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Video Game History: The Mana Series


We all have that one video game series that draws us back for each iteration regardless of how terrible or ill-conceived as they might be. Some of you may return to each iteration of Call of Duty or Final Fantasy expecting dramatic improvements only to be let down, but I return to the world of Mana hoping for things to return to their original formula. To understand why early entries in this ground breaking franchise are so fantastic, we need to examine the series’ roots.

Consider this article the Magic School Bus and me Ms. Frizzle. I plan to take you back through video game history and communicate the value of this beautiful action-RPG franchise start to finish. 

Game 1: Seiken Densetsu: Final Fantasy Gaiden (Japan)/Final Fantasy Adventure (NA)/Mystic Quest (Europe)/Sword of Mana (Enhanced 2003 Remake)

Final Fantasy Adventure, known as Mystic Quest in Europe and as Seiken Densetsu: Final Fantasy Gaiden was originally intended to be a handheld spin-off of the Final Fantasy series. Translated to “Holy Sword of Legend”, this title sets up the entire Mana Series. Being made for a smaller platform, several changes had to be made to the games structure. Rather than opting for traditional turn-based gameplay, Seiken Densetsu featured gameplay similar to that of the original The Legend of Zelda game, while adding role-playing statistical elements. A far cry from traditional Final Fantasy games, this title was technically the first Final Fantasy title to reach the PAL region. 

In this title, the world is threatened by a “Dark Lord” who conquests for Mana to rule supreme over the land. At his side is a mysterious wizard named Julius, who has secret motives. The hero, a gladiator whose parents were killed by the Dark Lord, is imprisoned by him and forced to fight daily for the Dark Lord’s personal entertainment. One day he escapes and by chance overhears the Dark Lord and Julius in their plans to seize the power of Mana. When they discover his escape, they chase and throw him over a waterfall to what they thought was his death.

Having survived the fall, the hero then saves a mysterious young Heroine from monsters and attempts to find the magical objects needed to defeat the evil massing against the Mana Tree (the world’s source of Mana). After defeating Julius and the Dark Lord the Mana Tree dies. The heroine sacrifices herself to become the Mana Tree and preserve the world (essentially becoming the goddess of this universe). The hero then becomes her Gemma knight and guardian.

Sword of Mana is an enhanced remake of the original Game Boy game. At the beginning of the game, the player is able to choose to play as the male Hero or as the female Heroine. They each have a different quest, but their plots remain similar. It should be noted that the plot of this game is very similar to the original, but with more emphasis on ethnic cleansing.

Despite being the progenitor of the Mana series, Sword of Mana incorporates many aspects of later entries. The game was made to resemble the graphical style of Seiken Densetsu 3, but the artwork rather resembles that of Legend of Mana. The ring system from Secret of Mana is featured once again, allowing players to choose various options on the field screen. The day-and-night system introduced in Seiken Densetsu 3 also makes a return and much like Legend of Mana, players can forge weapons, plant produce in an orchard, and read recorded events in the game’s “Hot House” feature.

Unfortunately, this game isn’t everyone’s taste. Purists believe the original to be superior in gameplay and the story’s structure hadn’t aged well since its initial release. Regardless, I’m currently playing it in my gameboy and would definitely recommend a play-through (especially if you’re a fan of the series).

Game 2: Seiken Densetsu 2 (Japan)/Secret of Mana (NA)

Rather than fall back on the typical turn-based RPG structure of it’s time, Secret of Mana utilized real-time battles while also employing select role playing elements and an innovative user interface. The “Ring Command” menu system that the series is known for was first implemented here. For the uninitiated, this menu pauses combat and allows a multitude of actions to be performed without needing to switch screens.  

Outside of of the Ring Command menu, the brightly coloured graphics, expansive plot, real-time battle system, modified ATB meter, and cooperative drop-in/drop-out multiplayer gameplay, all received considerable acclaim. It was also the first game to allow customizable AI - something that is still being incorporated into games today.

The plot is pretty cool to get into as well. Disobeying their Elder’s instructions, three boys from a small village trespass into a local waterfall where a treasure is said to be kept. One of the boys, the game’s protagonist, stumbles and falls into the lake where he finds a rusty sword embedded in a stone. Guided by a disembodied voice, he pulls the sword free, inadvertently unleashing monsters in the surrounding countryside of the village. The villagers interpret the sword’s removal as a bad omen and banish the boy from Potos forever. An elderly knight named Jema recognizes the blade as the legendary Mana Sword, and encourages the hero to re-energize it by visiting the eight Mana Temples.

Originally planned for the SNES CD-ROM add-on in development by Nintendo and Sony, the game ended up being altered to fit on a standard cartridge when the add-on project was dropped by Nintendo. Because of this, the overworld travel systems (cannons and Flammie the Dragon) seem far more advanced than a standard 16-bit console would be able to generate.

