Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Blog: Thoughts on Secret of Mana

Last year I returned to one of my favourite games of all time, Secret of Mana. It was one of the first RPGs I played on the Super Nintendo and it's one of the games that has stuck with me the most since. I have played it at least half a dozen times and started it up more often than that. It's one of those games where I spent hours looking for all the secrets and all the ways to break and bend the game. My nostalgia goggles for this game are pretty strong, so I may be biased in my assessment, but I still think is one of the best games ever made.

Secret of Mana - GameFaqs user PeTeRL90

Secret of Mana is also a game that has influenced my creativity. The first time I thought about writing fan fiction it was for this game (it's long lost, no way to find it, don't ask). It's also the game that has influenced how I would like to make an action RPG in the future. While it doesn't do everything perfectly, it's a very well executed game and I think it has a lot to offer when thinking about creating video games.

As always with my thoughts on video games, please expect spoilers for all of Secret of Mana below.

Things I Liked

I love the style of Secret of Mana. The game's music is astoundingly good, and is used to great effect to reinforce the feelings the player should have as they play. Early in the game you start out, after being ejected from your village, walking through green hills, fighting killer rabites and mushrooms and getting thrown into passing goblins' stew pots and the music is light and sets a tone of setting out on an adventure. Later, you'll walk through caves and forests, visit terrifying ruins where cults are absorbing the souls of the villagers and temples where you find surprise allies.

Don't trust its cute looks. That rabite a killer! - GameFaqs user MagicianMayLee

Later in the game, when you're the only one who can save the world you have to fight though the heart of the enemy's castle. Then you have to find your inner reserves in the pure lands  the power you need to fight though the enemy's psychedelic flying fortress and then you have to fight the terrifying final boss.

Visually the game also supports these feelings. Sprites area always big and bright and you're never left wondering where you are or what you're supposed to fight. The game gets darker as it goes on and you leave the Ghibli hills heading to more intense areas, but it always looks like you have an adventure in store everywhere you go.

Beyond its style, Secret of Mana also shines when it comes to combat. It's incredibly satisfying to be able to step into an enemy who's charging at you and knock a bunch of big orange numbers out of them. The timer that has to recharge between hits is slow by modern standards, but I still like the flow of attack, wait, attack, wait. Using the charged attacks also feels good since you're able to channel tension into making a stronger attack knocking more numbers out and frequently simply slicing through your enemies like they weren't even there. Playing through this recent time I was probably quite over-leveled but I certainly enjoyed being able to take down all those enemies that gave me trouble as a child.

It's time to fight! - GameFaqs user Storm Shadow

One aspect of combat that I particularly like is the use of status ailments. You can be poisoned, confused, immobilized, frozen, or set on fire. They're all immediately identifiable and you are as able to inflict them on your enemies as they are on you. Poisoned, frozen and on fire form a trio, when poisoned you lose health, when frozen you can't act and when on fire you lose health and can't act. They form a basic set of conditions to make combat more interesting without leaving you confused about what's happening and why.

The confused status effect is interesting since it changes the inputs on your controller, so if you're careful and organized you can still cope, but you always end up out of control for a second or two as you re-adjust, when first confused and then again when you stop being confused. Immobilization also fun since you're immobilized by being tied to a balloon, but you can still attack.

The game is also very good about managing tension, particularly by using frequent boss fights. I like this because you always feel like the skills you're developing fighting the little enemies are paying off. You also have a reason to save your magic, knowing that there will be something big to fire it at soon. It also helps pull you through the game since there's always an interesting fight on the horizon.

Secret of Mana also uses (pioneered?) the ring menu. Rather than having to go out to a menu, it's nice to have items, powers and even system options just pop up around your character in game. The icons are easy to identify and other than having trouble remembering where the rings are in relation to each other (do I go up or down to get the items?) I find it to be really fast to get heal up and jump back into combat.

I also like the characters in the game, both the playable ones and the NPCs. They might not be as well developed as in a lot of later games (more on this in the Things I Noticed section), but there's a lot of charm to them all. I recognize that this is probably the aspect of the game that my nostalgia goggles distort the most, but I still find that I'm invested in them. I want to see the good guys survive and do well and I want to take down, or redeem the bad guys. Characterization has certainly been done better but the number of NPCs I still remember, years after playing the game feels very high compared to a lot of other games.

Secret of Mana is one of the first games I can remember with 3 player co-op. While I didn't get to do it too often, being able to play the game with friends was great and it certainly made a lot of things easier when you were able to work with a real person. It's a pretty common element of gameplay today, but back then it was another factor that made me love this game.

Other than the game, I also happened to own  the Prima Player's Guide (picked when it got discarded at the Library, after having borrowed it on and off for years). While I didn't need it to play through the game, I love the way it's written as a story of the characters journeying through the world (going on that adventure). It makes the technical information of how to get past problems in the game more fun. It has a bunch of concept art which also helped me get into the world. Best of all it had maps, stitched together out of the screens of the game which I absolutely loved, because it gives you a sense of the world. It was great being able to see where I had adventured all at once.


