Tag Archives: childhood

FGC #459 The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening (Switch)

Note: This article contains spoilers for a game that is either twenty years or one month old. To be clear, the spoilers are not for anything you wouldn’t find in the Gameboy version. You have been warned.

Adventure Time!Forever just isn’t as long as it used to be.

The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening is an amazing game. Within the confines of the meager Gameboy, Link experienced one of his most enjoyable and surprisingly expressive adventures. Link saves the day by venturing through Koholint, a mysterious island home to friendly villagers, the occasional demon round boi, and no less than twelve billion moblins. Items of note include a giant catfish that hides an equally giant worm, a walrus that is always happy to hear a song, and a golden leaf (or maybe five). Oh, and there’s that gigantic egg at the top of Koholint’s highest peak. Assuming Link is capable of collecting all eight of the magical instruments (that’s seven more than usual!) strewn around the island, he’s told he will awaken the Wind Fish, and the dream that is Koholint Island will fade to nothingness. Every one and every thing Link encounters across his adventure is ephemeral, and will disappear should his quest succeed.

And that makes me sad!

Which, ultimately, is the point. LA’s Koholint Island is, when you stop to think about it, one of the absolute nicest places Link has ever visited. Yes, there are monsters, and, yes, the rules of life and death appear to be controlled by a lesser Mario villain’s song, but, aside from a few existential horrors, Koholint is a pretty nice place. You can hang out in a pastoral village, enjoy a walk on the beach, or even have a conversation with a welcoming (and surprisingly verbal) rabbit. SING ITAnd even if Link decides to just stay in the Dream Shrine for the rest of the day, there’s a very real feeling that life on Koholint can go on without him. Granny has her sweeping to do, an alligator is busy working on his art, and lovers are catfishing each other with snail mail. And then there’s Marin. Sweet, doomed Marin…

Marin is the first person Link meets on Koholint, and, incidentally, the first woman in the franchise to rescue Link for a change. It is Marin that drags the sea tossed Link back to her cottage, and nurses him back to health after his near-death experience. And when Link is up and adventuring, it is once again Marin that is not only the most useful villager across the quest (learning music is fun!), she’s also the woman that spends the most time with Link. They play crane games together. They smash pots together. They even bond over a shared love of fried chicken. Right down to Marin’s very vocal desire to be free and see the world, it’s clear that you, the player, are supposed to feel a bond with Marin, and maybe even the slightest bit of empathy for this monochrome NPC. Your quest will wipe her from existence, and, only if you’re really good will you be rewarded with the possibility that Marin escaped her fate by becoming the trashiest of trash birds.

But, whether you keep Link immaculate or not, the Marin you know is gone at the end of Link’s Awakening. And nothing is going to change that. Marin was never real in the first place, and you’ll never see her again.

HERE WE GOAnd the Zelda franchise/Nintendo held true to this rule for decades. Marin only reappeared as a trophy (literally, to be clear) in Super Smash Bros Melee, and did not return in any other form, playable, cameo, or otherwise. Marin clearly influenced Malon of Ocarina of Time, but the young lady obsessed with cows shared very little in common with the songstress of the seas. And, if you squint, you can see how Link’s sister Aryll (of Wind Waker) shares a few superficial similarities with the girl of Link’s dreams. But aside from those allusions, Marin, like all of the friendly faces around Koholint Island, was gone forever, another unfortunate casualty of having never existed at all. Papahl, Kidoh, Lattie, Mamasha, Madam MeowMeow, and even Old Man Ulrira are all gone from the franchise, too; but Marin’s absence is felt most keenly. She was more interesting than the titular Zelda, people! Bring her back!

And now Marin returns in the Switch version of The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening. She’s back. She’s adorable. And she’s singing her lil’ heart out.

So why am I sad to see one of my favorite characters all over again?

CHOMPWhen you get right down to it, Link’s Awakening needed a remake. Yes, the obvious issue with LA was that it was initially designed for hardware that could barely support an entire Mario Land, but the controls of Link’s Awakening needed an upgrade much more than the graphics or sound. The A/B system of LA was a genius callback to the original adventure, but there’s a reason The Legend of Zelda never let you switch out your sword. Yes, the option of bomb arrows is always nice, but there are way too many places in OG LA where you have to switch out your feather for some boots and then over to a power bracelet and whoops there’s an enemy maybe you need a sword or some bombs. I hate pausing! A modern remake of LA would allow for mapping the constantly used items to constantly used buttons (what is even the point of giving Link a jump if it’s a pain in the ass to use?), and then maybe an island filled with pegasus blocks would be less than annoying. Link’s Awakening was always a shining rupee in the Zelda crown, but some QOL improvements could make it pretty amazing.

