I haven't done one of these beginner's guides in a long time, but Square Enix's recent announcement of the Seiken Densetsu Collection for the Nintendo Switch has put me in the mood to write one.
Seiken Densetsu, referred to as Mana in the English-speaking world, is often seen as Square's third classic RPG series, created after the success of Final Fantasy and SaGa. Like SaGa, Mana found its roots on the Game Boy, but whereas SaGa was helmed by an eccentric designer with plans to upend the classic JRPG formula set it stone by Dragon Quest, Seiken Densetsu is a more traditional game. It combines the level-up system of Final Fantasy with an open world action-adventure more in line with The Legend of Zelda.
Each game has its own gimmicks and quirks, but the general connection between each in the series is their soundtracks and the fantasy world in which they take place. The Mana series celebrates mysticism and nature above anything else, embodied by cute elemental spirits and a giant tree which creates an all-encompassing energy source called Mana. Each plotline revolves around the importance of this tree and the adventures to defend it from evil.
Overall, there are seven main games in the series and a handful of remakes and spin-offs. We'll cover the basics today and make recommendations on where to get started.
Humble black and white roots
Mana actually got its start as a Final Fantasy game. For many years, fans thought that its localized name, Final Fantasy Adventure, was just a marketing attempt to pull in better sales with a more recognizable title, but further revelations proved this to be false. While this might be true for SaGa, which was localized as Final Fantasy Legends, the first Mana title in Japan is actually Seiken Densetsu: Final Fantasy Gaiden, literally meaning "Final Fantasy spin-off" or "side-story."
This simple black and white game was released in 1991 for the Game Boy, and it reached North American shores that very same year. Thanks to the short localization time, the Game Boy original is often fondly remembered for its minimalist translation. The opening line of the game "Now fight!" is iconic to fans, and these simple translations carry throughout the game. Thankfully, Final Fantasy Adventure's storytelling isn't told through the writing though.
Rather, its oppressive world gets the job done.
This is a sad and dreadful game, full of heart-breaking moments and a constant looming evil hovering over each screen on the map. You play as a runaway gladiator who is tasked with protecting a mysterious young woman from an evil empire, and the road ahead reveals nothing but her tragic roots and even more tragic fate. As the gladiator, you'll often team up with her or one of the game's many NPCs, each with an exit from the plot that will leave their mark on you.
As for gameplay, the Zelda comparisons reign true here, but Final Fantasy Adventure sets itself apart with a charge meter. Mana, in general, is not a typical hack 'n' slash adventure because it rewards players who know when to hold back and land a solid hit. A fully charged meter gives the gladiator a super attack depending on which type of weapon he has equipped. Armor and level growth also come into play here.
Players can even dictate how their character progresses by choosing which stats increase the most. The gladiator might be a wizard by the end of the game if all focus is put on magic. He might be brutally strong if points are poured into strength. Players might want him to get super attacks more often with wisdom points speeding up his meter regeneration. Sounds like Dark Souls, but remember, this is 1991.
Final Fantasy Adventure has plenty of imagery from Final Fantasy that the later games in the Mana series would start to move away from as it found its own identity. Chocobos, Moogles, Black Mages, and pretty much every creature from the 8-bit days of the series appears here.
However, Mana's most iconic monsters, the adorable Rabites, also got their start in this game, and they remained a staple of the series throughout its run.
Final Fantasy Adventure has been remade twice. The first time was in 2003 for the Game Boy Advance with a release called Sword of Mana. This game piles themes onto the story, sometimes to its detriment as the additional dialogue leads to over-extended cutscenes, and it reworks the graphics with beautiful sprites more in line with how the series evolved. It keeps the charge meter, but the developers also added a misguided combo system that even experienced players struggled to find the timing for.
Lastly, all Final Fantasy references are cut from this game. This is a true Mana game that does away with its roots.
The second remake came out recently for smartphones and the PlayStation Vita as Adventures of Mana, which stays far more loyal to the Game Boy original. However, it uses cheaper 3D models that were clearly intended for use in a free-to-play title.
No question, this is the classic of the bunch
Square recognized the potential of its mini-adventure game, and its success led into what is without question the most popular game in the series. Secret of Mana came to the Super Nintendo in 1993, and it was an immediate success in the video game world. The graphical overhaul was widely praised, but more importantly, the music set it apart from just about any other video game on the market at the time.
The story follows not one character, but three! A young outcast, a runaway princess, and a magical sprite child. While the additional support in combat adds a nice touch, the true success of Secret of Mana lies in its multiplayer. Two, or even three friends with a Multitap, can traverse through this world together, each taking control of one of the game's iconic roles.
Exploration and puzzles are a huge part of Secret of Mana, but so is the customizable combat. The game offers eight weapons, each with different levels of strength and tiers of abilities. Square also sticks with Final Fantasy Adventure's timing based combat, having players charge up to multiple tiers of super attacks. When playing with friends, proper timing allows for ultimate combination attacks that can clear out even the toughest bosses very quickly.
