Co-Op Classics: Secret of Mana
You've already got that Dwarf song stuck in your head.
Hi, I'm Mike, and I'll be taking you through this week's edition of Co-Op Classics, wherein I wax nostalgic about one of my all-time favorite co-op games, which is the custom ‘round these parts.
Back in my formative gaming years, you could say that I was a bit of a Squaresoft fanboy. That company held such a powerful spell over me that I would read and re-read the old Roleplayer's Realm section in Nintendo Power, salivating over every bit of news I could get.
Secret of Mana was one such title that I obsessed over - there was a cover story on it in Nintendo Power with a really ugly cover, but it contained a fold-out poster of the gorgeous box art (which found its way quickly to my wall of posters that included Candace Cameron and Shaquille O'Neal). In it, I learned about the epic world, Zelda-esque combat and the ability to take not one, but TWO friends along for the ride, provided you had the relatively rare SNES Multitap.
The unfortunate side-effect to Squaresoft's meaty games was that they often had more expensive cartridges than other developers, so rather than purchasing their titles, I had to constantly rent them from a local Mom & Pop shop who allowed you to extend a rental by paying a nominal fee. Before I was able to save up enough scratch to buy my own copy of the game, I'd had a copy of SoM rented for almost two straight months.
In any case, Secret of Mana casts you in the role of a young man who stumbles across a sword in a stone, decides listening to the disembodied voice prompting him to pull it out is a good idea, which launches him on an epic quest to save the world and the Mana Tree which keeps things running.
Along the way you'll find a Dwarvish village with just about the most ridiculously earwormy theme music ever (oh, how the music in this game is wonderful), befriend a Girl and a Sprite, ride a dragon, save Santa Claus (yes!) and eventually, the entire world.
The game plays like a cross between a JRPG and a Zelda title - you can swing your weapons and dodge in real-time, but it's more prudent to wait for your weapon meter to recharge before taking another swing, and you need to pause the action to select items and magic from the game's innovative Ring Menu system. There are eight weapon types and eight types of magic to choose from, and your characters will gradually become more proficient in whatever they choose to use.
Secret of Mana also uses the SNES' Mode 7 to great effect.
Once you've advanced the story far enough to meet the Obligatory Tomboyish Girl and have her join your party, a second player can drop in and take control. Eventually, the Sprite will join you and a third player can join. If there are only two players, you can fiddle around a bit and swap controllable characters around. It's slightly awkward, but drop-in/drop-out co-op was still an awesome feature to have.
SoM is not without its flaws, however. The ring menu system that worked so well for single player, became one of the more aggravating features in co-op, especially during boss fights. Trying to line up an attack only to have your friend pop the menu to use an item or cast a spell was an annoyance that cropped up just a little too often. Sometimes, it was just easier to just have a house rule of "no magic except against bosses".
The storyline can get a little disjointed, and there are some pretty glaring bugs, especially with the pathfinding in your AI partners. In recent years, this has been revealed to be a side effect of the game originally being intended for the ill-fated Sony/Nintendo SNES CD-ROM (which eventually birthed the PlayStation), and having to cut large chunks of content out in order to fit on a cartridge.
If you want to check it out these days, tracking down a copy on eBay isn't as expensive as it once was, and if you have a Wii, it's available via the Virtual Console. There's even a difficult-to-play iPhone port if that's your thing. Check it out! Maybe one of my favorite games will be one of yours as well.