Secret of Mana has been on numerous all-time “best games” lists. It was listed at number 42 on Nintendo Power magazine’s Top 200 Nintendo Games Of All Time, as well as the 86th best game made on a Nintendo System. It was also rated number 48 on IGN’s “Top 100 Games” list in 2005, number 49 in 2006, and number 79 in 2007. Also in 2006, Secret of Mana was voted the 97th best game of all time by the readers of the well-known Japanese magazine Famitsu. Suffice to say, SoM is an excellent title and should be played by every RPG fan (which is easy, now that it’s available on iOS).

Game 3: Seiken Densetsu 3 (Japan)

Seiken Densetsu 3 is a very ambitious games. It features 3 lengthy main plotlines, 6 different characters (each with their own storylines), and a range of classes to choose from (which all provide exclusive skill sets and status progression).

A single variety of weapon is available for each character, and the “progression by means of use” present on the series’ previous game was removed from the weapons and magic systems; now the only factor which influences a spell’s damage is how high the character’s “magic” attribute and how low an enemy’s magical defense towards a special kind of magic is.

Level progression is coordinated by the player, as a choice is given regarding where to invest a character statistics point at every level up. A “class” system is also present. Once a character reaches level 18, he or she is able to go to a Mana Stone and choose a class to progress to - either a class aligned to “Light” or a class aligned to “Dark” - which provides a different set of skills and different improvements to character statistics. A second class change may be performed at level 38. The second change requires the use of rare items to be performed, and once again an option between a “Light” and a “Dark” is presented. Counting all possibilities there is a total of seven possible classes for every character, including the initial class.

Seiken Densetsu 3 also employs a calendar function into its gameplay. The seven-day week cycles much more quickly than an actual one (a day passes in a number of minutes), but it still affects gameplay in certain ways. Each day of the week is represented by a different elemental spirit. On that spirit’s day, magic of that element will be slightly stronger (a system formally copied in Sword of Mana).

According to Seiken Densetsu 3’s in-game lore, the Mana Goddess created the game’s world by forging the powerful Sword of Mana and defeating eight benevodons (God-Beasts in the fan-translation) with it, sealing them within eight Mana Stones, before turning herself into the Mana Tree and falling asleep. The game is set at a time when Mana starts to fade and peace has ended, as some people plot to unleash the benevodons from the stones so as to gain ultimate power, politically and magically. 

It’s a wonderful story that I’ve never had the pleasure of enjoying. The game was published in Japan and only came to NA Mana fans via a fan translation several years after its release. Sqaure has stated that bugging issues and space issues halted this games released in NA, but it’s believed that the release of Secret of Evermore was the real reason for the lack of an English version of this title. Which is a shame, because Secret of Evermore has nothing to do with the series and kinda blows.

Game 4: Seiken Densetsu: Legend of Mana (Japan)/Legend of Mana (NA)

While Legend of Mana is the fourth installment in the Mana series (and third to come to NA shores), it is actually considered to be a spin off title with Dawn of Mana acting as the fourth canonical title.

This game incorporates some action RPG elements from previous titles, but has its own distinct style of gameplay. Unlike previous titles, you had the ability to shape the game’s world of Fa’Diel as you see fit through the use of ‘artifacts’. The player uses artifacts found through the game to create different towns, dungeons, etc., to venture an explore. This creates a non-linear gameplay throughout he numerous side-quests attached to these areas, but also makes the plot suffer as a result (the 3 main plots do not necessarily need to be completed for the player to finish the game).

Legend of Mana is set in the fictional world of Fa’Diel. The Mana Tree, the giver of mana and life for the world, was burned down nine centuries prior to the events of the game. A war erupted between faeries, human, and others seeking the scarce power of mana that was left. When the war concluded, the drained Mana Tree slept and the many lands of the world were stored in ancient artifacts. The hero, is self-charged with restoring the world, and its Mana, to its former self. It presents an interesting backdrop, but nothing substantial is done with it.

Much of the game’s criticism stemmed from its substitution of mostly unrelated quests over a main storyline. There’s an overabundance of subplots and quests and all the main plots end up being superfluous. Had a stronger focus been placed on structure and plot, this title could have been amazing.

Game 5: Seiken Densetsu DS: Children of Mana (Japan)/Children of Mana (NA)

Children of Mana, known in Japan as Seiken Densetsu DS: Children of Mana, Children of Mana was the first release of the World of Mana project launched by Square Enix and was developed by Nex Entertainment under the supervision of Koichi Ishii. The concept of ‘World of Mana’ is to push the Mana series into different video game genres while still maintaining the core essence and mythos of the Mana series. Such as it is, the results are varied.

