The Legend of Zelda-Link’s Awakening (2): That legendary plot twist (with massive SPOILERS!)

I was initially planning to write a single article about Link’s Awakening; but after I cleared that supposedly unique post, I found myself yearning for more. More development, more depth, more dwelling on that great game; you name it. I thus started a second playthrough and set myself to write about a specific point that has always been dear to my gamer’s heart, namely Link’s Awakening’s incredibly moving Plot Twist. I only brushed the subject in my last post, and mentioned it briefly in my article about Avalon Code’s own plot twist prior to that; and I feel that the time is now ripe to delve deeper into the matter. There will of course be mountains of spoilers, so if you never played Link’s Awakening and intend to do so, avert your eyes right away—or better yet, go play that great game and see the unfolding of that striking event for yourself before coming back and reading my musings on the matter. 

As I mentioned before, I’ve seen my fair share of plot twists over the years, and I can honestly say that Link’s Awakening plot twist is the one that struck me the most in my entire gaming life. It was one of these defining gaming moments that are bound to stick into any gamer’s memory for the rest of their life. In fact, the first discovery of that plot twist is embedded so strongly in my memory that I can still remember where I was and what time of the day it was when it happened, not to mention my reaction to it. I consider this plot twist to be a true masterpiece, both structure-wise and content-wise, and here’s why. 

Inverse proportionality

Link’s Awakening amazing plot twist is exactly that: a plot twist, in the most literal sense of the word. It’s an entirely unexpected development that strikes as a lightning bolt out of a clear blue sky, taking the player entirely by surprise and twisting the plot in a drastically different direction. Sure, there are some hints here and there in the game world, if you look closely: Koholint Island is littered with owl statues delivering cryptic yet foreboding sentences regarding the nature of the island, and the dream theme is prevalent in the storyline and addressed in various ways: the Wind Fish is asleep, you have to jump in bed to recover the Ocarina, and so on. However, making any deductions about the game world’s nature from these clues would be absolutely far-fetched; it’s much easier to see them as an overall thematic, especially if the player doesn’t expect a plot twist in the first place. The effect of that sudden and unexpected revelation is conveniently devastating, pulling the rug out from under the player’s feet and drastically altering their vision of the situation. 

This dramatic effect is only reinforced by the very sober way in which in this plot twist is introduced to the player. Less is more, as they say, and it’s never been so true. The presentation couldn’t be more low-key: this vision-altering event is basically nothing more than the reading of a couple of sentences on a bas-relief, and yet it is powerful enough to shake your vision of the game world to the core. I find it similar to the infamous plot twist in The Empire strikes back, in which a simple four-world sentence shatters Luke’s—and the viewer’s—beliefs with full force. You don’t hear Link scream in pain and despair as Luke does after the big revelation, but it’s telling enough that this elicits his only sentence in the whole game, an incredulous “What? Illusion?”. Anyway, it’s not like you need any virulent reaction from Link at that point: you are so shocked, hurt and in disbelief after uncovering that plot twist that you really don’t need any kind of reinforcing display of emotion from routinely mute little Link. This low-key presentation cleverly leaves room for your own feelings, giving them the opportunity to conveniently overwhelm you. A grander, more elaborated setting may have diverted your attention from your emotions, diminishing their impact on you; better let you as alone as possible with them so that they can properly flow and sweep over you. 

