Game Changers: Volume 21 – Seiken Densetsu 2 (Secret of Mana)

For many gamers, their first experience of multiplayer gaming came in the form of Super Mario Bros. where one lucky player got to be Mario and whoever lost the coin toss got to be his green and white clone, Luigi. When Mario bit the dust at the hands of a hammer-tossing Hammer Brother or got knocked out by a rogue Koopa shell, player two got his chance to do the same thing while payer one got to watch. Thrilling stuff. Those who had a Sega Genesis had a rather better deal. In games like Altered Beast gamers could team up and play together i.e. at the same time in order to beat up monsters and turn into werewolves, dragons, and other beasties. RPGs, however, were rather less amenable to two-player gameplay. Dragon Quest I (aka Dragon Warrior), the first RPG in North America, had one-on-one battles from a first-person perspective. Basically if you had a sibling with you, your sibling was going to have to sit there and watch you play and you were just happy you were the elder one since you got to hog the controller.

For up to three players. Woot!
For up to three players. Woot!

The SNES era brought a new twist into RPGs: the multiplayer RPG, best exemplified by the classic Seiken Densetsu 2, known in North America simply as Secret of Mana (The first Seiken Densetsu game was renamed Final Fantasy Adventure as Square, at the time, attempted to sell games just by adding the words “Final” and “Fantasy” to them. See Final Fantasy Mystic Quest). Released in 1993, Secret of Mana is in many ways a classic action RPG, but the twist was that you could plug in controller two and have someone take control of one of the two other party members, who were otherwise controlled by AI. For any RPG fans with friends and siblings, or anyone who just hated AI, this was a godsend. A cooperative RPG experience — imagine that! And moreover, one that worked. There were some inconveniences involved in getting a third player in there of course; you needed special hardware to allow a third controller since the SNES only had two controller ports. But the system was simple and allowed two or three players to take on monsters together.

Can a boy, a girl, and a sprite actually constitute a 'band of brothers'?
Can a boy, a girl, and a sprite actually constitute a ‘band of brothers’?

A few other console games have attempted this, but with only limited success. In 1994 Final Fantasy VI allowed players to go into the configuration menu and set control of characters to player one or player two. But since battles were menu-driven rather than action-based as in Secret of Mana, the two player mode had a more limited appeal and was dropped from subsequent Final Fantasy games insofar as the main series was concerned. Square Enix didn’t give up on the idea completely and returned to it a decade later with Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles which was to become a sub-franchise. Again, as with Secret of Mana, action-based gameplay was preferred, though, unfortunately, gameplay was hampered by the need of a Game Boy Advance and link cables for each player.

These days, many gamers who wish to experience multiplayer RPG fun simply turn to the internet for a taste of multiplayer gaming of the massive variety, but for others, the appeal is in playing with the people sitting next to you. It’s a sort of bonding experience that comes out of cooperative rather than competitive gameplay, the chance to be comrades in arms: “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” (or sisters as the case may be). I’ll save you the rest of the St. Crispin’s Day speech. Suffice it to say that few games cater to this desire and fewer still have done it well. Secret of Mana stands out as one of the few, the happy few.

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