The Fall of Seiken Densetsu – Part 2

Part 1 located here.

Keying off of the first entry in this series, I’ve thought a great deal about criticism and how Christians should work in this vein. Is there a time for critical thought and thinking? Absolutely. But, and please correct me or say otherwise if you disagree, Christians must have a unique perspective on everything. If you take Christianity seriously, and the idea of inspired Scripture as well, how could this not be the case? We are, in the very, very commonly used words, a “new creation”; we are “born again” in the spiritual sense, and also in the perspectival sense. We, if we truly think about it, aren’t supposed to see the world in the same lenses anymore, but see things as they truly are. We can give video games the benefit of the doubt as we would a real person; there is good in everything and a divine spark at work. But there is also recognition of sin and corruption in everything as well, a good and a bad. If this sounds similar to the “good and evil” impulses of modern Judaism, you’re not far off the mark. I can’t give review “scores” in that sense because a game has a variety of elements that work together – to make an evaluative judgment like that, almost a sort of final solution, doesn’t strike me as accurate nor helpful. Someone in this world likes the most horrible game, even if you’re laughing at its innate awfulness.

I’m not trying to sound supercessionist, but that is how it is. Am I taking game criticism too seriously? Maybe. But I can’t imagine the standards of Christians for one aspect of life doesn’t naturally flow to every other, including every feature of those creatures created in God’s image and the things they create in turn. Forgiveness and being “non-judgmental”, from a humanly effable standpoint, are the main component. We have a macro-cosmic viewpoint that allows us to view all human actions in a particular light and understanding that all are equal, all are in the same boat, and all ultimately need Jesus Christ. But what of criticism? That, then, means that a critical look from Christian eyes demands a different outlook, even if it looks very much the same as any ordinary critical examination. John 8 makes this a bit clearer:

12 Then Jesus again spoke to them, saying, “ I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life.” 13 So the Pharisees said to Him, “ You are testifying about Yourself; Your testimony is not true.” 14 Jesus answered and said to them, “ Even if I testify about Myself, My testimony is true, for I know where I came from and where I am going; but you do not know where I come from or where I am going. 15 You judge according to the flesh; I am not judging anyone. 16 But even if I do judge, My judgment is true; for I am not alone in it, but I and the Father who sent Me. 17 Even in your law it has been written that the testimony of two men is true. 18 I am He who testifies about Myself, and the Father who sent Me testifies about Me.” 19 So they were saying to Him, “Where is Your Father?” Jesus answered, “You know neither Me nor My Father; if you knew Me, you would know My Father also.”

We know, by the same token, that we are told not to judge, because that judgement works on a human standard. We can say, furthermore, that the Holy Spirit works in the life of a believer to be able to make such evaluations – that’s why He is called “The Helper”, as both a mark and a prefiguring of the new heaven and earth, the new creation which Christ represents the first fruits when he rose from the dead. So the Holy Spirit, far from a passive observer, is involved in criticism, whether to help and encourage fellow believers or to expose some hidden aspects of any particular study.

This, then, is excellent context and understanding for the project at hand – to discover what happened to this great series. What went wrong? What went right? There are equal parts redeemable and horrible elements in the Mana series, and each entry has its own weird flaws. I’m only covering what I know, but that is enough; others can talk about those games that they know better than myself.

Now, forget absolutely everything I said about Seiken Densetsu 3 (or Secret of Mana 2, if you like). Why? Frankly, the game did not exist for me until after 2000’s Legend of Mana, so as a move of completely honestly, it hadn’t really affected my attitude toward the series until recently. However, on that same note, one can also see that a large gap in time preceded the release of Legend of Mana to the West, given SoM’s 1993 release date.

Secret of Mana was excellent, and I have childhood memories to last a lifetime. Still, such a long time between SoM and its inevitable sequel was heartbreaking and wrenching. Video games trained us all to expect sequels – many sequels. To see a game without a sequel was tantamount to the death of the franchise. Final Fantasy continued its JRPG grasp to world domination; Square continued to release new games in the series, as well as new installments of SaGa and new experiments (Final Fantasy Tactics, though based on Ogre Battle/Tactics Ogres’ milieu, was definitely niche at the time, to put it lightly). New franchises rose from the the depths, each a unique experience in itself – Chrono Trigger, Parasite Eve, Xenogears, Bushido Blade even Brave Fencer Musashi all contributed to the reputation of Squaresoft in the 32-bit era. I could use a Bushido Blade sequel!

