Video game expert Nathan White explains why Square’s Secret of Mana, not Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda, represents the pinnacle of action RPG development.
More than a simple Zelda clone, Secret of Mana was (and remains) an example of the action RPG perfected.
With its bright colorful graphics, detailed sprites, and top-down perspective, Secret of Mana may seem on the surface to be a sequel to The Legend of Zelda, and in many ways Mana does borrow heavily from Nintendo’s action staple. However, it’s obvious after spending any measurable amount of time with the game that it is a different animal. Secret of Mana, true to Square’s nature, incorporates into the Zelda formula a complex JRPG-style levelling system and a completely unique combat mechanic.
Rather than just simply allowing you to hack and slash your way through static screens jammed with enemies, Mana provides you with a combat percentage gauge for each character. Using your weapon (successfully or not) causes the combat gauge to fall to zero, its recharge speed based upon what type of weapon is equipped and your character’s individual stats. The gauge represents the percentage of damage dealt with each blow, so it is imperative that you plan your strikes for maximum efficiency. Unlike The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, where guns-blazing was often an effective strategy, this method rarely worked in Mana and the player is more likely to be punished for eschewing strategically coordinated attacks.
As defining and transformational as this combat system was, the most lasting innovation in The Secret of Mana was not with the combat, the leveling system or even the cooperative multiplayer–though all have proven to be influential. The most lasting innovation was the menu system.
Officially dubbed the Ring Command, Secret of Mana’s menu system solved one of the problems inherent when infusing a JRPG style game with Zelda-like hack and slash action: inventory management.
In a traditional JRPG the battles are typically turn-based and menu driven, generally giving the game a deliberate, somewhat slower pace. After each battle (and sometimes mid-battle) you are able to change equipment and use items via the menus. The action literally pauses and waits for you to make up your mind. Even games that utilize Active Time Battle systems have the option to set the combat to “wait”, allowing you time to plan attacks and actions accordingly.
In stark contrast to the random encounters prevalent in most traditional role playing games, hack and slash action games are littered with enemies that pose an immediate threat the moment you enter a new screen or area. This immediate threat and faster style of gameplay makes the use of standard JRPG menus inefficacious. Imagine being in the heat of a boss battle, dodging attacks and frantically trying to get in close to deal damage to the monster’s weak point–only to realize you are low on health and need to use an item. So you hit the start button and go to a menu screen, and then into a sub-screen, and then you select your item, and then the character to use it on, and then back out of all the menus back to the action. Do this two or three times and you have effectively killed the flow of the battle and sullied the entire combat experience.
Thankfully, Square solved this looming problem by incorporating the aforementioned Ring Command into Secret of Mana.
The Ring Command is an icon-based menu system that can be summoned on the fly, literally at the touch of a button. Activating the Ring Command pauses the action and brings up a ring of icons over the dimmed playscreen. These icons can then be cycled through via the D-pad, allowing for a minimal break in action. Also accessible through the Ring Command are character stats, controller layout, battle tactics, party AI and more; all conveniently accessed via a single screen just one button away from the action.
The Ring Command gave Square the ability to incorporate the complex menu system of a traditional JRPG, without losing the player in a catacomb of windows and text. The Ring Command was polished even further when it next appeared in the Japanese-exclusive Mana sequel Seiken Densetsu 3 two years later.
Many action games have since implemented a menu system built on the overall design philosophy of the Ring Command, proving that some of the concepts from the formative years of video game design still hold great importance in the continued refinement of video gaming as a whole.