And they did! Link’s Awakening: Switch Because Apparently Subtitles for Subtitles Are For Nerds is a pretty amazing experience. The graphics are adorable and appropriately “just wrong enough” for a dream world, the music (mostly) captures the original haunting isolation of LA’s best tunes, and, yes Virginia, there is an excellent control redux. None of it is absolutely perfect (Roc’s Feather should simply be a permanent RT, and why I can’t use the damn cross-pad is some Phantom Hourglass-level nonsense), but this is indisputably the best version of one of the best Zeldas available. It’s a joy to play, and revisiting sunny Koholint is a welcome change of pace from Link’s usually dour dungeons (or that one Hyrule that is not doing great).

So what’s the problem? If I had to put a point on it, I’d say it’s the ending:

GOOD END

The finale of the original Link’s Awakening was something I saw a billion times. LA was one of my few Gameboy games, and I played the living hell out of it through a Super Gameboy. When I was finally allowed my first actual Gameboy, I reamed every last bit of gameplay out of that gray goober. I must have beaten that game literally hundreds of times, and I must have seen “Seagull Marin” about 80% of those times (hey, I didn’t know dying was a bad thing when I was a kid). And, no matter how many times I beat Link’s Awakening, it always made me sad. Marin was gone forever, and, as the years went on, I was only ever reminded that Marin would never return. She was dreamstuff in the first place, and to the shores of The Dreaming she would always return. Sorry, Bob, time to move on to other adventures.

But Link’s Awakening Switch stirs a different feeling in me. That feeling? “Oh, there she is again.”

For a solid two decades, Marin was nowhere to be found. Then, in 2015 (or so), she rolled on in…

BAD END

Yes, she appeared in Link’s sexual awakening, but she was back! There was much rejoicing!

Now, four years later, she’s back in the remake of Link’s Awakening. And now when I see her ending, I don’t feel the same melancholy as before. I experience the unmistakable sensation of “wonder what she’s going to do next for Nintendo?” We saw Hyrule Warriors DLC, so will she be in the inevitable sequel? How about an amiibo? Maybe Nintendo will take the Link Between Worlds route and make an outright Link’s Awakening 2: Koholint Boogaloo. Regardless of future plans, this is less a downhearted finale, and now more Marin isn’t going to be gone forever ever again, dear player, and here’s a little reminder.

FLAP FLAPAnd, yes, it is entirely possible I’m just being cynical about this whole situation. Link’s Awakening: Switches Get Stiches was an amazing game, and I really shouldn’t be complaining about it because Nintendo has an overzealous marketing department. But, on the other hand, I do have to turn the game off. And when I do, I see Cloud Strife advertising his latest adventure (which is the same adventure, but maybe different[?]), Disney advertising their latest live action remake of a beloved cartoon from my childhood (probably The Rescuers Down Under this week), and freaking Boo Berry returning to store shelves because nostalgia even sells breakfast-themed sugar snacks. It’s a little bit hard to believe that Nintendo is going to let any part of Link’s Awakening “rest” when I’ve got seventeen different Link amiibos staring back at me. Come to think of it, the LA Link on the official Nintendo Amiibo website is listed as part of the “Series: The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening”. So I’ve got a general idea where that phrasing is going…

Yes, I’m actually complaining about more content being provided from a franchise/game that I deeply enjoy. Yes, this sounds like the most first of first world problems. But stories should be allowed to end. Endings should be allowed to be sad without tacking on an ellipse and a question mark. Or, at the very least, I should be allowed to enjoy a piece of media without being reminded it’s just one cog in an unstoppable machine meant to grind me down until I am simply blood and an open wallet. The nostalgia advertised for so many of these projects is less dopamine and more poison when the threat of further, costly adventures is on the horizon.

I’m just an old man complaining, but I’m old enough to remember when a Zelda game ended, it meant it ended. Forever.

FGC #459 The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening (Switch)