Things I Didn't Like

The largest problem with Secret of Mana is the balance of the magic powers. Because of the limited amount of MP you have, you tend to limit your use of magic power to bosses, but your magic only levels up when you use it. Beyond this, you're limited in how much you can level up your magic based on how many mana seeds you've visited in the story. This results a lot of the time in your magic not being as strong as you'd like.

You probably don't actually need very high magic levels, but it's difficult not to want them to be as high as possible. It's simply nicer to have the ability to beat enemies more easily, it's not really necessary, but it's nice to be able to take down the final bosses in fewer hits than if you need to hang around and fight them "properly". The magic also gets cooler animation the higher the level it has, at the fourth and eighth levels and then an extra boost when it's fully powered up. It's simply nice to have the cooler magic effects, even though there's no real use for them in the game.

I'm going to set that flower on fire. WITH A FIRE DRAGON! - GameFaqs user Tropicon

The result of this is that if you do level up your magic, you're usually not doing it at the pace of the story and end up standing in a place where you can cast spells as quickly as possible to gain XP and then recharge your MP to start again. This is not exactly the most fun way to power up, and it's a bit of a shame that it seems to be at least somewhat necessary.

Another problem the game has is that despite having a wide selection of weapons to choose from, there's no real reason to pick a weapon over any other. There are differences in reach and very slight differences in power. Having at least some factor where different weapons recharge more quickly would definitely make the game more interesting or at least give you more reasons to try something out. Also having different weapons interact differently with different enemies would be interesting. Don't punch the electric thing use your javelin, don't use a boomerang on that living tree, get your axe.

Armour is worse than the weapons since new armour only increases your defence. It's boring, generally expensive and never feels interesting, especially since your characters appearance never changes. It's also not implemented well, it's several trips into the menu to see what defence you have, then buy the item, then equip the item then sell the old item. The number of times I screwed up the process is surprisingly high causing me to buy more of an item then I needed then have to sell it back afterwards.

As with weapons it would have been nice to see some variety in armour. Being able to put on heavier armour to fight the big hulking boss, or light armour to move quicker, or magic armour to stop the magic guy you have to fight. Having types rather than just "stronger" would have made that part of the game more fun, though it's a limited problem in the game.

The last part of the game that I didn't like was the party AI. They're ... dumb. The number of times I got a party member hooked on the other side of the stairs is so high I can't even tell you. I'm glad that they don't solve it the way a lot of games do by having the characters disappear and then reappear beside you, but there are definitely points where I've had to very carefully wiggle my way around to get us all unhooked and moving again. It would be nice if the path finding was a little more advanced.

There are controls for the AI, they're just limited. - GameFaqs user MagicianMayLee

Beyond the path finding the AI's contribution to combat is also not quite what you'd like. The game does let you set whether they should be aggressive or defensive, but having an AI with a better understanding of what you need to fight and how to fit into the timing of the game would be nice. Still for the time on the SNES I guess this is about as good as we could expect in an action RPG.

Things I Noticed

I have mixed feelings on the story in Secret of Mana. On the one hand, it's enough to pull you through the game and give you enough reason to go and explore the world and see what there is to see. On the other hand, the story is not terribly original and in fact seems to be split into several relatively disjointed parts.

And an adventure begins. - GameFaqs user KeyBlade999

The first part of the story is the hero's journey, from finding a rusty old sword, to unleashing monsters onto the world, to getting banished from his village, to journeying around the world gaining power and friends until he's able to defeat the great evil. For the first half of this game there's a lot of story to keep you moving, but in the second half you're basically running back and forth because a bird told you to (and it turns out that you actually don't even have to talk to Sage Joch, you can just go do the temples with no story at all).

The other part of the story is the fight between the "good guy" countries and the evil empire. This is somewhat tied into the first story, but it's tangential to the things you're doing. You're helping fight the good fight, but only when you're in the right place at the right time.

Then there are the weird side stories, which aren't side quests, they're part of the main journey. Like that time when Santa Claus steals a Mana seed to make people believe in Christmas again. Or when the not-terribly effective Scorpion Army kidnaps one of the elemental sources of magic and uses it to heat a small town in the middle of the ice land.

That's not to say that the story isn't good. I like it. It's interesting. But it is disjointed. All of these pieces are pretty cool, but there's very little stitching them together other than the fact that you happen to be there and smacking the enemies is fun.

A large part of the reason for this is that the game was significantly cut down during it's creation and then the story was further trimmed due to translation constraints. While I'm having trouble finding actual documentation of what was cut, Secret of Mana was originally slated to be the first title for the SNES-CD add on. This would have allowed the game to be much larger and have significantly more space for graphics and music. The original game would also have had a more branching story line. Based on the Wikipedia article, the cuts seem to have generally caused the story to be a lot more restricted and not as dark as the developers had originally wanted. It also seems to have caused some of the technical problems the game has when there are too many things on screen all at once.

Additionally the game was translated into English in only 30 days by a very new translator. Beyond the problem of having only a limited amount of space to put text, due to the fixed width English font, there were also a lot of problems even getting a unified script for the translator to work on. This seems to have reduced the nuance and characterization even further than the change from the SNES-CD.

