Saturday, January 28, 2017

The Lost Continent, the Mana Fortress et al

NOTE:  All featured excerpts from the script are my translations from the original Japanese.

We have arrived at the final article in our trilogy on the backstory of Secret of Mana.  You can read the first two articles here and here.  Back in August, I was writing this when I announced my extended break.  After returning a few weeks ago, I couldn't just finish it---there is so much complexity that it was going to require a review of where I was headed with things.  Making sense of the game when it is inherently patchy is not easy.

What we're about to embark on is a journey full of gaps and speculation, as there are some shaky concepts which can not be reconciled.

First, let's find out more about the Mana Fortress.  From the Prologue:

...people began to use the power of Mana in war, and this led to the creation of a huge ship called the Mana Fortress…But its enormous power touched the anger of the gods, and the Mana Beast was sent to the earth.

We see here that the Mana Fortress was the zenith of human Mana research.  Their advanced knowledge of Mana and technology allowed them to construct a floating megalith of immense power.  Unfortunately, the ship is quite generic on the inside, not giving us any clues as to its specific
capabilities.  Thanatos uses the Mana Fortress to destroy the Mana Tree at the end of the game, so it certainly was used as a weapon to keep someone in line.  But what else can it do?

We covered the war that ended the Fortress in the previous article, but what happened after the war, and how did we get to the beginning of SoM?  It seems reasonable to assume that after the Fortress was defeated, a sort of balance was achieved with Mana.  The various Mana Beasts who attacked the Fortress were scattered throughout the world.   Although the technology of human civilization had been lost in the conflict, humanity itself continued.  As Luka tells us in the Water Palace:

The survivors of the conflict were protected by the power of Mana, and rebuilt the world.

And as the Prologue says, time flows like a river, and history repeats...

At the beginning of SoM, The Empire has been at work trying to restore the Mana Fortress, seemingly because they're evil and that's the sort of thing evil people do.  As a result of their actions or some other phenomenon, Mana's power is weakening, allowing Randi to pull out the Mana Sword
near Potos.  When we first meet Luka, she gives us more exposition than we get at any point of the game, part of which tell us about the Empire's goal:

The Empire is trying to get the Seeds...you must revive the Mana Sword...you also need to visit all eight Mana Palaces. They are located around the world...the Empire seems to be trying to unseal the Mana Seeds in Palaces all across the world. 

These are snippets of dialogue from her entire speech, not all of which is given at once.  How Luka explains things depends on the dialogue options the player chooses when meeting her.  We can conjecture from this that the Seeds are "sealed", and that the Empire is trying to, "unseal" them.  But, Luka also says this:

The Water Seed is unsealed.  Use your sword to restore it!

So the Empire is trying to unseal all of the Seeds...but the Water Seed is somehow already unsealed. Next, Luka tells us:

The Mana Seed and the Mana Sword resonated together.  Now that it's done, wherever you are in the world, the power of the Seed will reach your Sword. 

If the seeds are unsealed, and need to be resealed by Randi, then why does the Empire need to do anything to them?  And if they're already sealed, why does Luka tell Randi to reseal them?  It is true that Randi's sword and his party's stats will go up with each Seed, but that has nothing to do with the Empire.  When we get to Tasnica, we finally find out what these seals really do:

Under the coral reef, the ancient continent of legend rests on the seabed.  It is sealed off by the seeds of each Mana palace.

Okay, well that came out of nowhere.  There was no mention of the Lost Continent before this, unless the player has already met with Joch.  Even then, this is quite late in the game.  If Luka was going to give all of that exposition, why not just talk about the Lost Continent?  I always thought that the Lost Continent itself was a very unsettling place.  Flying over it always gave me chills unless I had a reason to be there.   Let's take a look at it:
















Not a place I'd want to encounter while parasailing.  And this is an aerial view of a real coral reef:



This is actually pretty neat; the developers had a good concept in mind.  Back to the plot, Pecard at the Lighthouse tells us:

In fact, the Mana Palace is a switch that would refloat the continent.  The power of that ancient civilization was incredible, but I'm sure whatever lies underneath the continent is unfathomable!

