2006 Interview with Hiromichi Tanaka and Koichi Ishii

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In 2006, the 6th issue of the Swedish magazine LEVEL published a very interesting 8-page-long feature about the creation of Secret of Mana, including never-discussed-before tidbits about the game's connection to Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy IV, straight from Koichi Ishii and Hiromichi Tanaka's mouths.

Thanks to Chrono'99 for hauling this one in.

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The truth about Mana

Was Secret of Mana originally a part in the Final Fantasy-series? Was it actually developed for a Nintendo console that never was released? And does it contain a hidden fourth playable character? LEVEL has tracked down the two men behind Square's most mythical game. In an exclusive interview they tell the whole truth.

By Fredrik Schaufelberger (translated by Killer Bob)

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All the most beautiful stories begin with "Once upon a time..." In fairy tales, we get a whole spectrum of love, heroism and excitement served in an accessible and concise form. Who has not in their childhood been immersed in Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty? And who does not harbor an almost subconscious love for kidnapped princesses in soaring towers, amazing enchantments and "they lived happily ever after"-endings? During the 90s Square was the whole world's fairy tale-factory. Their games was to the brim filled with deep forests, magic swords, princesses to rescue and ancient beasts that lurked behind every corner. One of these fairy tales – perhaps the very best – was called Secret of Mana.

- I drew inspiration everywhere. We wanted right from the start that the game should have the same feel as a storybook for children, so I looked at lots of animated films and illustrations in western storybooks in order to get the right feel. Certain motifs and monsters I actually stole outright. Koichi Ishii chuckles content.

It's the summer 2006 and LEVEL asks him to remember the game he started planning 15 years ago. After working with the first Final Fantasy games Square offered him to create a parallel role-playing game series for the Game Boy. Seiken Densetsu – "Legend of the Holy Sword" – was released in 1991, and that year it was decided that the sequel would be a Super NES game. Ishii's role was initially only as a Director but gradually he took on more and more roles. He began designing enemies, animated characters, brainstormed the numerous puzzles and mazes and drew maps of the fairy world. Secret of Mana, or Seiken Densetsu 2, was built up more and more around his thoughts.

- I really loved working with Secret of Mana, as much as I love the finished game. There is so much of myself in it. I even designed parts of the game after my own childhood memories. There are enemies that come from my nightmares when I was a little boy.

THE CHOSEN ONE

The game's introduction is classic. White subtitles explains how the world for centuries produced the magical power of Mana and how the prosperity grew, before an empire became greedy and used the Mana to build a deadly weapon – the Mana Fortress. A great war broke out when opponents of the Empire tried to destroy the fortress and civilization was destroyed before a lone knight armed with the legendary Mana Sword alone succeeded in destroying the fortress. The world was in ruins, but peace prevailed again. Slowly but steady the people was recovering...

One day, a young boy is playing outside his home village. After a false move on a bridge, he tumbles down into the river and barely takes himself ashore.

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On his way back to the village, he stumbles across a rusty old sword that he without thinking picks up and takes with him. Little does he know that the weapon he just found is the ancient Mana Sword. Suddenly, their fates are linked, and he must now travel around the country in order to find the legendary Mana Tree and stop the new evil empire that is trying to resurrect the Mana Fortress.

Secret of Mana is during the initial hour a most traditional adventure game, based on a rather predictable story. The forests outside the home village Potos could as well been located in Hyrule, and those for the series characteristic little rabbits you meet looks like the slime from Dragon Quest, but with ears. It is only when the boy in the kingdom of Pandora encounter a strong-willed young girl, and decides to help her rescue her missing fiancé, as Secret of Mana becomes a game worth a mention in the history books. Because with a simple push on the Start-button on the second controller, can suddenly your best friend, brother, sister, girlfriend or any passerby construction workers be transported into the game and suddenly stand side-by-side with your character. And when the boy and the girl has ended up in an underground cave and meets the frisky little sprite, who also joins the group in the hope of being able to recover his lost memories, gaming history's most charming trio and the world's first and still best adventure for three players is a fact. This was long before Ultima Online and abbreviations like MMORPG was conceived, and role players rejoiced at the opportunity to help save the world together. But the fact is that Square never consciously planned to create a social game.

- The original idea was to have just three main characters, but the player would only control one of them while the AI controlled the other two, reveals Hiromichi Tanaka, who was the game's producer.

Tanaka began at Square at the same time as Hironobu Sakaguchi and also he was deeply involved in the early Final Fantasy games. Over the years, he would be responsible for the best games Sakaguchi himself had no time to be engaged in – like Xenogears and Chrono Cross – before he finally returned to Final Fantasy as a producer for part eleven. Today Tanaka's career is in other words about the online role-playing for hundreds of thousands of participants. But in the early 90s, he had not even arrived at the idea of an adventure that could be controlled by several people.

