Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The battle system in Secret of Mana - A much misunderstood thingy, revisited

at 1:16 PM
Ezio brings up a good point in his latest post. Who does make the battle system of an action RPG 90% waiting to attack? Many great minds have asked this question, and one great mind shall answer: I do.

That's right, I invented Secret of Mana. I also wrote Jenseits von Gut und Böse, those little loopy things on the back of sneakers, and did the Crimean War. And of course, the "I" here is a figurative pronoun representing me, mine own person. Why did I do these things? Why have I once more set history ablaze with my meddlesome touch? Many great minds have asked this question, and one great mind shall answer: because I didn't.

See, the trick to Ezio's question here is in the phrasing. And don't get me wrong, I'm not picking on my fellow blogger - I've heard this complaint raised dozens of times and his misconception is one almost universal to those who've played the game. They aren't idiots - they just don't waste as much time thinking about games as I do. So back to that phrasing. Oh that phrasing. What's another way to say "waiting to attack"? "Keeping one's shirt on to assail?" Thanks thesaurus, that wasn't retarded. How about "to wait one's turn"? Hang on! Did you just say "turn"! You did, you said "turn"! I know that word!

The protagonist of this game was kind of an idiot, wasn't he?

In what kind of game does the player have to wait his turn? Perhaps a turn-based RPG? And what type of game is Secret of Mana descended from? Turn-based RPGs! So in fact, the percentage charge meter in Secret of Mana is just a manner of enforcing turns. You swing a sword, which is your turn, then you wait for it to recharge while the enemy gets his turn, and when you hit 100% again, you take another turn. Secret of Mana may take place in real-time, but it's still a turn-based game! Is it also an action RPG? A vague distinction, but I don't think it is, at least not in any meaningful way.

What really makes the turn-based aspiration of Mana overtly obvious is that the whole game runs on goddamn menus. Did you not notice? The ONLY aspect of the game that revolves around real-time player interaction is melee strikes. This battle system is much closer to what we see in Baldur's Gate through Dragon Age Bioware games. And guess what? It fucking sucks in those games and it fucking sucks here. It's BORING. You're in menus the entire time, and when you aren't you're just watching your character stand around. So Ezio wasn't wrong at all to complain, I just had to take a second to nitpick him. There's nothing lamer than a half-turn-based system.

K Jade Empire was like oooookay, but that's it

The modern action RPG was just coming into existence in the mid-90s when games like Secret of Mana were doing this experimentation with real-time. Even Chrono Trigger has its action elements, like sneaking around enemies, positioning, and interrupts. It may very well be as much of an action game as Mana. But these games are mere asides that never had the noticeable impact and imitability of contemporaries Ys, Zelda, and the Gaia trilogy, which define ARPGs as we now know them. Even the later Sword of Mana and (I believe) Seiken Densetsu 3 (a Japan-only entry in the series) play more like Zelda than the two Secret games.

Edit: I don't know how I got through a post about influential action RPGs without mentioning that hidden gem of hidden gems, Crystalis (get it? "gem", "crystal"?). This 1990 game developed by SNK of all people is to my knowledge the first proper top-down action RPG. It was so far ahead of the Mana games that it makes them look like a joke. And don't come at me with those stupid Nihon Falcom games or sidescrollers like Castlevania II, Crystalis had real combat, real character building and economy, and real quests.

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