This doesn’t mean that no effort was put in the setting or that it was not thoughtfully and carefully conceived and executed. Low-key it may be, but it’s highly purposeful in its sobriety, with every single element being designed to enhance and reinforce your feelings at that time. The most obvious and striking element is the music: the tune that plays in the Southern Shrine where the plot twist takes place is undoubtedly the saddest tune of the game. It conveys full-blown sorrow, loneliness and desolation and is bound to exacerbate your own oh so similar feelings upon discovering the plot twist. The darkness trick may seem innocuous and mundane at first, but it is also designed to enhance your emotions. For a quick reminder, you need to light up torches with magic powder in order to be able to read the bas-relief; and as you stay immobile in front of it, struck and in shock after having uncovered the plot twist, the lights will die out, leaving you in the darkness again, which will increase your feelings of sadness, fragility and your dismay over what just happened. It is a simple yet very powerful trick, and it works beautifully. Even after all these years of playing that game, I still exit the room immediately after reading the bas-relief just to avoid finding myself engulfed in that oppressive darkness. The game cleverly expands the experience by creating an aftermath to that plot twist, in which your feelings are subtly echoed rather than enhanced. The sixth dungeon, the Face Shrine, follows immediately after and features a musical theme that perfectly resonates with your feelings at the time. It’s a variation of the Southern Shrine theme that conveys a quieter, somewhat subdued sadness, along with a quiet resignation and a burgeoning resolution to forge ahead. To say that it fits your feelings at this point of the game is a euphemism: never in my gaming life had I seen such a perfect correspondence between my feelings and a piece of in-game music. It’s pretty obvious that this plot twist is supposed to be a twofold experience from the get-go: the two shrines are explicitly linked to each other, two pieces of the same structure. The Southern Shrine delivers the blow and the Face Shrine allows you to slowly digest it and assimilate what you just learned. At the end of this twofold trip, you will reemerge from these shrines as a new Link, now fully aware of the nature of the world around you and of what your quest entails. This plot twist is actually structured like a spiritual journey that first summons pain and sorrow, followed by a slow acceptance and crowned by a quiet yet firm resolution; the fact that it takes place in two places referred to as ‘shrines’ or ‘temples’, i.e. places of spirituality, indicates strongly that the developers wanted to have it come across as such. 

Crossing the rubicon

The whole ‘This was but a dream all along, ha-ha!’ trope can be regularly encountered in various forms in movies, the most famous incarnation of it undoubtedly being ‘The Matrix’; yet, for some unfathomable reason, it is extremely rare in videogames in general and in the Holy Realm of RPG in particular. And yet, it turns out to be extremely engrossing in that very context thanks to the interactivity factor. Not only is your vision of the game world turned upside down, which is a similar experience to the one you would go through when watching a movie using this kind of plot twist, but your responsibility as a player is also engaged. The game entrusts you with the power of controlling the main character, which often then entails the duty to save the world; but in Link’s Awakening, you end up with the power to erase the game world from existence, which is truly a horrifying and overwhelming prospect. Yet, interestingly enough, you do have the choice to keep consciously things as they are: just like Cypher in The Matrix, who decides to remain in the Matrix while knowing fully well that it is nothing more than an elaborate dream, you can decide not to wake up the Wind Fish and remain in Koholint instead. You can keep frolicking from one place to the next, play the Rapid Ride mini-game over and over, listen to Marin sing, talk to everyone under the sun, burn everything in sight with the Magic Rod and exact at last your revenge on those annoying, aggressive Maple dogs by roasting them alive if such is your choice, and nobody can prevent you from doing that. Of course, it may not be the most interesting thing to do as a player, but you can still very much do it if it pleases you. 

Still, most of us will of course want to clear the game by waking up the Wind Fish, especially the first time around. It may be a convenient thing to play the game and give up just before the very end because you know where all this leads when you’re a seasoned Link’s Awakening player; but when this is your first playthrough, you will want to get to the bottom of things, especially since the game keeps taunting you by implying that, you know, it may all be a dream, but maybe not after all, who knows? But this desire to see things through goes along with strong emotions: sadness, loneliness, and most interestingly, guilt. Upon learning that you have the power to erase the game world and must use it to get out of the island, you will feel terribly guilty of having to do so, especially since at that point, you have likely grown quite attached to Koholint and its inhabitants. I swear that the first time I played the game, I had a hard time coming back to Maple Village knowing what was in store for all these lovely people and knowing that I would be the one responsible for that. Heck, even roaming the beautiful Koholint grasslands to get there in the first place was painful, making my heart ache and my eyes sting as I thought about what fate awaited this lovely island. It’s not so often, if ever, that you bear the overwhelming responsibility of destroying the very game world you’re roaming: you usually have to save it, not erase it entirely to save your own skin. Link’s Awakening is quite a unique and bold game in that regard, putting you in a dire situation that you will undoubtedly remember for all your gaming life.

