Secret of Mana – 1993 Developer Interview

Secret of Mana – 1993 Developer Interview

These lengthy Secret of Mana interviews with creators Hiromichi Tanaka and Koichi Ishii were originally published in Hippon Super magazine. The questions cover all aspects of the game, but focus especially on the team’s desire to break the mold of conventional RPG gameplay. The origin and inspiration behind the characters, Flammie, and “mana” itself are all touched on as well.

Koichi Ishii – Director / Chief Designer
Hiromichi Tanaka – Producer / Scenario Writer

—What were some of the biggest things you wanted to achieve with the development of Seiken Densetsu 2 (Secret of Mana)?

Tanaka: Our earliest concept for the game revolved around our consideration of the state of RPGs today. We felt like mainstream RPGs had gotten kind of stale, only differing in the stories and scenarios they offer, but otherwise all having the same basic format.

Trapped in the same old gameplay systems that have become “standard” for RPGs, only changing up the story… that’s boring. The RPG genre is supposed to be about being able to do anything you want. Is ignoring the gameplay systems and just focusing on story really the right way to go…?

—Were you initially developing Secret of Mana without any notion of it fitting into an RPG frame, then?

Tanaka: No, we wanted to do an RPG, we didn’t want to just replicate the form of existing RPGs…

Ishii: Neither Dragon Quest nor Final Fantasy have broken out of the frame originally imposed by command-style RPGs like Wizardry and Ultima. We didn’t like that. We wanted to break free from those constraints somehow, and everything with Secret of Mana began from that idea.

—I see. So you felt like RPG gameplay systems had, for the moment, exhausted their possibilities.

Tanaka: Well, it’s not entirely wrong for gameplay to remain consistent from game to game, to a degree of course. Doing so certainly allows you to focus more on telling an interesting story and visual presentation. I would say that Square’s own Final Fantasy series tries to take that middle path.

But now that gaming hardware is transforming, from the Famicom to the Super Famicom, I think there’s new, more exciting possibilities for us to explore.

Koichi Ishii, director and designer.

—Ishii, what’s your take?

Ishii: For me, it was about wanting to make the game I saw in my head. When I play command-style turn-based RPGs, I don’t feel a kind of direct, “sensory” connection to what I’m doing in the game… so I wondered, what would a game look like where you did feel that? It would have to be something where you’re swinging the sword and striking the enemies yourself, not just selecting “Attack” from a menu. By thinking through those ideas, we naturally came to the current system for Secret of Mana.

However, it turns out there’s a lot of annoying things to work through when you try to make a system like this. Part of the difficulty was that we were trying to hybridize a traditional turn-based RPG and an action RPG, and that brought up a lot of unexpected problems. If we had tried to make a pure action RPG, I think it would have been easier, but our way necessitated a lot of time-consuming revisions.

We fretted a lot about whether to emphasize the action rpg, or the turn-based rpg sides more. While we had these grand ideas in the planning phase, the reality was far more of a trial-and-error, tedious process of experimentation. Of course, we did take inspiration from previous RPGs, such as Ys. In that game, however, the underlying core is action, with RPG elements thrown on top. We wanted to make more of an RPG—something even the not-so-dexterous players could enjoy.

—As a player, Secret of Mana does have an immediacy that is on a whole other level compared with turn-based RPGs. The monsters are right there on the gameplay field, and they have all these different movement patterns, and you get to really feel your character swinging their sword.

Tanaka: All turn-based RPGs have treated combat as a different, separate “scene” from the main game. In terms of the in-game time, and the visual screen of course, when combat happens it feels like you’re suddenly thrust into a different game or world. We wanted to avoid that. We wanted to make a game that was simple and immediate to understand, on a sensory level, without being constrained by past forms or expectations about what an RPG should be.

Hiromichi Tanaka, producer / scenario writer.

Ishii: To give a more concrete example, take the side-view style battles of Final Fantasy. Essentially, the experience is like a person at a zoo, standing behind the fence and throwing things at the animals in their cages. Then the elephant or whatever picks up an apple with its trunk and throws it back at you, and you take damage. In Secret of Mana, you fight in the cage with the animal.

—Like a safari park! (laughs)

Ishii: Exactly. (laughs) It really is that different though, once you experience it yourself.

Tanaka: We also put a lot of emphasis on the “reality” of the battles. It’s weird how, in a lot of games, just touching an enemy damages you. I can understand that if it’s a porcupine or something, but with normal soldier type enemies or whatnot, unless they’re attacking you, you just take damage just by touching them. If you think about actual battles, it’s rather obvious. That was something we stick to: making sure what you imagined would really happen on a battle field matched what you saw on the screen.

Following that logic, it also seemed odd to us that players should be able to continually make full-power attacks. That’s how we come up with the “wait time” idea and the charge bar. It’s something of a remnant from turn-based RPGs as well.

