Catching a 25-year-old white whale
Like a lot of gamers in the 90s, I could often be found in my dimly lit bedroom huddled in front of an SNES playing the latest Japanese Roleplaying Game (JRPG). Chrono Trigger. Final Fantasy VI. Secret of Mana. I played them all. Back then, games took months or years to make their way from Japan to North America, a veritable lifetime for a teen. I pored over magazines for Japanese language screenshots, speculated with friends, and counted down the days until I could get my hands on them.
Like Captain Ahab, my obsession grew.
Especially for the one that got away.
For almost 25 years, Seiken Densetsu 3, the sequel to SNES hit Secret of Mana, remained trapped in Japan, within sight but sorely out of reach of western gamers. Now, thanks to a surprise official translation (and a new name), Trials of Mana is available on the Nintendo Switch. To top it off, Square Enix also announced a from-the-ground-up 3D remake of Trials of Mana, slated for release early next year (also on Switch). It’s like Moby Dick invited himself onto my boat for dinner and brought dessert.
So, here I am, with the white whale at the table, and my inner 15-year-old is thrumming with excitement.
Trials of Mana! In English! Officially!
Was it worth the wait? In a nutshell: yes, absolutely.
In high school, I’d regularly haul my console and Commodore 64 monitor to my friend’s house for a weekend of gaming. Side-by-side, we’d guzzle Pepsi, inhale chips, and play through our own copies of the JRPG du jour, racing through dungeons, comparing notes, or, if only one of us had had a chance to play throughout the week, facing our screens away from each other and play independently—but still together.
Secret of Mana (released on the SNES in 1993) was different than our usual fare. It wasn’t strictly a solo experience, but instead allowed us to play together on the same screen. Picking our favourite characters (I was a fan of the sprite, Popoi. So cute!), fighting over weapons (spear, please!), and thwacking mushbooms was a great way to while away the hours. I’ve never been a competitive gamer, so being able to team up with my friends rather than against them was a wonderful experience.
Secret of Mana proved hugely popular for its publisher/developer, Square, so it seemed like a no-brainer they’d bring its sequel to North American shores after its 1995 Japanese release. A sprawling, beautiful game that pushed the system to its limits, Trials of Mana was the perfect way to bid farewell to the aging SNES.
Life ain’t perfect, however. Storage space on SNES cartridges was limited, and Trials of Mana was a huge game even by Square’s standards. Written Japanese is more economical than written English when it comes to required memory, making it impossible to fit an English version of Trials of Mana on a SNES cartridge at a reasonable cost. Despite fervent fan wishes, Trials of Mana remained in Japan as the PlayStation ascended to RPG dominance thanks to games like Final Fantasy VII and Xenogears.
Fast forward a couple of decades, and space concerns are no longer what they used to be. Still, despite the clamour for Trials of Mana never really going away, no one expected Square Enix to devote the resources to translating a 25-year-old game. With the enormous popularity of the NES and SNES Classics, however, gamers—especially those who grew up in the 80s and 90s—are showing a keen interest in retro-style games, and someone, somewhere, saw the potential for finally bringing Trials of Mana to English gamers.
But what’s it like to play a “new” SNES JRPG in 2019?
In a Yellow Wood
Early on in Secret of Mana, players find a branching path: Down one, you meet a healer; down the other is a mage. Eventually, you have to do both quests, and the remainder of the game is more linear, but this early portion gives players a taste of a design methodology greatly expanded upon in Trials of Mana.
Trials of Mana begins by asking the player to choose three characters (from a pool of six) to form their adventuring party. This encourages the player not only to build a party to suit their play style, but also provides a huge incentive to replay the game and discover new storylines, areas, bosses, and challenges.
The benefits of this system are immediately apparent, with each character beginning their story in a different part of the world, facing down a uniquely personal conflict. In my playthrough, I chose Riesz as my lead character; the game opened with the Kingdom of Laurent being invaded, and Riesz’s younger brother being kidnapped. Along the way, she joined forces with Hawkeye and Kevin, each of whom had their own personal challenges to overcome. Above and beyond that, Riesz crossed paths with the unchosen characters, providing the sense that these journeys are happening in parallel, and whole other stories are advancing in the background.
