
Setting that vast subject aside, I find the step into 3D impressive. Like Final Fantasy XII that also released late in the PS2 cycle, Dawn of Mana graphically holds up well thanks to its colourful palette. The action is sound, but thanks to the aforementioned bad camera, it makes for some frustrating traversal; not to mention the story is bland and the accompanying cutscenes are drawn out with poor voice acting. Due to its list of problems, and probably because it released a year after the new console generation with the PS3, it’s the poorest review reviewed Mana with a current Metacritic of 57/100.
Now Heroes of Mana is the last game I physically played on this list. It launched for the Nintendo DS on 14 August 2007 in the U.S. just a few months after Dawn of Mana. Like the other DS game, Heroes of Mana is another rough departure with it acting like a mini RTS. Your hero doesn’t generally participate in combat. Instead you create familiar monsters from the franchise and use them to gather resources to make more and thus fight off hordes of enemies. Again, while interesting in terms of taking the mechanics elsewhere, I didn’t find it much fun.
The last three titles were all released first on Japanese mobile devices. First there was Circle of Mana in 2013: a card-based RPG. Second, Rise of Mana in 2014: a free-to-play co-op action RPG. Third, was another remake of the original, Adventures of Mana, which released on 4 February 2016. The first two never made it out of Japan even though Rise of Mana was ported to the PS Vita. However, Adventures of Mana was also ported to the PS Vita and was released digitally in the U.S. and Europe on 28 June 2016. Unlike Sword of Mana, this game falls more in line with the first’s vision just with some new flourishes.
Technically you could say the Mana series is alive and well, but I would argue due to its finicky nature between its games that it hasn’t been properly treated since Dawn of Mana. Even though it wasn’t very good I thought it was a good attempt to push the series forward. It’s incredible that after 25 years it’s the only one – and out of the 12 released games, three of them are remakes.
Where should the series go now? By Square Enix’s apparent actions, it seems they don’t emphasise much stock on this once bright RPG flagship from their armada of franchises. Personally, I would settle for a proper release of Seiken Densetsu 3 in the west, or better yet, a 3D remake of Secret of Mana on PS4. I’d even settle for a version on the 3DS, or PS Vita. Dare I even hope for a new 3D game? All in all, no matter its future, I love what this series once stood for – but unfortunately not what it’s become.