To harmonize the previous two statements, if the seals on the Mana Seeds are broken, then some seal on the Lost Continent is also broken, and something about the Mana Palace (a vague reference to either the Tree Palace or the Grand Palace) is a "switch" that will bring the continent to the surface.

But let's consider the events when Randi goes to the Lost Continent.  First, he's too late to prevent the Empire from reaching the final Mana Seed.  This, in itself raises the continent.  But wait!  Didn't Randi just spend the entire game resealing each Mana Seed?  When did the Empire's mass unsealing of all the other Seeds occur?  Just listen to what the Emperor tells us in the Tree Palace:

Once I break this final seal, the Lost Continent will float!  I've already broken every seal around the world, this will be the last, and the Mana Fortress will be revived!  

In the English script, he says, "Once I break this last seal, the Mana Fortress will rise", but I believe this simply means that the Fortress will rise with the Lost Continent.

But if the Seeds are unsealed by default, then shouldn't the Lost Continent already have risen?

Let's take a look at what Jema tells us:

Randi, you're here!  The Lost Continent where the Mana Fortress sleeps has risen to the surface!  The Republic has come to keep the Empire from getting to the Fortress.  It seems that there is an ancient city underneath this Palace.  We have no choice but to get there.  

When did Jema find out about this ancient city, and why is he telling us about it now?  We can conjecture that the Mana Fortress was stored somewhere in this ancient city, but the script offers us no help on how any of this fits together.

Speaking of the Mana Fortress, here's the biggest plot hole among all plot holes---if it was "smashed" by the Mana Sword in the ancient war, how is it still in perfect condition at the time of Secret of Mana?  The characters refer to the Mana Fortress, so it is unlikely that there is more than one.  Did the Empire repair the entire thing in the span of a few hours?  Or was the Fortress not obliterated, just merely captured?

Thus the Lost Continent comes to the surface, exposing the Grand Palace.  What happened to the poor coral is not explained, but I digress.  Randi needs to find a way in, and proceeds through an underground entrance nearby.  This takes us through the ancient city, featuring a working subway,
escalators, and electronic panels.  Flying Omelette points out that the ghosts on the subway are very similar to those on the train in Final Fantasy VI.  Also, it's not hard to see that this entire area was the prototype for 2300 AD in Chrono Trigger.  I imagine that everything they were going to do with the ancient civilization here was later worked into that game.  After making our way through here, we find the entrance to the Grand Palace.  The result of all of these events?  We end up back in...the Tree Palace.

This means that the Tree Palace and the Grand Palace are actually one and the same.  The fact that we can not enter the Grand Palace when we first come to the Tree Palace is an arbitrary plot device.  Once we get back to the stage room to find the Emperor dead, a corridor has appeared behind the stage.  Entering this corridor, we eventually find ourselves in this massive room of the Mana Fortress:



This room appears to be the most important room in the entire Fortress, with all kinds of epic technology afoot.  We end up here right before the final battle at the end of the game too.  How is it that this was behind the stage of the Tree Palace this whole time?  Randi fails to stop Thanatos from flying off with the Fortress, and this mysteriously causes the continent to sink again.  But, wasn't it the Seeds that do that?  And if the Fortress was so close to the surface, why go through all the trouble of finding the ancient city?

Do you need a minute?  It's okay, I'll wait here.

There's one final place in the game where the seals are mentioned.  It's after the Mana Tree has been attacked, and she's speaking to Randi:

With the last of my power, I shall unseal the power of the Seeds, and they will resonate with the Mana Sword once again!

This throws the whole thing wide open again.  Didn't the Empire unseal the seeds already to access the Lost Continent?  The game doesn't seem to be able to figure out exactly what "sealed" and "unsealed" mean.

The fact that the Lost Continent and associated content is so jumbled leads me to believe that it was a last minute invention to tie up loose plot ends and bring about the final act much faster than what was originally intended.  It's the place that sees the end of Sheex and Fanha and the Emperor, as well as the place where almost every NPC in the game suddenly turns up to show us what happened to them.  I highly doubt that the Tree Palace and the Grand Palace were supposed to be the same place originally.  I have some support for my position:



On the left is the Grand Palace after the Lost Continent surfaces, and on the right is the Tree Palace when the Lost Continent is under the ocean---both before and after the Grand Palace events.  Therefore, the developers reused the same map with only the events and sprites different.  Note how there is an incomplete representation of the Grand Palace at the bottom that one can never see normally.  This YouTube video errs when it says it's a glitch:


It's simply incomplete.  Either the developers started with the Grand Palace map and then went through a huge amount of trouble to change it to the Tree Palace, or the Grand Palace and Tree Palace events were messed with, and the maps changed at the last moment.

