The Fall of Seiken Densetsu (Part 3)

As far as the rest of the series goes, I’m not that familiar. I may own a few of them, but many of them never really piqued my interest enough to play them. All, certainly, try to recapture the spirit of the first two/three games in the series, but most of them fail at that objective by introduction of a host of weird ideas and mechanics.

I’m got no problem with Final Fantasy Adventure/Sword of Mana; both, as far as I know, are excellent games, but I just haven’t had the time to play them. As such, they’ll be absent from this particular overview (unless somebody with some experience on it would like to write about it). The first three games in the series all lay within the same action-RPG mold; it’s the latter entries which tend to make me angry, so angry that I am simply offended by how mediocre a great series could become.

Children of Mana actually has all the elements it needs to be a successful entry, but I’m not sure the dungeon crawling mechanics were absolutely necessary. CoM, in my view, is a casualty of re-introducing multi-player elements as a focus of the series; the DS, after all, was the first time wireless multi-player with handheld devices actually made sense. Thus, to take advantage of the system’s capabilities, the thought was to create a focused experience for three fellow adventurers to travel with the player through lots and lots of dungeons. That these dungeons look similar doesn’t have to be a problem if the game is fun, though. Of course, what would really add something to the experience is online play, but we’re not given that privilege. Monster Hunter didn’t have it either, and it was a great success, right? What could go wrong with a dungeon crawler Mana game?

The problem, then, is that it just isn’t fun. I suppose it’s really similar to Diablo and the like, but they just don’t give you enough combat options to justify the dungeon crawling setup. Because of this, the game gets incredibly boring quite quickly. Go get quest, find part of story, go through dungeon, boss, cutscene, rinse, repeat. Although many lamented Legend’s lack of focus, this is the exact opposite – focusing on one element, and a relatively uninteresting element at that, of the Mana experience. My particular play experience with the game was less than stellar – I’m pretty sure I picked it up, played it for 30 minutes and then quit. It just doesn’t have the magic or the fun, and all the storybook music and aesthetics in the world can’t compensate.

I suppose that’s why I haven’t played anything after Children of Mana, at all. I may own Dawn of Mana, but I have no idea how it plays or anything to that effect. It’s horrific to know it was critically destroyed when it came out, and now it sits, eagerly waiting to disappoint me yet again. I promise to play it, but I’m not going to enjoy it. As for Heroes of Mana…well, the less said about that monstrosity, the better.

A high watermark has this effect for a franchise. It literally cannot sustain the weight of its own success, and eventually destroys itself as a result. These games continue to get released because gamer just don’t know any better. We keep resting on false hopes and believing in Square-Enix to deliver an exemplary product which will never come. I highly doubt we’re going to see another Mana game after Heroes, as Koichi Ishii has left the company and the string of commercial failures has, like SaGa in the West, made the highly cautious Square-Enix back away from Seiken Densetsu altogether.

Allow me some speculation on this point: sometimes, the auteur approach doesn’t work. As much as I herald the works of Hideki Kamiya, Hironobu Sakaguchi, Shinji Mikami (oh, you will see this soon) and other exemplary figures in the video game world, there are some directors that have made the equivalent of “one-hit wonders”. One successful game has, in Japanese business circles, implied that every element in the game was essential to the success of the product, from the game’s visuals to something as simple as a sound effect in the right place at the right time.

If I was a betting man, I’d bet that Ishii was given free reign after Secret of Mana sold nearly two million copies worldwide – this was 1993, mind you, and that is a substantial number. The difference, though, is that Ishii (mostly in the producer role, but also as the head of the Mana series in most eyes) wasn’t content to rest on the Mana series’ laurels. He needed to experiment and to try new things. I applaud this effort; I think Mana definitely needed a shakeup after the first or we would have ended up with a boring set of action-RPGs that nobody would have liked. Ishii went for the “vehement hatred for what the series has become” treatment instead, and though I may not like many of the games past Legend, at least he experimented.

But, on that same level, it’s experimentation in all the wrong ways! Why make the Mana series into a terrible real-time strategy game? Why make the experience nonlinear, and why eliminate the puzzle portions of the game at the expense of combat, then make the combat boring? Rather than keep what works, the entire project jettisons the lessons of the past and starts from scratch; this is not the way to make a game series. Even SaGa retains a great many of its mechanics from game to game even as it experiments with the formula time and time again; Mana just changes for the sake of change, without any consideration as to how all the elements will meld together for the player.

I would call it a weird kind of arrogance, almost, but there’s something wrong with the whole process. Kamiya, through his Devil May Cry and Bayonetta series, set a particular standard and refines those mechanics throughout each game. Still, even he diversifies with Viewtiful Joe, reviving the long-lost Final Fight style beat-em-up, and Okami, which is a stylistic rip-off of Zelda games. Each has their own quirks, but each try to give the player interesting and essential tools to his/her progress. Sakaguchi, for his part, tried to instill a bit of variety through the story’s context, and the battle system fit along with that context at every turn; you didn’t need every ability, but they were there for those players who wanted to experiment with them. Decisions are fun; it’s a game, and fun decisions make up the meat of the experience.

