4. Secret of Mana (1993)
Never has a cover art for a game shown so little, but said so much. Secret of Mana attained almost mythical status in the early 90’s, particularly in the PAL region where such games were rarely popular or bestsellers. A game loved by hardened fans of the genre but took those first steps in smashing the inaccessibility of the J-RPG, that Final Fantasy VII eventually took full advantage of.
To fully understand Secret of Mana‘s place in SNES history, we must understand how it came to be, and its story is one of the most poignant in all of gaming. The game was originally intended to be a launch title for Nintendo’s ill-fated CD-ROM add-on, which eventually resulted in Sony going solo and launching the PlayStation on their own. The game’s code was written by legendary programmer Nasir Gebelli, an Iranian coder who moved to the United States as a teenager and became a god in the Apple II gaming scene.
After the early 80’s game crash, Nasir disconnected from the industry for several years before finding himself at SquareSoft in its embryonic stages. Square was struggling and had lost its programming team due to fear of closure. Nasir was brought in to finish a little known project which was believed to be Square’s last role of the dice and they had little money to pay him. As such, Nasir took a royalties deal over direct payment and single-handed coded the original Final Fantasy for NES. It was a surprise superhit, as were its two NES based sequels, also coded by Nasir.
Nasir went on blackout for a few years after, having worked hard to establish a foothold for Square, but returned to work on the Secret of Mana project, originally conceived for CD-ROM. With the game partially complete, it had to be massively downsized and redesigned for a cartridge format, another massive challenge that Nasir was able to complete for Square.
So now to the game. You control one of three heroes (or all 3 if you are Multitapped, or just the two on SNES Classic Mini) who are set on preventing an evil empire from conquering the world using their flying super fortress and draining the world of Mana, its natural energy source that keeps the planet alive.
The game is action-orientated, much akin to A Link to the Past, rather than a traditional Square RPG, something which again allowed it to be more palatable for Western audiences at a time whereby few J-RPGS were even being released into the PAL market. Just remember that with all of the development issues experienced on the development of Secret of Mana, it was a large contributing factor in seeing Square move away from Nintendo and favour a CD based console, eventually concentrating their new games exclusively to PlayStation, largely changing the history of gaming forever, with Nasir Gebelli retiring from the video game industry on his royalties earned from his 4 SquareSoft masterpiece RPGs, never to be heard from again.
With beautiful story-telling, satisfying real-time combat, a soundtrack for the ages and an art style that will live long in the memory, Secret of Mana is the definitive Super Nintendo action-RPG and would be my personal recommendation for the first RPG on the SNES Mini that you should dedicate your time to. It’s very grindy, but very much worth your while.
An epic title in every single sense.