Legend of Mana

Title: Legend of Mana
Platform: PS1
Publisher: Square
Year: 2000

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Square’s PS1 library of games of one of my favorite things ever.

While the SNES JRPG library is home to some of the tightest, simplest, most charming, and certainly most nostalgic video games ever put together, Square’s output during the mid to late ‘90s is as tremendous as it is classic.

Final Fantasy VII, VIII, IX and Tactics, Xenogears, Parasite Eve, Vagrant Story, Saga Frontier, Front Mission, and Chrono Cross combine to make a list that is so multi-textured, so rich on narrative and world, so experimental in both gameplay and storytelling, and just so full of soul, elegance, and personality.

While most of Square’s PS1 games feature some level of grit and realism, with a focus on cinematics and high drama that was afforded with the new expansion in technology, there were a few outliers from that Square gray tone. Brave Fencer Musashi and Threads of Fate are two moderately great games that are bright and colorful, and then there’s Legend of Mana…

– – –

Legend of Mana is kind of cute in a charming way. Most of the enemies are round and look kind of silly, and everything boasts beautiful sprite animations. The game’s combat system really isn’t all that great. It’s more akin to an awkward beat ‘em up with RPG elements when compared to its predecessor, Secret of Mana, which was sort of a multiplayer action-adventure with RPG elements. Once you figure out the best rhythm to press the X button, all the bosses are pretty easy. Sometimes it’s tough to line up your character sprite with the enemy’s, which makes simple battles more annoying.

While the game features tons and tons of customization through crafting elements and the inclusion of a pet system (as well as a build-your-own-robot out of armor and weapons segment), the game is fairly easy and typical players will ignore most of these systems entirely, simply equipping whatever they find from enemy drops.

The game’s protagonist is a mostly silent, somewhat personalityless voyeur who finds him/herself in the middle of a series of absurd quests that only sometimes connect to tell an overarching story about some NPCs you barely know. The game is entirely made up of non-linear quests and has such little central narrative that I had to question why I was even fighting the final boss. Something about the world changing, an ancient war and the possibility of an apocalypse. Restoring the Mana Tree. You know. Nothing really led up to the final moments of the game, which apparently can be reached fairly early on due to the game’s non-linearity.

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Upon finishing certain quests, the player is granted with artifacts that can then be placed on a grid “world map” and which then turn into towns or dungeons that the player can then enter. There’s a complicated system behind the world map: it becomes important where and in what order the player places his artifacts in order to do everything in the game. I guess. I never really paid much attention to this system and still managed to complete every of the game’s 68 quests.

I never really paid attention to any of the game’s systems actually. I forged a sword and piece of armor at the crafting station when it became available and kept them for the rest of the game. I tried making two robots, but none of them did anything during battle despite my effort to tinker with the “Logic” crafting system, not that I needed much help. I did manage to catch a dragon and named it PanSteak. It did nothing for about half the time I had it. On rare occasions, it would randomly use its fire breath attack and obliterate everything. Imagine that. The story-related NPCs that join the party are more useful, but only barely.

In this regard, Legend of Mana has alright gameplay. I like it enough. There are several fetch quest-like events, but it never weighs down your soul the way some other games do. I do prefer the grind of the superior Secret of Mana, though.

– – –

While the game’s battle system etcetera are nothing notable, what this game excels at is its crystalline ability to allow players to participate in a world that is charming, vague, bizarre, absurd, often righteous, and completely aesthetically wonderful. The soundtrack, by legendary game composer Yoko Shimomura, does not have a single stale track on it, and the diverse areas to explore, while not designed particularly interesting in a gameplay sense, are a marvel to look at (and will recall to mind the watercolor stylized art from the SaGa Frontier games).

Playing through Legend of Mana is like having a twenty hour daydream. The most pleasant, JRPG-themed Impressionist daydream.

There has been an ever expanding number of games that have been described as dreamlike. NiGHTS…, Rez, LSD: Dream Emulator, and Yume Nikki are all dreamlike in the sense that they emulate the kind of trippy, unrealistic progression of dreams and feature psychedelic, illusory imagery. LSD and Yume Nikki focus on a nightmarish sense of isolation, an absurd dread, by presenting the player with endless, featureless spaces, whereas NiGHTS… is more in line with a Peter Pan whimsy.

