I've been taking advantage of this layover in my natural habitat to visit the woods I've wandered through for my entire ambulatory life. In spite of its reputation as America's grease trap, New Jersey has some very nice public parks, and these places are probably the leading factor towards the retention of my sanity through adolescence and beyond.
Having spent most of this year in the Caribbean, a setting where the term "season" is employed almost exclusively in reference to cyclical variations in tourist traffic, it is wonderful (in the literal sense of the word) to be in an environment where the declination of the sun in the sky exerts such a profound influence on everything beneath it. Much has changed since my brief visit in June. The skunk cabbage is withering—first to come, first to go. The wood thrushes have turned in for the summer, but the cicadas are still going strong. I listen to the tinkling ground crickets in the afternoon and the katydids at night. The ragweed has begun to bloom in just the last few days, and I expect to spend a small fortune on antihistamines in the coming weeks. Even in the last ten days, I've noticed the air cooling somewhat. Sweating balls is a way of life in the Caribbean, and I can't say I mind going outside for half an hour or more and returning with dry clothes—but we'll see how much I'll be missing the subtropical kiln come January.
The other day I went for a walk in Hidden Valley, a park I've visited as regularly as possible since 2008, when I went on that fateful hike with my sister and her adorable reprobate friends. I forget what was on my mind: I was just letting my thoughts drift. Seeing my brains' refusal to pursue any one line for any length of time, my legs didn't see any reason why they should go on following a straight path, and when the gravel trail veered right, my feet carried me left, stepping over fallen trees and mud, swerving around briars and clumps of poison ivy. Eventually I found myself stumbling into a scrubby meadow, nearly invisible from the trail.
In all these years, I never had any idea it was there. I swear to god I heard this chime in my brain when I pushed into it.
I was excited to find it. First of all, meadows and scrublands are special places. You'll usually find a lot more biodiversity and activity than you would beneath the forest canopy, and if you're into birds, bugs, and reptiles, you're more likely to meet them in open, brushy spaces.
And there was the surprise, the joy of discovery. It is a very simple thing—but that which is fundamental must necessarily be simple, and the tickle of curiosity and the thrill of revelation are the basic somatic experiences from which trickled the accrued mass of abstractions, tools, and institutions we term "humanity." (So the myth goes, anyway.)
The moment, any moment, at which your world expands is charged with a juvenescent thrill—after all, what's the general experience of childhood but discovery and wonder? In my own case—and I'm certain I am not alone in this, I'm not the only one who spent more of his childhood than he probably should have playing Nintendo—that rush is mnemonically conjoined with impressions left by video games, particularly adventure games. Perhaps you still remember how you felt as you first pressed deeper into Norfair in Metroid. Found out what was on the other side of Belasco Marsh in Simon's Quest. Uncovered the airship in Final Fantasy and flew over the northern continents. Spotted the next island in StarTropics. If such experiences hadn't or couldn't penetrate so deeply into our psyches, all of us (and everyone else) would have stopped playing video games long ago.
The acme of early adventure games was The Legend of Zelda, famously designed to evoke Shigeru Miyomoto's recollection of wandering the Kyoto countryside during his boyhood days. When a thirty-something from Jersey is struck by a reminiscence of Zelda simply by ambling off the trail in the woods, you can't say Miyomoto's effort was anything less than a total success, fulfilling the tacit promise of its gold cartridge. It's a game made of secrets. Bomb the walls. Push the blocks. Candle the bushes. Follow the clues. When you find a place you didn't know was there, you can almost always be certain you're on the right track. That lesson leaves a deep mark on a young mind.
Huh. This has been a rather tortuous path towards the game I actually want to talk about.
Sometimes, being in certain types of settings cues me to remember video games I used to play. It happens much less often than it used to, but the tendency is far from extinct. When I visit the hospital to get my blood drained (so that its ever-increasing iron content won't poison my organs and turn my skin yellow), I occasionally think of Parasite Eve. When I was living in the Caribbean, every now and then I'd look out from the shore at the islands in the distance and recall Chrono Cross. When I'm out in the woods, fields, and hills of the northeastern United States, and my surroundings (in and of themselves) trigger recollections of a game that had me under its spell during my early adolescent years, that game is Secret of Mana.