The one question, then, struck many fans of the SNES classic: where is our sequel to Secret of Mana? Nintendo Power announced an incoming sequel sometime in 1995, but I did not see that particular blurb. From my perspective, then, I wondered why Square would abandon a series with such potential that allowed me and my family to have such a rich experience? It was a travesty, almost. I’m not above admitting my Square fanboyism when I write about these games, even if my perspective has matured. I wanted to see a new one. I wanted it done well. I wanted Square to show everyone they could, with their new-found creative, crazily experimental juices flowing, that they could blow away all their other properties with a new Mana game.

Thus, when Square revealed their Summer of Adventure for 2000, I was stunned, relieved, and excited! Finally, they were going to bring Mana back into the spotlight. Chrono Cross, unlike most people, wasn’t even something on my radar – Mana was king. Vagrant Story? Threads of Fate? No – Square was making a return to Mana, and that return would shock the world. Let’s say the fervor and appetite for a gigantic action adventure was egregious.

Until I actually picked the game up.

Now, unlike Seiken Densetsu 3, Legend of Mana is a genuinely interesting, beautiful, aurally majestic, and simply fun game that manages to introduces lots of complexities and mechanics, while introducing the silent protagonist, multiple storylines and interesting characters, wrapped up in the Mana packaging. Heck, I love Legend to pieces, and still do. Anybody who doesn’t like the Swedish opening/ending theme doesn’t deserve this quirky, endearing experience, honestly:

It was nice of Square to give us a 5-track sampler accompanying the game for those loyalists who preordered games (back when pre-ordering actually meant something). I listened to that thing day and night when I was just getting into music, CD players, the whole lot. And the song above was on the disc, to no one’s surprise. The soundtrack goes all over the place, as video game music must depending on its context, but every track just feels right. The folksy town theme, the rocking (love that synth-guitar) battle themes. If Yoko Shimomura has a “best” OST, this is it (close tie with Super Mario RPG, I guess). Kingdom Hearts can go disembowel itself with zippers.

I suppose it’s also part of the reason why I got into video game music in the first place. To realize the beauty of the human instrument, even in other languages, is a pretty big revelation for a 13 year old, I can tell you. There’s a unique sense of whimsy to this kind of music that I haven’t found replicated elsewhere, and it’s the placement of the individual’s interactive association with the game’s mechanics that creates that emotional connection with games. You could call it nostalgia, or you could call it something more, but it’s an ineffable aspect of video games that Square captured perfectly in their 1990s work. That’s why video game composers are a household name now; could you even imagine such a thing a decade ago?

The game itself is beautiful, a logical extension of the previous art design employed for the series. Using a combination of water color and what I would call rococo stylings, it’s a brightly colored feast for the eyes. It’s difficult to capture the childlike wonder of a kid’s book, especially of the high fantasy style, but Legend of Mana pulls it off with great aplomb. Even the darker areas still keep the brightly layered scheme while building tension through great shadow work and animation – not to mention, yet again, the music. It’s jocular, florid, and graceful in the same vein as the French rococo artistic movement, with all manner of everything flowing everywhere. Take a look at the screenshot above and below, and you can see the kinds of contrasts the game presents throughout. Although now I can tell Seiken Densetsu 3 was the logical aesthetic predecessor, it blew me away back in the day. How could anyone have predicted how amazing 2D art could look with all that extra space? It’s really a shame that 2D animation has died in film for the most part, although video games from indie developers and the like have been picking up the slack, thank God.

Recovering from that tangent, let’s talk about Legend of Mana the game. The structure of the game , predominantly described as “non-linear”, doesn’t come close to SaGa in that regard. Basically, you get to “build” the world map as you go along through the use of artifacts gained in your adventure. Your home is the center of the universe, and everything else is a branch from there; the further away a location is from your house, the more difficult the monsters and enemies will be. This also determines what events and scenarios you get, I’m pretty sure.

Still, it’s not entirely obtuse. It’s more a “choose your path” storyline, as you’ll end up going everywhere in one playthrough if you’re paying attention. I ended up doing everything, anyway, though I imagine that doesn’t happen often; perhaps your experience may differ. Still, the little stories have their own quirks, and are rather amazing in their self-sufficient nature. The player, then, becomes something of a disinterested observer to events in the game, rather than an active participant. That’s pretty unusual for “entertainment” supposedly based on the idea of making the player a “hero”.

Furthermore, it’s got a host of tragic (in the real sense of characters flaws and decisions as their own eventual downfall, not just bad things happening) stories for having such a beautiful visual dimension to it; I imagine this was an intentional contrast. All three of the main story arcs – the Jewel Beast/Jumi story, the one involving Larc, dragons, and the underworld, and the war between humans and faeries – almost all inevitably end with death or crippling compromises. Even in making a situation right, the concequences come to haunt the lives of those involved in some way or another, even to the point of killing party members. It’s very “adult”  in that sense, and this melancholic moods exists throughout the main three story arcs. There’s plenty of lighthearted content as well, solving the problems of the locals (such as giant living teapots – don’t ask) and meeting merchants (like Niccolo, the rabbit) who are all interesting characters in and of themselves. One gets the sense of a world of people, rather than just propped-up NPCs waiting for your beck and call.

