As one of the few proud PlayStation Vita holdouts (chants: Vita means life! It only rhymes with wife!) I spent a lot of my holiday travel time playing old PlayStation JRPGs I’ve amassed for about $10 a pop. While it can’t compare to staying up late in front of a boxy old TV, it’s been wonderful to play classics I missed out on and weird high-profile experiments on that handheld’s tiny screen. Such as Legend of Mana, a game that, frankly, I only knew of as a punchline whenever people talked about its beloved cousin, Secret of Mana.
Legend of Mana’s status as a lesser Mana game—it’s kind of incredible how many of those there are—only seemed solidified by its snubbing in the Collection of Mana that came out for Nintendo Switch last year. I, however, have a friend named Scott who would not shut up about Legend of Mana. Science has proven that if you annoy people enough about a thing for years, eventually they will either murder you or give up and see what the fuss is about.
Well, uh, I think I adore Legend of Mana.
At first, the game is very easy to love: The art is incredible, using PlayStation-era power to create the sort-of-but-not-quite-3D dioramas that 16-bit-style RPGs like Super Mario RPG or Golden Sun are known for. Its soundtrack continues the Mana tradition of musical excellence. Everything else? A goddamn mess, but that is why I like it.
There doesn’t seem to be a main story in Legend of Mana at first, just a collection of short stories that send you out on side quests, some of them so abrupt that you had no idea you began them. I found some knuckleheads fooling around in a pumpkin patch, beat them up, and before I knew it, I had ended one story. This surprised me, since another story began when someone asked me to find their sister, and ended when I found her—it made sense.
The whole game is like this, and I completely get why people didn’t like it. Legend of Mana does so much weird shit. It has you build a world map, unlocking dungeons and towns with found artifacts that you drop on blank spaces on a map. You choose a region, but it doesn’t seem to matter. Get into a fight and suddenly Legend of Mana is a messy 2D beat-em-up. There’s a crafting system I haven’t even begun to parse, and a co-op mode that I’m seriously considering dusting off my PS3 to try.
What really gets me going is that Legend of Mana was not a strange release from a small studio lost to time—it was a Squaresoft game! It got a huge promotional push with Chrono Cross! It sold very well!
And yet, I’d be hard pressed to find a game this interesting and weird get a high-profile release today. There are so few games from huge publishers that I play and ask Why did they do that? while wanting to play more to try and figure it out. I’m glad there’s a world of indie games that put out challenging, strange work, but I’ll always long for the time when any old big release could be as unusual and quirky as this one.