Interestingly, the situation is more complex than it may seem at first sight. It’s pretty much obvious that the Wind Fish is dreaming and that you are somehow stuck in their dream world, but what about your own current state as Link? The game starts with your boat getting struck by a lightning bolt, after which you wake up on the beach in Koholint Island; but you sure cannot be fully awakened at that very moment, right? The game seems to whisper in your ear that you are also dreaming alongside the Wind Fish; you may think you’re frolicking around in Koholint, but in truth, you are very likely lying passed out on a wood plank in the middle of the ocean after this lightning bolt destroyed your boat. Not only that, but your own dream likely mixed with the one of the Wind Fish, who was probably sleeping nearby when you fainted from the accident. This explains the presence of Moblins in Koholint, as well as the striking resemblance between Marin and Zelda and the fact that the ever-morphing final Boss takes the form of Ganon and Agahnim; these are elements lifted from Link’s former adventures and brought in the dream world by Link himself, not by the Wind Fish. The very title of the game also seems to hint strongly at the fact that you are indeed asleep the whole time, as well as the Wind’s Fish final words to you: “Let us awaken together!”. There would be a lot to say about the different possible interpretations of Link’s Awakening plot twist and general storyline, especially the more metaphorical ones, but that would stray too far from this post’s subject. My job here was to praise the very moving Plot Twist of that game, and I feel that the deed is done. 

By the time I wrote this post, I also cleared my second playthrough of Link’s Awakening, and I’m now ready to move on. After this pleasant dwelling on Koholint’s well-known yet still enticing shores, let the winds of inspiration carry me to new ventures! As always, thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


The Legend of Zelda-Link´s Awakening (1): The stuff cult classics are made of

I am very much in the mood for retro gaming these days; and since I needed something really excellent to replenish my gaming mojo after the somewhat mixed experience provided by Sword of Mana, I chose to pick up one of my favourite retro gem ever, namely The Legend of Zelda: Link´s Awakening—and to create that brand new "Oldies Goldies" category in which I plan to unashamedly praise my favourite games of yesteryear, starting with this one.

The Legend of Zelda: Link´s Awakening is the fourth entry of the venerable Legend of Zelda series and was developed and published by Nintendo in 1993 for the original Gameboy. It is widely recognized as the best game ever released on the system and was also the only Zelda installment to ever grace it; incidentally, it´s also the only Zelda game I ever played. (I´m planning to change that in the near future: I have a handful of handheld Zelda games lined up and patiently waiting to be tried.) And play it I did, indeed: I cleared it countless times over the years without ever getting bored of it. When I first discovered it in 1993, my infatuation was so strong that I would routinely finish a playthrough and start another one immediately after. Link's Awakening was rereleased on the Gameboy Color in 1998(jp/na) and 1999(eu); this version featured a brand-new dungeon and a few cosmetic changes—mostly involving colours, as you may guess. Apart from these fairly superficial alterations, the game was left untouched, which was the best thing to do since the original was nothing short of perfect. I had never played that version until now, but for the sake of this post and curiosity, I decided to give it a try at last. 

Let’s start with some clarification: there is a long-lasting debate about whether the Zelda games should be classified as Action-RPGs or as Action-Adventure games. Both sides have valid arguments and a definitive answer on the matter has never been reached. The Zelda games could either be seen as Action-Adventure games with RPG elements or as Action-RPGs in their simplest form, no-frill takes on the genre that remove all unnecessary obstructions for the sake of gameplay’s fluidity and smoothness. My stance is that the Zelda series is a perfect hybrid of the two aforementioned genres—and I will therefore use both tags in this article’s description. 

It’s been a couple of years since I last played Link’s Awakening, which led to some interesting results during this playthrough. Nostalgia was still present, of course, but I could also see the game through the filter of experience, and this gave me a better understanding of how excellent this game actually is. I was hard-pressed to find any relevant flaw in it, even with my best critical eye wide opened; the very minor flaws I saw in it actually date all the way back to 1993 when I first played it, and I’ll address them later for the sake of trivia. But for now, let’s dive head first into the very first handheld Zelda entry and expose it in all its 8-bit glory.  