Secret of Mana also introduced the game's nature spirits, and these cute mascots grant the princess and the sprite child a large array of magical abilities. From there, combat comes down to finding a comfort zone in your choice of weapon and magic element, taking into account range, power, as well as healing damage or status effects. The more a weapon or spell is used, the stronger it becomes, and unless you spend countless hours grinding away, your primary choices will wind up as your greatest asset by the final battle.
Thanks to it originally being developed for the failed Super Nintendo CD expansion, Secret of Mana has plenty of graphic and musical bugs, but those don't stop it from being an undeniable classic in the gaming world.
Square's lost treasure… or rather… one of Square's lost treasures
For many years, fans were led to believe that a Square game called Secret of Evermore was the sequel to the action RPG favorite, Secret of Mana. It's a good game and the only title that Square ever developed in its short-lived American studio, but that's all that really needs to be said about it. It has a bad reputation thanks to the real sequel, Seiken Densetsu 3, being a much better game.
Plus, fans feel bitter about Square's deceptive marketing that led them to believe it was a sequel. Secret of Evermore is a fine game, and it doesn't deserve such derision.
Now, for Seiken Densetsu 3. In the late 90s, at about the time emulators started to take off in popularity, many Square fans noticed the company hadn't released several of its video games for North American fans. In fact, it held back on a good many of its games, including the entire Romancing SaGa series. Many fans could finally catch up on titles like Live a Live and Bahamut Lagoon, both of which are considered two of Square biggest "lost" games.
However, no "lost" game made quite the impression that Seiken Densetsu made: A true sequel to the classic that they loved from so many years ago. Suddenly, it was available and fan translations only made it better.
I don't have much experience with this game, but I know the basics. It's very similar to Secret of Mana in its approach to progression and combat, but it takes all of the ideas to a much larger scale. The game has three overarching stories, and players can explore each of these depending on which of the six playable characters the player chooses.
Duran, Kevin, Hawk, Lise, Carlie, and Angela all have different attributes, be it combat, magic, or evasion, and an important balance is a must in Seiken Densetsu 3. In fact, one of the biggest complaints I hear about Seiken Densetsu 3 is that you can really mess up your game right away without picking a proper team, and advancing certain members improperly later in the game can also set up dead ends.
Certain boss battles will be impossible down the road with access to certain attacks, and gamers are sometimes forced to start over because they didn't use a walkthrough when selecting a party.
Again, I'm not too learned in this game, but it's second to none on the Super Nintendo when it comes to Square Enix's top-notch production values. This beauty is on my bucket list, and Square Enix could make my life much easier by giving me the option to finally play it in English on the Nintendo Switch.
Oddball game from an oddball producer
Every series has their oddball, and Legend of Mana is clearly it for Mana. In fact, it deviates so far from its predecessors that Square didn't even slap it with a number in the Japanese title. Seiken Densetsu 4 actually leapfrogs this game and was given to the PlayStation 2 sequel, which we'll touch on later.
Legend of Mana is so different in its approach because it was produced by Akitoshi Kawazu, the man famous for creating the SaGa series. His style has always been to turn formulas on their head while keeping presentation relatively recognizable, and he does so with Mana perfectly. The previous games mostly follow a linear structure, but Legend of Mana is about as open as a 32-bit RPG can be. Players start the game by building their own map, and from there, they explore more areas as they unlock them through quests.
The previous Mana games are also very direct with their character progression and equipment, but Legend of Mana comes loaded with item creation, skill advancement, and even pets and golems that will aid in combat. Magic is created through combining elements with musical instruments, ultimate weapons are forged from drops, certain quests and NPCs can be missed if players aren't careful.
Much like Seiken Densetsu 3, it is recommended that you start this game with a walkthrough because the game's opening decision of choosing where to start your map can mess up the entire game.
This is often a complaint about Kawazu's games. He piles on systems that are both unexplained and overly complex, but they are also very fun once you are able to unravel and manipulate them. Legend of Mana has an underlying system in which placing towns and dungeons on the map can make monsters stronger, item drops more frequent, magical attacks hit harder, and even events play out differently. This is based on a flow of Mana throughout the world, and certain areas power elements in adjacent areas.
Of course, this is totally unexplained and left up for the player to uncover the perfect map.
It's a bit much, but it's still a fascinating game. Legend of Mana's world and culture will suck you in, and the characters are especially memorable. The soundtrack is also one of the best you'll ever find in a video game.
Despite its initial lukewarm reception, fans have come around over the years. Its differences from the rest make it stand out, and the fact that it was the last respected game in the series carries weight, too.
Going all in and coming up short
After Legend of Mana, the series went quiet for many years, and Square reshuffled its priorities thanks to the failure of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within in theaters and the merger with its longtime rival, Enix. Sword of Mana came out to a mediocre reception in 2003, leaving Square Enix unimpressed with its performance, and the series in general also ran into the competition with Square Enix's hot, new action RPG series, Kingdom Hearts.
