Having somehow fallen to a different location from the exact same point along the exact same route and been since kidnapped by a cyborg Jesus ostrich, it was time to work out our current location on this lush-desert duocylindrical hell-world we were trying to save. We found ourselves in a crystal-dotted desert that had once been home to the Vandole empire. We learned that the Vandole had known the secret of constructing on the shifting sands, but that most of their buildings had been consumed by the desert since they had fallen, including their greatest achievement: Dime Tower. I can only assume the town we had woken up in was previously Vandolean, because it’s in the same desert as the rest of the ruins, but the game isn’t saying. Before heading out, we bought a Flame Shield (the first shield in the game to lose certain protections, making future buys a caution) and a Flame Whip, which is a definite and clear Castlevania reference for once, making the previous ones look far more intentional than they had up until that point.
Kyle jetted off on our feathery steed and the two of us were soon well and truly lost. There are a few troubles that sort of compounded to make this all problematic. First off, the game was trying to capture a Final Fantasy-esque sense of fast travel, which works because it shuttles you across an insignificant world map, and was trying to do it using a Zelda-esque environment where the scale is much tighter. It’s the difference between flying a real-world plane over the countryside (Final Fantasy and its airships) and driving a car (you and your Chocobo): the developers have you going as fast as you can, but the plane is just faster and there’s nothing they can do about it. The game’s otherwise unnoticeable load times also became a huge bother on Chocobot’s back, as it spent a half-second loading each screen (including enemies that couldn’t touch us while on choco-back, and arguably didn’t need to be loaded), followed by a second of us crossing the screen at lightning pace, and then another half-second of stall. Stall, lurch, stall, lurch… It’s not surprising that Secret of Mana implemented two separate fast travel systems where you don’t have to visit the intervening screens at all!
Last, and in its own way just as significant: by having us explore the world in a stage-based fashion, we had no idea where any of those stages were in relation to the outside world. And now the game was handing us the keys and saying “Go back to that place you’ve already been”? Keep in mind that this doesn’t seem like it was supposed to be a challenge. After we had finally caught up with the plot, it began to give us directions or challenged us to explore, but for the time being it seemed to expect us to shuttle over on an insignificant side trip. The game actually included a map feature, but unfortunately FFA was, once again, following LoZ’s rules even when LoZ’s rules were foolish, and so the overworld map is blank.
Long story short, Kyle got lost on his way to find Cibba in Wendel, and accidentally sequence-broke. He found a cave somewhere off our route where he was ambushed by nothing short of one of the original Four Fiends: Lich. The NPCs had been telling us that Julius had been summoning monsters with the Mana Pendant, which we just ignored as talk about the wandering monsters, but no, it seemed to be a reference to these prominent Final Fantasy cameos, especially when they began to influence the plot. We had no real shot against Lich, as we weren’t supposed to be there for two dungeons yet, so we ran (just kidding, he slammed our head a foot into the floor), and turned to a walkthrough for directions.
The game insulted our getting lost when we finally did find Wendel, as it immediately redirected us to the new town of Lorim. Apparently Cibba had gone there regarding a monster attack. Why not just direct us to Lorim at the outset you pains in my ass? To familiarize ourselves with the map? I’m going to be honest with you: we set down the walkthrough and gave navigation another shot multiple times and still never found anything of our own accord. A lot of the new destinations from this point on are just hidden up the crack of nowhere down the trickling tributary of a dying stream. These are the kind of obscure routes Zelda uses to hide heart pieces. Lich’s cave by the sea is practically next to a freeway in comparison.
Lorim could apparently be found across the “south seas” (a poor set of directions on a torus world with no poles) past some snow drifts. The snow drift part might have been the best part of those directions… if we could have made out the snow as snow? Monochrome game, you know? Our snow-related confusion led to a profitable detour though, I can’t fault the game on that. See: we ran into a patch of beach that featured rocks floating above sand that may as well have been ice floating above on snow in monochrome. Weirder things have happened in 8-bit gaming. Wandering this region, Kyle found a shop selling ice equipment (confusing us even more about the sand), though we had to grind briefly outside the door to get the cash. This was also the point in the game where it began to pile on the wide hookshot gaps, so good luck to anyone who’d fallen behind on their Will.
Arriving in Lorim, which was a fortress accessible only from an obscure harbour, we learned that nearly everyone had been frozen solid. The king there told us that that Kary, the original name of the Fiend of Fire, Marilith, was responsible, and I did just mention she was Fiend of Fire, right? In Sword of Mana, Kary was remade into more of an ice-being, and was actually renamed “Malyris.” This new translation meshing with the new Final Fantasy name has to be deliberate, which is unusual in Sword of Mana, which tends to bury the old connections it had with FF. But that just makes things more confusing! We went to Kary’s cave nearby and found a snowman puzzle just inside the gates. This one involved standing on a switch so that a distant snowman would start sliding along some ice. At the end of the track, you then had to put the snowman onto that same switch, which somehow opened the door even though your weight didn’t, which is perfect illogic. In Kyle’s words, “I mean, bravo game, but you’re still a dick!”
