March 13, 2012

There's Something About Mana

The Mana series has been without direction for some time, now. I don't say this with any particular relish or snark -- there was a time when the rumour of a new Mana game on the horizon would be one of the most enticing propositions a gamer could hope to meditate on. For a brief period in the Super Nintendo days, it seemed like the frolicking action-RPG Secret of Mana represented one of the pillars of the legendary Squaresoft of old -- a worthy contender, alongside the likes of Final Fantasy and Chrono Trigger. Certainly one of my favorite games, anyway.

The first of the series was a Gameboy title, Seiken Densetsu ("Legend of the Holy Sword"), known in North America as Final Fantasy Adventure (an erroneous and misleading title, most likely chosen as a shrewd marketing ploy). Out of necessity, it was a rather basic, bare-bones affair with cute, squatty sprites -- but in that simplicity was born the franchise's key appeal -- it skirted the line between stats-and-spells role-playing and hack-and-slash action, without ever passing too deeply into one territory or the other.

The Mana games legitimize the "Action RPG" as a concept, embracing the best of both worlds.
They distinguish themselves sharply from Zelda, which is often little more than
an action title with a fantasy backdrop and a few token nods toward character growth.

The hero gained a handful of weapons, a meager sampling of magic spells and special abilities, and once in a while an additional helper character to tag along tentatively. There were towns and dungeons to explore, experience levels and optional talent points to allocate into a stat of your choice -- but the hero only had four main stats to play with: Power, Wisdom, Stamina, and Will. It never got more complicated than that. Most of the time, the player was happily running around and whacking cute monsters with a sword or spell, not puzzling over convoluted plot arcs or min-maxing character builds.

That legacy continued over the next couple of games, the most popular of which is the SNES's direct follow-up Secret of Mana (Seiken Densetsu 2). Most elements of this game were a direct expansion of the trail blazed by the original, but taken to deeper levels of realization. The graphics were notably colorful and distinct, even among the most beautiful SNES games. Hiroki Kikuta's soundtrack was a breath of fresh air, incorporating styles and instruments not usually heard in traditional fantasy settings (when's the last time you heard a gamelan in a video game?). There were now three main protagonists -- the plucky brawler, built for physical combat; the artful healer and enchanter, capable of imbuing her team with helpful buffs; and the adept mage, wielder of destructive magic. A single player could easily control all three characters as a unified team, either by issuing commands from the menu or by swapping control directly between them at a moment's notice. Those lucky enough to have the SNES's Multitap accessory, and a couple extra controllers, could enjoy the adventure with three players simultaneously.

Even though its graphics are no less based on repeating tiles than any other 2D RPG of its day,
Secret of Mana still looks damn great, if you ask me.

Somewhere along the way, though, the series gradually lost its center and crumbled into what can only be called a rubble of disparate fragments -- each idea promising, perhaps, on their own -- but never cohering into anything resembling a unified and focused adventure. These days, the real "secret" of Mana is how to pick up the pieces and bring the series back to the glory of its heyday.

Essentially, the Mana games have become bogged-down with too many gimmicky diversions, over-complicated mechanics, arcane systems of item crafting and inventory management, and just an overall confusion of what the rules of its world are from game to game. It's gotten to a point where picking up a new Mana title is like drawing a few cards randomly from a deck and hoping for a full-house -- there's always the hope that it might happen, but more than likely you'll just wind up with a random, inarticulate jumble.

As early as Seiken Densetsu 3, which only saw official release in Japan (but enjoyed a comprehensive fan translation via emulation), the series began to exhibit shades of what was to come. At its core, the gameplay was mostly the same as Secret's, but things grew rapidly more complex. From the first moments, players had to choose three of six playable characters to form their party -- some tough physical fighters, others more fragile and suited to magery. However, the ins and outs of each character's potential weren't made abundantly clear at the outset, and it was more than possible to choose an unsuitably imbalanced party, with no way to correct your choice.
Similarly unforgiving in this regard was the system for upgrading your character class -- each character could choose to graduate to a new class at set experience levels, but the choice was equally as blind and irreversible. If you decided you didn't like the new abilities of the class you had chosen, there was no going back.