—If that’s the case though, why bother with all the RPG mechanics—why didn’t you just make a pure, full-fledged action game?

Tanaka: Good question. The thing is, if we had gone full action, it would create a gulf between skilled players and unskilled players. You’d run into problems like bad players never being able to defeat the final boss. That’s actually the greatest strength of traditional RPGs, is that anyone can clear them if they spend the time and energy. We absolutely did not want to throw that away.

—Some of the treasure chest traps made me laugh.

Ishii: We added traps to the chests like in Wizardry, so players would think twice before automatically opening them.

—There’s some realy nice items in the chests in the final area, too.

Tanaka: Yeah, the last orbs for the final forms of the weapons can be found from enemy drops in the Mana Fortress. There’s also some equipment that you can’t find in stores too. I now think we focused too much on the latter half of the game for interesting item drops, though.

—Are there any special weapon interactions with the individual characters?

Ishii: Our original plans called for that, but if we had gone that way, it would have imbalanced the weapon system and inclined players to rely on specific weapon+char combos, so we dropped it.

—Was it hard coming up with all the special attacks for the weapons?

Ishii: I wouldn’t stay it was hard, but we did hear a lot of complaints from people that the special moves are difficult to hit enemies with, and that people miss a lot. That was intentional on our part, though—we wanted there to be a kind of gambling mechanic to the fights—so when a hit does land, it feels especially good, right?

Tanaka: The special attacks are also meant to compensate for unskilled players, to an extent, so we definitely want players to use them.

—Tell us about the merits of the ring menu system.

Tanaka: I don’t really know. (laughs) The good thing about the ring menu is that you don’t have to switch screens to access everything. Visually, I think it’s pretty easy to see what’s going on too. When we were first designing it though, I had my doubts. It controls differently from your typical menu, and I thought it would be really cumbersome until players got used to it. Once you do, though, it’s definitely quick and easy.

Even the team seems to have had reservations about the ring menu. I don’t recall having a problem with it, but friends who would casually jump in were often perplexed.

—Yeah, once you get used to it, it’s no problem. Our editors are still a bit perplexed though. (laughs) By the way, where did the idea for 3-player co-op come from?

Tanaka: In the beginning, we planned to Secret of Mana a one-player game, but it seemed kind of boring to just let your two companions be controlled by the computer AI, so we included the ability to let you freely switch between them.

Ishii: We thought it would be fun to make an RPG with the feel of Gauntlet, where multiple players can all be actively involved, running around and doing stuff, that kind of lively atmosphere. It was a kind of bonus thing we added in.

Tanaka: It was an unexpectedly fun discovery.

—Wasn’t it difficult adding three-player support?

Ishii: Actually, it’s easier to make a game where the allies are controlled by a human player. Having your allies work as NPCs means programming an AI that can convincingly mimic the movements of a human player, which is much more difficult.

—The computer-controlled AI for your allies feels very smart. Sometimes I’m like, where did they go? Then I look over and they’re over by some tree fighting with other enemies. I imagine you had to refine the AI a lot, to get it to that point?

Tanaka: Yeah, we did. The person in charge worked on it exclusively, for almost 2 years.

—Changing the subject, but does Secret of Mana have any connection to Final Fantasy Adventure?

Tanaka: “Mana”.

Ishii: Just the idea of “mana”.

—What is the role and meaning of “mana”, then?

Ishii: As a symbol, it’s something I’ve had in my head for a long time, since the beginning of the Final Fantasy series… something that would be the source of all magic, the source of all life energy. Without mana, no one could use magic or see imaginary creatures like faeries. Basically, it’s kind of like the source of everything existing, and it takes different shape depending on whether we’re talking about the planet, life, or individual people. In my mind, mana would be the entity that unifies everything.

Of course, first and foremost, the idea needed to be something we could build a world around. Final Fantasy ended up with the “crystals”, but I had an image in my head of a “world tree”… which is why I wanted to portray the Mana Tree in Seiken Densetsu. There’s a touch of the “mother earth” idea in there too.

—You wanted something more intimately tied to the world of the game than the “crystals” of Final Fantasy, in other words.

Ishii: The crystals would be more like an embodiment of mana.

The Mana Tree as seen from afar in Pure Land. As discussed later in the interview, Tanaka felt that too much emphasis had been placed on the “tree” aspect of mana in the first Seiken Densetsu (aka Final Fantasy Adventure). Given his comments there and elsewhere, the English title “Secret of Mana” probably hews closer to the developer’s intentions than Seiken Densetsu, which means “Legend of the Sacred Sword”.

—Turning to the characters, I noticed that the heroes are all relatively young in Secret of Mana.

Tanaka: I believe Purim is 17, and Randi is 16… Popoi’s age is unknown.

Ishii: It would be funny if he was some ridiculously old age, like 100.