How the Mana Fortress, the Grand Palace, the ancient city, and the Lost Continent are connected form the heart of the game's backstory, and the various concepts are not reconciled as they appear in the final game.

Simply put---Secret of Mana makes no sense.

Next:  I didn't even get to the Scorpion Army, so that's the next article.

Credits:  Square owns SoM.  Also, a HUGE thanks to CelesDestiny once again for spotting errors.



Monday, January 23, 2017

Popoie

The last main character we have not examined in depth is Popoie the sprite.   One can see from the Spriters Resource here that Popoie is an exceptionally detailed character.  He has animation frames for a wide range of situations, depicted in an exaggerated way suitable to the character.  Popoie (or Popoi) has a bit of an odd role in Secret of Mana.  From a gameplay perspective, he's the black mage.  From a story perspective, he provides comic relief with the most exuberant personality of anyone, but also turns out to be one of the most tragic characters.

There is even debate as to whether Popoie is a he or a she.  It seems that in the original Japanese script, it was not stated, but due to the way the game was translated into English, he was clearly referenced as a, "he."  Since that's what I grew up with, and I always had the sense that the Sprite was male, I'm sticking with it for the purposes of this blog.

Popoie is mentioned for the first time before we reach Gaia's Navel:

I saw the floodwaters sweep some kid into it!!
In a recent flood, I saw a child flushed into the cave.  He just kept going…the poor thing...

Once there, we find him in a racket with the Elder of the Dwarves Village.  After washing up there in
a flood, the Elder wanted to help him get back, so they put on a show in which they claimed he was 50000GP in debt.  Note that even though he hadn't officially acquired magic yet, he can still do, "magic tricks."

DWARF: Step right on in! It's the Dwarf Village's world famous exhibit hut!  It'll be 50 GP!  The show's just starting!  First, cast your eyes on this Rabiteman! The only one in the world!  Take one Rabite, and one man, and its...Rabiteman!  Hey, you! Pipe down!  And now, presenting an actual and very rare, Sprite Child!

SPRITE: Boo, hoo, hoo...Ah!  Won't you please help me?

DWARF: Yes, folks, it's pure tragedy! Weep as you hear his story.  This poor child has a 50,000 GP debt to pay off!  It's here, working off the debt bit by bit. Oh please, gentle people.  Please help it! Even 100 GP will help.

SPRITE: Oh, joy! Thank you!  I'll take that, thank you so much...

or

Geez! A lot of nothing.  These poor people just aren't going to cut it!

Dwarf: Yes, welcome…to the Dwarf Village's famous hut of spectacles!  Our show can be seen for only 50 GP!  (We'll see it We're done here)  It's the start of the show!  First…an exceptionally mysterious Rabiteman!  Take a Rabite, then take a man, and you have the Rabiteman! Huh? You don't think he's convincing? As expected from such an audience! Your eyes are too good!  Then I guess it's time to show this rare, ineffable Sprite child!

Sprite: *sob* Oh…gentle, kind audience! Please help me!

Dwarf: Come on! Please sympathize with him! There will be many tears as you hear him speak!  This poor child is in debt! He owes over 50000 GP!  We're getting the money back little by little. We hope someday he can repay all of it! Come on, friends! I know you have big hearts.  Just 100GP will go a long way!

Sprite: Wow! Thank you! I'll take that right now.

or

Seriously? That's asking too much? What a bunch of fuddy duddies!

After confronting him backstage, they come clean about the whole deal:

SPRITE: Aiee! Did you overhear what we just said?

ELDER: P...please forgive us!  This child really IS a sprite child.  It used to live in the Sprite Forest, but a flood brought it here. I thought I'd help it earn the money to return home...

SPRITE: Good idea, huh?