Design decisions like these rapidly snowballed from this point on. Transparency and user-friendly ideals were largely sacrificed in favour of convoluted, trial-and-error mechanics that forced the player into guesswork and leaps of faith. Legend of Mana, the PS1 follow-up, represents the height of ridiculousness in this regard. There were countless item-crafting and weapon-forging endeavours to take part in, fruits and vegetables to grow, pets to feed and develop, robotic golems to build, and secret techniques to train. No single aspect of these systems are necessarily a problem on their own -- but combined, they form a choking fog that overwhelms and confounds the player. The game is just too damned mysterious for its own good, and seems to have no real stake in helping the player learn just what the heck is going on. Which fruit is better to temper a sword with -- an Apricat, or a Peach Puppy? Why am I even asking this question?

Legend of Mana is uncommonly gorgeous to look at and listen to, but it's too busy trying to be the next Alice in Wonderland. It never stops to let the player get absorbed and involved, or explain how any of its myriad stories are each important to a greater whole.

I couldn't even make sense of the plot, half the time. I would finish a quest, and stare in bewilderment. I didn't know what exactly had happened, why I did anything, or how any of the individual quests came together to form anything resembling an overarching plot. One technically guides a main "character" through a cavalcade of fantastical quests, but that character never serves as an actual protagonist that attains a degree of importance or influence. Even the world itself, literally, didn't come together -- you revealed each area separately by finding artifacts and choosing where to place them on your map, spawning a new location there. Where you placed each location and what surrounded it dictated what manner of shops and events might appear -- and of course, the rhyme and reason of this map is never explained, and your choices can never be undone. The very fact that it's a "world map" at all is a cruel deception, since each location exists in complete isolation and you can never walk from one place to another -- you just exit to the "map" menu, and select a new stage to access. It really distances the player from the setting, preventing one from enjoying the game on anything deeper than a surface level.

At times, I failed to understand what characters were supposed to be. The graphics were clear enough -- hand-painted, watercolor environments, and incredibly creative and whimsical designs gave Legend of Mana an identity all its own. However, at times, that whimsy went a touch too far and I honestly couldn't tell what I was looking at. Case in point: this guy, Nunuzac, is the head of the Academy of Magic. He is a circle. As in, the shape. Nunuzac is a flying, geometric abstraction, with what looks like a pseudo-cubist face hidden among its patterning. Now, you or I might think it odd that an important figure be a disembodied circle instead of a flesh-and-blood person -- but no character in the game seems to bring up the matter in conversation, or even acknowledge it as noteworthy. Are they not seeing what I'm seeing? It's incredibly frustrating and disorienting, when there's no sense of what's "normal" in a game's world -- how am I supposed to identify when something "abnormal" happens?

Oh. Okay, then.

I distinctly remember playing through this game with a friend, and remarking, half-jokingly: "This is not a game. It makes no sense. I don't know what Legend of Mana is, but it is not a video game. It's... just a weird thing, that you do."

After that, the Mana games got a little less nonsensical, but no less uncomfortable and contrived. Sword of Mana was actually a Gameboy Advance remake of the first game, but was slow and sluggish in both play control and story. It was also bloated by Legend of Mana-style item-crafting chores, just to pad the game clock. From then onward, I actually haven't touched the series, but I don't hear good things.

Children of Mana is reportedly a bland, monotonous dungeon crawler on the Nintendo DS.