A marvel of design

If there is one department in which this game shines in an outstanding way, it is definitely the level-design. It’s tight, precise and crystal-clear, and boasts a near-perfection that many games could take lessons from, including recent offerings. To put it simply, if Ockam’s Razor could be applied to game design, the result would be Link’s Awakening. Every single area in the game serves a purpose in the grand scheme of things and the way they are arranged is simply brilliant. Everything flows naturally and the next step in your progression always falls smoothly into place; and yet, the game manages to avoid evincing any linearity by constantly giving you various tasks to complete and sending you all around the world map, all the while giving you a certain amount of leeway regarding the order in which you have to complete these tasks. On top of that, Link’s Awakening does a really good job at taunting you with unreachable places that progressively open up as you progress. I remember standing next to some then unmovable rocks the very first time I played the game and wondering what could linger beyond: the curiosity was almost unbearable, and the satisfaction of finally reaching those fantasized areas latter in the game was priceless. To offer a parsimonious, purposeful and efficient level design while maintaining a strong focus on exploration and discovery is not an easy task, and this game is one of the glorious few that nail it perfectly. 

Another thing that struck me deeply is how user-friendly Link’s Awakening is. I didn’t really pay attention to this point back in the days: I was simply enjoying it and not thinking twice about it. But with hindsight and the weight of my experience as an RPG veteran, I can now see that this game is decidedly devoted to making the player’s life easier. This is especially obvious in dungeons and presents itself as such: if you ever need a specific item to clear your way and go forward in a dungeon, it will be available somewhere in this very dungeon. I’m not talking about the specific treasure that you find in every single dungeon and that will lead you further in the game world—like the Hook, the Flippers and so on—but rather about the more menial items that you use on a regular basis for all purposes, namely bombs, arrows and the magic powder. If you need any of these three to go forward in a dungeon, you will find it in that very dungeon, hidden under a pot or hovering in the air and waiting to be picked. Link’s Awakening will never force you to exit the dungeon and go all the way back to town to refurbish; should you run out of the very item you need, it will be at hand, waiting patiently for you. This is a wonderful quality of that game and one that is rare enough to be praised and enjoyed to the fullest. 

Better not equate this user-friendly quality with easiness, though; for Link’s Awakening may be accommodating, but it’s by no means pampering. This is a demanding game that challenges you relentlessly from beginning to end by submitting you to this oh so classic staple of the Zelda series: the Dungeon Puzzles, ladies and gentlemen. They come in all shapes and sizes and involve all sorts of objects and thought processes, from pushing blocks to open doors to bombing walls to uncover secret rooms and many more. The difficulty curve rises slowly but steadily, leading you from gentle and clue-laden riddles to vicious, mind-bending puzzles that will test your wits and patience. (The difficulty of the last two dungeons in that regard is legendary.) However, despite their growing difficulty and overall complexity, these puzzles always remain fair and logical. There is always a way to figure out what must be done:  whether it be a written clue somewhere in the dungeon, a specific marking on the ground or a special item right at hand, something will always be there to orientate your thinking and action in the right direction. On top of that, the logics at work remain the same throughout the whole game, which allows you to reuse successfully what you’ve learnt, and any new puzzle is always accompanied by a helpful clue to help you figure out which logic is at work behind it. Nothing is far-fetched or illogical and the game pushes you to make clever use of your items; every single one of them will come in handy at one point or another, which is not only the mark of an excellent overall design, but is also deeply satisfying and rewarding. 

Owner of a lonely heart

Link’s Awakening is not only a game so polished you can see your reflection in it; it is also a very unique and original offering in the Zelda series. This is the first Zelda entry that features none of the familiar characters and settings of the series: there is no Hyrule to roam, no Princess Zelda to save, no Triforce to recover and no Ganon to crush. Instead, you’re introduced to a brand new land, the Koholint Island, along with a puzzling objective: to wake up a creature called the Wind Fish that currently sleeps deeply nested in an egg on top of the island’s highest peak. There is no definite main enemy to defeat, the game referring instead episodically to the mounting power of the resident monsters and the devastating influence they could have on Koholint if they were left unchecked. You then find yourself embroiled in a quest that is a puzzling mix between trying to escape from the island and trying to save it from the monsters, two objectives that can be achieved only by waking up the aforementioned Wind Fish. This is a radical departure from the series’ template, and one that works fairly well. It seems that Miyamoto and his team wanted to stray from the established path and offer something new, using the Gameboy’s special status as a handheld to experiment something truly different. Interestingly, Link’s Awakening was initially supposed to be a simple port of A Link to the Past, the famous installment released in 1991 on the SNES, before the gaming muse wriggled its way into the development process and decided otherwise; and as good as A Link to the Past may be (I still have to discover that), a brand-new game is undoubtedly a much better deal, especially one as original as Link’s Awakening