  • System: Nintendo Switch. I reserve the right to review the original at some point in the next 100 FGC articles.
  • Number of players: Does dungeon sharing count? Let’s just say one.
  • SpicyGravediggin’: Oh yeah, the big, new content for Link’s Awakening is Dampé providing a “build a dungeon” area. It’s… kind of weird to have a “real” Hyrule inhabitant on Koholint. Regarding the actual dungeon building, I want to say this might have been better received if it was touted as a “Link’s Awakening Randomizer”, and not a real unique dungeon creation system. The concept here is amazing… but in practice, it just winds up being random bits from LA dungeons sewn together. That can be its own kind of fun… but it ain’t no Zelda Maker.
  • Say Something Mean: Whoever is responsible for the load times involved when entering houses that are approximately six pixels wide should be forced to fight a flock of angry chickens.
  • Favorite Nightmare: Now I finally know that Hot Head, the boss of the final complete dungeon, is supposed to be a lava monster that is inexplicably only weak to the fire rod. There was a slight chance that high definition graphics would give some explanation as to why fire is vulnerable to fire, but, nope, he’s just a reject Fry Guy.
  • Favorite Mini Boss: Smasher demands that Link play dodge ball. He’s my kinda whale-fish-dude.
  • So, did you beat it? I certainly did, but I didn’t exactly get every heart piece and secret seashell. I might really enjoy this world, but I don’t feel like figuring out every damn fishing game that crosses my path.
  • Did you know? According to the official Legend of Zelda timeline, the same Link stars in The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, The Legend of Zelda: The Oracle of Ages, The Legend of Zelda: The Oracle of Seasons, and then The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening. First of all, that Link has got to be exhausted by the end of his four separate journeys. But, more importantly, there isn’t an adventure for that particular Link after Link’s Awakening. This raises some… very solemn questions.
  • Would I play again: Yes. I might feel vaguely bad about it, but I’m not made of stone.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Final Fantasy Legend 3 for the Gameboy! Now we’re hitting some monochrome adventuring! Please look forward to it!

I can hear this GIF
I can hear this GIF

FGC #458 Gremlins 2: The New Batch

Spooky!My parents were good, decent people that tried their best to raise a superior Goggle Bob. In some cases, I can say they failed, as it is clear my unchecked narcissism will one day destroy the world. Because I’m perfect, I must blame my parents for that inevitability. However, in many cases, they were successful. For instance, my parents were deathly afraid of me watching any kind of super violent or super sexual material, so they steered me towards books. This meant that I was not allowed to watch the R-rated movie Stephen King’s Thinner, but I was allowed to read the source novel. This led to a lovely situation wherein, a few years later, I was a goddamned wizard at typing out vivid descriptions of oral sex, which was a boon when you’re a teenager in the early days of cybering. Unfortunately, this policy also had some drawbacks, as I was not allowed to see a number of potentially frightening movies from the time I was a young’un. As a result, I never saw Gremlins 2: The New Batch, and was forced to content myself with the NES adaption as a consolation prize.

And, in retrospect, Gremlins 2: The New Batch for the NES is clearly the most frightening form of Gremlins media, so go ahead and chalk up another loss for my parents. They tried.

Gremlins 2 starts pretty much like every other NES game. Gizmo is an adorable little fuzzball, and it’s his job to… walk around? The opening cinema reveals that Gizmo was released from a cage, and… I guess he’s just gotta walk over there or somethin’? Look, the first level is simply Gizmo tossing (genetically modified) tomatoes at rats and spiders in a Zelda-esque isometric perspective. Gizmo is pretty well equipped for this leg of the journey, and there isn’t even a boss to clear before moving on to level 2.

And that’s when things get weird…

Drip Drop

First of all, go ahead and try to explain what the hell is happening there to someone who has never seen Gremlins. Bonus points if you can somehow elucidate it all to a child that is a little more used to magic mushrooms and frowning robot masters and not a wee fluff ball painfully launching ping pong balls out of his back.

Secondly, this is when the titular gremlins show up. To be clear, they’re not simply going to appear in cutscenes from this point on, they’re also replacing the rats and spiders as the number one opponent in every level. And they come in different forms! There’s a jumping gremlin, a skateboarding gremlin, a flying gremlin, a bat gremlin, a filthy wizard gremlin, and even a smoking gremlin that effectively breathes fire. These “individual” gremlins appear in great numbers, and every level is overcrowded with the monsters.

SPOOKYAnd, on their own, these gremlins might not be scary. The graphics are particularly nice for a NES game, so the gremlins are rendered well… but still matching their generally goofy big screen versions. Aside from the big, bad, boss gremlins, the average gremlin looks like it would be right at home in the Mushroom Kingdom. And Gizmo earns progressively better weapons, so, while he doesn’t exactly have a spread beam in his inventory, he’s also not the least equipped hero on the NES (that would be a certain elf boy). All in all, these gremlins should just be another batch of NES mooks destined for destruction, and not something that should still haunt this dear author.

No, what’s scary about the gremlins is that they hate you.