—I wonder if the players of Secret of Mana will end up being the same age as the protagonists.

Tanaka: Yeah, I wonder.

—I was also surprised the way the story begins, with the hero being bullied and falling into the basin of that waterfall even! Now that I think of it, the children’s dialogue in Secret of Mana feels very lively and realistic. It actually feels like those are kids talking with each other. That, too, made the game feel very fresh to me.

Ishii: That would be Tanaka’s sensibilities coming through. (laughs)

Tanaka: I didn’t really think about it that deeply—I mean, if you try to write from a “kid’s” perspective, I think it comes off as weird and stilted to actual kids. So I just didn’t think too deep about it, just thought what I would do or say in those situations, basically.

—Secret of Mana has a different kind of “cool” from other games we’ve seen up to now.

Ishii: Normally I’m not very conscious of stuff like that while making a game, but when the end-user finally sees one of the big dramatic moments in the game and goes “wow, cool!”, then I feel happy and relieved. And when I actually saw the special attacks and stuff like that on-screen, I did think to myself, whoa, we’ve made something that’s pretty cool after all.

—By the way, what in the world is Flammy?

Tanaka: A dragon… I guess? We don’t really know. (laughs) Flammie wasn’t included in the original design documents. After we finished drawing the world map, we thought, ok, now we should add something the characters can fly around this big world in. Everyone brought their ideas to the table and we had several of them rendered as sprites. The one that had the most interesting animation was the dragon, the way it’s body swayed up and down in midair (makes wave-like gesture with his hand). So we chose that.

—I heard a spaceship was another candidate.

Ishii: Yeah, it was. We thought of adding it as a bonus or add-on.

—Could you add a STG component to the game with that…?

Tanaka: That’s actually something we’ve wanted to add for every game since the first Final Fantasy, but it always gets nixed due to time or memory constraints…. next time!

Ishii: Plus, if you give experience for the STG part it would quickly destroy the balance of the game.

Tanaka: Yeah, we haven’t thought about it really deeply or anything, it’s just something we’d like to try sometime. But I can see how it would be difficult to add.

Ishii: I’d like to have the airships in Final Fantasy be able to shoot things. Like Bungeling Bay. Imagine, flying around the word map, “SHOOT DOWN THAT CHOCOBO!” Then when you land, you can eat yakitori.

—No way that’s happening! (laughs) If you were to make a Secret of Mana 2, would you want to challenge yourself again with a brand new system?

Tanaka: There were a lot of things in this game that we wanted to add but couldn’t, so if we do a sequel, we’d probably try building on and developing those ideas.

Ishii: Yeah, there was a lot “unspent fuel”, so-to-speak, after the development. Places you know could have turned out better, if you’d had more time and resources to devote… I think every game developer has experienced that feeling. If we do make a third game, I think all those pent-up ideas will come spilling out. It may again feel like a very different game.

Hiromichi Tanaka and Koichi Ishii in their characteristic suits. Tanaka handled both the game systems and the scenario (a somewhat vague term which can include story, dialogue, and world-building); his biggest struggle with the development was being unable to fully focus on the scenario as much as he wanted. Ishii, meanwhile, worked primarily on the battle systems. He is also credited as the creator of Flammie.
Secret of Mana – 1993 Developer Interview

originally featured in Hippon Super

—The world of Secret of Mana is suffused with the majestic power of “mana”, but where did the idea for mana originally come from?

Ishii: A long time ago, when I knew we were about to make a fantasy RPG at Square, I went and read every fantasy novel and text I could get my hands on. Then before the development began I tried to organize what I’d read in my head, in the form a coherent magic system. The image I had was a magic system with the four elements—fire, water, wind, earth—but what gave them all shape in our world was “mana”. To me, magic didn’t make much sense without some non-substance like mana as the primordial and underlying force.

When we started making our fantasy RPG, however, that idea somehow got transformed into “the crystals”. Thus the world of Final Fantasy was built up, but when I moved away from the Final Fantasy developments and had the chance to make my own new game world, I went back to my original idea of “mana” as the source of all magical power.

By itself, though, “mana” is too abstract an idea, so to give it a more concrete and tangible form I created the “Mana Tree”. As something that defends and watches over our world, it’s similar in conception to the “world tree” idea. Its roots plunge deep into the ground, and it breathes life into all lifeforms on this planet. Exactly how that energy works is left vague, but all life springs from the Mana Tree.

Tanaka: However, in Final Fantasy Adventure, we felt we placed too much focused on the Mana Tree itself, so for Secret of Mana, we’re emphasizing the way mana exists as an omnipresent energy force distributed through the entire universe. We wanted to depict the Mana Tree as an embodied representation of that power, but ultimately just one form of it.

—I think many people, ourselves at Hippon included, saw the Mana Tree as a “Mother Earth” symbol. A mother who protects the life on this planet, which are all her children.