ELDER: Hey! You have to apologize, too!

SPRITE: Harumph! Okay. I was wrong!

ELDER: I'm ashamed of myself. I'll return your money...

ELDER: Sorry!

SPRITE: Didn't mean any harm!

Sprite: D'oh! Were you listening to us now?

Elder: Oh no…please forgive us! This child really is a sprite child.  Up until recently, he was living in the Sprite Forest, but was swallowed by a flood and carried here.  I thought I'd earn travel expenses for him to return to the forest. I only had his best interests in mind. It was his idea, too.

Sprite: Pfff! What a gifted genius I am! Hehehe…

Elder: What…won't you apologize too!?

Sprite: Pssh! Okay, I was wrong!

Elder: My reputation is very important to me. I will return your money.

Elder: My behavior was inexcusable. Please forgive me!

Sprite: Shit, I really messed up.

I always thought this was a bit of a weak excuse for a racket.  Why not just come clean about why he needs the money in the first place?  If they're going to fork over cash for a huge debt, they'd most likely do so to get someone back home.  If the Elder wanted money, he could take a commission off that plus the proceeds from the show.

In a game with mostly one dimensional characters, he's a rare example of personality.  Take his exchange with the Mana Spirit, Gnome, for example:

[GNOME :] You can't barge in here! We gnomes won't allow it!

SPRITE: What a wind bag!

GNOME:Little brat!

SPRITE:Take this!

GNOME:This is an outrage!

[GNOME :]Oh, no! You can't just selfishly barge in here and mess the place up! This is gnome territory! Now hurry up, get the fuck out!

Popoie: What an old sod! I'm here now! Why don't YOU go out!?

Gnome: Who died and made you king!? You're an impudent brat mocking me like that!

Popoie: Son of a bitch! How's this!?

Gnome: Dickwad!

After falling on his head at one point, he remembers that he's from the Upper Land, and the party travels there to take him home.  Unfortunately, he hits his head on the landing from the cannon travel, and suddenly forgets where he's from yet again.  Indeed, his character brings out the sillier aspects of SoM.

Once at the Upper Land, the heroes realize that they're too late, and the Sprite's village has been ransacked by the Empire.  The Wind Palace to the north contains the only survivor, Popoie's grandfather.  Grandpa's speech is a bit more graphic in the Japanese:

GRANDPA: Uhh..sounds like...'Zat you, little tyke?!

SPRITE: Grandpa, can't you see me?

GRANDPA: Empire's men came and undid the Wind seal...A bright flash stunned me!  The others...they're...

GIRL: This is awful!

SPRITE: NO! They must have escaped!

GRANDPA: I...suppose so...Uwa, ha, ha!

SPRITE: Graaandpa!

Popoie:  Grandpa!

Grandpa:  Oh…that voice…is that you, little one!?

Popoie:  What happened!?  Can't you see me?

Grandpa:  Some of the Empire's men came to break the wind seal.  I was in the Wind Palace at the time...I was lucky to only lose an eye.  The others didn't seem to fare as well…

Purim: This is terrible!

Popoie:  I won't believe it!  I'm sure everyone must've escaped to somewhere else!

Grandpa:  …surely, so…Ugh…cough cough…

Popoie:  Grandpa!

We get the sense after this that Popoie is of a very special breed of individuals, directly connected to Mana.  He now has extra motivation to avenge such a horrific attack on them.  When we get to the
Mana Fortress, we have a most interesting exchange before the final battle.  It is revealed that by defeating the Mana Beast and mana disappearing, Popoie will disappear as well:

SPRITE:…...Whaddaya mean? I'm NOT gonna kick the bucket!  My world is separate from this one.  It just means I won't...see you again.

Popoie: What are you saying!?  I won't die!  This world has been divided into two---where the sprites live, and where you live, and they will be unable to meet [without Mana].

Thus, the sprites are connected to the world through Mana.  When it disappears, they can no longer be part of Randi's world, and can only live in their world.  But what precisely does this mean?  Let's circle back to something Grandpa said earlier:

GRANDPA:Gwa, ha! Okay, okay!  Tyke! We sprites are a part of Mana. That beast couldn't have beat us!  But humans are breaking seals, and releasing monsters......which are consuming our source of life...Mana!

