Published Jan 3, 2010

The Secret of Mana (Seiken Densetsu 2) is a game well-liked by many, and it has an overall aura of positivity around it. The soundtrack by Hiroki Kikuta is amazing and legendary, just read the wonderful review over at Chudah’s Corner.

I can still vividly remember the first time I saw the game. Somehow, I was already excited about it before it was released. Maybe it was because I was waiting for a Zelda-like game on the SNES from Square (that was one of the team’s important design decisions – to make a Zelda-like action RPG), or maybe it was the already great reviews of Final Fantasy 6. Square was a company to watch.

I put the SNES cartridge in, and for the first time, I heard Angel’s Fear. Back then, this caliber of music was rare. The song portended quality and an experience not to be missed. Then, as the opening lines appeared with white swans flying across the screen, I saw the credits begin…… PROGRAMMED BY NASIR.

That stopped me.

For so long, I wondered what had become of my game programming hero, Nasir Gebelli. I didn’t know that he had moved to Japan in 1986 to program the Final Fantasy games, and that he almost single-handedly saved Square from extinction. I didn’t know how many games he made at Square before Final Fantasy I. This was the first evidence I had that he was alive and well and still making games.

Jumping into the game, I immediately noticed the innovative ring menu system. Everything was crisply programmed, Nasir-fast, and the graphics were at the height of SNES quality. They would be bettered in subsequent years by only a few games, Seiken Densetsu 3, Final Fantasy 6 and Chrono Trigger among them. So far, everything was what I had hoped for.

I started playing the game and loved having two players able to co-op. I played until I was distracted by something else. I came back later and played some more, but I didn’t get very far. Years pass.

Eventually, I started playing the game again and made a conscious decision to start at the beginning since it had been a while since my last play. Again, the same thing happened – after a while, I got side-tracked and eventually stopped playing. I even gave it another shot after a few more years had passed with the same result.

Why wasn’t I able to finish this game?

I had to think about this for a bit. It most definitely wasn’t the music, because that part was great. The ring menu wasn’t laborious either. So, no user interface issues for me. I did have some difficulty getting through the castle, because the werewolves moved very quickly and dealt harsh damage. But, the final time I played, I did get past that part.

No, I finally figured that the game just wasn’t that engaging. It didn’t feel cohesive; it didn’t flow like a game of high quality does. High quality design never has the player wondering what they should do next – they should already know the next step. They should not wander aimlessly in the world with everything inactive except the one object they need to click on. The reason the game felt this way, I suspect, was because the game was originally developed for a Super Nintendo CD system that Sony was developing for Nintendo. When the deal went south and Nintendo decided not to release a CD add-on for the SNES, Square had to make the game fit on a cartridge. So, they cut and cut and cut the game down: story, maps, dialogue, everything. The game had to fit and fast. The deadline was approaching.

Anyone in game development can tell you that this is a recipe for disaster. The end of development is so crucial to the finished game becoming itself, taking on its ultimate personality, that shipping it before it’s a cohesive experience is basically throwing years of effort and money into a fiery pit.

It was also likely affected by the English translation that Ted Woolsey had to do in record time that, due to a fixed-width font, greatly limited the words he could put on-screen and kept a great story from English-speaking audiences.

Compounded with this scenario was another wrinkle in the plans. Nasir Gebelli’s work visa had run out, and he had to leave Japan. Square moved Nasir and the entire development team to Sacramento, California, Nasir’s home, and Secret of Mana’s development was wrapped up in the United States. I’ll say that again.

Secret of Mana’s development was completed in the United States, in Sacramento, California.

Learning this final chapter in the development history of Secret of Mana was a revelation to me. The Seiken Densetsu series had always been a very Japanese set of games. I hadn’t considered they could be anything but. Yet, to learn that the lead programmer was a legendary Apple II game programming Iranian and the game was finished in Sacramento, California boggled my mind. Considering the ride this game took in development and how it plays, it all makes sense.

