Legend of Mana opens with a story about the burning of the Mana Tree over 900 years ago, which led to the entirety of the world being compacted tightly into artifacts that preserved the last vestiges of the tree’s power. When you awaken, you’re at home—a serene but otherwise empty hut made into the facade of a tree. There’s a Sproutling outside (something of a little grass fairy, but if the fairies all shared a hive mind and wandered the earth muttering cryptic things about the world being an illusion) who gives you your first artifact, a set of children’s blocks that hold the memories of a trade outpost named Domina.
The Sproutlings firmly believe that the world is “fake,” and that places and people only exist because we imagine them into existence. The game’s Artifact Placement system seems to support this Cartesian outlook on Fa’Diel—unlike the other Mana games, Legend of Mana is a fully nonlinear experience where you wander from locale to locale looking for Artifacts to place on the map. These Artifacts are ancient looking objects like wrought medallions and tattered old dolls. When placed on the map, they writhe and contort, sometimes summoning great splashes of flame or a legion of bubbles. It certainly implies that something magical is happening, that a great font of mana is released when you restore the world through this system.
Everyone else in the world, however, seems to believe the Sproutlings are liars. To them, the world exists because they’ve explored it—they’re people with rich histories and lots of stories to tell. They’re also people with bigger problems than pondering on whether the world is real or imagined. The game’s progression typically has you placing an Artifact then immediately becoming embroiled in a fairytale-like event that involves one or more of the game’s expansive cast. It’s the main source of the childlike wonder Legend of Mana is known for. One moment, you’re in a junkyard of discarded toys, where you learn they’re actually former soldiers used in a proxy war hundreds of years ago by humans. The toys have grown bitter and cling to their pride as soldiers, but slowly rot away because of their lack of will. Right next to the junkyard you might place Lake Kilma, where a legion of penguin pirates seek treasure but are slowly petrified by invisible faeries, which only you are able to see.
For most of the game, you act as a quiet observer like this. You take the role of a recorder, and can return to your house after each event is finished to have your cactus write it down in a diary. Unlike many RPGs, the main character is decentralized, and there’s no true overarching story that keeps the game moving in a streamlined manner. This is the type of game that, without a guide, you can easily get lost in. There are many different mechanics that are underexplained, such as blacksmithing, monster raising, magic, and even leveling. Despite its saccharine presentation, Legend of Mana is pretty inaccessible by modern standards, and was even pretty divisive upon its initial release in 2000. Gamespot referred to the game’s greatest downfall as an “overbearing sense of fragmentation and isolation” fostered by the Artifact system, while Gamepro derided the game as being “obscured by [an] overabundance of subplots.”
I never played Legend of Mana as a kid, but the game does highly remind me of some of my favorite gaming experiences. I immediately drew comparisons to Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles because of the deep-seated loneliness pointed out in Gamespot’s review, but this was more of an “in” for me than a turn-off. Crystal Chronicles has a similarly fragmentary plot that eventually culminates in one true ending. The path to getting there, though, is probably different for everyone. You experience moments and events at seemingly random intervals instead of a set chronology as with most mainstream RPGs, which is essential to both games’ storybook feel. Yoko Shimomura’s score for Legend of Mana also tangentially reminded me of how much I love Kumi Tanioka’s work on Crystal Chronicles; there’s a unique blend of whimsy, medieval influence, and darkness that give both an enrapturing allure that makes the world seem lush and alive even when working on otherwise tedious tasks.
Legend of Mana also has echoes of SaGa Frontier, Final Fantasy Tactics Advance and even Moon: Remix RPG Adventure, what with the open-ended structure and occasional reliance on guides (or serious wanderlust) to find your next destination or figure out the solution to otherwise mercurial quests. These are all games that probably could never have a watershed moment in popular thought. There’s something about these unstructured narratives that fail to achieve wide appeal even among dedicated RPG fans. I partially understand it; I am a longtime RPG fan because they serve as an escape into another world, and I fell in love with the genre as a kid because I was lonely and thought of the characters in these games as my friends. But in Legend of Mana, you are mostly detached from the people around you. They aren’t really your friends, other than the twin sorcerers that decide to shack up with you. You’re a mostly invisible hero that, to all the people living in Fa’Diel, haven’t really done anything all that heroic. They have no idea you’re recreating the world around them.
In a 1999 interview with Koichi Ishii and Hiroshi Takai, Legend of Mana’s director and battle chief respectively, the two joke about being “contrarians” who “just [wanted] to craft weapons all day.” Their lackadaisical sandbox approach wound up filling the entire CD-ROM’s memory—that means it’s grander in size and scale than even the following year’s Vagrant Story. In the same interview, Ishii remarks on the sheer number of NPCs in the game, as well as the one restriction on character design: no one could simply be a human. Simultaneously, the design eschews the polygonal-based character models that were in vogue at the time. The team opted to go for hand-drawn sprites, claiming they remain the best way to elicit “empathy” from the player.
All of this culminates into a rather beautiful game where the player and their actions are deemphasized other than the path they choose to take to get from event to event. There may be a lot of menial stuff to do in the game, but you’re allowed to do it at your own pace (or not at all, if you have no interest in monster-raising or crafting) while absorbing all the stories around you. The Artifact Placement system gives a feeling of a world in stasis until you’re ready to dive into it; it’s reminiscent of volumes of short stories, which lay dormant until you open them. Your contribution is merely being there for the ride. This is further emphasized by the entirely missable Cactus Diaries, where the tiny cactus in your room records a chronicle of your adventures while embellishing his own thoughts on them. Going out of your way to get Li’l Cactus to write these entries makes them seem like more than just a recap—you see the game as a collection of little adventures with their own little themes and moralizing qualities.
Speaking with Siliconera, the producer of the Legend of Mana remaster Masaru Oyamada noted that, at the game’s release, the internet was not as prevalent as it is today. Fans turned to usermade, imperfect strategy guides or friends in their immediate circle for answers on what to do next. We lose a little bit of that now that the solution to any roadblock is readily available, and the remaster further removes these invisible walls through a mode that nixes battle encounters partially or completely. Something is lost when a game becomes a brief pitstop on the way to the next one; we don’t have the time to luxuriate in its world as much as we may have when we were younger, and when the game industry wasn’t quite as bustling as it is now. Legend of Mana is ultimately a game about creativity, and solving its many tiny puzzles allows its players to flex their own. I’d like to see more nonlinear RPGs in the future like it, and I’d love to find the time and patience to really take it all in.
Austin Jones is a writer with eclectic media interests. You can chat with him about horror games, electronic music, Joanna Newsom and ‘80s-‘90s anime on Twitter @belfryfire