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Seiken Densetsu 3 – Super Nintendo

Seiken Densetsu 3 – Super Nintendo

Seiken_Densetsu_3_Front_CoverPlatform: Super Nintendo (SNES)

Developer: Square

Publisher: Square

Release Date: September 30, 1995

Genre: Action/Adventure, Role-Playing

Nerd Rating: 8 out of 10

I’ll admit, it’s not often that I dig out a deliberately Japanese game to review, and that’s usually because I like knowing what I’m reading and I can’t get past the second level of Ikaruga. I don’t have the innate reflexes to be a Japanophile video gamer, but for this review, I’m going to look at a hidden gem that I first enjoyed in my youth, called Seiken Densetsu 3 in Japan, and Secret of Mana 2 here in the United States. A forewarning to this review is that it was originally only released in the home country, but through the advent of digital distribution and the release of an unofficial fan translation back in 2000, this game saw a new audience open up that could appreciate its charming storyline and nuanced gameplay. This action RPG is still a favorite of mine to come back to when I feel up for some old-time console goodness, so in the spirit of sharing classics that should have been more popular, I’m going to share this with you now. Pick up the second controller and let’s go on an adventure!

From top-down, left to right: Duran, Kevin, Hawk, Angela, Carlie, Lise. Each vertical pair are linked by their own stories (e.g. Duran and Angela), leading to more interesting development if they're both in your party.

From top-down, left to right: Duran, Kevin, Hawk, Angela, Carlie, Lise. Each vertical pair are linked by their own stories (e.g. Duran and Angela), leading to more interesting development if they’re both in your party.

The consistent story of Seiken Densetsu 3 is that the Mana Tree, source of all magic energy in the world, is starting to die. Fairies from the Mana Holyland leave in a last-ditch quest to find the hero who can claim the Sword of Mana and restore the Holyland. However, at the same time, many different parties with evil agendas are moving to take advantage of this rare opportunity and take over, leading the whole world into a state of turmoil as peaceful cities are invaded without warning and brave souls are forced on epic journeys to save themselves and the ones they care about. This may sound generic at first, but when you take into account that there are multiple protagonists with the possibility of multiple endings and a multitude of party combinations and eventual class choices, you have a plethora of possible stories in this game, allowing previously unknown freedom to choose your own way to play the game. Riding on the heels of the original Secret of Mana, a rather quirky tale whose pacing jumps around so much that you’re likely to get hiccups from it, I believe these progressive choices really make Seiken Densetsu 3 stand out, and that it would have done very well overseas if Square had bothered to let it see daylight in global markets.

Lise, Hawk, and Carlie after a class change. Not only do their colors change, but their stats and abilities increase too!

Lise, Hawk, and Carlie after a class change. Not only do their colors change, but their stats and abilities increase too!

The gameplay of Seiken Densetsu 3 is in many ways similar to the original game and similar titles like Secret of Evermore, yet at the same time it’s very different. Rather than the emphasis on weapon choice and stamina, this game uses combat techs that charge up with every hit your character lands on an opponent, enabling you to deal more damage with less conditional requirements. It also uses a class changing system all its own, where at levels 18 and 38, your character can upgrade their class into a more powerful variant, changing their color palette and unlocking access to more powerful spells granted by the elemental spirits and combat techs. In this way, even the originally non-mage characters have ready access to spells and abilities, like Hawk being able to throw Shuriken as a powerful Ninja, or Duran being able to cast Heal Light as a noble Knight. In this way, with experimentation and good planning, you can make your party into anything from a spell-heavy mass enemy death machine to a force of pure might that cuts down bosses in record time. The techs and spells can be pretty fun to watch, too.

...Is that a giant snapping turtle...with a snorkel and goggles on? I don't even...

…Is that a giant snapping turtle…with a snorkel and goggles on? What is this, I don’t even…

This game doesn’t slouch in its graphical department, either. Making use of the, dare I say, “chibi” style encouraged by the graphical limitations of the SNES, Seiken Densetsu 3 still manages to deliver a strong story with classy characters, potent enemies, and breathtaking scenery. Enhanced with Mode 7 graphics and very good sprited animations, the characters and enemies move consistently and believably. The game has a day and night cycle with actual color transitioning through sunrise and sunset, which is not only very pretty, but one of the player characters and certain enemies get stronger at nighttime, so it has an actual in-game use apart from simply looking nice. The towns are warm and inviting, the wilderness immersive and colorful, the dungeons imposing and dangerous. The game’s linear path from the beginning eventually opens up to allow the player to take the fight to the enemy and go where they please, meaning that the whole world and all of its well-made environments and dangers are free for the player to see at any time.

"Come on, Craig, stop eating Cheetos and come back here so you can cast Saint Saber on me! The CPU won't cast spells by itself!"

