Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Northtown "Carousel" Conundrum

Note: I'm working on getting better pictures from my emulator, which is having issues.  In the meantime, I'll be using some lower quality map rips directly from the ROM.

I'll start with one of the more perplexing remnants of SoM's original concept.  Should you fly to the Empire's Northtown, you will see a a spinning...something.  Make sure you're in overhead view to see it clearly.

The reason this object stands out is: 1)its size, 2)the fact that it's animated, as hardly anything on the world map is, and 3)the fact that despite its prominence on the map, it is nowhere to be found in the actual darned town!

So why was it there?  As we travel in this blog, we'll explore the development of Secret of Mana and the incompleteness of the game, but for now, we need to accept that some areas are more incomplete than others.  Let's turn our attention elsewhere in the world for a moment: the first chapter of the game.  See the map below:

At the top of this picture is the waterfall from the opening.  Look how the game's, "active view" (as we'll call it for now), lines up almost exactly with what's in the overhead:

The overhead map is extremely detailed with respect to what appears in the active view.  Next, let's take our attention to the area I circled in red, which is the kingdom of Pandora:

This map (c)2008 Richard N. Bruns.  For full information, see here.

Notice how once again, this is reproduced almost exactly on the overhead map, in very precise detail.  Clearly, the game designers aimed very high in creating an immersive world with consistent detail across different ways of traversing the game.  I, along with many others in internet forums, have speculated that the early game is the most "complete" part, as it seems to be the most intricate and comprehensive portion of the adventure.  Thus, it is not far fetched to conclude that the overhead/active view synchronization was the most likely goal for the entire game.  There would be exceptions to this, of course.  Some areas would be more mysterious than others, and random terrain would be needed as a place holder to show size and fill in any gaps.  But in the final game, this is the only part that has this level of detail.

Before we return to Northtown, let's take a look at an example in the opposite direction---the northern ice continent.

Nothing presented here is even close to what we'd find if we actually land.  The green portion to the south seems to represent some relief from the harsh climate, but attempts to land Flammie there fail.  Similarly, the wilderness that we travel between Todo Village and the Ice Palace is far smaller than what is represented on the map.  In fact, the developers seemed to reuse certain areas in the active view design, with only minor changes.  We'll see in an early world map later the Ice Country's overhead view was most likely intended to be far more detailed in the final game.

Back to Northtown.  Since the overhead view of the area was designed with the circular object, we can conclude that it was probably excised relatively late in development.  The detail in Northtown's overhead view is more consistent with the beginning of the game than what ended up being the Ice Country above.  Let's take a look at Northtown itself:

We're presented with nine houses, two of which we can not enter.   These either had a purpose in the original concept or were added for scenery in the final game.  It's worth nothing that every house here has a shadow at the top, but only the red house near the flowers has the correct detail.  For what's supposed to be the main city of the evil Galactic Vandole Empire, I'm not particularly impressed.  

The overhead view of Northtown has sixteen houses.  I'm having a great deal of trouble matching the overhead concept and the active concept.  It appears that there is a long road from Northtown itself to the Northtown ruins, (longer than its counterpart in Pandora, which is well represented on the world map), but this doesn't actually exist in the final game.  It's worth nothing that in contrast to what we've found so far, Southtown's overhead layout is very close to its active layout, barring details in the elevation and sprites in the active view.  Southtown uses the same tiles as Northtown, and hardly has any content.

I'm going to go out on a limb here, and say that Northtown was not completely reconstructed for the final game, and what we end up with is a severely abridged version.  The best harmonization I can come up with for the active view and overhead view is this:

I'm not pretending this is anything but a wild guess, but at least it's a plausible argument.  The palette of each house is consistent, and little details like the big tree on the left could be represented by the blank space on the overhead map.  The duplexed house in the middle seems to have been changed, but if we include that, it seems to be far less consistent:

Regardless, we can conclude that the circular object was almost certainly located in the southeastern area of town as it exists in the final game, where there are two trees and a fountain.  It almost appears that these ornaments are the grand entrance to something, but instead, we end up with a road to nowhere.  Flying Omelette attempted to travel out of bounds here, with no success.  There is a passageway in the southern end of Northtown that seems to go nowhere, and blank space at in the northern part of town, which is consistent with our assumption that the town is abridged.  (Also, note the attempt to enter the unreachable door in one of the houses.  I'll cover this in a future article.)  