It may be hard to remember now, but most NES monsters… didn’t care. The goomba, the most iconic creature in Mario’s bestiary and the creature most seen on the NES, arguably doesn’t even know Mario is there. Dude is just walking along, minding his own business, and maybe if some plumber decides to stomp him into oblivion, well, that’s on that mustache man’s conscience. Similarly, even big bads like Bowser or the Hammer Bros. will continue facing forward well after Mario runs right past them. So it’s pretty clear that they may be malevolent, but they’re not trying too hard. An overwhelming number of “enemies” on the NES react the same way. Mets just sit there and wait, zombies and bats move forward with all the menace of a caterpillar, and even the most deadly monsters in Battletoads just kind of saunter over to the titular toads. And the general format of that day mitigates any overt hostilities. Everything is trying to kill you in a shoot ‘em up like Gradius, but the tiny sprites and excess screen real estate gives the impression that you’ve got time to deal with these threats. Hot stuffAnd, speaking of which, those Big Cores are big threats, but their mammoth size makes then lumbering giants compared to your lithe Vic Viper. Everything is slow and nonthreatening on the NES, because almost all NES games put their focus on other areas. You can either have a gigantic, expressive mechanical dragon, or a teeny tiny dragon that takes forever to clear the screen. Neither is going to scare anyone.

Gremlins 2 does not have that issue. Gremlins 2 decided to fill up its screen with large, expressive sprites for heroes and villains, and that drastically cut down on the amount of space Gizmo has to maneuver. The programmers also decided that nearly every monster would home in on Gizmo, so fire-breathers blow flames straight into his path, and leaping gremlins inexorably vault onto our tiny hero. And combine this with an office building that apparently includes live wires, spike pits, and a surprising amount of lava, and you can only come to one conclusion: everything is trying to kill Gizmo! And Gizmo is adorable! How could we live in such a cruel world!?

And that’s why Gremlins 2: The New Batch scares me to this day. It’s not an exemplary or even particularly memorable NES title, it is simply a game that taught a Wee Goggle Bob that even if you’re cute, even if you’re tenacious, even if you’re the best little fuzzball in the world and decked out with the same weaponry as Rambo, you still live in an uncaring, unforgiving world that wants to tear you to shreds. The training wheels of the rats and spiders are going to be coming off quickly, and you’ll be facing electric monster ghosts for the rest of your short, brutish life.

And your parents are going to just let it happen.

Happy Halloween, everybody!

FGC #458 Gremlins 2: The New Batch

  • Sparky!System: Nintendo Entertainment System. There were also versions for Gameboy, DOS, Commodore 64, and some manner of Atari… but they’re not nearly as traumatic.
  • Number of players: Gizmo is alone in the world.
  • Further indignities: You start with zero lives. You have to purchase even a single 1-up if you want to continue past your initial three hearts. You will not survive.
  • Ahead of its time: I want to say this is the first game I ever played that contained bottomless pits, but simply dropped a little health before respawning the hero before an ill-fated jump. It took most franchises until the N64 to pick up on that QOL improvement.
  • Favorite Boss: The finale features the gigantic spider gremlin (Mohawk?). It is a terrible boss, as you can basically just stand there and shoot and eventually it will catch fire. But, on the other hand, it’s a giant spider monster, and that counts for something in my book.
  • So, did you beat it? Yes, though with liberal save states. I think I even made it to the end when I was a kid… though that may have been because Nintendo Power provided many a password. I definitely still have nightmares about the ending with all the Gremlins melting…
  • Did you know? Sadly, Hulk Hogan does not appear in this game.
  • Would I play again: I am terrified into not even bothering.

What’s next? Random ROB is taking the week off, because I just had an amazing dream. There were moblins! And chain chomps! And some manner of seagull girl? Whatever. I’m going to tell you all about it. Please look forward to it!

Stay cool, bro

FGC #452 Time Killers

THE KILLERSThe fact that I can hold this game in my hands is a testament to the amazing degree to which Mortal Kombat was popular… and how absolutely no one understood that popularity.

According to records from the distant past of 1992, Time Killers was unleashed upon arcades a few months after the venerable Mortal Kombat. I’m going to assume that it takes longer than a week to roll out a few hundred arcade cabinets, and conclude that Time Killers just happened to be a massively violent game that incidentally was released in proximity to, but not because of, Mortal Kombat. In all likelihood, Time Killers was, like Mortal Kombat itself, just another game that was trying to cash in on the success of Street Fighter 2. On the other hand, it is entirely likely that Time Killers was intended as a Mortal Kombat clone (klone?), as it is pretty obvious the visuals of Time Killers could be reproduced by a five year old with half a box of crayons. Colored pencils are too classy for Time Killers.

