I should probably talk about Level Ups before we get much further. With each level up, we were able to upgrade one of our four stats, with would give smaller upgrades to two related stats. This looked like it was going to get complicated, but early on we discovered that if we alternated between Power and Wisdom, we would have balanced stats, and since we needed that early on, we saw no reason to lose it as we continued. In short, Power does the hitting, Wisdom upgrades your MP and magic attack strength, Stamina influenced your defence and HP, and Will works the Will bar. The Will Bar is a bar at the bottom of the screen that filled at a rate based on your Will stat, but would empty if you attacked. It’s useless until it’s filled, but once filled, it would upgrade your next attack to a special one: axes would be thrown, swords would spin like a blender if you used the wide swing, or would cause Sumo to dash back and forth like a prototype for Kingdom Heart’s Sonic Blade if you used a stab.
This “wait and attack” mechanic became a central in later Mana games, but unfortunately in this game the will bar never upgrades except in terms of speed. This means the only way the devs could upgrade the will bar was to start it off so slow that it takes nearly a full minute to fill. It doesn’t really become viable until the late game. The levelling system in Sword of Mana was much more complicated, getting into some real tangles with a one-way class upgrade system, I’m sort of glad we didn’t have to put up with it.
On the route to Wendel (oh hey, remember the plot?) we ran into several spear-chucking pigmen that were pretty much just Moblins. Yeah, the Zelda connections are pretty obvious, sometimes. At the end of the road, we finally found the town of Wendel, which we were told was “sacred” though we never learned why or how. We dumped our two-dungeons-and-extended-overworld-travel worth of cash onto the shop counters to pick up some shitty armour upgrades, and finally tracked down Cibba, only to learn Bogard had somehow already gotten word to him in the interim. Can’t imagine how. Perhaps Bogard went on the trip himself and wasn’t waylaid by an unnecessary vampire filler episode?
Cibba led us to a magic circle in his house or shrine so that Fuji could see what either Cibba or Kyle called a “forced hallucination.” I don’t remember because my notes go on to quote Kyle saying: “[Or maybe a real hallucination because] you’re going to break her fragile little mind after she was kidnapped today.” The vision she received showed her mother, who announced that she and Fuji were “members of the Mana family […] the seeds of the Mana Tree” and explained that she had sealed the waterfalls to keep people from getting up, though as we’ll see later, that seems to be untrue. It’s more like she put things back to normal once she was done cleaning up Vandole than “sealing,” but who can say. Also, from her and the townsfolk, we learned that the Tree was the source of all water in the world, flowing from its roots, meaning people abusing the power of the tree were abusing nature itself. Oh hey, it’s FFV’s environmentalism a year ahead of FFV! But that’s for later.
As Fuji came down off her shrooms, Glaive attacked the city, and our friend the Red Mage showed up to take Fuji away. “I’ll take you to a safe place!” said the man who knows too much about kidnapping. Cibba asked where he was going only too late for Sumo to realize he should have asked. Yes, Fuji had just been kidnapped, and yes, we had been making those jokes before it happened. We could not believe our inside joke had suddenly become canon. Some dead guy out front proved our theory. “Kasim!” Kyle shouted. “Wait, no. Willy! Wait, no.”
We tried to follow after Red Mage only for monsters to appear after a musical sting, spawn on top of our head, and then knock us into the previous room and into the dead body, which prompted a long text description of the corpse, and all of this happened three times.
At the gate, we discovered that Red Mage was Julius, who smacked us into the wall above the gate with his magic before taking off, which is a pretty good exit. He also called us “darling.” …No comment on that bit. Yet. We later learned he was escaping “in his airship” in which case… motherfucker, that’s unquestionably a good exit. We resolved to steal the airship, I mean to save Fuji, and got the Heal spell from Cibba only to never use it. Also Kyle set a wasp on fire and it killed Sumo on the spot. “We’ve learned a valuable lesson this day.” “Flaming wasps are dangerous.”
…Wait a minute, if Julius has an airship, why doesn’t he and Dark Lord just take it to the top of the waterfall?
Heading west, Kyle began clear-cutting a forest with his axe (the trees could all get “cut down” but most of them left trunks, allowing the game to hide a maze in plain sight. While other Zelda clones have had axes cut down trees, this hidden maze was one of the game’s best ideas, hands down). For the first time in the game we actually had a fairly large freedom of exploration. This came with the added impression of more to come via a coastline and docks in the water, where the game until this point had been all walled in by vegetation and rock. To the west, Kyle found a mine with a mine cart that needed oiling and a living cave called “Gaia” that complained about us stepping in its mouth and spat us back out.
Searching around, we found a shop selling oil and returned to the cave, where the cart took us on a wild ride we could barely control (and barely fight from, taking a few unfair hits). The idea was to work with some track-changing switches, and all-in-all the sequence felt like the prototype of the mine cart sequences in Flagship’s Zelda games (the two Oracle games and The Minish Cap). The sequence is definitely lacking, but unlike FFA’s attempts to mimick Zelda, this really does feel like a brand new idea, and one that LttP wouldn’t upset after only a few months. The Zelda Oracle games wouldn’t come out for a whole ten years, so for once FFA can probably take pride in its influence.