- The multiplayer-thing was a bonus, we had not at all planned it from the beginning, he continues. But we suddenly discovered that it was quite easy to program the ability to control all of the three main characters and realized that many players would probably prefer human teammates over computer–controlled ones.

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CD'S AND CONTROVERSY

When Square started the development of Secret of Mana, it was for the CD-ROM player that was going to be released for the Super NES. But we know that story now – the whole CD-project was cancelled, but Nintendo's partner Sony took care of the technology they had started and developed their own CD-based console that they named PlayStation. When plans for Nintendo's CD-format went up in smoke, both Ishii and Tanaka were at first prepared to even throw the unfinished Secret of Mana into the fire. But the management did not want all the work already done would be in vain, so they instead asked the team to compress and rework the game so that it would fit on a standard Super NES-cartridge.

- Quantities, and now I really mean quantities of materials disappeared when the CD-format was discontinued, says Tanaka. We had to redo the game from scratch. I think almost half of what should have been there from the beginning had to be removed.

Thanks to the extremely ambitious original plans was Secret of Mana a game that constantly pushed the boundaries of what the Super NES console could handle. But the game suffered from recurring slowdowns so they were forced to exclude a lot of enemies, locations and story-segments that were planned. Square was furious at Nintendo for allowing suspend work with the CD player. There are even those who claim that the Secret of Mana-incident was the reason why Square in 1996 chose to dump their former partner for Sony.

- The development of Secret of Mana was both messy and incredibly stressful, says Ishii. When the CD-version was discontinued, we constantly had to fight against an inadequate hardware which failed to achieve the grand plans we had. It was a development period that went in constant uphill battle and I'm honestly surprised that the finished game did not become an unmitigated disaster.

- Many of the ideas we had for the CD-version came fortunately to use later, when we did Chrono Trigger, says Hiromichi Tanaka. In fact, the original version of Secret of Mana was not at all the same game as we eventually released. The first version of the game had for example a much darker tone.

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The different orientations of Square's games for the Super NES has often led to speculation about a fragmented company where development teams pulled in different directions. But there is equally as much truth in that the games, and the teams behind them, influenced each other. In the same way as parts of Chrono Trigger originally had been intended for Secret of Mana, was the latter a further development of Square's Super NES-debut Final Fantasy IV. It was when Tanaka, Koichi Ishii and the legendary programmer Nasir Gebelli investigated the possibility of developing that game's active time battle as they got the idea for their innovative combat system.

- Secret of Mana is in many ways the game Final Fantasy IV could have been, says Tanaka. Many of the design decisions we discussed during the development of that game was used in Secret of Mana instead. The whole game represents a direction we were considering with Final Fantasy IV, but ultimately avoided.

In Secret of Mana, all three heroes have their own stamina meter. Every time someone performs an attack, they must wait a short time before they can hit with full force again, otherwise it gives the attack only a fraction as much damage. In this way, the battles become like a real-time version of the Final Fantasy-system. Along with experience points and the often copied function of weapons and magic becoming stronger the more they are used, gave the stamina meter Secret of Mana a more RPG-like tone and separated it even more from all the soulless The Legend of Zelda-clones that around this time flooded the market.

TONGUE IN CHEEK

Secret of Mana's perhaps greatest strength is how it with the simple logic of fairy tales makes even the most weird elements feel completely natural. Who can ever forget a place like the forest of four seasons, where newly blossomed buds and pink cherry blossoms are just a few steps away from the snow-covered trees and frozen ponds? Charming details like the heroes opening chests by lifting them over their heads and pound them into the ground, all the shopkeepers in the whole game dancing behind the counters or that the little cat Neko running around with a big bag on his back and sells items for unreasonable prices, makes you smile constantly. But despite the storybook framing the story never becomes childish, instead it is from beginning to end a beautiful fable about heroism, betrayal and true friendship.

- Compared with the Final Fantasy-series, I always felt that Secret of Mana was more my game, admits Ishii today. I was probably the biggest brain behind the world, I created it in my imagination and drew it up from scratch. It's probably silly of me, but sometimes I feel like I let other people visit my own world.

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The Mana Tree stands in the center of most events in the Seiken Densetsu-series. In the first Game Boy-game, it is the tree that needs to be saved, while in Secret of Mana it has received a more symbolic role.

- The Mana Tree is our interpretation of the cradle of life, it is there everything has arisen, explains Ishii. A tree is a great fit as a metaphor for life, with its widespread branches representing different choices, or the clear division between the trunk, branches and foliage which can be said to symbolize the various stages in life. Our fundamental idea was that we would create a world where everyone had the same origin and were a part of something bigger, where everyone had something divine in them. Sakaguchi-san also recycled that idea with lifestream in Final Fantasy VII.