Tanaka: We definitely had a mother-figure image in mind when we created the Mana Tree. However, that alone would be a little weak, we thought, so for this game we’ve added the Mana Sword, which is a more “father”-like symbol.

—Was this conception possibly based on Freudian ideas, then…?

Tanaka: Ah, hah, no—it was just something I thought up myself. Weapons being more associated with men, you know, that kind of thing.

—Now I’d like to dig a bit into the story. Randi, the protagonist of Secret of Mana, is your archetypal RPG hero who gets unwittingly drawn into a events larger than himself. By accident he pulls out the Mana Sword and must then become a hero—coincidence thrusts him into this adventure. On the other hand, the journey he goes on also ends up being one of personal development and growth for him, so in a way, the story has a dual structure. Could you speak to this?

Ishii: Well, I don’t want to say anything too specific, but the dual structure you mentioned, that wasn’t intentional. This game began development over 2 years ago, and in the beginning, the story side and the world/environment were built up separately and individually. We then fused them together into one game, which lends it the “dual structure” feel you mentioned.

Tanaka: The story originally was just a simple one about bravery, love, wisdom, stuff like that. To that base, we worked in the larger world and setting of “mana”. We felt we could make something really interesting by weaving the two together.

—Ah, so I guess that explains why Purim is just a normal girl with no connection to Mana per se. Does this mean that, although she starts off on a simple quest to rescue her beloved, ultimately she’ll end up playing a larger role in the fate of Mana?

Tanaka: No, we didn’t really plan it out like that. Of course she isn’t just trying to rescue her boyfriend the entire game, but we didn’t attempt to add in other “character drama” for her.

You know, if Randi were to fall in love with Purim, or to marry her or something… lately those kinds of plot points are really popular in RPGs. And to be honest, that was discussed as a possibility for Secret of Mana. But… I hate stuff like that. I won’t spoil things by going into anything too concrete here, but I wanted to Secret of Mana to conclude with those questions being left open. That way the player can enjoy imagining what happens afterwards, I think.

For an early RPG heroine Purim does have a certain modern flavor; she's on her own quest to rescue Dyluck, and she never becomes a romantic interest.

—Purim is a new kind of character we haven’t seen before in RPGs. There have been lots of stereotypical “tomboy” style characters in RPGs, where literally the only feature of their personality is that they are a tomboy, but Purim is different. She abandons her own home to go search for her beloved. Where did the idea for such a passionate character come from?

Tanaka: Well, we didn’t really think about it that deeply. We just wanted to create a cute character, and it just so turned out that she is kind of unique amongst RPG characters.

—Randi, Purim, and the genderless sprite Popoi. One thing I noticed here with this group of three, is that it’s split 50/50 between men and women. Which made me think, since Final Fantasy V, I feel like the number of female roles in Square’s games has been going up. Is Square deliberately trying to include more female characters now, in contrast to the history of RPGs which has featured so many men?

Ishii: No, that too is something we weren’t particularly conscious of. It was just the atmosphere we were trying to create. A man, a woman, a child—it seemed like the perfect mix for a story with three characters. If I had to add one more, maybe an old man would be good. (laughs) But all those decisions were made with the game’s atmosphere in mind, not a specific agenda.

There are some teams that want to make parties with only male characters, but for Secret of Mana, it naturally happened that there were less men in the story. But we weren’t trying to meet some gender quota or something.

—Where did the idea for Flammie come from?

Tanaka: We had a lot of different ideas for Flammie. One idea would have seen your characters fighting while riding Flammie, in aerial combat.

Ishii: Yeah, but adding that would have created a weird imbalance with the normal ground/land combat, so we decided not to. Speed-wise there were some problems with the idea too.

Tanaka: As for why we choose the Flammie character in the first place, Final Fantasy has a more mecha, industrial atmosphere, and in contrast to that we wanted to do something fantastic. Flammie was made in the image of Falcor, the white luck dragon from the Neverending Story. Before Flammie, we had players riding on the back of a creature like Gamera (laughs), but that idea was abandoned. There were also plans for a robot, but mechanical creatures give a more violent image of rending the sky, being inorganic and all, and that didn’t fit.

The team was especially proud of Flammie’s graceful flying animation, which captured the fantasy vibe they were going for.

We wanted something that felt more soft and floating. Ideally something where you could close your eyes and imagine the feeling of the wind on your skin. At first, it was looking impossible to depict an animal’s organic movement smoothly without a custom chip. We were worried because that would have raised the price of the game a lot, but thanks to the hard work of one of our programmers, we were able to bring Flammie to life.

Ishii: On top of that, if you want something players can empathize with, living creatures are the best. In our setting design notes, we wrote how people long, long ago used to ride these creatures, using them for transportation. Of course, being the distant past, I can’t give you any details on that. (laughs)

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