Adding to the replayability is the class system, which allows each character to change class twice at set points during the game. By mixing and matching characters and classes, each playthrough can be dramatically different. It’s complex and layered, and… completely undocumented in the game. FAQ in hand, you can create a balanced and overpowered three-person army, but going in unaware, your experience will be much different—and potentially frustrating.
The environments in Trials of Mana are, hands down, the most impressive of the 16-bit era. The world is rich and overflowing, and, more than any other game on the SNES, feels like it’s filled with real people with real lives. Each city and village feels unique—like a hand-crafted community. The layouts are varied, and though each village and city is comprised of a weapon/armour shop, an inn, an item shop, and a handful of residences, exploring them for the first time is a pleasure. Compared to other popular JRPGs of its era, including the lauded Final Fantasy games and Lufia 2, the towns, cities, and castles of Trials of Mana burst with charm and character.
This uniqueness extends to the visual design of the environments out-side the cities, too. JRPGs are no stranger to themed areas, and experienced gamers have trod hundreds of volcanoes, slid through dozens of ice caverns, and sweltered in many deserts, but Trials of Mana goes further than most in making these areas feel unique—not only in look and feel, but design as well. From flooded ancient ruins to canopied forests, ghost ships to windswept mountain fortresses, every new area in Trials of Mana provides an exciting opportunity to lose yourself in its vast world.
Like all of the Mana games (even the bad ones), Trials of Mana is blessed with a beautiful soundtrack that ranges from evocative and ethereal, to upbeat and melodic, to frenetic and adrenaline-filled. Composer Hiroki Kikuta, who was also responsible for Secret of Mana’s classic soundtrack, squeezed a tremendous amount of range from the SNES, and used percussive- and piano-heavy samples, giving the game a musical identity that is still unique 25 years later.
Trials of Mana is one of the most immersive audiovisual experiences on the SNES. The emphasis on audiovisual beauty comes at a cost, however, and provides perhaps the first glimpse at the costs of shifting design and development focus away from gameplay.
As I get older, and spend more time revisiting my SNES favourites, I’m recognizing how important nostalgia is to my experience and enjoyment as I play them in 2018. Games I played to death as a kid are easy to return to, warts and all. I find it easy to overlook their flaws, whether they were obvious at the time, or have only appeared as time has passed and my understanding of game design has grown. I don’t care that Final Fantasy VI becomes a cakewalk after a certain point. I can lose myself in Suikoden 2, despite its all-time worst English localization. Super Mario RPG is short and linear (and a lot easier than I remember), but it doesn’t matter. I enjoy those games because the good bits are still good, and my nostalgia massages away my annoyance at the bad bits.
Chrono Trigger is still perfection.
The retro renaissance (and the wonders of emulation) has also given me the opportunity to play several games that were unavailable to me as a youth because they were trapped overseas like Trials of Mana. Unlike my favourites, however, my experience with these games is not protected by the warm, serotonin-producing blanket of nostalgia, so while their strengths are still obvious and bring joy and appreciation, their weaknesses can range from frustrating to catastrophic.
Trials of Mana falls somewhere in between.
On first glance, enemies appear on the field in the same way they did in Secret of Mana, but in practice the system acts more like a traditional JRPG battle system — when you enter a new screen, the battle starts, your characters draw their weapons, and you’re no longer able to access the main menu. Defeat all the enemies and you get a “Victory” jingle and maybe a treasure chest. This slows down exploration elements dramatically, which is doubly a shame because discovering the world’s nooks and crannies should be one of the major selling points for a game as beautiful and dense as Trials of Mana.