These visual aspects of dreams are only part of what makes a dream a dream, though. Christopher Ames, in his The Life of the Party (cool book), asserts that dreams seem “organized by vivid images and dramatic moments…the shapes of dreams appears to be directed by repressed wishes and fears; dreams are weighted with a significance that we sense but do not understand.” I’m not going to argue that something like LSD: Dream Emulator doesn’t have a weighted significance that we sense but don’t understand, because I think it does, but Legend of Mana relies on more than just strange visuals and jarring feelings.

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Instead of being an isolating nightmare or floating acid trip, Legend of Mana is a pleasant dream, a carnivalesque convergence of every weirdo that has ever been in a JRPG. From foolish centaur poets to anthropomorphic cat “peddlers of smiles,” a race of utopian grass creatures that speak in apocalyptic prophecies, a wannabe Final Fantasy hero who might be abusive to his mystical vessel girlfriend but sincerely only wants the best for her, werewolf siblings battling it out in the depths of hell, a female religious leader blinded by love for a childhood friend turned demon lover, jaded fortune tellers, and even a brightly patterned floating disc with a Cubist face transcribed on it who suffers from his ignorant fatalist world views…it’s a true collection of all the outcast JRPG trope characters, all brought together in a motley world that you, for some reason, have to make right.

It’s the ultimate JRPG dreamworld where players must jump through the familiar hoops of typical plots, speak to typical NPCs, defeat typical monsters, and collect familiar loot, all in this floury and crumbling mythical daydream. I mean, it’s the kind of game where you can open a treasure chest in the middle of a jungle and find Rotten Meat inside it, then go watch a demi-god “Poet of Truth” and geometric plane debate about whether or not existence precedes essence.

Every character the player comes across is either a poet, artisan, egomaniac, philosopher, or demi-god, and much of the dialogue is lofty, vague, and gives the impression of that weighted significance. Characters often go on about mysticism, morality, and philosophy in a way that is difficult to follow simply because the conversation is usually cut short and seems incredibly outside the protagonist’s own space and narrative. The game itself does not have any particular messages, and like a dream, features a cacophony of opinions, thoughts, and ideals that never add up to one concrete meaning or message. Through the game’s metaphysical disposition, conversations and events feel otherworldly, and often without any real consequence.

Experiencing the game at times reminded me of watching El Topo, with its surreality and vagueness, its spirituality and moralizing that is always held out at an arm’s length. There is one scene where you escort a certain cat woman to one of the seven wisdoms, Gaeus, this giant creature made of mountain. She asks for advice concerning a friend she wishes to cure, but who does not want to be cured. She obviously expects the demi-god to figure out how to help the friend, but Gaeus instead tells the cat woman to let her friend die. All the while, you just stand in a corner and wait for the event to be over. I was actually surprised by the scene, too, because I did not realize the extent of the game’s complex morality, which often shifts depending on what NPC you are helping out. There’s even a Shin Megami Tensei choose-which-NPC-is-wrong-and-dies subplot, and just like the very best of SMT, every choice is incredibly questionable.

Despite some gloomy moments and the impending apocalypse, the game is often benign and gentle, and many of the quests are joyous and celebrate the companionship you attain from the different NPCs. Two of my favorite characters, the mellow monkey kid Capella and his slow-talking, half-record player friend Diddle often squabble about their life’s calling, which Capella believes to be itinerant street performing. Every quest that involves the duo has Diddle fall into this nihilist slump where he finds his life worthless, and the player has to help Capella go find him in some dungeon and encourage him to come back. The friendship between the two, as well as Capella’s bravery in the face of such daunting nothingness, is endearing.

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Most of the quests are nonsensical, but always feature great moments. One of my favorite moments in the game is when you first enter the Junkyard area (a maze-like pile of old toys, jack-o-lanterns, and heaps of kaleidoscopic garbage) and are presented with the Infernal Doll quest. You move through the Junkyard, fighting board game pieces and occasionally listening to this imp creature berate you for god knows what (an ancient war?), there’s a big battle at the end of the area, then you’re transported to somewhere called the Acropolis of Trash, where this mummy-robot who talks-like-this is having a tea party and tells you that what you did was justified because “The-toys-believe-that-to-die-is-to-be-saved.” And then fade to black. It’s sort of Alice in Wonderlandesque, but there’s something even more cryptic about this world, something archetypal and mystical and more than just fun and weird for the sake of fun and weird.