Dawn of Mana had the audacity not only to call itself Seiken Densetsu 4 in Japan, but also to use manipulative promotional imagery eerily similar to that of Secret of Mana's iconic Mana Tree artwork --implying that this would finally be the more focused, classic action RPG fans had been waiting for. Reviews rated the game as being completely terrible, based around a shoddy camera, unenjoyable combat -- and an annoying system where all your stats and abilities reset to Level 1 at the end of each chapter, stamping out any potential sense of character progress. It was also centered around grabbing enemies and throwing them into obstacles or each other, thus setting them in a panicked, more vulnerable state -- a gimmick which may have looked good on paper, but really wasn't what anyone asked for.

The last game was Heroes of Mana, again on DS -- it's a Real-Time Strategy title like Starcraft, where you command multiple units in large-scale battles and manage resources. Is this what former fans of the series want to see? Probably not. Does a successful series need to resort to constant, radical changes to its formula in an attempt to find an audience? I doubt it. I'm not so sure the Mana games are doing all that well, and given what's been produced lately, that should come as no surprise.

What may come as a surprise, though, is how I would humbly suggest going about revitalizing the franchise and making it relevant again. For the longest time, gamers who still care about the series have been frustrated over the lack of a return to form. Like a number of people, I'd love to see a new, straightforward, honest-to-goodness action RPG like Secret of Mana -- however, I've become convinced that this just isn't ever going to happen. The people in charge of Mana have tried to reinvent the wheel so many times that they've forgotten that wheels ultimately have to fit within a functioning vehicle. If they really want to turn Mana into a game where you devote your time into inventory management, growing weird fruits shaped like animals, forging equipment, gathering pets, and juggling various other tasks between adventures, I say go for it -- make an MMORPG. Seriously.

Who doesn't want to run around in a colorful fantasy world and beat up adorable animals?
Isn't that what most MMOs are about, anyway?

The Mana universe would make for a terrific MMO.

Sure, it's easy to be cynical and criticize the massively-multiplayer genre as being an already over-crowded market. A Mana MMO would certainly be a high-risk venture -- but on the other hand, MMOs have more widespread appeal now than they ever have, and it's important to strike while the iron's hot. That goes not just for the online RPG genre, but for the Mana brand as well. People still remember the Mana series with fondness, and capitalizing on that nostalgia could be an extremely effective way to generate interest in a new game that embraces what enamoured gamers in the first place. The series has laid a foundation of colorful characters, lighthearted aesthetics, and a timeless mythos that would serve as an inviting atmosphere for countless online adventures.

It's Got the Look

Cute, colorful graphics that don't take themselves too seriously suit online games perfectly. They appeal to a wide audience and age range, and a well-designed and colored cartoon-like style is easier to render accurately with underpowered hardware specs than gritty realism. Similarly, since MMORPGs are long-term investments, how a game's visuals will age over the years is a crucial consideration. Look at the most popular MMO, World of Warcraft -- from an objective standpoint, a lot of the graphics are technically pretty terrible. But, because it's so smartly designed under a unifying, colorful, almost cartoonish aesthetic, the suspension of disbelief is made far easier, and at times it does still impress.
Similarly, look at the Gamecube's Zelda title, Wind Waker -- its cell-shaded style masks its low polygon count. The graphics look exactly as they were meant to, and it will probably always look about as good as it does right now. On the flip side, the harder a game strives for realism, the sooner it begins to look dated.
The Mana series has always been bright and colorful, and it's always looked great. With its simple character designs, it would be easy to translate that look in a 3D space completely intact.

The World is Just Waiting to be Populated

It's not difficult to imagine ways that the concepts of the Mana universe might adapt to a persistent, online world. A lot of the environments in Secret of Mana -- towns, open fields, forests, mountains and cavern entrances -- all linked together and were on the same scale, creating the illusion of grand, seamless areas much like the interconnected zones that make World of Warcraft's landscapes so believable. It may not sound like such a big deal now, but Mana was already doing back then what even some modern games fail to do now. There are even some current MMOs that still divide their world into small, isolated little chunks that must be loaded separately. It really breaks the illusion -- one of the best things about participating in a massively-multiplayer world is knowing that everything around you is really there, and what you see off in the distance can actually be traveled to and explored.