Actually, the game’s puzzles were becoming an ugly point overall. They made less and less sense and were far too far apart. The lack of puzzles in earlier dungeons was excusable in a tutorial sort of way, and the airship and plot importance of Glaive had brought some life to the middle of the game, but from here on out it’s just “a series of square-shaped rooms, all alike” with their random monster occupants. I might as well be playing the world’s most uninspired roguelike for how haphazardly random things are in FFA, despite FFA having none a roguelikes’ depth.
Still, the dungeons made some attempt to distinguish themselves, in that 8-bit way that relies on a single repeated element and hoping one new piece of content will occupy a half hour of your time. This is especially retro if it has no thematic connection to the area, like a game distinguishing its coastal stage with spinning platforms.
…Come to think of it, that happens a lot in modern games, as well…
This dungeon was distinguished mostly by its “treadmill ice.” Traditional video game ice would have been fine but… no. Treadmills, disguised as ice. They were such fast treadmills, in fact, that you couldn’t leave one once you had boarded them, until you hit a wall or used the whip on a hookshot point. To make the treadmill even more unbearable, the game threw in some eyeball enemies that could cause Petrify on contact, keeping us from using our whip even though it wasn’t our fault they spawned the monster in our path to begin with, and I’ll remind you that we had no power to move out of the way of their shots! Next, the game spawned genies (“Air Elementals”) that would get caught on the treadmill and simply… break. It hardly makes sense the treadmill ice could affect them to begin with, seeing as how they were flying, but once they got on it they would simply stop animating, and would wait for us to run into them, because the ice worked too fast for us to hit them in some situations. Why would you place an enemy in a dungeon with a stage element element it wasn’t programmed to handle? It just keeps getting better. Also: duck soldiers.
At the end of the dungeon, we fought Kary with our Flame Whip as she shot icicles at us (again, former Fiend of Fire). She was vulnerable only on her humanoid upper-body, in theory, but in practice she was only vulnerable on her head, because this game’s hit detection is garish, and I only know she’s supposed to be vulnerable on all her human parts because a few lucky hits got through with the help of sheer luck! She dropped an Ice Sword, which was great because our Silver Sword was way behind in attack power and any enemy weak only to swords was being greeted with a groan and a sigh. While it didn’t ignore all of the same weaknesses, it did enough, and the Morning Star covered the gaps. We returned to Lorim to find the town thawed (good thing you didn’t need her tears, Sumo), and Cibba gave us a “Bone key” that would be necessary to find the Excalibur. He instructed us to find the “floating islands” of the “Ammonite Coast” and wow that’s terrible directions. The game had mentioned the Ammonite Coast sometime earlier in the plot, but don’t all islands “float” as far as casual language is sometimes concerned?
Frustrated by these directions, we went after Lich instead. Kyle fought our dead friend through a few thrashings, and finally won out by fighting as cautiously as he could. This involved using the Morning Star’s initial roundabout swing as defence against Lich’s projectiles. In fact, Kyle could hardly attack at all because Lich was so ruthless, and could unusually wrap about the screen as he flew, meaning his attacks could come from either direction at a moment’s notice. Killing Lich got us the Nuke spell, which would be mandatory later, though like a lot of the spells in this game, we never really used it in combat. It lobs a slow, magical grenade of sorts. A very hard fight, which wasn’t surprising since we were still jumping the gun. Imagine if we had gotten stubborn about it a dungeon ago?
In the end, with the help of a walkthrough, we found out that the floating not-ice rocks that had gotten us lost before were the “floating islands,” which was just an abysmal choice of words. Also, I hate to keep harping on the Zelda comparisons, but sometime around this point we noticed that Sumo couldn’t round walls – like these crystals – the way Link could even in 1986 (this was hardly a secret, Blazer could also push around past walls in Soul Blazer, which released the same year as FFA). This game’s mazes were essentially hard-edged, forcing you to painstakingly position yourself between walls to pass them. This made this poorly collision-detected game even harsher in a way you just can’t pretend was worthwhile. This isn’t a tile-based movement system like Final Fantasy, after all, heck it’s not even a meticulous puzzle game like Tower of Druaga. Pretending it’s a 1986 LoZ clone hasn’t been doing FFA any favours, but pretending it’s a 1984 game is doing it even less. Actually, pretending you’re Tower of Druaga never does anyone any favours, even Tower of Druaga.