Link’s Awakening is also quite unique in the wider Action-RPG/Action-Adventure landscape. This uniqueness boils down to its main overtone, which is one you don’t encounter so often in RPGs: Loneliness. Not the thrilling, inspiring loneliness of the lone ranger adventuring bravely on uncharted and perilous roads to save the world, but rather the forlorn loneliness of the outcast, stranded in a land they don’t belong to. The game calls you ‘Casteway’ at some point, and that pretty much sums up the situation and encompasses the undercurrent of loneliness and isolation that runs throughout the whole game. You interact with the locals on a regular basis, but there is always a very obvious distance between you and them that never gets bridged during the game. The fact that Koholint is an island and that your very goal is to leave it for good creates that distance in the first place, and the locals’ attitude towards you reinforces it: they never truly treat you as a part of their world and don’t really seem to care about your presence at all. Even Marine, who is seemingly fond of you, takes for granted that you will soon be history and speaks accordingly. The absence of any inn or house where you can fall back and rest further increases your status as a foreign entity: you have literally no place in that world, and the only thing you can do is roam it without respite until your quest is over. I remember feeling that loneliness very deeply when I played the game in 1993, without being able to pinpoint the exact reason for it; I am now able to do so, and I marvel all the more at how masterfully the game manages to distil that sense of loneliness and isolation and instil it slowly but surely into the player’s mind. 

Then, there is of course that legendary Plot Twist. I won’t spoil anything there for the sake of those who haven’t played the game, but suffice it to say that it is quite unique and is definitely an event of huge magnitude in your adventure. This is also a point of no-return: there is a before and an after, and things will never be the same after you cross that Rubicon. This plot twist leaves you more isolated and alienated than ever, and paves the way to an ending that is truly bittersweet. Once again, this is a huge departure from the Zelda template, given that the first three games were more upbeat and ended up on a very positive note. It was quite a bold move to change the mood so radically for this episode and it must be praised and appreciated as such.  

Past and present

All in all, I’ve been playing Link’s Awakening for more than two decades now, and that creates a very interesting standpoint: nostalgia and experience blend to give birth to a view that is fuelled by a deep knowledge of the source material and an undying love for it along with the keen eye and sharp analysis skills of the veteran. And from that standpoint, I can affirm that Link’s Awakening is a game that stands the test of time amazingly well. The clear-cut graphics, with their roundedness and smoothness, have a timeless quality, and the mechanics are so well honed that they simply cannot rust, no matter how many years pass. Not only is Link’s Awakening still perfectly worth playing today, but it could give lessons in brilliancy to many current games on a handful of matters, from clever level design to top-notch physics. 

All this praise doesn’t mean that I turn a blind eye to the game’s flaws; I wrote earlier that I would address them, and I’m going do so now. Even back in the days, some points rubbed me the wrong way, the most blatant one being the inordinate amount of time you have to spend in your inventory juggling between items. This was of course dictated by the very limited number of buttons available on the Gameboy, and Miyamoto and his team really made a good job of making this process as fast and simple as possible; however, you still have to put up with it, and it can grow tiresome at times. I always thought that the level design on the world map was slightly uneven: some marginally useful areas are allotted a huge amount of space, while key areas are restricted to very narrow spaces that nearly make you feel claustrophobic. For instance, I always resented that the completely optional Rapid Ride occupied such a huge portion of the map while the story-relevant Yarna Desert was confined to a tiny corner of it. The pacing also is uneven: the very last arc of the adventure, containing the last two of the eight regular dungeons as well as the final one where the Wind Fish sleeps, feels strangely rushed and shallow compared to everything that unfolded before. It certainly doesn’t help that these three dungeons are located on a very narrow area of the map that gives you the feeling that you’re both constrained and teetering on edges and drastically shrinks your horizons, both visually and mentally. The final dungeon in particular is shockingly short and follows immediately after the eighth regular dungeon, which is disappointing: I would have liked a more complex take on that final challenge, as well as an extra bit of adventuring before heading there. In relation to that, I’ve always been deeply frustrated by the fact that you get the Magic Rod extremely late in the game, namely in the eighth regular dungeon, and thus cannot enjoy it as much as you’d like to. However, none of these flaws are deal-breakers. They are present and can be frustrating at times, but they can’t spoil the brilliancy of that sparkling gem that is Link’s Awakening.    