About halfway through this play-through of the game (I hadn’t played it since I got it probably nine or ten years ago), I realized that the game’s aforementioned qualities reminded me of “The Moon Rises,” a poem by Federico Garcia Lorca, which I’ll put here:

When the moon comes up

the bells are lost

and there appear
impenetrable paths.

When the moon comes up

the sea blankets the earth

and the heart feels
like an island in infinity.

No one eats oranges
under the full moon.

One must eat
cold green fruit

When the moon comes up

with a hundred equal faces,

silver money
sobs in the pocket.

Like Lorca’s poem (which I’ll probably bring up again for Majora), Legend of Mana is full of mythology without ever really directly discussing it in detail with the player. The myths are simple, assumed. The world in both poem and game follows a set of preordained, metaphysical and spiritual laws that are unknown and mysterious to the reader/player/silent protagonist. Much like in ancient human eras, many things are unknown and the world is undiscovered, ruled by forbidden gods with opaque rules. The game’s world unfolds as the player pieces it together, a titan’s board game, with all manner of monsters and prophets emerging from under its corrugated edges. Thus, the player’s imagination works as a sort of creation myth and allows the game (both narrative and gameplay) to continue to flow forward. The moon in Lorca can be compared to the player placing the artifacts on the world map, in that this repetition causes many unforeseen events to be born under even more obscure unforeseen rules.

Legend of Mana is full of repetition, as the player goes through the cycle of placing artifacts, watching the world grow, interacting with NPCs that change over the course of the game, and then waking up back in bed at the protagonist’s home. Video games and repetition have always had a close and complex relationship, whether it is replaying the first level of Super Mario Bros. over and over or playing through Majora’s Mask, and the repetitions in Legend of Mana embrace the dreamlike sentiments of the game, a recurring, familiar dream.

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Its wide strides of repetition have a cosmic sensibility to them that parallels the cycles of living and the cycles of the universe. This notion is supported by some of the Sproutlings’, the utopian plant people, dialogue. “We might look like separate beings, but we are one plant in our real dimension,” one of them tells you. The theme of natural interconnectedness is prevalent across all the Mana games, but here it is explored the most thoroughly. Ultimately, the game is about making connections with others and the natural world, be it through Mana, a “life stream,” religion or spirituality, though none of this is ever explicitly stated. For having such an incredibly complex morality, the game never pontificates to players, nor does it ever even talk very long about a single subject. Events and characters fly by, and the final moments of the game are like a sand mandala, ephemeral and so affecting.

Moving through the game’s dungeons and towns and interacting with the colorful cast is fantastic and surreal, a series of unending doorways into unexpected and unconnected existences dressed up in beautiful artwork and set to a great soundtrack. I laughed when I had to pick fruit in the orchard down the hill from the protagonist’s home and one of the fruit was shaped like a cat’s head and called an “apricat.” It’s so satisfying to defeat one of the game’s gigantic bosses and watch those thick azure experience crystals bounce on the ground, and to hear the ping they make when collected. It’s great when Bud, a little mouse of a magician who just wants to show off some “wicked spells,” is left at your house and he says “See ya!” There’s even an anthropomorphic cactus that lives in your bedroom and takes notes on your adventures in his diary, which you can read. He usually misses the point of the quest, or makes an accurate observation about how there was no point to the quest, and his notes are always humorous, light hearted, and kind…

– – –

…I had to go back to the game just now to reread Bud’s dialogue and ended up checking out a few of the towns, just to see if anyone had anything new to say. Niccolo, the cat merchant, was still waiting at the cafe in Geo for me. He said he wanted to go on an adventure and told me I was cruel when I declined. Nunuzac, the Cubist disc, was still teaching classes at the magic university, telling the students that the best magic attack is one that makes the enemy laugh and while he’s laughing, that’s your chance to run away. Bored students in those difficult to imagine outfits meandered around the school grounds. I checked the usual spots for Elazul, the brooding knight, and his crystal girlfriend, Pearl, but I still don’t know where to find them in the endgame. The world seemed humble and kind of sad without my presence, and it was tough to just turn off the PlayStation.

The Mana universe isn’t quite as interesting as Gaia or Ivalice, not quite as pure as any of the Dragon Quest games, nor as threatening as any of the Shin Megami Tensei Tokyo hellscape, but it’s just so damned charming and dreamy. After I finished Legend of Mana, I pretty much immediately popped Secret of Mana in the SNES just to prolong the daydream for a few more days–

    • It’s such a strange game…definitely worth the time of fans of JRPGs < 3

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