The series has a variety of other tricks it's used over the years, to give its settings animation and life. Seiken Densetsu 3 introduced alternations between day and night, and later games actually referred to specific "days" of the game's weekly cycle -- attributing each in-game "day" to one of the elemental spirits. This elemental "day" idea would fit perfectly with real-world days of the week, affecting how people think about when they play. Perhaps Tuesday in the real world could be "Undine's Day," and on that day certain water-related spells, characters, and items could receive a minor benefit. Certain crops might grow faster on a particular day. If the player's character has chosen to affiliate with a particular elemental, they could receive an XP or stat buff on their respective day. It could be subtle or drastic, but little touches like that tie the game's lore to the real world of the player, giving concrete significance to a concept of time that didn't really make a lot of practical sense in a single-player adventure.

The Mana Tree, perhaps the only major story point that remained constant throughout the whole series, is basically the tree of life -- it invigorates the world, fills it with energy and magic, but also represents the delicate balance of nature. There are usually some kind of villainous elements in each game -- an evil empire, or some other -- who are trying to capture and harness that power for their own greedy ends. That's about what the plot of each game ultimately boils down to, and it's a story that anyone can understand, particularly if the Mana Tree is physically made into a crucial and visible influence in one's world. The way I see it, the Mana Tree could be this enormous, towering presence smack in the centre of the map, overlooking all nations, and visible on the horizon even from half the world away. Its roots could jut out of the landscape here and there, for miles out -- and the zones directly adjacent to it may be cast in its shadow, depending on the sun's place in the sky. It can be a huge, universal entity -- a landmark signifying your physical place in the world, and something that everyone is always made aware of in the background of their day-to-day questing.

The intricacy of a detailed plot has never been one of the series' strong points, but you don't need a textbook of lore to understand the sacred significance of the Mana Tree.

The concept of "Mana" as a spiritual energy innate in all things could give an MMO some personality to distinguish itself from other games, acting as a globally-shared resource with a carefully balanced economy. For example, in addition to a selection of standard-issue spells and skills, each player might also have access to a few limited-use-per-day abilities or effects that consume Mana power. However, Mana isn't a personal stash of power designated to your character -- it's drained from one global, shared pool. Doing certain daily quests or devoting time and resources to special tasks works to replenish the world's supply of Mana, and your character's balance of seeding and leeching this resource is constantly recorded. Your give-and-take ratio will naturally fluctuate up and down as situations dictate, but severe imbalances may have increasingly dramatic effects. Give more than you take, and you could see temporary boosts to your character's effectiveness and tentative access to certain mounts or other visible signs of prestige -- but leech too much without contributing, and a halt on your access to Mana may be inflicted, along with suitable downgrades and various stains upon your reputation.
Methods of public transit or teleportation, exclusive weapon and armor enhancements, and other public amenities in major cities may also require that the total amount of Mana be at a certain quantity. So, if a much sought-after perk isn't available in town, there will be no mystery about who's to blame.

The Seeds Have Been Planted

Almost no MMORPGs feature turn-based, menu-driven battles. Nearly everything that takes place is happening in real-time, and so even the most by-the-numbers gear checks and battles of attrition will still feature some degree of moving around, placing your character in just the right spot relative to the enemy, avoiding area-of-effect attacks, or otherwise not standing in fire. The combat in Mana games were built around about the same balance of stats and levels versus timing and positioning, and it's not much of a stretch to adapt that play style to what goes on in an online environment. Mana curiously featured the MMO-staple concept of enforced cooldown periods between attacks -- the original Gameboy title prevented you from using your special move until a bar filled, and Secret of Mana actually made you wait between successive basic strikes before you could again use your weapon at 100% power.

The roster of magic includes everything from healing to elemental damage spells; from character and weapon-enhancing buffs to enemy-weakening status effects; from damage-over-time poisons and energy drains to debilitating stuns and knockdown moves -- basically, all the stuff that's since become the meat and potatoes of the online RPG genre.