I will conclude that post with a ‘Favourites’ section entirely fuelled by the power of nostalgia. I’d love to hear about your personal ‘Favourites’ in Link’s Awakening, so feel free to expand on them in the comments!

—Favourite Music: the whole soundtrack of that game is a feast to the ears, but the Face Shrine theme is my absolute favourite.  Reminding strongly of a Bach prelude, it is a thoughtful, reflective piece of music evoking sadness, resignation and resolution all at once. It also has the rare quality of being one of the only themes in Link’s Awakening that perfectly echoes your feelings at that precise point in the game, which makes it all the more striking and memorable. It’s followed closely by the Tal Tal Heights theme, the bouncy, adventurous piece that plays in the eponymous area and that every Link’s Awakening player wish they could hear much more often throughout the game. 

—Favourite Dungeon(s): once again, all the Dungeons are enjoyable in their own way; but the Sixth dungeon, the Face Shrine, is my favourite, thanks to its combination of inspired level design and beautiful music. I also have a strong liking for the third one, the Key Cavern, for its clear-cut and flowing level design, and for the eighth, Turtle Rock, for its thrilling boss run that lets you fight a number of bosses from previous dungeons. 

—Favourite weapon(s): I love the Hook and the Ultimate Sword, as well as the Bow&Arrows; yet, like many Link’s Awakening aficionados, my ultimate favourite is without a doubt the Magic Rod and its unstoppable fireballs. Too bad it comes so late in the game, hardly leaving you the time and opportunity to enjoy its power. 

—Favourite Moment: the South Shrine visit. This is an intensely sad and heart-breaking moment, but this is also by far the most memorable, which is why I love it so much. I still get shivers down my spine when I read that bas-relief—which I do in every single playthrough, despite knowing fully well what’s engraved on it. 

So, here ends my praise of Link’s Awakening.  If you’ve not played that game yet, I wholeheartedly encourage you to do so, for it is truly a cult classic. Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


Sword of Mana: Disappointing on both counts (3)

Here comes my third and last post about Sword of Mana, in which I will give my final thoughts on the matter and then rest my case for good. Here we go!

I’ve expanded profusely about how Sword of Mana was the gaming equivalent of a half-hearted donkey stuck between a bucket of water and a stack of hay, and that ranting of sorts may have given the impression that I absolutely hated it; however, and funnily enough, that is not the case. Sword of Mana is an unpolished game that doesn’t know where it stands and what it wants to achieve, that much is undeniable, but it’s not a horrible game by any means. I actually liked it, and did so enough to clear two playthroughs in a row. I definitely had good moments playing it, and even if it was an underwhelming experience as a whole, I will probably come back to it in the distant future. 

In all fairness, Sword of Mana does have redeeming qualities. They are not prevalent enough to erase the flaws I’ve mentioned earlier and make that game a masterpiece, but they are present nonetheless and make Sword worth playing to some extent. I have to be fair and mention them, starting with the most obvious one: the gorgeous graphics. Sword is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful games on the GBA, treating the player’s retina with lush and colourful decors, landscapes and vistas. Colours are vibrant and shiny and rendered in a truly beautiful style that’s halfway between colour pencil art and watercolour painting. They skilfully alternate between delicate pastel nuances and clashing vivid hues depending on the context and manage to create a mesmerizing atmosphere. Next in line, and encompassing the former, is the splendid art direction. It’s immediately recognizable and distinctive, with excellent character models that stray from the usual cookie-cutter anime style that plagues too many JRPGs, gorgeous outdoors that beg to be roamed endlessly and lovely town designs that make you want to linger there forever. The graphics’ intricacy and precision are stunning, especially compared to your average GBA game: the whole game world bristles with elaborate details, and the textures are incredibly well-rendered. Whether it be the rugged surface of a rock, the soft fabric of a carpet, the polished gleam of metal or the smooth patina of centuries-old cobblestones, everything is vibrant and lively, all the while remaining beautifully stylized and highly evocative.