Grandpa:  Hehe…please listen carefully.  We sprites are a part of Mana.  When humans break the seals on Mana seeds, they are trying to resurrect the demons of old times.  When Mana disappears, Sprites will disappear from the world too.  It's quite a sad thing...

While this does provide some explanation, it does not really tell us who the sprites are, or what their world is like.  It's a shame we did not get to learn more about them, as I think it would have made the ending, and Grandpa's ordeal all the more powerful.  Also, despite Popoie's promise, there is no reason for the player to return to Grandpa, although doing so restores the party's HP and MP for free.  I do see some similarities between the sprites and the other games in Square's great trilogy of the 90s.  In Final Fantasy VI, we have the Espers from a separate world who are exploited for their abilities, and in Chrono Trigger, the Kingdom of Zeal is a far off place where those who can use magic live.  I'm very disappointed that I haven't been able to find anything else significant about Popoie, even on Japanese sites.

This story would also be the perfect segue into a sequel---Randi and Purim need Popoie back for some reason...but how to do so?

Next:  I will finish the article I was supposed to months ago, and complete the trilogy on the background of SoM.

Credits:  Square owns SoM.  


Monday, January 16, 2017

Odds and Ends, Part II

That awkward moment when you return to your blog after five months, and forgot where you were headed...

Unfortunately, graduate school and piano teaching take priority over this, and weeks easily turn into months when you want to update again.  I've been going back over my notes and catching up.  Since I lasted updated, Google has released a new translation algorithm to reduce errors.  The result is more coherent sentences, but not showing a translation of individual words hampers my ability to gain a deeper understanding of the text, so I will still have to use other means of translating.  

To be honest, there's only a handful of articles left and once those are done, I think I've covered most of what can be said about this game.  It's up to Square to reveal the rest!  In the meantime, here's Odds and Ends, Part II.  For Part I, click here.

The Extra Character

There's been a lot of interest in this unused character that can be found in the ROM data:



It can be found among the Emperor's bodyguards, so there is some speculation that there was a fifth one originally.  I doubt that's the case, as we've established that the game follows the tradition of the Four Heavenly Kings.  This character may be unfinished, as evidenced by the simple palette and lack of defining features.  It could just be an early attempt at representing a bodyguard that was scrapped.


However, recall this page from a Japanese promotion:



The inset image is of Thanatos' final form in the game, but the art shows Thanatos' gown as being white, not dark grey as depicted.  If the extra character is an early version of him, perhaps the drawing represents the character in a transitional phase between the two?  At the end of the day, there's no proof that this character was Thanatos.

My esteemed colleague, zhaDe, reminded me of this animation in the memory:


zhaDe's opinion:

"I still think he must have had something to do with the temple full of bald guys (which is of no use at all really) in the mountains. He looks bald too.  He looks kind of like a priest or some religious important figure and from the side view, it looks like the things on each side are wings (don't know why he would have wings.. but makes sense that he would live high up in the mountains if he did)."

I looked through the sprite table for both Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger, and could not find other possibilities.

Moon Palace growing?

One of the most mysterious places in the game is the Moon Palace.  It is a Palace surrounded by...a bunch of nothing  Take a look at the world map:



Having a Palace surrounded by impassable darkness is very similar to concept of the Dark Palace in Seiken Densetsu 3, the Tower of Bab-il in Final Fantasy IV, and Magus' Palace in Chrono Trigger.  However, these are different concepts altogether.

The existence of the Palace is strangely hinted at the first time we're in Kakarra with flashing stars placed near its geographic location.  However, there is an impassable barrier, and the player can not proceed any further.  The Moon Palace is so rarely mentioned that I doubt many players would figure out the significance of this area.  Looking at a prerelease version of the desert, we see that the entrance was added later.  If you were just going to fly there anyway, why add something that ends up making no difference?  It is highly unlikely that you're going to walk there the first time since you'll have have Flammie by then.



Surrounded by mountains in a prerelease shot.  A southern passage through was added for the main release.

In order to cross the whole lot of nothing, one must ride a ferry piloted by a chobin foot named Karon.  Karon is a reference to Charon in Greek Mythology, whose ferry carried recently departed souls across the river Styx to Hades.