In the middle of the island of Illusia stands the famous Tree of Mana. Several years ago, a great disaster took place at the base of the tree and many lives were lost, leaving the main characters as orphans. A brave young boy and girl used the Sword of Mana to save the world from disaster. Now, years later, our heroes set out to investigate the details of the event that took so many loved ones away from them.

Unlike previous games in the series, Children of Mana is a dungeon crawler and the majority of the gameplay takes place in selected locations. These areas are reached by the player selecting them on the world map, and travels to them from the safe area of Mana Village by using Flammie (the Dragon and mainstay mana-beast of the series). The primary objective in each location is to clear the dungeon of monsters and the boss. As you can imagine, this get’s pretty tiring.

I love the art style implemented in this title, but it’s hard not to agree with the game’s critics when it comes to its tedious nature. Simply put, dungeon crawling gets boring and the story can’t hold its own. Unless you’re a diehard Mana fan, you won’t enjoy this title.

Game 6: Seiken Densetsu: Friends of Mana (Japan)

Friends of Mana is an online role-playing game for mobile phones. It has been released exclusively in Japan, and an international release is SUPER unlikely.

Friends of Mana takes place within ten years of the events of Legend of Mana. I can’t really comment on the game’s plot, gameplay, or mechanics, because I haven’t had the pleasures of seeing it in person. I will say that I dig the art style and would love to play it myself at some point.

Game 7: Seiken Densetsu 4 (Japan)/Dawn of Mana (NA)

Dawn of Mana was the long awaited fourth canonical entry in the Mana series. Release over decade after the previous canonical entry in the series, Dawn of Mana aimed to incorporate the beautiful music and art style of previous entries into a new combat system. It’s not for everyone, but it’s certainly the best entry in the ‘World of Mana’ campaign. 

Elements seen in Dawn of Mana are quite different from Mana games of the past. While it can be classified as an action RPG, it comes off as more of a platforming adventure game (in the same vein of Kingdom Hearts). The Havok physics engine used for the Mono system is likely my favorite feature in this game. Unlike Kingdom Hearts, DoM’s Havok engine implements realistic physics that allow you to change your combat and platforming approach.

Dawn of Mana opens on the fictional island of Illusia, a place where the giant Mana Tree lies dormant. Much of the story takes place on Fa’Diel, a continent composed of the five nations of Jadd, Topple, Ishe, Wendell, and Lorimar. According to producer Koichi Ishii, Dawn of Mana is the first game chronologically in the Mana series, showing the origins of both the Mana Tree and the Spirits of Mana (Officially, the game takes place 10 years before Children of Mana).

Most people praised Dawn of Mana’s graphics, music, and character design, but found fault with the unreliable controls and awkward camera. I personally really like the title and think most Mana fans would, although I did expect a lot more from the first numbered Mana title since Seiken Densetsu 3.

Game 8: Japan as Seiken Densetsu: Heroes of Mana (Japan)/Heroes of Mana (NA)

Heroes of Mana is the first tactical role-playing game attached to the Mana seriers and a prequel to Seiken Densetsu 3. It was born out of the desire to make a real-time strategy game similar to Age of Empires, StarCraft, and Warcraft: Orcs & Humans.

The game is a real-time strategy game (RTS) and is almost entirely a touch-based system. Players summon monsters to fight alongside heroes in order to accomplish objectives or defeating all enemies in the area. New equipment is obtained through completing story and bonus missions and finding it as hidden treasure. There are a total of 26 bonus missions, one for each mission of the story mode, as well as additional missions only available through the Heroes Ranking system. Overall, there is a lot of content here for hardcore RTS gamers.

Heroes of Mana sets the story in the same world and mythos as previous Mana titles. In Heroes players will control not one or two main characters, but dozens of “Hero” cast members that start as a loyal crew working for the region of Pedda; an enigmatic nation of the world known as the “Ancient Kingdom” by outsiders due to their impressive use of sorcery and lack of diplomatic relations with the outside world. After an early plot twist the game changes dramatically, as the young protagonist Roget bans together with his allies Yurchael, Qucas, D’Kelli, and Gemiere in a search for not only justice across the lands, but also answers to inexplicable questions about Pedda’s past.

Heroes of Mana isn’t for everyone. Hell, it probably isn’t for most Mana fans, but it does offer something different and actually does a decent job. 


The Mana Series has a lot to offer, but a majority of recent entries have fallen in the shadows of the original titles. To get back on track, I would recommend moving back to the gameplay structure of Secret of Mana and placing a greater focus on plot and character development.

Hopefully, we’ll see some amazing Mana titles again in the future.

Filed under dawn of mana children of mana heroes of mana legend of mana mana series mystic quest secret of mana seiken densetsu sword of mana