Time Killers is an ugly, ugly game. The graphics are just terrible, the animation is sub-2000 Newgrounds, and the character variety is nonexistent. This is another time-travel based fighter, and its stock “caveman” “knight” and “Viking” all probably required a solid sixty seconds of design. The final boss is Death with a capital D, and this interpretation of the Grim Reaper looks more like something you’d find scribbled on a local heavy metal band’s demo tape. It’s not, like, the actual album art, man, it’s just, like, something the bassist’s little brother did, and we thought it looked cool. And, in a way, that’s the ultimate goal of Time Killers: it’s a bunch of stuff that is supposed to look cool… but doesn’t quite get there. A warrior woman from the future wielding a lightsaber laser sword should be a show-stopper, but here we have less future gladiator, more American Gladiator. NES American Gladiator…

OUCHBut, arguably, none of that should matter. There is one thing people notice about Time Killers, and that’s the almost unheard of level of blood and gore being tossed around any given battle. Every fighter is equipped with at least one martial weapon (or martial appendage, in the case of that one bug lady), and when a dude with a mohawk is swinging around a chainsaw, the inevitable happens pretty quickly. Legs can be damaged, arms can be severed, and, assuming you can pull off a special move that involves smashing all the buttons at once, a dizzied character can be utterly decapitated mid-match. Suffice to say, even if the freshly headless participant had a mostly full life bar, the severer still gets a win point over the severee. But even if no one loses their head during a battle, there are almost always still severed, flopping limbs littering the battlefield. Heck, even before the fight begins, there’s often a bloodied corpse or guillotined head hanging in the background. Time Killers is all about the blood, and is arguably the game concerned parents believed Mortal Kombat to be. This is the title that is going to turn Little Timmy into Timothy “The Meat Mangler” Littles.

But, good news for a million moms everywhere, gamers weren’t having it.

Time Killers is certainly a game you could find in an arcade or two, but it was never nearly as popular as Street Fighter 2 or Mortal Kombat. This was likely a result of the combination of its horrible ugliness and the fact that the gameplay absolutely sucks. It’s five buttons, but there’s an entire button that barely does anything! Special attacks are incredibly boring (which is really disappointing when you’re controlling a futuristic cyborg). And the previously mentioned “fatalities” that can occur at any time during a match can lead to some incredibly one-sided fights. Heavier characters are a lot more likely to dizzy their opponents, and when a dizzy condition can lead to an instant-win… well, why play as anyone other than the strong men?

Chop chop, guysSo, suffice to say, people weren’t exactly clamoring for a home release of Time Killers. In 1992, we had plenty of fighting game options, and it seemed like there was a new version or sequel every other month. Fighter’s History already showed us the apex of the genre (by allowing us to fight Karnov), so it seemed like the public at large was okay with Time Killers sticking to a few seedy arcades. Videogame preservation is nice, but I’m sure resources could be allocated to other projects. Time Killers will just have to wait for emulation and…

Oh. Time Killers was ported to the Sega Genesis. In 1996.

To put this in perspective, Time Killers’ home port was released the same year as other Sega Genesis games Sonic 3D Blast, Vectorman 2, and NBA Hangtime. Donkey Kong Country 3, Kirby Super Star, and Super Mario RPG were over on the Super Nintendo. The Nintendo 64 was released in the Fall of 1996. And here was Time Killers, for your Sega Genesis, and it looked like this:

OH GOD

Yes, Time Killers’ port took a bit of a hit from the arcade graphics. It featured no new characters, no extra gameplay modes, and tied it all up with the limited buttons of a Sega Genesis controller. Time Killers was already a turd floating in the toilet bowl of gaming, so why would anyone ever decide that the Sega Genesis needed this floater to bubble up to the surface?

Well, Mortal Kombat 2 sold at least 1.78 million copies for the Genesis in the United States, and MK3 came in at 1.02 million. That’s more copies sold than the most popular NFL games of the time. That also makes MK the highest selling franchise on the system that wasn’t rated for all general audiences. Hell, Mortal Kombat for Genesis practically invented the ratings system for videogames! Of course you want a piece of that action with your bloody brawler!

Had to do itDid Time Killers make the same splash on Genesis as Mortal Kombat? Of course not! But it was rescued from the dustbin of history because someone thought it might. And why did they imagine such lofty goals? Because there’s a significant portion of the population that thinks Mortal Kombat was successful only because of its gruesomeness. And Time Killers had gore to spare, so, logically, those silly gamers would go for it. Mortal Kombat has blood = success, Time Killers has more blood = more success. It’s basic math!

And, in the end, all this means is that Mortal Kombat was a massive, if completely misunderstood, success. Time Killers is not any good, but it received a home port in an effort to chase the prosperous Mortal Kombat. Did it help Time Killers one iota? Not at all. But it did preserve Time Killers for future generations of people trying to kill some time.