An online community of guilds working as a team, and a supply-and-demand free market economy, is actually a place where all those item-crafting professions I previously complained about would finally make sense. It's very common for an MMORPG to encourage side professions and trades for players to work on, such as farming natural resources or creating useful items and equipment. These things weren't any fun in Legend of Mana, because it had a single player investing significant time and effort to perform every job. I think these crafting professions and side jobs are most interesting when no one person is responsible for every job -- it's the interplay and interdependence of a whole community that makes any of it relevant or important. Anything you can make or find is going to be valuable, in the right hands. Even an eggplant that looks like a whale will find a buyer in a public auction.

I don't know whose garden this is from,
but I'm sure we can grind it into a fine potion.

Mana's quirky personality made the game instantly recognizable among all other games, due largely in part to a recurring roster of well-animated, mascot-like monsters. Valleys, forests, and dungeons were populated by the hare-like rabites, hopping chess knights, creepily-grinning slime blobs, hedgehogs, lycanthrope martial arts masters, explosive fungoid mushbooms, wicked jack-o-lanterns, and helmet-clad duck soldiers. Each monster type had its own behaviours and tactics -- such as the Sleep Flower which disguised itself as a harmless, garden variety plant until you got in range of its Sleep spells; or the roguish rodent Chobin Hoods who attacked from a distance with their bow and arrows. Juxtapose this amusing menagerie with the addictive success of Pokémon, or the lengths "ranger" characters go to in tracking down a rare animal companion. Even World of Warcraft has a mini-game planned for its next expansion, which lets players level-up their special non-combat pets and pit them against each other in one-on-one brawls. People love to be able to collect a variety of helper pets, so why not let everyone have one?
In the Mana MMO, defeating most monsters in the wild presents a chance to tame them as your own pet. Each character can have many pets, but only one can be active at a time -- the result of which is that you have a little helper, boosting your damage output or serving some other useful function depending on your needs and character build. No one pet will be overpowered or game-breaking, and managing them will be very simple. The pet basically follows you around, and behaves according to a simple AI that attacks what you're attacking and sometimes uses a special ability. A few examples:

Rabite is a small, timid creature which populates low-level zones and is easy to tame. He hops about behind you, occasionally sneaking around behind your foe to deliver a bite or two.

Buzz Bee hovers above the ground and is agile enough to avoid a lot of direct attacks. It attacks frequently, and sometimes uses a poison sting to inflict added damage over time to its target.

The Dark Knight is a tough customer, but if you can defeat enough of them, one may be persuaded to join you. His heavy armor lets him take more hits than most companions, and he can swing his morning star around him to strike multiple foes and garner a lot of enemy attention. Couldn't serve as a dedicated tank in a dungeon's boss battles, but would certainly help a cloth-wearing mage survive while out questing.

Slimes don't dish out a lot of damage on their own, but have an odd habit of dividing into multiple copies of themselves.

The wild Mushboom is an explosive fellow -- he tends to release a concussive burst of spores, temporarily knocking out any close-quarters enemies.

Of course, getting all the details down would be a tricky thing. Creating a full-fledged MMORPG is no small feat, and it may be that Square-Enix is just not up for the task, considering the incidents surrounding Final Fantasy XIV's disastrous launch. But, anyone who remembers the fun of a multiplayer Secret of Mana session back on the SNES can see that an online venture which captures and adapts that gameplay properly could be what finally saves this series from oblivion. The fact is, people out there still remember these games and do care when they screw themselves up. At its core, Mana is a fun experience -- it's just picked up a few too many wonky features and complications for its own good, if it's to remain a single-player game. Personally, I'd want to play this imaginary Mana MMO, over what the series has been doing with itself recently.

And who wouldn't want to fly into town, showing off their flying Flammie mount?

Flammie: The original, summonable mount

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