“Come on, Craig, stop eating Cheetos and come back here so you can cast Saint Saber on me! The CPU won’t cast spells by itself!”

One of the most standout design choices of Seiken Densetsu 3, however, is the inclusion of co-op multiplayer. You have to remember, this was back in the days of the Super Nintendo, when Super Mario World didn’t even have Mario and Luigi running through the same level together, so the idea of an RPG having pick-up-and-play multiplayer is pretty revolutionary. Of course, the Secret of Mana series has actually done this since the beginning, along with the offshoot Secret of Evermore, so in-series it’s not much of a new thing, but compared with the rest of the SNES’s assortment of RPG titles, this is pretty groundbreaking. You could be playing this alone when a friend comes over, and invite them to start playing with you and you wouldn’t have to start a new multiplayer-only game or anything, just restart the console with the second controller in and get them in the game! They can help you with tough bosses and cast spells for you when the CPU wouldn’t be able to (you can set the CPU to prioritize certain techs over others, but there’s no way to configure their spellcasting ability). And it’s just a fun way to play with a friend! Me and a close buddy come back to this game every so often, and it’s hard to imagine it being any less fun in the future.

The bosses in particular are very well done, with reasonable hitboxes and challenging but fair attack patterns.

The bosses in particular are very well done, with reasonable hitboxes and challenging but fair attack patterns.

The soundtrack of Seiken Densetsu 3 is naturally great, this being a Square game and all, and they tend to know what works in terms of setting the mood for their landmark roleplaying games. Everything from the ambient to the boss themes are very well made and help to set the scene wherever you go and whatever you do. One of my favorite ambient tracks is Left Handed Wolf, theme of the rough and borderline feral beastmen, who clawed their way up from life as a fearful subhuman race to make their own kingdom in the Moonlight Forest and become a race that could stand strong in a human’s world. And one of my favorite boss themes is High Tension Wire, which is just all-out across the board, meant to hammer home that you’re in for an exciting and fast-paced battle! One of the standout battles where this plays is essentially a boss battle in mid-air! Since the name of the theme itself brings to mind a trapeze act, it definitely suits this particular clash well. Overall, Square did an excellent job as usual making a very memorable series of tracks for this game.

You can save your game at inns and at Mana Goddess statues. Gold statues also restore your health and mana points, if you're fortunate enough to find them.

You can save your game at inns and at Mana Goddess statues. Gold statues also restore your health and mana points, if you’re fortunate enough to find them.

All that said, there are some drawbacks to the Seiken Densetsu 3 formula that I’ve noticed during the recurring playthroughs. Combat techs and magic spells take priority over normal attacks, and their animations pause the combat as they happen, so later fights tend to devolve more into turn-based scraps than the dynamic action roleplaying game style that dominates the early game, especially if you have a mage-heavy party. Some players may find this not so harrying, but try being the only melee guy in a group when your mage partners are halting your attacks every two seconds so that they can release spells. Other times, the linear plot can be difficult to follow, with some triggers demanding that you run into set encounters and talk to specific people in towns, and this has tripped me up a number of times over the course of the game. The true “Wait, What?” moment comes when your party has to find a very specific artifact that was lost to time, only to find that some old woman at the world’s affectionately-named Black Market is just waiting to give it away so she can go back to sleep. Having mentioned the worst offender of lateral thinking, most of the other instances are likely cases of Your Mileage May Vary. Some players may get lost because they didn’t talk to everyone, other players may find it blatantly obvious, but either way, it’s a detail worth mentioning objectively.

What do I think of this game? Seiken Densetsu 3, or Secret of Mana 2, however you like to say it, is a very well-made action RPG in a fun and charming style, with a classic story delivered from many different viewpoints and gameplay that was innovative for its time. Encouraging experimentation with party builds and class choices, you’d have to deliberately try to make any two playthroughs of this game play out exactly alike, so the replay value alone should be worth giving it a second and third play of, especially if you want to see all of the possible endings! And if you’re just looking for something that’s fun to play with friends, you’re in the right place for that too, because very few RPG games for the Super Nintendo let you bring a buddy to help save the world with! I personally hold this in the SNES RPG callback section next to Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI, and I think if you give this a try, you’ll start to see why. So go ahead, explore, find this game, and enjoy. And don’t worry: the mythical, world-ending Sword of Mana isn’t just sitting in some random lake this time.

Seriously, Secret of Mana, why would you leave something like that just lying around? I just don’t get you sometimes, man.

Written by Action Zero

Action Zero spends his time relaxing in his Stratocaster-pink Starjammer, listening to New Retro Wave tracks and planning to get back in touch with the Hell Riders of the Milky Way for some beers and an intergalactic drag race or two. Played by Reb Brown in the historical documentary “Space Mutiny”.

 
 

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