What does Mana do with its refinements? Well, it keeps the worst elements and continues onward.They keep the worst elements of the series without knowing what made Mana games successful in the first place! A game designer MUST know what makes their experience exemplary versus its competition; without it, you are using your personal preferences as the basis for your game, and that does not function well. Even Cave Story knows exactly what elements work, and which ones do not in its mechanic grabbing; Mana just doesn’t know where to go or what to do. If Ishii simply knew what the players wanted and didn’t do it, it is almost a betrayal of the fanbase that instantly formed over the games.

Now, I’m not saying we should all have a collaborative say into what goes into our video games – otherwise, we’d just get sequels that do the same thing over and over again (hello, Western big budget titles!). There’s a time for iterative change, and a time for a complete overhaul. But Seiken Densetsu tried to swim out of its depth and drowned in the process. Ultimately, Mana was a victim of its own success and, for whatever reason, refused to stick to what it knew best, content to experiment but refusing to make a genuinely fun game.

It offends me more that they didn’t stop doing what they were doing before it was too late. How long can you maintain a reputation for quality if you keep releasing an inconsistent product? Even if Final Fantasy VIII and IX followed one of the greatest games ever created, at least they were extremely high quality and tried to do something new and different, whether we’re talking about drawing and junctioning or a return to the old-school fantasy vibe with more modern trappings. Legend, released near those two titles, tried something completely different with no real tethers to the original in many respects – especially if you were transitioning from SoM to Legend with no stop-gap (this may account for the better reception in Japan, I’d bet).

If anyone from Square-Enix is listening, then, I will say it: revive the series, but not as SaGa 2.0. There is so much potential now for a action-RPGs that gets the the combat portion correctly, especially with the advancement in graphics and processing power that the new consoles have given to us. Take the Tales series -sure, those RPGs are entirely derivative, but those battle systems continue to entertain because there’s so many little details that enhance the experience. Why not make a world exploration combat game, much like the original (with charging attacks, magic level-ups, etc.), but also add nonlinear elements like Legend? To add to this, we would achieve Ishii’s goal of “touch” in games that he tried to achieve with Dawn of Mana’s Havoc physics engine with zero success. The storybook visuals would look AMAZING, to be sure, whether in 3D or 2D, I don’t care.

Actually, Fable pretty much did just that, at least the second game and onward. This is what saddens me most – other companies and developers have taken these ideas and run with them, expanding them and refining them into a much better form. While Mana continued to degenerate by ignoring the ideas it made so enjoyable in its first few entries, others took the banner from them and made them better. That’s a pretty sad thing, honestly. Where can Mana go from here, having had all its best ideas stolen and improved?

Still, that first glance of SoM still makes me think of what could have been, and what we have now. I suppose that’s the same reason everyone kept buying these games, including myself, and Square-Enix kept disappointing them. It’s time to let go. It’s time to stop worshiping false idols. I am so guilty of this that I play bad games with a specific brand name, even though I know the game in question is horrible. Why put myself through the abuse of playing bad games?

You might say it represents a self-abusing streak in humanity, but I think it has much to do with our tendency to attach ourselves to what’s safe. We want certain things – security, comfort, pleasure. These are natural to the human condition, and I think one word exemplifies them all: stability. Contrary to popular belief, it’s much more fun to have a boring life than an exciting one, for the latter contains many experiences you don’t want, nor should anyone want. Do I want my life to be a television show, or just a strong and consistent walk with God? God should be our desire and paragon of safety and security, yet we look for other things to place our trust precisely because we don’t believe his promises. We’d rather take the easy route and place our trust in other things, idols, to satiate our desires in all the wrong way and look for help in all the wrong places.

Take 2 Kings 17, which describes the nation of Israel after its fall in 721 BC:

34 To this day they do according to the earlier customs: they do not fear the Lord, nor do they follow their statutes or their ordinances or the law, or the commandments which the Lord commanded the sons of Jacob, whom He named Israel; 35 with whom the Lord made a covenant and commanded them, saying, “ You shall not fear other gods, nor bow down yourselves to them nor serve them nor sacrifice to them. 36 But the Lord, who brought you up from the land of Egypt with great power and with an outstretched arm, Him you shall fear, and to Him you shall bow yourselves down, and to Him you shall sacrifice. 37 The statutes and the ordinances and the law and the commandment which He wrote for you, you shall observe to do forever; and you shall not fear other gods. 38 The covenant that I have made with you,you shall not forget, nor shall you fear other gods. 39 But the Lord your God you shall fear; and He will deliver you from the hand of all your enemies.” 40 However, they did not listen, but they did according to their earlier custom. 41  So while these nations feared the Lord, they also served their idols; their children likewise and their grandchildren, as their fathers did, so they do to this day.

Even if the thing in question betrays us, we still cling to it as a source of hope. We are afraid to let go of physical things and physical things are simply more tangible, more real, than the spiritual. We cling because we fear the unknown, and we fear a God so high above us that it confounds the human mind that he could possibly care or know about us. That, to me, is why Mana has stayed so revered over time, but it has also become a false idol. As the resident iconoclast, I guess, it’s my duty to destroy it. Other games have done what Mana does better, and while nostalgia feels warm and fuzzy, it’s ultimately a crutch to rely upon a brand name to give you the same experience. The same game has already been made, but I’ve been too blind to see it.

Seiken Densetsu will never come back, if the dearth of games is any indication. We’re five years from Heroes, and not another game is in sight. It’s time to move on.


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.