This has been one hell of a journey, let’s wrap things up by ranking the titles and giving some final thoughts.
Mana Series Synopsis
Well, this has been an interesting journey, and an extremely rewarding project for me. All things considered, I feel it turned out better than I thought would be possible. I know I didn’t cover every Mana game released, but as Circle of Mana, Friends of Mana and Rise of Mana are all left in Japan without any fan translation, I really have no interest in attempting to struggle my way through them. That being said, I consider this series complete unless they do release Rise of Mana for the Vita in America, as I’m always looking for excuses to play that console. I’m going to take this opportunity to give some final thoughts, say some things about the series as a whole, and most importantly, give my series ranking, listing the games in order of my preference from worst to best.
Well, let’s get started, shall we? Here comes my final ranking of the Mana series, starting with:
Honorable Mention: Secret of Evermore
While I didn’t feel it would be proper to actually rank this game among the others since it is not technically of the same series, I would say that it falls between number 5 and number 4 on the list. It’s a simple tale of a boy and his dog being whisked away to a fantastical world and having to find their way home. With top notch animation, an impressively ambient musical score, and gameplay that remains mostly entertaining, I give this one a soft recommendation. Now that we have that out of the way, let’s continue with the rest of the list.
#8 Heroes of Mana
A failed attempt at bringing the real-time strategy genre to the Nintendo DS. This game breaks the series’ convention by leaning rather heavily on the Ivalice Alliance style, making for an odd but still appealing design. What really breaks this game, however, is the non-functioning controls that make the game unplayable. The worst part is, I was really looking forward to this game. I saw that it got bad reviews but thought that I would be able to look past its flaws because it was a prequel to Seiken Densetsu 3, and I love strategy games. Nope. In fact, I don’t think most review sites were harsh enough; this game is an abomination.
#7 Children of Mana
Pure boredom. There was nothing about this game that I found even remotely redeeming, and even worse than that, there was nothing drastically wrong with it either. It couldn’t even have made for an interesting exploration into bad game design. If you read my original article on this game this may seem redundant, but this feels like it just ‘exists’. It didn’t entertain me, I couldn’t learn from it, and it genuinely felt like a waste of my time. While I found the majority of the games in this series to be subpar, this is the only one I can say that I outright hated. The only reason that it takes this position over Heroes of Mana is because it at least functions as intended.
#6 Dawn of Mana
The only 3D title in the series, and a beautiful one at that. But good graphics don’t keep this game’s awful physics engine and tedious combat from falling flat. The saddest part is, you can tell they really were trying to create a unique and memorable experience with unique gameplay elements, but the foundation wasn’t stable enough for all of the interesting ideas to actually work.
#5 Secret of Mana
To say that the placement of this title will be controversial is an understatement, but I really didn’t see the hype. While the presentation was beautiful at the time, almost everything else about the game was a mess. The combat was monotonous and took no skill, the multiplayer was tacked on and ineffective, the character progression was tedious and unbalanced and the plot was near non-existent. The game succeeded a bit in the exploration department, but that doesn’t come close to saving this title from mediocrity. How this game is continually listed in the top 100 RPGs of all time sails way over my head. Charming? Definitely. A Masterpiece? Not even close.
#4 Sword of Mana
In my Secret of Mana review, I mentioned that I preferred its erratically variant levels of quality more than I did Sword of Mana’s rather level but never exceptional moments, and looking back, I no longer hold that opinion. Honestly, I think that Sword of Mana‘s gameplay is better on a much more fundamental level because it is built from a more solid foundation in terms of its combat, but I feel its exploration is slightly weaker than it is in Secret of Mana. Hell, at least Sword of Mana actually IS the action RPG it claims to be instead of a pseudo real-time wait-to-hit game of tag. If anything, I would say these two titles are about tied in terms of quality, but I give the slight edge to Sword of Mana, even though I do still feel that the story is weak, and that the game was trying to shove way too many useless extras into its game design.
#3 Final Fantasy Adventure
When it comes to the top three, these are games that I actually do think are good and worth playing, so from here on out there will be a bit more positivity. I think it is quite amazing how well this game holds up, though the fact that it was modeled after The Legend of Zelda surely helped. With fast and frantic combat, great sound design for the original GameBoy and great exploration that tied everything together, this is a game I can still recommend despite its aged appearance. Final Fantasy Adventure really does feel like an adventure, and it laid a great framework for what would be… a mostly forgettable series. Huh, that ended on a lower note than I would have expected.
#2 Legend of Mana
While this title has a bit too many design quirks for me to truly say it is the best title in the series, it is the game that I had the most fun with, and was easily the game that I find to be the most memorable. I truly felt like I was living in their world while playing this game; I enjoyed the combat and exploration mechanics greatly. Most importantly, I found the whimsical nature that offset the core emotional moments to be a perfect blend that made this game one amazing journey that I won’t be forgetting any time soon.
#1 Seiken Densetsu 3
My final conclusion puts Seiken Densetsu 3 completely in a league of its own as not only the series’ stand out title, but arguably one of the best RPGs on the SNES. As much as I see that irritating people, I can’t help the conclusions I came to. Secret of Mana has far too many issues for me to see it as the classic everyone else seems to think it is. This title with its beautiful presentation, stellar gameplay balancing and potential for a unique experience each time you play makes it a stand out. I may even pull this one down off the shelf in the future just to relive it one more time.