Okay. Here's the thing: Legend of Zelda is far superior to Secret of Mana. Any griping about the original Zelda basically amounts to quibbling—it's very nearly a perfect game. Secret of Mana is not. The Japanese console RPG is inherently problematic: grinding, arbitrary chance, and dull repetition are braided into its very fibers, and what Secret of Mana does is take the fundamental wonkiness of the console RPG and splice it with an adventure game in such a way that dilutes the effectiveness of both its constituent elements.
But Secret of Mana possesses something Legend of Zelda does not. It isn't anything for which Zelda can be faulted: the basis of the difference is purely technological. We can't criticize Miyomoto and company for not availing themselves of options that weren't available to them when they built the game in 1985.
But: look at the uniformly beige, featureless "floor" of the Hyrulian overworld. The water that doesn't flow. The trees that look like bushes. The rocks shaped like marshmallow peeps. It would not be fair to call Legend of Zelda's world lifeless or small—but when I, playing the game as a seven or eight-year-old, placed myself in Link's boots, in Link's word, my imagination less often took me to a realm of high fantasy than to a suburban neighborhood like the one I lived in, a landscape composed of grassy lawns, sleepy streets, playgrounds, fences, backyard swimming pools, pachysandra patches, juniper hedges, forsythia bushes, tool sheds, vacant lots, and secret bike paths, all hemmed in by busy avenues and the borderlines of parental sanction. To a seven or eight-year-old, these things are still invested with mystery and fascination. But I don't think Legend of Zelda ever transported me to any world but the one I already knew.
Strange. In retrospect, I had a habit of bringing one world with me into the other. While playing outside, I frequently imagined myself in a video game. When I played video games, I projected myself and my world into them.
But I had a hard time doing that with Secret of Mana. Its world had too much personality to be prone to the imposition of my own. It was one of the first times I found this to be the case, but definitely not the last. As video games became capable of presenting more vivid and comprehensive worlds, I was more constrained to take them at face value.
Or perhaps my powers of imagination were on the wane. That will happen.
Socksketeer John (Crono Maniac) recently played Secret of Mana for the first time and hated it. It almost seems heretical. Secret of Mana is still a very well-regarded game. Whenever a retro gaming website gets around to ranking the best games in the SNES library, you can usually expect to see Secret of Mana placed in the top twenty. IGN, for what it's worth, ranks it as the fifteenth best RPG of all time. It's number ninety-one on 1UP's "Essential 100" index. John wasn't having any of it, though. It was shallow, he said. Boring. Frustrating. All fluff and no substance. The "secret" of Mana, he said, was that the whole thing is just a damn lie.
To understand why older players remember Secret of Mana so fondly, you really had to have been there. John surely would have had a marvelous experience with the game if:
1.) It was 1993–4 and Secret of Mana was one of the only ARPGs in existence.
2.) It was 1993–4 and Secret of Mana looked and sounded better than pretty much any video game to have ever hit the market.
3.) It was 1993–4 and John was between eight and twelve years old.
I was ten years old. It was summer vacation, and a kid named Willy moved in across the street from the brothers Jeff and Scott. Every few days we'd all convene at Willy's house for a Super Soaker fight, and then when we got bored or cold we went inside and watched Willy play Super Nintendo. He was inordinately keen, I felt, on Ultraman: Towards the Future. I could much more easily appreciate his penchant for Super Metroid. And he'd just gotten a new game, and was eager to show it off to us.
I remembered seeing the commercial for Secret of Mana a few times during the previous fall, but that's where my knowledge of the game began and ended. Then Willy popped in the cartridge. I observed a boy and a girl walking through the woods, and I recall being astonished at the bright exuberance I saw radiating from every pixel. The sunlight undulating on the surface of the water. The grass and flowers swaying in the breeze. The vitality with which every animated movement was invested. Example: treasure chests. In basically every other adventure game made prior to 1993, opening up a treasure box consists of placing your character beside it and then pressing the "A" button to activate a clicking sound and the instantaneous swapping out of the "box with closed lid" sprite with the "box with open lid" sprite. In Secret of Mana, Randi picks up the chest, shakes it to hear what's inside, and then throws it back on the ground to pop the lid open. And the shopkeepers: we're all probably familiar with the ubiquitous grizzled merchant in a smock walking in place behind a store counter. In Secret of Mana, the shopkeepers wear Middle Eastern garb. And they dance. All day. When you walk into their shop, when you conduct your transactions with them, as you're making your exit after they say "be seeing you," they stand at the counter and dance. Secret of Mana exuded a joi de vivre that made Legend of Zelda, Final Fantasy, Shining Force, and Phantasy Star seem positively sterile by comparison.