Let's see what Karon has to say about the void (my retranslation in blue):

Welcome to Karon's ferry.  Next stop: Moon Palace.  There's a lot of nothing in the palace. Don't get lost!

Welcome!  Welcome to my ship; I am Karon.  We will go to the Temple of the Moon.  Inside the Temple, the universe may continue indefinitely for all I know.  Don't get lost!  

After disembarking the ferry, we find a Palace similar in appearance to the rest, with hardly any content inside.  The only puzzle is to find an orb sealed by Lumina's magic, break the spell, and enter the stage room.  The orb is in a room full of nothing; we can presume that this is the same nothing from the desert.  There are no enemies or anything else here.  When we meet Luna, she says the following:

I, Luna the moon spirit, have awaited you.  So sad this place has grown...but enough!  Take with you my powers!  GO! Mana is fading...

I am Luna, spirit of the moon.  I've been waiting for you for what seems like forever.  Come, I will also give you my power.  Mana is being lost from the world.  Let's hurry!



Note the mention in the English translation that she's "sad" about the "place" growing.  Is it possible that the void is spreading?  Or is the Palace inside a link to some ever expanding universe? 

There is only one other mention of this area---when we're dealing with Sage Joch:

Surprise...went to the Moon Palace.  It floats eerily in the Sea of Wonders at Kakkara Desert's end...

"Eh? The Temple of the Moon? It's a strange place that seems to float in the sea of outer space [or ocean of the universe] on the outskirts of the Kakkara desert.

For a concept so fascinating, it hardly has any effect in the game beyond this simple scenario.  I'll close with one last thought---what is the precise difference between Moon magic and Dark magic?  Shade's magic appears to be derived from dark elements (Evil Gate, Dark Force), as opposed to Luna's Magic (Change Form, Lunar Boost, Moon Energy).  I could just as easily see the Moon Palace as the Palace of Darkness.


The Unstoppable Phallic Geshtar Machine

Have you ever stopped and looked closely at the shape of Geshtar's vehicle?  




Things that can't be unseen...

Upper Area in Grand Palace (whip area)

This one has always bugged me.  I got stuck up here awhile back, thinking there had to be a way out, but it seems that there is no peg on the lower level to whip back to.  Probably something unfinished, but why leave it in the game where a player could get stuck?




Magic Rope at the Lighthouse

I don't know if I've ever seen this mentioned.  If one uses the Magic Rope in the Lighthouse, they're magically whisked away to...the same room.


Neko


Years ago, I made the acquaintance of someone who was an intern for Square's art department in the early 2000s.  When discussing the development of Secret of Mana, he was told that there was no way to appropriately localize Neko for a foreign audience.  





It did not take much searching on the Googles to discover the importance of cats in Japanese culture.  Neko is Japanese for, "cat", which are said to bring fortune and good luck.  The Maneki-neko figurine is one that is often placed in shops a symbol of beckoning customers.  I have a vague recollection of reading about a Japanese legend which corresponds to the Neko character, but am coming up blank at the moment...

Nevertheless, Neko made far more sense in Japan than it did elsewhere.  

Water Travel Revisted

Awhile back, we talked about the notion of a water vehicle that was intended for Secret of Mana.  While reading the script one day, I came across this dialogue from the pirate, Sergo, regarding the state of the seas.

I'm Sergo, pirate and scourge of the 8 seas!  At least I used to be...The oceans have grown too stormy...I stowed away 'cause I missed my ship so much.  Wonder if the oceans will ever be safe again!?

And later...

The ocean's suddenly grown calm! And Meria's had a complete change of heart!

Yes, Sergo does help us escape in the desert, and helps illustrate another obscure minor character, but why is he necessary in the first place, especially as a pirate?  Also recall what Pecard told us in the Lighthouse:

The seas are rough, and boats don't pass through here much, but I continue to look at the sea.

This seems like quite a bit of exposition for nothing.  Were they supposed to sail the eight seas with Sergo at some point, or is he just an attempt at making this incomplete game somewhat deeper?

Next: Popoie

Usual Disclaimer:  Square owns everything, and the Spriters Resource is amazing.