THE GREAT MYSTERY

Super Nes was equipped with two control ports. With a multitap, four could play. So why Square chose a middle road with three players in Secret of Mana has remained one of RPG-history's great unsolved mysteries.

- Well, this may not sound particularly romantic now, but basically, it was only about technical issues, sighs Ishii. We really tried with four players, but the hardware refused. Though at the same time, I wanted to simulate the feeling of playing as a family. Mom, dad and child. Three persons. And looking at it from that angle I definitely think we succeeded. Ishii leans back in the chair and laughs.

- I love cooperation in games. When my friends and I were younger we always sat and played board games together and I remember how much I loved the feeling that the game involved someone more than just me. I once thought that if those who played Secret of Mana would start to quibble comradely about who would play the guy and who gets to be the sprite, then we had succeeded.

Secret of Mana was never the perfect game. Above all, the artificial intelligence is legendarily poor, with a computer that often find it much more fun to get stuck in walls and run straight into fire-breathing monsters instead of doing trivial things like help you defeat the enemies. And it's because of that, the human cooperation becomes so important. Secret of Mana alone is absolutely not the same game as Secret of Mana with two friends. Every battle that could have become routine turns into a battle of life and death when you are sitting on the couch and yell at your teammates that they should come and help you out of the corner where three wicked hedgehogs bombard you with attacks.

- The reason why multiplayer modes in this type of games is so unusual is probably the issues with keeping the story exciting even when multiple people are involved, argues Ishii. But if you succeed with that, the experience can be fantastic, because when you collaborate you get drawn into the game in a completely different way. You live it.

- I miss these old games a bit, admits Tanaka. Before you could only play with people sitting next to you in the couch and it gave a completely different sense of community. Before the internet revolution we had to build our characters around the world. Now we are building the world around our characters.

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BUT TIME FLOWS LIKE A RIVER... AND HISTORY REPEATS ITSELF

Today it is almost impossible for us to understand how desperate the situation of European console role-players was in 1993. We're talking about a time when the title Final Fantasy was considered obscure and experience points still was associated with Dungeons & Dragons - societies or similar deadly youth cults. Tobias Bjarneby* had his own RPG-corner in Super Power, importers bought every little cartridge with the Square-logo on it and university evening classes in Japanese was filled with resigned role players who realized that their only chance to enjoy all fantastic adventures was to make it on the Japanese own terms. Europe was the u-continent of RPGs and even if Secret of Mana was a golden exception when it was converted to the PAL-format, it took so long before the game was released that everyone with some sort of fascination for Japanese adventures already had imported the American version. Secret of Mana flopped and what could have been a historic turning point in Square's attitude towards the European market led instead to the company staying away from Europe for another four years.

  • Famous gaming journalist In Sweden

Another unforeseen problem appeared also in the English version. Square hired their American frontman Ted Woolsey for the translation job, whereupon he took with him his wife and kid to the Square headquarters in Japan and got exactly 30 days to present a complete English version of the script. In addition to the time pressure Woolsey blamed his poor translation on the necessity to cut down the conversations and make them one-third as long as in the Japanese original, because of the font choice. But the hardcore fans became very upset, arguing that Woolsey's translation was completely wrong and that everything from the names of the items to the dialogue was totally incorrect. When Square moved from Washington to Los Angeles in 1996 Woolsey chose to leave the company. Unconfirmed rumors claim that RPG-fans in the U.S. organized a ten-day festival to celebrate the news. But neither a sloppy translation, poor AI or lost content means nothing when I take my first steps in the stream where the adventure begins, and see the grass swaying in the morning breeze, really feel the water that bubbles up between my feet and listen to the beautiful melody carried forward by the wind. The gray everyday with homework, laundry room times and macaroni with ketchup disappears, and is replaced by shiny swords, flying dragons, evil generals and forgotten continents. How a game with such obvious flaws so totally manages to take over my mind, I can not even answer. But I guess that is what is called magic.

Side note on the sixth page:

THE LEGACY OF MANA

If Secret of Mana is the game we remember as Squares failed attempts to launch itself in Europe is the Super NES-sequel Seiken Densetsu 3 the sad consequences of it. After the lack of sales success, Square chose to not even translate the sequel to English and even today it is only released in Japan. Seiken Densetsu 3 was in many ways the perfect continuation of the series. Equally beautiful storybook aesthetics, six playable characters (though only three simultaneously) and a versatile, non-linear story that made a whole world wish that they understood Japanese. Instead, Square U.S. gave us Secret of Evermore, a game based on the Secret of Mana-engine developed by the company's American division and which is even today brought up as an example of everything that is disgusting with American RPGs. Technically, there was nothing wrong with it and composer Jeremy Soule's soundtrack belong to his best works. The problem is just that Secret of Evermore is a silly, unattractive and on all levels uninteresting rubbish game with a protagonist who mostly looked like Commander Keen. To top it all, it had no multiplayer option.

From: Interviews