I'm pretty sure I can guess the conversation Jeff and Scott had with their parents after that afternoon at Willy's: "Mom, Dad, we know Christmas is five months away, but we already know what we want and what we want is a Super Nintendo." They were co-oping their way through Elinee's castle and battling the dreaded Spikey Tiger before New Year's. Two blocks up the street, I was busy playing Shining Force II, which had appeared under the Christmas tree in a package with a sticker reading To Patrick, From Santa. No believer is more zealous in his faith than a proselyte, and the act of selling my NES and all its games at a garage sale two summers before had been the shahada of my conversion to Sega fandom. ("There is no console but Genesis, and Sonic is Its mascot.") I was still too orthodox in my sectarian convictions to commit the venal sin of inviting a Nintendo console into my home, but Secret of Mana aroused the first tinges of console bicuriosity.
Elsewhere. Meanwhile. One of my best friends since third grade had been a kid named Ryan. Sometimes he came over and I'd show him my Genesis games. Sometimes I went to his house and he'd show me his SNES games. We were ski club partners. I'd spend weekends with him up at his father's house up by the New Jersey/Upstate New York border. We slept in a tent in my backyard. When we were in each other's classes, we'd sit next to each other and draw comics about a superhero team of anthropomorphic dogs and cats. I'd draw two panels, pass the page to him, and he'd draw the next two.
I don't remember quite how we started playing Secret of Mana; I think maybe I borrowed Jeff and Scott's copy, since at that point they'd beaten it several times and maxed out everyone's weapon and magic skills. They weren't using it. I do remember, though, that Ryan and I were in the fifth grade.
I had the cartridge. Ryan had the console. We'd get together once or twice a week to play it together. Sometimes I'd bring the game to his house. Sometimes he'd bring the console to my house. It was our game, a veritable symbol of our friendship. It was a game both of us loved to death, and the only way either of us could play it was with each other.
Like I said, Ryan and I were both in fifth grade. That's one year away from the sixth grade, which is the first year of middle school. Nobody I've ever known thinks back on middle school very fondly; that's the academic period coinciding with the most volatile biological period of the human lifespan. Fifth grade was when they ushered the boys in one room and the girls in another, and showed us different videos warning us what we ought to expect as the incoming deluge of pubescent hormones mutated our bodies and warped our emotions.
It was already beginning. The first fatality of my transition to adolescence was my friendship with Ryan. It was a gradual drift. Little by little, he started getting on my nerves. I can't even tell you why. Seeing that I was pulling away, he became more ardent in seeing me, talking to me, reaffirming our indissoluble friendship, and that just put me off even more.
During the summer between fifth and sixth grade, Ryan spent a month up at his father's house. All year I'd been doing extra chores and saving my allowance, and I finally bought a Super NES. While Ryan was away, I started a new save file and beat Secret of Mana on my own. Every second of the experience was an ecstasy.
Ryan came back from his dad's at the end of the summer. The memories are dim. I know I didn't tell him point-blank. Maybe he mentioned Secret of Mana during a conversation we had after his return, and I said something about the Mana Fortress or the endboss. I remember clearly that Ryan seemed wounded when he realized I finished the game without him.
School started not too long after that. By January, Ryan and I were no longer speaking.
These screenshots you're seeing were trawled from a the hard drive of a defunct laptop containing all my old emulator files, all the screenshots I took for all the Square games I've done writeups about. There's a folder called "SOM_E" and in that folder are over 1600 Secret of Mana and Secret of Evermore screens. At some point I intended to do a pair of writeups about it and its Square USA pseudo-sequel (a game I liked, for the record), but even at a time when I was really into writing giant essays about video games, I just couldn't get a Secret of Mana writeup off the ground.
What's there to analyze about Secret of Mana, really? We can talk about how it's a multiplayer adventure RPG from a period when that sort of thing wasn't at all common. We can iterate its history—how it was originally intended to be a CD-ROM game, how it was the final SquareSoft title programmed by Nasir Gebelli, how producer Hiromichi Tanaka thinks of it as a sequel to Final Fantasy III. And we can observe its inimitable aesthetic, its vibrant imagery, its (extremely effective and manipulative) soundtrack, and all its neat little stylistic quirks: how all its spells are essentially summon magic (a'la Final Fantasy III), the replacement of most of the usual "texts in boxes" RPG menus with infield pictorial inventory rings, the swapping of potions for candies, the substitution of charter boats for the Cannon Travel network, and the airship with an anime interpretation of The NeverEnding Story's Falcor.