Mortal Kombat achieved a flawless victory. Time Killers just lost its head.

FGC #452 Time Killers

  • System: Sega Genesis and Arcade. Arcade gameplay is used for the majority of this article, as actually playing the Genesis version hurts my eyes.
  • Number of players: Same as Mortal Kombat.
  • Bugs love their lawnsFavorite Character: Time Killers was actually at my local arcade back in the day, and Wee Goggle Bob was convinced Mantazz was the best character, because she had a “head” button that actually did something. As an adult, I know that is fairly useless, but I still like Mantazz, as I appreciate how she was clearly auditioning for her iconic role in Secret of Mana.
  • What’s in a name? Wulf is a chivalrous knight that wields the holy sword Excalibur (we know this because he shouts that about every other second). Why didn’t Time Killers go with the significantly more obvious (and public domain) “Arthur”? They didn’t have any problem with naming their Viking “Leif”.
  • Science!: Orion’s stage is on a space ship floating somewhere in the universe. When an opponent loses on that stage, they start to float away, because gravity only impacts things that are alive. This is why we bury our dead, lest they drift off into the atmosphere.
  • An end: The character-specific endings are straightforward “fighter gets whatever they want” affairs, which is pretty typical for fledgling fighting games not setting up sequels. However, Thugg the Caveman gets a particularly interesting ending, as it involves ol’ Thugg excitedly and accidentally discovering fire. Does this mean that Thugg is the canon victor of the tournament?
  • Did you know? There was a UK comic book called “Time Killers”. It was based on a series from the same folks behind Judge Dredd, and it theoretically had nothing to do with the game (or any kind of consistent plot at all). However, issue #3’s cover features a woman that looks a lot like the game’s Matrix character. On the other hand, maybe there are only so many ways to depict a “future” woman…
  • Would I play again: No. This game is in no way fun, and I don’t want to deal with it ever again. If I’m ever tempted, I’ll just do a google image search for car accident photos and be done with it.

What’s next? That was awful, and I need something that is going to get this Mortal Kombat week back on track. I need something that is going to help me reclaim my Killer Instinct… Please look forward to it!

Look away

FGC #439 Trials of Mana

Get on the mana train!Once again, this old man is wondering about the world that may have been.

Today’s game is Trials of Mana, the sequel to the venerable Secret of Mana (and descendant of Final Fantasy Adventure). Unlike practically every other title in the Mana franchise (did you know there was a TRPG? Oh, and that weird “action” one for the PS2?), Trials of Mana follows Secret of Mana in an iterative manner. Secret of Mana was a gigantic mess of ideas slapped together for a hypothetical/doomed system that was never meant to materialize, and, yeah, it kind of played like something that was never really prepared for the light of day. Don’t get me wrong, I will defend the fun of Secret of Mana until my dying day (I’m considering an epitaph that reads “Here rests Goggle Bob, and Secret of Mana was good, actually”. It’s the only way future generations will know!), but even I know in my heart of hearts that the game is a hot mess. The battle system is half-baked, the world itself has a number of “cutting room floor”-based dead ends, and the plot is a hodgepodge of different concepts that eventually culminates with a skeleton wizard out of nowhere. Trials of Mana seems like an honest attempt to take the best ideas from Secret of Mana, improve on them, and produce a game that could be its “intended form” from the start of its production. Does it work? Well… mostly.

LOOK OUTFirst of all, let’s address the biggest issue with Secret of Mana and Trials of Mana: magic sucks. There is no “quick casting” in either title, and, whether you want to cast a simple healing spell or summon a meteor from hell to rain unholy destruction upon the battlefield, you’re stuck cycling through random menus, waiting for casting, and then pausing any and all action while the spell animation completes. Trials of Mana works slightly differently from Secret; Secret would freeze only the target of most spells, while Trials freezes all of the action on the screen for every single casting. And, against all odds, somehow both systems are the absolute worst. When your opponent is frozen in Secret, you can just pile on the commands (and faerie walnuts) to stunlock your opponent into oblivion. It’s not very… strategic. This is avoided in Trials of Mana, but the constant, never-ending pauses thanks to friends and foes casting spells completely obliterates any sort of combat flow. And Trials somehow makes the worst even worse, as many bosses are programmed to counter magic spells, but, thanks to the inherent lag in the magic-freezing, it’s very difficult to perceive the if/then of countering that is inevitably going to get your party killed. So, if you somehow wound up with a mage on your team, maybe it’s best to let them sit there and do nothing, because it’s always fun to have a character on the roster that is (going to make you) dead weight.