Compared to Secret of Mana’s already-mediocre combat system, battles in Trials of Mana feel slow, unresponsive, and unintuitive. Secret of Mana’s percentage bars are gone, but they’re replaced by an opaque timing system meant to keep you from spamming attacks—but instead makes the system feel random, non-interactive, and unsatisfying. It doesn’t help that even basic enemies are damage sponges, taking several hits from each of your characters before they fall. Adding the slow spell menu and casting times on top of it all means you’d better be prepared for a slog no matter what combination of characters you’re using. This was particularly painful during my playthrough, since for the majority of the game, Riesz and Hawk’s magic focuses on single-target buffs/debuffs, meaning each significant battle began by me loading up the spell ring multiple times and waiting for spells to cast, one at a time until I’d covered my entire party and all the enemies.
This becomes particularly egregious during the game’s second half, a backtrackathon that requires revisiting many familiar locations, most of which are filled with the same low-level enemies you pounded on hours prior. There’s no way to speed up your progress through these areas, and you can’t run from battles, so you’re stuck either one-shotting each enemy as you pass, or slowly trudging past them with your weapon drawn. Eventually you’ll reach a newly unlocked portion of the dungeon containing stronger enemies, but it becomes quickly apparent the game expects you to grind through levels to keep up with the progressively more difficult enemies and bosses. To rub salt in the wound, the final class change for each character, which gives you a significant power boost necessary (for most players) to defeat the final boss, requires you to obtain seeds randomly dropped by certain enemies. These seeds are planted at inns, and randomly spawn another item which may or may not allow you to upgrade your character to the desired class.
Time to grind
Only, it’s not that easy. Because enemies don’t respawn immediately when re-entering a screen, you’re often left wandering through multiple screens looking for enemies in the labyrinthine (and poorly designed) dungeons. This makes backtracking easier (since you’ll often get lost in the dungeons, which are full of dead ends and looping, criss-crossing paths), but slows down grinding dramatically.
The second half of the game was obviously designed to extend play-time, and provide another opportunity to reuse tilesets and environments. When I was younger, extended playtimes like this were fine, maybe even a selling point, because it felt like I was getting more value out of the game . Now, as an adult with several hobbies, children, a job, a social life, etc., it becomes an exercise in tedium. It’ll probably take most new players about 25–30 hours to complete Trials of Mana. About average for a JRPG from that era. However, I couldn’t deny the feeling that it would have been a much better game if the grinding had been eliminated and the total playtime had been cut back to 15–20 hours of tight gameplay and exploration, with a focus on new experiences in the world, rather than what we got.
It might be easy to dismiss these issues as being a product of their time—after all, game development mentalities have evolved a lot since the mid-90s. However, I also recently played through Terranigma, another long-lost SNES JRPG, for the first time. It had its own issues—notably an abysmal localization—but it was snappy and never overstayed its welcome, despite being similar in length to Trials of Mana. Sure, it also had necessary grinding (*shakes fist at Bloody Mary*), but the encounter design, blazing-fast combat, and dearth of quickly-dispatched enemies made grinding a breeze. I played these games back-to-back and doing so helped me recognize how nostalgia, or the lack thereof, affects the way we evaluate and review older games.
At the time of its release, Trials of Mana impressively built on the foundations laid by its predecessors—refining the party-of-three system, realizing an even more beautiful and varied world, allowing for more customization than ever, non-linear narrative, and quest design—but 25 years of hindsight makes the cost of that progress obvious. In its imperfections, you can begin to see the unravelling of the Mana franchise (clunky combat, over-reliance on poorly designed systems, emphasis on graphics over gameplay). There’s no perfect Mana game, and that includes Trials of Mana, which is buoyed in reputation by its former scarcity, placed on a pedestal by western gamers who revered its existence as some sort of gaming holy grail.
But at least now we have the chance to try it for ourselves.
There, in the Distance!
Moby’s dead. Carved up. Whale meat, blubber, oil.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Trials of Mana isn’t just its official SNES release, but the upcoming remake. The Trials of Mana remake, coming in early 2020, for the Switch looks vibrant and fast. True to the original, but full of obvious care for modern game design philosophies. Suddenly, 25 years later, here I am, eagerly waiting for Trials of Mana.
Chasing a new white whale with a familiar name.
The official SNES version of Trials of Mana is available now as part of Collection of Mana on the Nintendo Switch.
© 2019 Aidan Moher