And then what else is there to pick apart? You have a threadbare, cliché-saturated plot largely consisting of a prolonged FIND THE NINE THINGS fetchquest, one-dimensional characters, attempts at emotional payoffs that the narrative usually can't cash, far too many enemy/boss recolors for a proper adventure game, a combat system that's maladroit to begin with, and borked as soon as Popoi learns magic (it gets even worse once he can summon Luna to cast MP Absorb), and the same weapon/magic skill advancement system used in Final Fantasy II—which was also THE WORST PART OF FINAL FANTASY II. The whole game is a dragged-out series of crawls through landscapes and dungeons that are neither as well-crafted nor as interesting as those in the Zelda series, and don't demand the resource management or combat tactics of old-school Final Fantasy. You walk, you whack enemies, you move on to another gorgeous but essentially empty place with another perfectly haunting background tune. Then you meet a boss recolor and chaincast until it dies.
Maybe the reason I couldn't bring myself to do a Secret of Mana writeup was because I knew if I were to approach it honestly, I'd have little choice but to conclude it wasn't such a great game after all.
All Secret of Mana really has going for it—except for the much-lauded multiplayer option—is its powerful aesthetic. Viewed in light of what was possible at the time, it's an exceptionally beautiful game. The developers seem to haven taken especial care in crafting the outdoor areas, making them seem as resplendent and alive as their ingenuity and the SNES hardware would allow. The game evinces an almost Shintoist reverence of nature: gorgeous natural environments are interspersed with visits to shrines (housing the holy Mana Seeds, one of many manifestations of a salient arbor motif) and meetings with a pantheon of elemental deities. Any location that isn't outdoors, a Mana Seed temple, or a little village is usually a province of evil (and if it features advanced technology, it's veritably satanic).
Secret of Mana has always been, to me, a game about running around in the woods. So was Legend of Zelda—but the hardware limitations of the NES decided for Miyomoto that it would convey the essence of his experience by creating a game in which the player's goal was to take a long, observant walk through its world, approaching it with the empirical curiosity of a child looking under rocks and turning over logs. Secret of Mana's creators primarily used sounds and images to evoke the magnificence and mystery of a youthful foray into the natural world.
Secret of Mana's spirit-haunted world, its ebullience, and the splendor of its idealized landscapes overpowered my imagination. Its world was recognizable, and yet—better than what I recognized. When James Cameron's Avatar played theaters back in 2010, there were reports of viewers experiencing depression after seeing the film. Perhaps you remember this post from an Avatar Forums user: "When I woke up this morning after watching Avatar for the first time yesterday, the world seemed grey. It just seems so meaningless. I still don't really see any reason to keep doing things at all. I live in a dying world."
I guess I can relate to that: I felt the same way about Secret of Mana for a while. It's ridiculous, absolutely, but early adolescence is a ridiculous age, and an awkward and difficult one.
Since that summer at Willy's house I'd grown enough to walk down to the forest trails on my own, and I visited them almost every day. They refreshed me; there weren't many other places in this world I'd have rather been. But somehow they just weren't enough. I'd reach one of the trail heads and follow the path, listening to the incommunicative rustling of leaves, crickets' trills, the murmuring of the creeks. No matter which trail I took, I always came out back where I began: the same shabby suburbs of the same shabby world, and I had no choice but to walk back home and get started on math homework or a report on a book I wasn't really interested in reading. What I wanted was to go into the woods and keep going, and never come out.
Secret of Mana's premise carries a conceit that possessed me for some years: the idea that an eleven, twelve, or thirteen-year-old boy could leave home with nothing but the clothes on his back (and perhaps also a rusty old sword), and go into the woods and follow the trail to incredible places and impossible things—and somewhere along the way he might meet a stranger telling him she's been waiting for him, that destiny has chosen him for a very special task. It would have been a desperately welcome change of pace from going to school, which was growing inexorably more miserable for me, or from having to turn off the SNES to get dragged to church, Boy Scout meetings, allergy shot appointments, or any of the other obligations that required me to get in the car and be driven somewhere I didn't want to be, along asphalt roads skirting the edges of all the woods I'd explored, all of their trails invariably leading back to the same places in the same world I was getting sick of.