It's disappointing to lose so much of plot of the game and further to lose the nuance and characterization. It would have been interesting to see the much more complete story, and I would have been happy to get to spend more time in the world. It's also disappointing to realize the points where you don't get to see the real emotion from the characters in the game (for example I had never even realized that there was supposed to be a love triangle between the girl, Phanna and Dyluc).

You'll notice all the hair on your arms stand up - GameFaqs user noidentity

I will say that I don't mind having the game not be as dark as they may have been intending. That's not to say that there's anything wrong with a dark game, and because I haven't seen what they wanted to produces I can't speak to it. But I think there are not enough games that combine strong game mechanics and good storytelling with a lighter story. I think there's a space in the market for serious games that are no so dark as a lot of game makers would like to develop. It's a hard balance to maintain.

Things I'd Include in a Game

Of course the number one thing I'd love to include in a game is music like Secret of Mana has. Beautiful, carefully composed, well produced music would be nice, but more to the point, I want to have evocative music that supports the theme of the game, both of the game generally and of the areas, the characters and the actions. Certainly when I get the chance, I would love to bring in a great composer to work with.

If a cave man asks you if you want to travel by cannon, YOU SAY YES! - GameFaqs user VinnyVideo

I love the sense of adventure of Secret of Mana. I love the way the game gives you a feeling of a safe harbour and an unknown destination. You always have to be careful, but there's always something to see. There may be times when the things you see aren't even really related to the quest your on, but they're just something to pique your interest.

More technically, I like the way the status ailments work in Secret of Mana, and I like that they're equally applicable to you an your enemies (and useful both ways as well). I also like have clear understandable imagery that indicates how you're afflicted and possibly how long it's going to last.

Finally I like the way the skills work. I didn't put points into being good with the sword, I got good with the sword because I used it a lot. It's a pretty common concept in RPGs, but it's still the way I like to see talents improve through game play.

Final Thoughts

I think Secret of Mana is one of the best games on the Super Nintendo. Actually, I think Secret of Mana is one of the best games on any platform. There are a few things that mark it as old, combat is slow and the story is a touch thin, but I think these are easily over come and not playing this game is skipping over a classic.

Replaying this game I thought a lot about how important the balance between game play and story telling is. I was always happy when the game switched me from one to the other. "Oh good, I get to go kill more monsters." "Oh good, I get to see more of the story." I think Secret of Mana has a good balance and it kept me interested even though the story is linear and you can't change it as you play. I think from a game creation view, this is a good platform to begin on. As you add more story, more choice or more gameplay elements make sure that you keep the fun balanced.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Blog: Favourite YouTube Videos (Volume 85)

In this volume of my favourite YouTube videos, we look at the heavy, the light and the (hopefully) very small.

  • First, John Green explains the situation in the United States leading up to the Civil War. Not only is the subject mater interesting but I also think that this is one of John's finest pieces of oratory.
  • Next, Jack Conte covers Daft Punk's Doin' it Right. I love how you can see how Pomplamoose grows out of his music and Nataly Dawn's. Also this video is just plain awesome and then Jack talking about Patreon is also plain awesome.
  • Finally, Professor Brailsford expands on compression in this video from Computerphile.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Blog: Favourite YouTube Videos (Volume 84)

In this volume of my favourite YouTube videos, we save the world (twice!), look at how to make a movie look great forever and then we burn things in the coolest way.

  • First, we have SuperJeenius's Let's Plays of Golden Sun and Golden Sun: The Lost Age.

    I'm not sure I made it clear ever, but this series of blog posts is based on all of the videos I've favourited and sometimes me-from-the-past seems set to make my job harder. This volume has been one of the problems where that's been the case. I found a bunch of videos in the list and I don't know why I liked them, so a lot of them got tossed. Then I had Episode 37 of Golden Sun: The Lost Age, which is interesting but makes no sense being halfway through the second game. So I don't know what me-from-the-past thought about this video or why it ended up in the favourites.

    I can say that both Let's Plays are very good and SuperJeenius's style makes a Let's Play very entertaining and engaging. So I'm going to throw the playlist for the first game in here and leave it up to you if you make it all the way to Episode 37 of the second game.
  • Next, Adam Savage talks with Will on Still Untitled about the special effects on Blade Runner and why almost nothing else measures up.
  • Finally, we get some slow motion action watching what happens when you drop embers into liquid oxygen, from Brady Haran and the team at Periodic Videos.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Blog: Favourite YouTube Videos (Volume 83)

In this volume of my favourite YouTube videos, we look at the unexpected. Canada and the US don't have a straight border, and the barking dog actually bounces. Also we unexpectedly channel Hello Internet.

  • First C.G.P. Grey, has an interested in weird boarders and even though it seems simple, the Canada-US boarder is a weird one. 
  • Next Brady Haran has a video on Periodic Videos about one of the cooler demonstrations that they do at the University of Nottingham, the Barking Dog and how it doesn't work at all the way they thought it did. First we have the video itself then he shows the behind the scenes of how the video was made.