As for combat, it’s pretty standard as far as action-RPGs go, but this is Mana we’re talking about! Combat is fun, and you can actually dodge attacks from enemies – returning, then, to SoM’s insistence on movement and charging attacks. It’s more side-scrolling than the original, and doesn’t provide that open exploration feel of SoM, but it works in its own way according to the structure of the narrative. You get lots of neat tools to play with, from weapon choice to abilities to instruments to additional party members, golems, monsters – you name it, Legend has you covered. It’s so much better than SD3’s stilted, slow, and buggy combat that I’m glad SD3 got passed over for the U.S. Almost. You can even set how difficult you want it to be – I placed the last section as far as possible from where I started, so I must have played some pretty difficult versions of the dungeons. All in all, I enjoyed it thoroughly in retrospect, even if it wasn’t quite what I expected.

Why, then, are we talking about “The Fall”, rather than “The Rise”?

This was NOT the game I wanted twelve years ago. NOT at all. The aspects listed above are NOT what I would’ve realized at first glance, nor be able to convey clearly through text or any other format. I’m going to guess, then, that many people felt the exact same way as myself – what kind of game is this? If Square intended to play, toy, and manipulate our expectation as in the transition from Metal Gear Solid to its postmodern sequel, bravo and well-played. If Koichi Ishii thought this was the direction the series should go – well, I don’t think he knew what he wanted. I see Akitoshi Kawazu’s influence everywhere, even if he’s just a producer.

To wit: it’s non-linear; it requires some experimentation; it has some archaic, weird, and just plain confusing mechanics. Even then, the game is a cakewalk. Either me and my brother were super geniuses or we were just lucky, but the game itself doesn’t require anything more than going up to an enemy, pressing attack repeatedly, and watching them fall down. I can’t even remember dying, or coming close to dying, in most circumstances. Why people seem to think this is difficult doesn’t make sense to me at all, but I remember being bored to death by the “challenge” of the game.

I found every single mechanic for battle and the like seemingly unneccesary for the whole. Should I raise a pet, or build a golem, or plant stuff in my garden? What weapon type should I pick, and which abilities for those weapons are the best? Do I need instruments? Yeah, I guess I could, but what’s the point if you breeze through the game without them? Perhaps I am too harsh, but extraneous elements in RPG battle systems always perturb me – I want to use them, I really do. The developers obviously intended them for use by the player, otherwise they wouldn’t be in the game. However, if they’re not necessary for my progress, it just seems like a waste of time to do it. It tells me that there’s too many ideas and they don’t all fit into the box, but we’ll shove them in anyway (see: Final Fantasy VIII). Legend of Mana suffers far less from this than some other RPGs, but it retains that bloat which JRPGs started to retain over time which has led to their current reputation in the West.

However, one component really brings it down: two player. Now, again, Seiken Densetsu 3 didn’t exist in my mind, so for the three-player Secret of Mana to suddenly devolve to two-player mode was a travesty of the highest order. That was the selling point of the original! Why else would I have this Hudson multitap (thank you, Super Bomberman!) if not to play multiplayer games? It was one of the few that took advantage of multiplayer gaming. Wasn’t that the key feature of the brand? So why eliminate, and why not add four players? This has always confused me to no end, and I’m not sure I ever recovered. World of WarCraft has filled the gap since, but why Square didn’t take advantage of such a feature will forever remain a travesty. Heck, Seiken Densetsu 3 wasn’t even three players, and you needed a patch to get the three person experience, EVEN WITH THREE PEOPLE IN YOUR PARTY FOR THE WHOLE GAME. Clearly, someone lost their mind.

That, then, is the essential conflict of interest – in a video game sequel, you’ve already established the rules and the unique qualities of your brand. Thus, to move away from those standardized aspects just turns those players off. Now, that’s not a knock against Legend of Mana at all – it’s a great game, but it’s a great STAND-ALONE game. If it didn’t have such a reputation as its predecessor, then I’d imagine its reception would’ve been much more spectacular than it was in 2000 – tepid, at best.

The initial response was positive, but resentment grew over time to the Mana series’ constant experimentation and, perhaps, failures at said experimentation. Square just lost the magic somehow. In sum: I applaud the creativity and interesting nature of Legend of Mana, and I would definitely play it again today, but not as a game in the Mana series. It’s the exact opposite problem as SD3, as it sticks to the brand name while doing something very different with the same content. SD3 is just a bad Mana game, but Legend is an entirely different beast.

The fall, then, continues…

Continue to Part 3

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.