Though maybe it would be a good idea to take a look at the whys of whether or not a mage is currently weighing down your team. Not unlike many games of yesterday and today, Trials of Mana starts with a clutch of unfamiliar characters, and you are asked to choose half of them to be your traveling party. The first character you select becomes the focal protagonist of the adventure, and the second two both play out their signature stories in brief, “aside” arcs. To be clear, this does not employ the modern/Dragon Quest method of having a main character that is 100% meant to be a player avatar that eventually earns some narratively well-defined, though multi-choice, companions; no, in this case, six different playthroughs of Trials of Mana could potentially feature six wildly dissimilar protagonists. And the difference isn’t merely cosmetic: each of the heroes has their own hopes and dreams, but more importantly, they have their own final dungeons and final bosses. CENSOR THISThere are three “pairs” of overlapping finales within the full cast of six, so it would technically require three different complete cycles through Trials of Mana to see every last dungeon and enemy the title has to offer. And, yes, if you’re curious about every story in the Trials of Mana universe, you’re going to need six different runs of a 15-20 hour game (good news: you’ll probably cut that down to ten hours by your fourth quest).

This, naturally, brings us to the topic of alternate realities.

There are six protagonists in Trials of Mana, but only one hero can ever wield the singular, titular (in Japan) Mana Sword. And, as mentioned, each pair of heroes has a unique antagonist. Riesz and Hawkeye, for instance, battle a vampire, a cat lady, and some manner of plant prince; meanwhile, Kevin and Charlotte are pitted against a murder clown and another damn skeleton wizard. Naturally, it is the choice of protagonist that determines the final boss, and the other antagonists are forced to screw off and die at the midpoint of the adventure to make room for the real big bad should they not be the focus of the story. It just wouldn’t do for Riesz to not battle the woman that murdered her parents, so, sorry Gourmand, you’re going to have to leave now. Where do murder clowns go where they die? Batman should look into it.

However, this creates some interesting plot gulfs for our potential heroes. Take Duran, the stalwart knight of Trials of Mana. If Duran is the hero of the piece, he fights against the nefarious Dragon Lord and his disciple, the Darkshine Knight. Eventually, Duran learns that the mysterious Darkshine Knight is in fact his father, a knight named Loki who once fought against the Dragon Lord, and was presumed dead by his best friend, the good King Richard. To say the least, the relationship between the orphaned Duran and his now malevolent father is a bit strained, but it all works out for the best when Duran and Darkshine Loki reconcile and the Dragon Lord is tossed down a conveniently located open shaft to nowhere. Or something. Look, what’s important is that Duran gets an amazing amount of closure on the whole psychologically traumatized orphan thing, and Darkshine Knight gets to die knowing that his son has grown into a noble, strong, Level 40 young man. … Or he doesn’t, because Duran wasn’t the main character, and all he does is stand motionless in the throne room as a completely forgettable NPC. Getting better!In this situation, the Dragon Lord is slain by whoever winds up being the real big bad, and Darkshine sticks around long enough to deliver a dragon obituary before peacing out to nonexistence. Duran never learns of his lineage, and Loki never sees his son again. Oh well! He’s not the main character! Don’t worry about it, audience! Somebody else got a happy ending! Just be happy with that!

But that’s the kind of thing that inevitably bothers me. Sure, it’s only one iteration of the story, but, in one universe, Duran is left not knowing for the rest of his life. He could have been a hero with a healthy memory of his undead father, but, no, now he’s likely going to be in therapy for the rest of his days. Poor dude didn’t get a faery companion, a father, or magical friends that may or may not be able to transform into werewolves. In one universe Duran is the Hero of Mana, in another, he can barely leave a room.

And in one universe, a young Goggle Bob played Trials of Mana. In another, he didn’t get to play the game “for real” until he was in his 30s.

Trials of Mana was never released in America (in this timeline). It did eventually receive a fan translation, though. I played that game on a creaky old laptop without a properly working soundcard (ah, college life), and, while I certainly enjoyed the experience, it wasn’t exactly all that notable. It was a Super Nintendo game being played concurrently with the heyday of the Playstation 2, and Trials of Mana didn’t come off as revolutionary when Grand Theft Auto 3 was also on the menu. And, yes, the format didn’t exactly help, as my beloved laptop (so beloved because it actually allowed me to not be glued to the computer lab at 3 am) was barely capable of supporting the full Mana experience. I played Trials of Mana (Seiken Densetsu 3) because I felt like I had to complete such an important part of Squaresoft history, not because I was anxiously looking forward to the next level.

And then, sometime in my 20’s, I managed to score a repro SNES cartridge of Secret of Mana 2 in English. I played it for about five minutes before growing weary of holding a SNES controller again.