I can't remember when the world became so intolerable to me. Middle school, probably. But that was just a stage in a process that had begun when I was old enough to speak. The course of childhood development is a gradual collapsing of infinite possibility. A more concrete understanding of reality entails that reality becoming more constrictive.
By the time I was replaying Secret of Mana (once again by myself) in the seventh grade, I felt oppressed by what was real. Interminable mornings and afternoons in the same dour school building, daydreaming through classes I had no interest in taking and in which my grades were getting worse and worse. My classmates, who'd seek your approval one day, and tear you down for the next three to secure the others' approval. The crumbling kennel I worked at part time, scraping dogshit from cement floors. The leering empty eyes of the blurry jpeg women I gazed at on the computer late at night. The blight killing all the trees in the backyard. My parents' divorce and their arrangements. Asshole boy scouts. The musty closets at the church I still went to, though I'd realized the God story was as insubstantial as Santa Claus, and nothing meant anything, the whole planet was a musty junk closet. After-school detention and in-school suspensions and Serious Talks with Very Concerned teachers and school administrators. Squalid locker room rumors about who was blowing who, the mall because where else can one go with his friends after dark, silverfish in the basement and no good games on the N64 and who are my real friends anyway. Boredom. Loneliness. The ossified immutability of the world. Sameness. Flatness. Pointlessness.
I'd still walk down to the creek after school a few days a week, surrounding myself with trees whose names I didn't know, birds whose calls I never really listened to, insects I ignored, events I was too impatient to perceive. I'd drop some rocks in the water, and wonder what the point was, what was the fucking point of anything. Often I'd think about Secret of Mana and wish I was there instead of here, that I could walk along the creek and it would somehow lead me out, to someplace brighter than New Jersey. Then I'd follow the trail that always took me back home, blow off my homework, and play video games that took me to better worlds, where things were often more interesting, if not beautiful, where I felt a sense of purpose.
I wonder: did I escape to video games because I had a hard time getting on in the real world? Or did I have a hard time getting on in the real world because I so frequently escaped to video games?
Anyway, it was a while before things got any better. I won't bore you with the details, and Secret of Mana becomes progressively less important to the story. But I got through it, I grew up, the circumstances changed, my perspective expanded somewhat.
I guess maturity—if I can rightly attribute such a quality to myself—entails a recalibration of expectations. When I was very young, I didn't have to imagine the spirits, stories, and magic pulsing through the forest. After a while, I had to imagine. When I could no longer imagine, I was disappointed and angry, and stayed in to play video games. And after a while...
What? I wonder what changed? When did reality become enough? (Well—close enough to enough, anyway.)
Something to examine later on.
Secret of Mana holds a place in my heart because, for a while, it was a tantalizing vision of a perennially green and happy and haunted world that seized me at an age when I was susceptible to video games and visions. That's the explanation in a faerie walnut shell. The TLDNR version would just be "nostalgia," but there's an inescapable dishonesty to that word—it's an evasive simplification of a complex set of circumstances and of sentiments that tend to grow more ambivalent as they're examined.
What did I find in the meadow? A toad. A pile of grasshoppers. Some healthy-looking white birches. An eastern bluebird. And I found out that the clearing is part of an unofficial, unmarked trail frequented by local mountain bike enthusiasts.
As I left the meadow, I was surprised to find something else: a species of damselfly I'd never seen before. (Blue-fronted dancers, I later found out.) There were three of them, flitting around near the bike path, and I sat down to watch. A small cloud of mosquitoes had followed me over from a marshy corner of the meadow, and bloodsuckers love a stationary victim. The dancers—they move like butterflies, but they're as well-fitted for predation as a hyena or panther are within their respective niches—one by one, they snatched the mosquitoes out of my airspace, carried them to the branches of a fallen tree limb nearby (close enough that I could observe the movement of their jaws) and devoured their victims, grasping them with their forelimbs like blood-swollen hoagies. I sat there for half an hour, baiting the mosquitoes while the dancers returned for their second, third, and fourth courses.
After finishing his last serving—which I subsequently realized was the last of the mosquitoes—one of the dancers landed on my toe and remained there a minute, as though to say "pleasure working with you, it's been real." Then it leapt out of sight, and I was once again alone in the place.
Yes, I know, I have hairy toes.