Conspiracy Theories and the Wrap Up
Well, there you have it. This brings the Stiles’ Series Synopsis on the Mana series to a close. The series itself is rather indicative of the state of Square Enix in general. A very heavy lean towards style over substance is just the tip of the iceberg. All of their new titles are pushing for a pseudo-action RPG style that I feel they have yet to come close to excelling at. The best they’ve done is Final Fantasy Type-0, which is a rather punishing game focused primarily around its dodge mechanic, while the demo for Final Fantasy XV so far has been a clunky and uninteresting mesh of hack-and-slash mechanics with a literal invincibility button. Do I even need to mention the debacle that was Final Fantasy XIII? The exception to this is the system they created for Kingdom Hearts, but I digress. The point is, I don’t think the majority of Square’s employees are really cut out to make a game with this kind of combat. Every game they have put out with an action system that was of high quality has been published by Square, but not developed by them.
I have to admit I have a bit of a conspiracy theory involving the World of Mana trilogy specifically (that being Children of Mana, Dawn of Mana and Heroes of Mana). All three of these titles are obviously different in terms of gameplay from the rest of the series, and I think it is more than a coincidence. Shortly after the release of these three titles were near identical games released under the Final Fantasy banner, only with much more polish.
Children of Mana seems like a predecessor to Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Ring of Fates, what with the testing of DS multiplayer, the fact that is a a dungeon crawler, and that there is a lot of direct carry over in terms of game design; the key difference is that Ring of Fates is in 3D rather than 2D. Dawn of Mana seems very much like a testing ground for the sort of ‘grab and throw’ game design that developed into Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: The Crystal Bearers on the Wii, though that game’s quality is still arguable as well. Finally, the most obvious connection is the trial of Heroes of Mana’s RTS style, which was ripped almost directly from that game and then reused for Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings on the same system. Hell, Heroes of Mana even used the Ivalice art style. I know that the two titles were released only a month apart, but they could still have started development on Heroes of Mana before Revenant Wings and learned from their mistakes. I know it may seem like a bit of a stretch, but I feel as if Square was using these three titles as testing grounds for concepts that they would use in what they hoped would be better selling games, and they decided to use the Mana brand as a means of cashing in on fan nostalgia at the same time. I’m not saying that this happened for sure, but they are definitely some interesting parallels that are hard for me to ignore.
Square Enix is a company that I used to love, and now have a sort of… longing for a return to form. Square was a huge part of my childhood, and wanting to experience their glory days is a huge reason why I started playing this series in the first place. The truth of the matter is, even at their peak, not everything they made was masterful. That is fine, but it’s just a bit saddening, as I was really hoping to experience that Square greatness with fresh eyes once again. This series only really provided that feeling twice, and one of those times was a game that was never even released outside of Japan.
I’m sure it is clear to those who read all of my articles (and perhaps just those who have read this one) that I wasn’t particularly impressed with the series overall. I hold games to a very high standard, and try to be harsh but fair, because I want to see the medium expand. I’m the type of person that can take something I love and tear it apart piece by piece because I still want to see the ways in which it could have been improved. That being said, I don’t hold the opinion that we should only enjoy ‘good’ content, and people don’t need to feel bad for enjoying things that aren’t perfect. The most important thing for me to get across when it comes to Stiles’ Series Synopsis is that this is just my opinion; one in a sea of millions. The goal is not inherently to say that ‘I am right and you are wrong’. My goal is to attempt to have more deep and thought provoking conversations about games as a medium and as an art form. The reason I don’t give games scores is because people view things in different ways. What I see as a flaw others may see as a strength, and that is where the more interesting conversations can come up. You don’t always have to get offended when someone has a different opinion than you; in fact, you can learn way more about a topic and about yourself by listening to the opposition, whether it causes you to begrudgingly see flaws in your own thinking, or it ends up strengthening your own arguments. There will very likely be a time where I will write incorrect information in these articles (if I haven’t already), and I want these things pointed out to me in a reasonable and intelligent fashion so that I, too, can grow and learn to appreciate the medium even more.
Anyway, that is enough of my soap boxing. This brings us to the conclusion of the first ever Stiles’ Series Synopsis. If you actually read all of these articles, I sincerely thank you and hope you enjoyed them. I hope this project continues to grow, and I have a lot of good ideas to make the series even more accessible and interesting in the future. I’m going to be taking a break for a bit to perhaps do a couple of other reviews and take care of some other things in my life that need doing, but after that, I will be returning with something a bit different. Instead of another RPG series, my next Synopsis will be taking a turn for the cinematic, when I cover the Quantic Dream Trilogy!
For those more interested in RPGs, however, there is no need to worry, as they will continue to remain a staple of my articles.
Anyway, thank you all for your support up to this point. This series has become far more successful than I thought it would, and I hope things continue to grow. Feel free to leave suggestions, thoughts, opinions and the like in the comments or even suggestions on series I can cover in the future. Thank you all once again, and I hope to see you next time on Stiles’ Series Synopsis!
Written by: Nathan Stiles
Edited by Charlotte Buckingham
Note: This article was originally written for charlottebuckingham.net