Our proper road was opposite the ice shop we had found earlier, and included a shop selling the Thunder Spear, the last item of equipment you can really buy. Money is useless now! Riot on the streets! At the end of the road we were taking, we found an ominous-looking cave locked with the Skull key. This cave that played home to Kraken, the last of the Four Fiends we’ll be seeing in this game (having started with a Hydra as our first boss, I imagine Tiamat seemed a little redundant). Kraken was a curious fight. It was just a plain old ordinary squid-looking Kraken this time, not the anthropomorphic one seen in FF1. It fought us from below as we stood on a bridge. We had to stab down at him in between his tentacles as he faked out and attacked us entirely at random, making a strategy impossible. I did a slop job, but it worked well enough, and we were soon on an island in the “southwest” of the map, which we found full of lava.
This lava was bad news like I could not have imagined from previous experience with lava in other games. Of course, it didn’t heat the air (we don’t do that in games even today), but once you entered it, it did 120 damage a hit (at our Stamina), and we only had ~250 HP. You could walk quickly through the lava to minimize the hits, but keep in mind that we had to stop every two hits to cast Cure, multiple times, or collapse into a pile of ash. We practically drained our MP with every attempt. We did get a Zeus axe out of the deal, not that we ever used it, and ultimately reached the end to fight an Ifrit (“Iflyte”), who was just another contact damage pattern boss. The whole dungeon was a slog from start to finish. These dungeons were getting longer and longer with less and less substance, and for once I was glad not to see too much of the gimmick, because the disintegration lava was way more frustrating than interesting. Thankfully the Excalibur was at the end of the dungeon, and finally in our hands. Unfortunately, the Excalibur had become the “Rusty Sword” in the intervening years, which I guess is what happens when you seal a legendary weapon away in the ass-end of nowhere. Final Fantasy V, take note!
I’m sad to say the lava dungeon was followed by nearly fifteen minutes of backtracking through almost every room of the Kraken dungeon and the overworld mazes, followed by some even more pointless rebounding about the planet on our cyborg mount, chasing the plot from one place to another. At the end of this appeal to include fast travel in every game ever made from now on until forever, we found ourselves back in Dr. Bowow’s lab. This is when he or someone else should have told us to go fetch the Nuke spell, but since we already had it, the game jumped ahead, thank goodness. Bowow told us to use Nuke on “a crystal” in the desert nearby, which I’ll remind you is full of crystals. No. No, you don’t understand. Full of them. They weren’t just dotting the desert: they formed the borders and every bit of terrain. Every screen was nothing but sand and crystals. This was like the original LoZ asking you to burn every tree for upgrades, except this section was mandatory. At least Nuke spells cost less than LoZ’s bombs and can be cast faster than LoZ’s (Blue) Candle. At this point we were in our get-it-over-with phase, and flipped off the game without a second thought and checked a walkthrough. It turned out the crystal we wanted was near the shore, and blocked off the entrance to some ruins. What the purpose of these ruins was supposed to be is unknown, especially this close to Vandole, but I wasn’t going to complain after all the wandering the game has forced us to do.
Inside the ruins we found some short treadmills working more as one-way gates that controlled access to the side tunnels. There were also some lava-lethal force fields that could usually be circumvented, a Dragon Shield and Sword, as well as some evil mirrors that attacked us with images of Sumo as projectiles (nice touch). At the end of the dungeon, we found the Mantis Ant, the first boss of Secret of Mana, who was surrounded by a force field that killed me the first time I tried to cross it as we had avoided them before now and hadn’t realized how lethal they could be. This death was unfortunate, as it forced me to restart the entire dungeon. Once I was back at the end, the Mantis Ant wasn’t that much of a threat. In fact, a walkthrough told us after the fact that you could hurt it without any harm to yourself from outside the force field. Speaking of stuff I read after the fact, this iconic Mana boss was actually removed from Sword of Mana, while in the mobile game, which was developed later, the Mantis was not only kept, but given the new Scythe weapon to make it even more important. What an odd split of changes!
With the Mantis gone, we used the Rusty Sword in a special spot in the back, which caused Dime Tower to rise from the sands again. You could argue that this was the point of these ruins, but why a Vandolean fortress was built to collapse dozens of stories into the sands and then rise again, I can’t say, and why that feature would be controlled by the sword that destroyed their empire, I’m even more at a loss. Sword of Mana agrees, as in that game, this tunnel just leads to Dime Tower, which for all I know might still be underground at this point in Sword’s plot. Bowow had told us that somewhere in Dime Tower, we could repair the sword. This was objectively not true, but… more on that next time.