The gang's all here

Allow us to turn the wayback machine to a couple of decades ago. The Internet was slowly but surely becoming an everyday part of our lives, cellphones were over-sized, expensive bricks and video games had gone from being a niche but blooming industry mostly aimed at children in the West to a mainstream cultural phenomenon thanks to Sony's 32-bit Playstation. In the days before eBay and online stores, the biggest restriction to any gamer was where they were born. With e-Commerce still a novelty and mostly out of reach, gamers spent much of their formative years playing whatever was officially released at local retailers. Maybe you were lucky and were born in America, where you did not have to endure the horrors of sluggish PAL 50hz gaming. Maybe you even had a video game store selling Japanese imports and the money to pick up a few, sometimes just because the cover art looked so damn cool.

But it was not just superior box art that was coming out of Japan - some of the greatest video games of all time were being released in the Land of the Rising Sun at this time. The most reliable source on these releases was printed media, with magazines such as the French edition of Super Power extensively covering manga and anime video game licensed releases while cult classic British magazine Super Play dedicating many pages to Japanese RPGs. But why were such quality games so hard to bring overseas?

The most important factor was, of course, money; during an epoch where Nintendo controlled every aspect of cartridge production worldwide, developers always had the scary proposition of ordering a few thousand units and then facing the risk of not being able to sell enough of them to cover production costs. As such, making video games was a monumental task even if your name was Capcom, Konami, Namco, Squaresoft or Enix. Add to this the complexity and effort that would take to translate RPGs, which had thousands of times more text than your average arcade conversion or platformer, and it becomes even more of a financial risk.

Now consider that the third most important market (Europe) has no less than a dozen different languages and your fantastic 16-bit RPG masterpiece would have to be translated into - at the very least - English, German, French and Spanish. Seems like a truly daunting proposition considering that RPGs were not all that popular in the West at the time. No company outside Nintendo itself would risk it, until Squaresoft started testing the waters in the US with Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest, an entry level JRPG meant to teach fresh Super Nintendo-owning westerners the joys of turn-based battles. A steady flux of JRPGs began arriving in the US market, while a few of them made their way to Europe.

Secret of Mana began production aimed to be released on the ill-fated SNES CD add-on for our beloved Super Nintendo. When Squaresoft realized that the peripheral would never become a reality, the game producers had to cut out most of the planned features, including concepts such as a night and day cycle, whole playable continents and even parts of the plot, including multiple possible endings. All of this work was undertaken in order to fit a game intended for a 600 megabyte CD-ROM onto a 16 megabit cartridge. The end result was a mere shadow of the team's initial vision, even carrying over some unsquashed bugs along the process. Yet we loved it. We still do. It raised the bar so high for what western gamers could expect from a JRPG localisation and was used as a reference point for judging future genre releases. This is why we always celebrate the game's re-release on Nintendo's Virtual Console service and happily replay the adventure of Randi, Prim and Popoi and hum along to the game's beautiful soundtrack. So how could Squaresoft surpass itself; where could they go from that almost accidental 1993 hit release to make an even better game? Was it even possible?

Fast forward to September 1995, where a highly anticipated Seiken Densetsu 3 arrived in Japanese stores, a game we had all hoped would be released as Secret of Mana 2 the following year in US and PAL territories. Citing technical difficulties, Squaresoft never accomplished that. Even worse, the rapid and unexpectedly deteriorating relationship between Nintendo and Squaresoft after the hugely successful Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars - coupled with the next generation of hardware in the horizon - meant that Seiken Desentsu 3 ended up never getting the recognition it deserved in the west.

The plot to the game is nearly in keeping with the previous outing. The Mana Goddess created the world upon forging the legendary titular Sword of Mana, using it to defeat eight God Beasts, sealing them away in eight Mana Stones. When her task was complete, she fell asleep and became The Mana Tree. Time passed until the present day, when Mana is beginning to fade from the world, leading to war among neighboring countries for diminishing Mana resources while certain groups plot to revive the eight God Beasts. Enter six unsuspecting heroes in the making.