Secret of Mana retains a positive aura with the caveat that the experience can be messy to navigate (just focus on getting past the first 30% of the game) but may be worth the time invested if only to say you actually finished the game.

Reader Feedback

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Super Cool! Nasir Gebelli was one of my early gaming idols growing up. His work on the Apple II was simply amazing. Thanks so much for this, I always wondered what happened to him.
— xot
Great write up. I remember being awed by SoM the day I got it. I had no problem finishing it, and found the lack of direction at some parts to be liberating. That was my view when I was 12 anyway, because I played through it again a few years back and found it kind of underwhelming. For whatever it lacked in story content, the game did have a tremendously imaginative feel to it.
— bvac
Woolsey mentioned in some interview that he had trouble with Secret of Mana because the text the developers gave him to translate was organized in this weird, non-logical way. He had to translate the game one arbitrary chunk of dialogue at a time, without knowing how the individual scenes fit into an overall story.

Of course, even if you disregard the translation, SoM’s still very disjointed. Despite that, I think it’s a better game than Seiken Densetsu 3. I wonder if it’s the Nasir factor? I really think SoM has this sharpness, this crispness to it, that SD3 totally lacks. The ring menu is a good example of this: in SoM, it’s slick and fast and awesome, and in SD3 it’s clunky and slow and terrible. Also, SoM has better music.
— ajutla
Wow. This is really nice to see.
I’ve always wondered who Nasir was. Personally, I got into the game industry because of Final Fantasy 1. To this day I recall the text “Programmed By Nasir” during the title screen of that game, and because of his name I always thought it was a development team, not a person.
I’ve definitely played a large amount of Nasir’s games, many being personal favorites that I didn’t even recall him having a hand in, like Secret of Mana.
I never had any issues completing the game, but most likely due to playing with friends (co-op makes even the worst games good). To this day I must have beaten SoM over a dozen times at least, and I still recall all the exploitable bugs, glitches and listen to the soundtrack. Good times and good memories.
Thanks for this article! It’s one of those things that gives closure to the influences of my life’s direction.
— creath
Wow. This IS a great write up! I didn’t know about SoM being wrapped up in Sacramento! Awesome.
— Komrad
Good article, though I disagree with your perception of Secret of Mana as some sort of sub-par experience. It’s just as easy to get stuck on SoM as any FF game.. SoM just didn’t ring a bell for ya.. dunno if that’s is grounds to say it “is not cohesive” .. pfftt!
— dave
I’m not sure I’d say Secret of Mana lacks cohesion, so much as it comes from a culture with a different idea of what that means. Growing up I played a lot of Japanese games (due to starting out as console guy), then American and Euro games due to getting into PCs later on, and for the most part I’ve noticed a fundamental difference: Japanese game designers (and Nasir would’ve been working under the auspices of such) tend to want to direct the experience and “tell a story” essentially, so they carefully craft each moment, whereas western designers tend to prefer a more open or free-form approach that accentuates player choice.

I actually think this is most exemplified with strategy games of all things. I’m not sure if you ever played games like Romance of the Three Kingdoms or Genghis Khan (representing Japan’s side) or Civilization (representing America, though considering how into gaming you were back then I would be shocked if you haven’t at least watched someone else play Civ), one thing I notice among playing those is that in the Japanese offerings, you basically never have to worry about your own citizens—just give them food and money every once in awhile and they’ll keep their traps shut. Much of the threat comes from rivals with their own military. Whereas in Civ the dynamic seems reversed: its more of a challenge to keep your own people happy and on your side, but if you can do that, then everything else falls into place.

This probably has to do with each country’s respective history—Japan (and their predecessor China) were very much places where if you weren’t a ruler, you were expected to obey, whereas America was always more about the individual and though we’re still expected to listen to our bosses, there is some leeway and room for the little guy to make a contribution. (I once heard a theory that one reason China likes to romanticize the Three Kingdoms period is because it’s one of the few eras in their history where kings and peasants were equal and literally anyone could rise to the top. Which, having read the popular novel based on those events, that interpretation makes a lot of sense to me).
— James S.P.