I've never been a huge fan of Role Playing games. I don't know, I really have a hard time investing so much time into them and I just lose interest after a while. But I have a soft spot for Square's SNES efforts (Breath of Fire doesn't count). But I recently finished one of their more popular ones: Secret of Mana. I have played Children of Mana previously beforehand, and needless to say I do not care for it. As such, my expectations were rather low, but I was a fool. Secret of Mana is one of my favorite SNES games, and probably my favorite RPG in general.
You control a young man named Randi. He and two other boys were exploring a waterfall outside their village to hunt for a treasure. Randi is separated from the other two after he falls while crossing the falls, and lands in a pond. Which happens to hold the legendary Sword of Mana, the weapon used to save the world eons ago. A voice beckons him to pull it from it's resting place, and Randi listens, removing the blade. When he does, all hell breaks loose. And so, he sets out on a quest to restore the Sword and restore order.
The gameplay is alot like the Zelda games, only with more RPG. Meaning, you explore a overworld consisting of many places and towns, and you have to clear out "dungeons" in order to progress in the game, solving the occasional puzzle, searching every nook and cranny, etc. but unlike Zelda, SoM adds a leveling system, a in-depth Magic system, upgradable weapons, and of course, statistics for Randi and his companions (more on that later).
The game functions like any other top-down game. You fight monsters in the overworld and dungeons with numerous kinds of weapons such as a whip, a bow, etc. All of these weapons can sometimes solve puzzles and uncover secrets in your environments, much like Zelda. Travelling quickly around the overworld involves shooting yourself around with cannons (awesome). As you progress in the adventure, Randi gains allies: A young girl named Primm, and a "Sprite Child" named Popoi. These two heroes lead to one of SoM's shining features: Cooperative play. Up to three people can control all three heroes, and the game is tailored well to Co-op. Slaying beasts and taking on bosses becomes alot easier and you don't have to worry about Primm and Popoi getting caught up on rocks whilst running through the fields.
SoM is mostly an action-adventure game, but a significant chunk is RPG styled. Randi and friends have a stamina limit on attacks, meaning after you swing your weapon, a percentage starts to quickly rise from 0% to 100%. Attacking while the gauge is below results in a weak attack, so you have to play defensively, thankfully the enemy behavior is tweaked to work well with this mechanic. Magic is a big part of SoM, and is used with a ring-based menu. You open the menu for either Primm or Popoi, select the type of Magic you want, select the spell, and let it fly. The way it's managed can get a little frustrating and sometimes tedious, but it really isn't a big problem.
SoM is a dynamo visually. Everything is well-drawn and colorful, and animates smoothly. The Mode 7 effects are clever, and the last boss encounter can be pretty intimidating (and confusing). The music is surprisingly atmospheric and moving, the score grabs you as soon as you start the game. And the only other game that does that for me is A Link to the Past. And that's saying something.
As you can tell, Secret of Mana is an amazing game. There is very little to complain about. The visuals still hold up very well today, the music is incredibly atmospheric, there's co-op action abound, and most gamers, casual or hardcore, will eat this game right up. I think Square Enix is a husk of it's former self in this age, but back then Square really knew what gamers wanted. Secret of Mana proves that pretty well.