Square Enix finally decided to give the series another chance in 2006, its 15th anniversary, with the World of Mana initiative. World of Mana isn't one game but rather three games, and their reception ultimately derailed the series for good.
The main game, Dawn of Mana, failed to make a mark on the market or even the series' dedicated fanbase, the ones who were begging for this very revival. Square Enix even called it Seiken Densetsu 4, hinting at a return to form, but nope. The game failed to gain traction, fans were not pleased with its leveling system, and aside from its brilliant musical score, the game is best left forgotten.
The other two games came to the Nintendo DS, and enjoyed a slightly better response, but nothing that Square Enix would be proud of. Children of Mana came out first, and it is the most similar to the classic games in the series in terms of combat. However, it's nothing more than a simple loot gathering game you can play with your friends over the DS' local wireless capabilities. No real goals or anything, just a pretty game with solid combat and not much else.
Heroes of Mana was the last of the three games, and it is actually a real-time strategy game that stars the series' cute elemental monsters. Fans joked around with this game as it looked identical to Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings, another RTS that was released for the Nintendo DS during the very same year.
They had their fans, but at large, the World of Mana initiative is considered a failure, and Square Enix ultimately did away with the series for many years. I consider its death the beginning of the AAA dominance of the gaming world, a sign that many of our cult-classic favorite series couldn't survive in the rapidly Westernizing and AAA gaming world.
A revival on the free-to-play market
Square Enix eventually returned to the series as the video game industry found out that it could cash in on the nostalgia of older franchises. Fans were expecting a little more, but Square Enix's decision to take the Mana series into the free-to-play market proved to be more successful than anticipated.
However, keep in mind that the game finished its run, and service ended back in 2016. This will forever be a lost chapter of the series that fans can't go back to.
Rise of Mana was never a special game, at least. It had simplistic combat, and it touched on the barebones of the earlier stories' themes. I would argue that it was a competent game with proper expectations, and it had a lot of success with crossover events, most notably cameos from the Secret of Mana cast and even Ramza and Agrias from Final Fantasy Tactics.
Otherwise, Rise of Mana is something that only completionists should seek out and emulate someday. As a free-to-play title, it was successful, and that success led to the Adventures of Mana remake on mobile platforms and the PS Vita.
Outside of Rise of Mana, the only love Square Enix has given the Mana series in recent years are the iOS and Android ports of Secret of Mana, which are revered as the best that a company can do when bringing old games to a mobile platform. Aside from the convenience of playing Secret of Mana on accessible platforms, the best new element to emerge is the beautiful marketing art that Square Enix whipped up to advertise this classic to a new generation.
Whoever drew these masterpieces deserves a huge raise. Check them out, and art for Adventures of Mana and the Seiken Densetsu Collection, in the gallery above.
Where to begin?
I don't think there is much to debate here. Secret of Mana is the most popular and endearing game in the series, and it is where most fans found their start. The idea of a multiplayer Zelda-esque adventure might not be as unique as it once was, but if you let yourself get lost in its beautiful world, fun characters, and most importantly, its entrancing music, you'll find yourself a game that still holds up to this day.
Oh yeah, you also get to rescue a certain character beloved around the world. Possible spoilers inside.
Secret of Mana is also the most accessible game in the series with a mere $9 price tag on it on the App Store and Google Play. However, Legend of Mana is even cheaper through PlayStation Network at just $6. Since it can be played on a Vita, this could be an attractive place to start as well, but I don't recommend it. The game breaks a lot of traditions and doesn't provide the most authentic look at the series.
Legend of Mana is great, but you'd be better off playing Secret of Mana first to get a grasp on the themes. Once you beat that, Legend of Mana provides all the tools you'll need to truly dig in.
And lastly, I have to give a nod to the Game Boy original Final Fantasy Adventure. I've heard some sects say its existence is pointless now that the two remakes are relatively easy to come by, but I couldn't disagree more. Sword of Mana's story and combat are both obtuse and clunky, and Adventures of Mana feels cheap with its free-to-play graphics. Meanwhile, the Game Boy original looks and plays just as well as it did back in 1991, and the bleak presentation is best delivered through the lack of color.
I know many gamers despise black and white these days, but you'd be surprised how many touching moments, chilling monsters, and elaborate worlds Square was able to fit into just a handful of kilobytes. It's one of my favorite video games of all time, and I need to stick up for it. Final Fantasy Adventure all the way!
Beyond these three options, the best way to get caught up on the series is to petition Square Enix to get cracking on the localization of the Nintendo Switch's Seiken Densetsu Collection in North America. It releases on June 1 in Japan, and the only way we're ever going to get it is to show proper enthusiasm.
If you like what you've read here or are a longtime fan, then head on over to Square Enix's Twitter or whatever and let them hear your voice.