You read correctly; while in the previous game you were limited to the three heroes and a linear plot, Seiken Densetsu 3 substantially ups the ante by offering twice as many choices to form a party of three. Duran is an orphaned mercenary swordsman of the Grasslands Kingdom of Forcena; Angela is the Princess of the snow-covered Magic Kingdom of Altena; Hawkeye is member of a thieves' guild from the Sand Fortress Navarre; Riez is the Princess of the Wind Kingdom of Rolante, high in the mountains; Kevin is the Prince of the Beastmen from the Beast Kingdom and Charlotte is the granddaughter of The Priest of Light from the Holy City of Wendel. You can mix and match any combination of ruffians and/or royalty into a three party team, but your decision on the first character will impact the outcome of the whole plot.

Offering unprecedented replayability for a title in this genre, the game will begin by playing out your main character's events that lead him or her into venturing out into the unexpected world-saving quest. Each of the six characters has its own unique prologue. The game's plot will also change several quests, dungeons and bosses along the way of the main course of the game, depending on who you chose to be your second and third ally. Plus, there is also a unique ending for each character and you only get to see the ending of your main character on each run. So unlike the previous Super Nintendo outing, it's impossible to see all that the game has to offer on a single playthrough. Thanks to this outing being incredibly streamlined, this is not a chore at all, but actually something you will happily undertake.

Combat is where this game's polish stands out the most from the previous entry. Each character has only one type of melee weapon (or hands and feet in the case or Kevin) and as such, doesn't have to learn any other types. Magic is also character and class restricted, so you only have to upgrade your Intelligence skill to cast Magic more effectively or learn new spells. As you level up you can also upgrade Attack, Agility, Vitality, Spirit, and Luck. It's up to you to decide what sort of build you're aiming for. The fighting itself has also been cleaned up, with the recharging attack system being dropped in favour of a bar that registers consecutive successful hits until it is full. At this point you can unleash a powered up attack, the equivalent of the charge attack in the previous game. Thanks to much better hit detection, combat becomes incredibly fluid - no more getting whacked accidently by a Rabite because your combat animation got interrupted.

The producers didn't settle on having your character's class static until the end of the game either, offering two possible Class Changes at level 18 and level 38. While the first is a simple choice between following a Light or Dark path, the second one will require you to get certain items before being able to once again choose between Light or Dark. Changing class will affect not only your character stats but also what kind of magic you are able to summon. Let us use Duran as case study - the character starts as Fighter. On his first class change he can become a Knight (Light) or Gladiator (Dark). Assuming you do discover what you need for the second class change at level 38, he can become a Paladin (Light, Light), a Lord (Light, Dark), a Swordmaster (Dark, Light) or a Duelist (Dark, Dark). Considering each class has its own traits and each of the other five characters can also become any two of the six available Class paths, there's a staggering amount of replayability in this game.

The graphics are simply stunning, with some of the most detailed and beautifully animated sprites and backgrounds (that often look more like paintings) ever seen in any video game, period. This is not just pushing the limits of the SNES hardware, it's challenging what can be achieved with 2D art, putting to shame several other games from both past and current generation hardware. Add some incredible, full-screen bosses plus stunning special effects for your magic attacks and you won't be disappointed with what's coming out of the TV screen. Your ears will also be quite pleased with over three hours of music spread across seventy tracks by series composer Hiroki Kikuta, who once again manages to produce a unique, brilliant soundtrack to go along with the action on the screen.

Other planned features that were cut from the previous game also made it to this 32-Mbit cartridge, namely the Day and Night cycle. Thanks to clever usage of the SNES colour palette, the real time change between day and night is quite a spectacle, as the bright colours of daylight slowly dim into the faded, darker variants of night time and light can be seen pouring from the many houses and castles that sparsely populate the world map. After some minutes, the same spectacle awaits you in reverse and a new day arrives. This is not just for fancy cosmetics; night and day are part of the gameplay mechanics. Certain events only happen at certain times and Kevin is by far the character that is most influenced by this cycle, since the Prince of the Beastmen turns into a werewolf at night, considerably boosting his attack power. There's also a full seven day week cycle, with each day alluding to a certain mana elemental. While on their day, magic cast from their type will have a slight efficiency boost. It is a shame we do not see brilliant, original ideas like these replicated in modern age games - they were also sadly omitted from future episodes in the Mana series.