As a whole, it’s fair to say that Sword of Mana completely nails that very specific Seiken atmosphere that aficionados of the series have come to know and love. This is a Seiken game at heart, and it takes but a glimpse to confirm that; stare longer, and you’ll be swept away by that inimitable Mana charm and carried into a place of true beauty. Basking in that unique atmosphere is an absolute pleasure, and one that I certainly indulged into during my playthroughs. 

In light of that distinctive Mana atmosphere, I can see very well what Square Enix and Brownie Brown may have tried to achieve here, and even condone it. The Seiken series didn’t start the way we know it today: Final Fantasy Adventure/Mystic Quest was initially nothing more than a Final Fantasy spin-off with a strong action-adventure flavour. It’s been rightfully described as a mix of Final Fantasy and Zelda, featuring the epic grandeur of the first—along with Chocobos—and the dungeon puzzles of the second. It’s only with its second entry, the immensely popular Secret of Mana, that the Seiken series declared independence from its venerable parent and became its own franchise with highly distinctive qualities. The original, however, remained what it was, a slightly stinging reminder that Seiken was indeed not always its own series. Ten years passed and three games were released, each one expanding on the Mana mythology and deepening the specificities of the series, and it seemed that Seiken was on good rails and promised to last. What better idea, then, than to give a good lifting to that somewhat mismatched first episode of the series and make it more cohesive with the subsequent installments? It would also be a fantastic opportunity to introduce the Mana lore to a new generation of players on the then brand-new Game Boy Advance. This was a great idea, and it seemed that Square Enix was really serious and committed about it, to the point of bringing Brownie Brown and its wealth of former Squaresoft employees into the picture, and a dazzling gem of a game could have been expected from that match seemingly made in heaven. However, as we’ve seen before, things didn’t turn out so well. It’s really quite a pity and a shame, for Sword of Mana could have been one of the greatest RPGs on the GBA and another immaculate entry in the Seiken series instead of the marginally good game it turned out to be.

Worse, Sword of Mana also started for good what I would call the ‘Mana Decline Discourse’. It had been simmering prior to that with the release of Legend of Mana on the Playstation: many players were perplexed and disconcerted by the open structure of that game, which offered a swarm of sidequests and a huge variety of objectives in lieu of the usual main quest with a rock-solid narrative. This was a departure from the series’ template, and one that didn’t please all; many players and critics resented it, all the while hoping that this was only a misstep and that the next game would be a return to form. But then came Sword of Mana and its lack of greatness, and it cemented the perception that the Seiken series, after having culminated in Secret of Mana and Seiken Densetsu 3, was now sadly going downhill. The responsibility of Sword in the expansion of the Mana decline discourse is enormous: had it been a great game on par with the 16-bit era entries, the notion that the Seiken series was waning would have been buried before it was fully born, with Legend of Mana being considered a simple mistake—and very likely, as time went on, as an underrated experiment worth rediscovering. Instead of that, Sword single-handedly embedded the notion of the series’ decline in the minds of critics and players, and it persisted to that day, since Square Enix didn’t bother to dispel it by releasing a great Seiken entry that could have become a cult classic. 

The time has come to rest my case for good, folks. And here’s my verdict: despite the fact that I’m a die-hard Seiken aficionado and that I enjoyed it to some extent, I really can’t ardently recommend Sword of Mana to anyone, for this game is too unpolished and unfulfilling to deserve such a thing as a enthusiastic recommendation. Still, that doesn’t mean that it’s totally unworthy and shouldn’t be played at all costs, for there is still some good in it. My final words on the matter will thus be these: if you want to play that game, be prepared. Know what to expect and what you’re stepping into, and you may avoid the disappointment that plagued me. And also: heck, I’m really curious about Final Fantasy Adventure now. Gee, let’s add it to my Must-Play list of retro games! And as always, thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!