Backlog Chronicles: Sword of Mana

Sword of Mana-2 One night this past week when I didn’t have anything else to do and couldn’t get to sleep, I happened to have a charged-up Game Boy Advance next to my bed, so I went ahead and finished off Sword of Mana. My backlog of handheld Japanese RPGs is pretty ridiculous, and this was one of the ones where I had simply stopped at the final boss. Finishing it out of the blue like this has illustrated in multiple ways how typical it is of the strengths and other aspects of JRPGs.

Why this is concerning to me is because I’ve actually never played Secret of Mana, a game many people seem to hold as a highlight of the Super Nintendo’s library and the game to which Sword of Mana is a prequel. I still plan to get Secret of Mana on Virtual Console or something but I have no idea how how I’ll receive the game.

I probably bought Sword of Mana around the time it came out in 2003, got through most of it, put the game down for some time — a few years probably, picked it up again once a few years ago, got to the final boss, and put it down again before finally finishing it this past week. The effect this had on me was that I’d completely forgotten the entire storyline up to the climactic final battle. Despite that, I could still roll with everything that was going on in those final cut scenes because Sword of Mana pretty much sticks to all the typical JRPG story beats.

At this point I stopped trying to remember who was who, and simply said to myself “oh, this is the part where all the main characters learn to believe in themselves after some dark truth about the past is revealed by a cynical villain who thinks the world should be destroyed because people aren’t perfect.” As of this writing I still haven’t looked up a plot synopsis, but I understand the main characters resolved to move on and deal with life’s challenges without relying so much on whatever religious entity was central to the plot. Maybe I could do the same for Final Fantasy V and be just fine.

The exploration and combat aspects of Sword of Mana to my memory are pretty typical, though top-down Japanese action RPGs are inherently rare, both now and around this game’s original release date. I didn’t have too much trouble with the final boss because I’d had healing items and buffs stocked up that I’d practically never used up to that point. I remember reviews back in 03 criticizing the artificial intelligence of the player character’s partner, but I always found it okay considering the hardware Sword of Mana runs on. The user interface is also simultaneously a bit of a hassle to navigate and pretty smart considering it had to be designed around two buttons and a directional pad. Maybe the whole game was just held back by being on a handheld in 2003 compared to its console predecessor. Sword of Mana is in fact a remake of of the 1991 Game Boy game Final Fantasy Adventure. Perhaps that game was held back by its hardware too. Maybe the other more recent remake of the same game — Adventures of Mana will be better served by modern smartphones and the PlayStation Vita.

Anyway, two things I do remember Sword of Mana excelling at are art direction and music. I remember trying to track down one of the main overworld themes because it did very well to capture the sense of adventure most JRPGs usually start out with. When I played it this past week the game’s scenes still looked pretty ornate on the GBA’s small screen — probably one aspect that’s possibly superior to even the SNES Secret of Mana. Both of these aspects I remember contributing greatly to the presentation of Sword of Mana’s story, if nothing else about it. Looking at screenshots of Adventures of Mana, I think I miss the style of the 2D games.

In any case I’ll probably be trying out Secret of Mana before I ever try to get my hands on Adventures (unless it ends up on some kind of ridiculously low sale like the mobile version of Dragon Quest V or something).


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