Assuming you played the first game, you will feel very familiar with the cast of allies and enemies that you face here. Rabites, the walking Mushrooms, the Helmeted Ducks and many other foes will be instantly recognizable. Friendly faces also make a return like Watts the blacksmith, the Cat merchants and even the dancing shop keepers. But every one of them has had a major facelift, with added detail and animation frames lending even more charisma to everyone. Yes, Flammie too will become available on your quest, allowing you to gaze upon the new, more detailed Mode 7 world map from high above; the added bonus being that the Day and Night cycle also happens in real time during your airbourne escapades. The ring menu system also makes a welcome return, ensuring that tasks like inventory management, party equipment and magic casting seamlessly integrated within the regular game action.

Truly nothing was left to chance in Seiken Desentsu 3. As such, it is a terrible shame that unless you are fluent in Japanese you will not be able to appreciate its value or decipher its brilliance. Squaresoft did not have the resources to commit to localization back in 1995 and it is a shame that even nowadays the game remains unreleased on Nintendo's Virtual Console. However, in 2000 that inaccessibility would come to an end thanks to the efforts of Neill Corlett who released a miraculous English translation patch that you can use with your original cartridge and a RetroN 5 or Retro Freak. Fans manage to do something believed impossible just five years after the game's original release, a feat that even Squaresoft themselves balked at. For some reason the multiplayer in this game was cut down to two players instead of three like the previous game, perhaps because Squaresoft believed not many SNES owners would use this feature since it required the often underappreciated multitap peripheral - but where there's a will, there's a way and fans also took care of that back in 2006, restoring multitap support for three player hack'n'slash fun, the way it was always meant to be.

Seiken Densetsu 3 is nothing short of stellar. Try as we might, we can't point out a single flaw or weak aspect in this game. In fact, it clearly puts the previous game to shame in every aspect, with only the likes of Quintet's Terranigma able to stand side by side with it. It pushes the visual and audio capabilities of the Super Nintendo hardware to its very limits, offering a refined gameplay experience and efficiently creating a virtual world that successfully immerses the player to a point of caring about the characters and their struggles to restore Mana and balance to the world. The bar here is set so high that even subsequent Mana games and spinoffs on superior hardware struggled to recapture what made the series so special to so many. Series creator Koichi Ishii and his team were finally able to deliver their original vision for Secret of Mana thanks to a bigger ROM size cartridge and lengthier development cycle. It is a true shame Western gamers do not have fond memories of this game at the time of its original release, otherwise you would see the name Seiken Densetsu 3 (or perhaps Secret of Mana 2) show up much more often on the lists of all-time top SNES games. You don't even need to be sad when it's over; just start a new game and change up your party to discover all new struggles. It remains a mandatory addition to your Super Famicom import collection, especially with the fan-made patches.

But let us assume you no longer have access to your Super Nintendo and are not a fan of reproduction systems like the RetroN 5 or Retro Freak. How can you play games like this one without the original cartridge? Let us also assume that in the past two decades you did not become fluent in Japanese either. Are hundreds of games just like this one forever locked out of our reach? These little pieces of denied quality entertainment from the past, are they still relevant nowadays? Considering the fact that most of these games showcase some of the finest examples of Japanese video game production values, the answer is certain 'Yes!', even more so because the markets evolved and for a period moved away from games like Seiken Densetsu 3 in favour of the polygonal revolution only to be diluted or poorly imitated nowadays in the age of cellphones and other portable gaming devices. With the market turning increasingly more digital the Virtual Console services remain one of the brightest options out there, but it needs to adapt quickly to the changing realities. Remember the Hanabi Festivals? Those were excellent initiatives to bring games to the Wii in America and Europe that remained up to that point out of reach from western players.

Even more astonishing was the release of EarthBound Beginnings, doing away with the precedent of Nintendo releasing only titles that were complete and available in the retail market, making way for the possibility for other companies to do the same. Considering the ever increasing amount of interest in retro games and Japanese exclusives that still runs deep in the hearts and minds of the video game community, companies like Square Enix are sitting on piles of pure gold. Thankfully, it would seem that slowly and surely the Japanese veteran is waking up to this fact. Romancing Saga 2 was recently localised on iOS and Android, the first time the RPG has been released outside of Japan. Hopefully this is the first of many releases, and fingers are crossed that Square Enix doesn't make such efforts entirely exclusive to smartphones.

Would you not be first in line for a legal, hassle-free way to acquire and play this (and many other) games that were left in Japan during the golden age of 8 and 16 bit gaming? Drop your thoughts in the comments below.