They're asleep!Finally, a few weeks ago, Square-Enix deigned to release Trials of Mana for the Nintendo Switch in glorious American-o-vision. And, for the first time since I ice skated uphill against my old laptop over a decade prior, I played through the entirety of Trials of Mana. And it was rough. The music and graphics are still gorgeous, but all the quality of life improvements that modern JRPG/action titles have presented since the turn of the millennium are sorely missed. The class system is opaque, equipment juggling is unpleasant, and, let’s be honest, who has the time nowadays to complete an entire game three different ways for miniscule plot changes? There are two whole dungeons I missed on my playthrough? Who cares! I would have to complete 80% of the game again just to see a new variation on a cave? I’ll youtube that different final boss, thank you. I am a very important man with very important places to be. That fro-go place can barely open without me visiting!

But in 1995? Back then, this all could have worked. The era of the SNES saw a Goggle Bob with a significantly greater tolerance for bullshit. Back then, a new game only came down the pike (of my parents’ wallets) every six months or so, so a title with three different completely separate paths would have been more than welcome. Spell animations wouldn’t have bothered my young mind, because, I like the turtledamn, did you see those graphics? And the class system that practically requires a FAQ to enhance your party? You better believe I wouldn’t give a damn about proper character optimization. I didn’t even know the meaning of the word “optimization”! Probably literally!

In short: if Trials of Mana had been released in its proper epoch, it might have been one of my most beloved games. It might have been another Final Fantasy 6, Secret of Mana, or even Chrono Trigger.

There’s an entire other timeline out there where Trials of Mana is important to me. Here, in this reality, it is a random novelty that happened to show up on Nintendo Switch.

Trials of Mana, I’ll always wonder if you were meant for better things…

FGC #439 Trials of Mana

  • System: Nintendo Switch. It originally appeared on the Super Famicom in some lucky regions, though.
  • Number of players: Is there really multiplayer available for this game? I know there are reports that the remake won’t have multiplayer “like the original”, but I thought this was another Secret of Evermore situation where the original only had multiplayer thanks to enterprising modders. I’m going to tentatively call this one single player. Maybe it’s just two, but not three? Dammit.
  • What’s in a name: “Trials of Mana” may as well be nails on a chalkboard to my ears. It’s Seiken Densetsu 3, you jerks! Or Secret of Mana 2! Trials of Mana? Really? Because “Trials” starts with “Tri” and that’s marginally related to the number 3? Is that the best you could do? Obviously, the title should be Secret of Ma3a. I mean, duh. Come on, Square Enix, get on the Mana Beast.
  • Speaking of names: Don’t tell anyone, but I can’t even get my own naming conventions together:
    ERROR TYPE MISMATCH

    It’s a secret to everybody.
  • Favorite Hero: Kevin is a bruiser that can transform into a werewolf to cause even more bruises. And he can learn healing magic, so when he’s not bruising, he’s keeping the party alive. And he can learn a spell that transforms physical damage into MP refills, so his bruising can become an unlimited healing battery. Kevin is my hero.
  • An End: During the finale, the previously mentioned Super Werewolf Kevin learns that his best friend is still alive (because Kevin is really bad at identifying a heartbeat) and was accidentally buried alive (by Kevin), his mother is dead, and his father is a complete dick. Couple this with previously transforming his rival into a baby that wanders off into the woods, Kevin has a really weird life.
  • TOTES MCGOATSFavorite Benevodon: We’re really calling them that? Okay, fine. My vote goes to Dolan, the gigantic goat monster that scales an enormous tower just to reach out and touch some Mana Heroes. Also: you can’t tell me that Dolan wasn’t originally intended to be the God Beast (there!) of Darkness, as how could a gigantic goat not fit the ol’ dark arts?
  • Did you know? Heroes of Mana, a strategy RPG for Nintendo DS released in 2007, is a direct prequel to Trials of Mana. It features most of the parents of characters from Trials of Mana, and includes a number of locations and antagonists (a few of them in surprisingly heroic roles) as well. It’s kind of a shame that no one cared about the Mana franchise in 2007, so this title is almost entirely forgotten.
  • Would I play again: Probably! Never mind the upcoming remake, I will probably give another Trials story route a shot at some point. It might be a while, but the gameplay of Trials of Mana works well on the portable Switch, so I’ll probably play it again as one of those “I can play and watch TV” situations. I’ll save state the story scenes for when I have a spare moment to pay attention…

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Persona 3: Dancing in Moonlight! Let’s boogie! And put the gun down! Absolutely boogie without firearms! Please look forward to it!

RUN AWAY