So what the heck was that thing?

The animation appears consistent with a carousel, as many have noted.  If this is the case, it may mean that at one time, Northtown was intended to have a circus, or similar attraction.  The carousel on the world map may have represented that.  I have no idea what a carousel would add to the game, and it seems a bit out of step with the rest of the town, so I'm going to assume that that's incorrect.  

There are two games from the same time period that have many parallels to Secret of Mana.  One was Chrono Trigger, which is obvious as both games started out as the same project, and the other is Final Fantasy VI.  In both games we have Vandole/Zeal/Gestahl(which could also be localized as Geshtar), who have their sidekicks like Sheex/Leo/Dalton/Celes/Thanatos/etc. whom they're using to gain immense power with horrifying consequences, often with the help of Magitek Armor/Mech Vehicles.  There's also false peace talks with the Empire, huge wars, and swords that light up which means we probably should consider Star Wars too while we're at it (but won't).   Since something excised from Secret of Mana could have ended up in one of those games, I decided to take a look around and see if I can find our special thing somewhere out there.

First, Final Fantasy VI.  The closest counterpart to Northtown would be Vector, and Vector is presented with such an industrial conception that a sparkly circular object would be out of place here.  Ditto the other Imperial cities Tzen, Maranda, and Albrook.  There's nothing to indicate that the
Judge ye not by appearance: Celes is most likely not off to the circus
concept was reused there.  Neither the World of Balance nor the World of Ruin map has anything like that.  Other than the coliseum, I can't think of any arena that may take on this shape, and the gosh durned thing is spinning.  So it's safe to say that our object is not to be found as is in FFVI.

Onto Chrono Trigger.  The very word, "Chrono" makes me think we may have a giant clock on our hand for a moment, but that's more than a bit silly on its face.  There is the coliseum-like structure in 2300AD that was famously removed from the final game, but another vague concept we know nothing about doesn't help us at all.  Despite a cursory search of the game, I come up blank again.

One last idea---a search of the Japanese Script for Seiken Densetsu 2 (their name for Secret of Mana) reveals nothing referring to a wheel or a circle, and it seems unlikely that something that big would be lost in translation.

So what else could it be?  A racetrack a la Final Fantasy Legend II?  An engine of sorts?  An homage to Homer Simpson's donut habit?  A wheel?  The inside of a CD-jewel case?  (you didn't see that coming)  We know the Empire was up to things with the Underworld, and there could be some strange ritual Thanatos concocted involving a wheel symbol infused with black magic.  Along those lines, it could represent a something like the cult of Kefka circling a statue of some Mana goddess.  Or it could just be something that Square added in, knowing that 25 years later, many late nights would be spent speculating on what it was they came up with.  Either way, there's not much more we can discover than what is already out there.

Next article:  Sheex


For when I could not accomplish what I needed to with the ROM and an editor, I used the Mana and Final Fantasy wiki for game rips.  I also used versions of Galen Puronen's phenomenal work, which you can view here, in addition to the work of, and the Spriters Resource.  All material is owned by Square, and is used under the Fair Use Doctrine.


  1. Just an FYI, Flying Omelette is a woman. :)

    Nice blog, btw!

    1. My apologies! Thank you for letting me know.

  2. I always thought of it being a big waterspout fountain, which was replaced, or rather never implemented, by the small one within the actual town map. Your theories are just as well.

    The differences between world and area maps, as you advance further in the game, are most noticeable. There is a river on Ice Country which you didn't pass on the area maps. Getting all the way around its southern tail doesn't fit with the travel distance. Santa's house is nowhere to be seen. And the Cannon Travel spot is totally misplaced as well.

    The whole continent of the Empire has so much potential. Most parts were obviously cut here also. It has the biggest place holders, with forests, mountains and a waterfall.

    The world map was completely redrawn on Mobile. In some cases it is more alike the area maps, elsewhere it was changed to the worse. The houses at Potos and Pandora don't match like on SNES. The spinning thing at Northtown, on the other hand, has gone missing.

    1. I didn't think about the Ice Country river; you bring up a good point. Also, there is a lot of filler terrain on the map similar to what you've mentioned in the Empire. I would love to have been a fly on the wall in the meeting where they removed the extra content from the map for the mobile version. I wonder if there was anyone around who actually remembered what it was supposed to be...