The sequence ended with Sumo dumped into a pit, where he landed next to a Final Fantasy-styled dwarf, named Watts. I’m going to go on a tangent here, but here’s some trivia: “Watts” was originally the name of a Dwarf in FF1, who was translated as “Jim” in the English NES release of FF1. Perhaps because of the “Jim” translation, the Mana localizations kept on a character named “Watts” in several following installments, probably thinking the name was their own creation to begin with. Meanwhile, Final Fantasy made their own reference to Watts in FFVIII.
But enough trivia. Watts informed us that he was here hunting for “Silver,” though that would have read “Mythril” in the original Japanese. The Final Fantasy references in this are way more substantial than I had ever would have guessed up front!
With the help of Watts and his throwing axes, Kyle pressed through the dungeon, eventually making his way to a ledge where he and Watts fought the “Megapede,” a centipede-like boss just straight up called an “Ankheg” in Sword of Mana, because that’s what it is: an Ankheg, from D&D. The Megapede weaved in and out of the field with segmented body parts that really went beyond what I expected of a Gameboy game from 1991, though I’ll admit that I lost track of Watts while Kyle was doing the fight and maybe the Gameboy cracked under pressure and split him out of existence.
Well not permanently out of existence, because after the fight Watts found his Silver (just lying around, like FFII told us Mythril does all the time). He set up shop in a nearby Dwarf Town we had missed. Before we parted ways, he advised Sumo that Gaia would be happy to swallow him if we were wearing Silver armour, which is… which is just gross. We did the crossing (thankfully Gaia didn’t make this unpleasant with a description of how nice we tasted, though there was a basic puzzle with some gargoyle statues somewhere in the middle of digestion). On the other side, we saw what one often finds at the butt-end of the digestive track: more shit like us. In this case, it was Bogard. Huh, I guess he did get past us while we were at Kett’s? We better watch our jokes, they’re predicting things with surprising accuracy.
Bogard joined the party, though his sword made his monster AI almost useless, with the one redeeming factor being that if he did meander onto an enemy, he would shred them non-stop. His ASK command was to tell us to fill the Will gauge for super attacks, because the game wanted to teach us that a Will-powered whip attack is extra-long. Apparently willpower can do that to dick jokes like the whip, and the game wanted to throw extra-long hookshot segments at us so it was urgent that we put two and two together. Unfortunately for the game, Kyle had worked this out from context cues well before we even though to ASK Bogard anything, but good try at least. Frankly, the long hookshot puzzle was a trick the game pulled way too often considering how long it takes to charge the gauge. More importantly, the extended hookshot isn’t really a challenge, and after the first time it’s also not a puzzle, meaning that after the first time, there is never any payoff for doing it! That said, I do respect that they probably needed a few of those long hookshots just to coordinate the cramped Gameboy layouts… but some of the long hookshot segments were clearly just to spite us, so my grace only extends so far. Not unlike the hookshot.
Following Bogard’s advice, we located Julius’ airship, which was “refuelling” (goodness knows on what) at a lake nearby. The airship was an unfortunate little dungeon, but it wasn’t all bad. Plus side: it was nice to see the sections on the deck, as they didn’t fall under the normal “dungeon construction rules” run by the game (sadly, this underlined that the rules were yet another archaism borrowed from LoZ). The unfortunate part came in terms of the layout. We actually got to the end of the dungeon, the window of Fuji’s cell, before we got to the middle: the door to Fuji’s cell. Because our route through the dungeon was strictly scripted, Sumo was too stubborn to so much as glance through the window frame. Instead, we had to backtack to find the door so that the scene at the door could tell us to go to the window. Got that? After the scene at the door, Bogard stayed behind to guard the Fuji, and the airship took off mid-discussion and we realized that would complicate things a bit.
Unfortunately it wasn’t the door that needed guarding. Once we reached the window, Fuji passed us the Pendant out of sheer plot contrivance (I wish I knew how Sword of Mana handled this just because it’s such a baseless move on her part) and Julius showed up behind us on the scaffold we were using to reach the window. He then set fire to the scaffold, even though this could only possibly end with us falling hundreds of feet to the ground with the Pendant and he would have to start looking for us all over again. And so I lay out this Idiot Competition to you, the reader: was it dumber that Fuji and Sumo never looked through the window – Fuji to find an escape route or Sumo to find Fuji – or was it dumber that Julius dropped his target out of his reach after setting fire to his own airship?
Luckily for Sumo, this game has no fall damage. Instead, he smacked into the thatch roof of a house miraculously occupied by his old gladiator friend Amanda, who had recently escaped from prison herself. She patched him up and set him to bed, but also took the Pendant of Mana, recognizing it for what it truly was. She was gone by the time Sumo woke up.