Nintendo announced the release of the Super Nintendo Classic last week. This is a really cool collectible, and I’m excited because I’m hoping that this limited-run item will encourage the curious to check out some of the amazing games that are bundled with the SNES classic. I could spend some time reviewing the games or lamenting the games that were not included (Lufia II, Dragon Quest V/VI, and Ogre Battle), but I think that’s a wasted opportunity. This has been done to death and much better than I could ever do by dedicated writers across the internet. Instead, I want to talk about how the SNES enabled one of the happiest memories of my childhood.

One of the games included in the SNES Classic is Square’s- not SquareEnix’s- beautiful RPG, the Secret of Mana.

The secret turns out to be Miracle-Gro

I won’t go into the story too much because, frankly, I don’t remember it very well. I last played Secret of Mana about 20 years ago, and the nuances of Thanatos, the nameless Emperor, and the disturbing question why most cities are flanked by ruins have faded into the background to make room for the more important memories. In order to explain why those memories are treasured, I must take a moment to explain what my world was like in the Christmas of 1993.

I’ve written about my family before, but I always hesitate each time that I do so. I left home at a young age and built a wall in my memory of the “before times” and my current reality as an adult. I am the fourth of eight kids from a small townhouse in north Chicago. It’s a credit to my parents that I didn’t realize that we were poor until I turned 16 and started befriending people from outside of my school district. I thought my family was well off. We had a Super Nintendo System- which cost $200, an absurd amount of money in 1993 dollars- and the family would get one or two games each year at Christmas. I even got a copy of Mario Paint for “good grades” in 1992.  Things were pretty good!

I got more mileage out of the SNES than any of the other kids. I had a weird middle-child position where I was not close enough in age to my older siblings to hang out with them or their friends. My younger brothers and sister were too little to do much beyond simple board games and chasing our poor cat around the house. That left me in the position where I felt isolated in a house filled to the brims with people who really didn’t have the time or the will to spend time with me. Over breaks from school, I would sit in my pajamas all day and play Final Fantasy or F-Zero all day. This was the only time during the year that I could play games. I was pretty active in school and other clubs, but I couldn’t see my friends during breaks. I had nothing else to do. I hated summer and would count down the days until I could go back to school because that was the only time I could hang out with people my age.

On Christmas in 1993, my older brother was given Secret of Mana. I’m not exactly sure why my parents gave the game to him, and I honestly believe this was a mistake. He didn’t play the games that often, and he only seemed to power on the system as part of some scheme to torment me by deleting my Zelda save game or selling all of the irreplaceable weapons and armor in Final Fantasy VI. From my young point of view, my brother seemed like a constant source of frustration in my life. I had to share a room with him, and he resented that I (and eventually my younger brother) were staying in “his” room. To this day, we hardly communicate and struggle at basic small talk when we meet at family gatherings.  Still, for whatever reason, he was given the game, and he promptly hid it somewhere in the house because he knew that I wanted to play it.

My oldest sister eventually found the game and showed it to me. She was the one to notice something unique about the design of Secret of Mana.   The game can be played with one to three people. She suggested that we play the game together. This was strange because my sister was much older than me, but there was something magical about sharing the screen with her as we embarked on a strange journey involving cannibals, werewolves, and travel via being shot out of  a giant cannon. The SNES only has two controller slots, and an extra adapter is needed to make the system handle three controllers. My younger brother would sit and watch us play as well. When the third member was added to the team, we shoved an unplugged third controller in his hands and told him that he was playing as the “sprite” character. The game was too complicated for him to play, but he felt a connection to the story because he was experiencing it with us.

“Save a drumstick for me!” -Actual quote from my little brother

The systems of Secret of Mana really make the game shine when you have two or three players in on the action. A few months later, my older brother had somehow begged, borrowed, or stolen a third controller adapter from one of his classmates, and we had parallel teams of family members journeying through the story in different save states. We would schedule play times at moments when we knew all of the teammates would be home at the same time. We didn’t want them to miss out on the story. Playing Secret of Mana as a single player has a very hollow feeling; you are simply skimming along the surface. I would sometimes grind experience by myself so that we could move on to the next stage in the story when my sister got back from school or work, and I could tell that something was off by flying solo. The AI-controlled heroes- while probably impressive for 1993- were oftentimes worse than useless. They would sometimes get stuck on terrain which would require the player to undertake the Sisyphean task  of manually switching between heroes as each gets immediately stuck in some new way after control is given back to the computer. The battle system itself felt empty without the support of my siblings. Attacks, for example, can be charged up by holding a button and letting your hero build power. While they do this, the hero can’t walk as fast and must simply absorb any attacks coming their way. This system really isn’t useful if you are playing alone because the computer controlled teammates can’t effectively take turns wacking the enemies with light attacks and drawing attention away so that the human player can charge up for a devastating attack. Some of the fights are flat out wars of attrition that require a lot of switching back and forth in order to cast spells, heal party members,  and revive downed members.

This fight shows you the horror goombas feel when they encounter Yoshi.

Alone, it requires a lot of fussy hero management which makes it impossible to charge up or coordinate attacks in clever or effective ways. It’s really a great feeling when your team of two or three is aligned. My siblings and I would call out plays and commands, and we would execute without bickering or resentment because we had to do this thing together in order to save the world. This game is the only time that I can recall that my brothers and sisters (with ages ranging from high school to kindergarten) were able to work in harmony, and we did so in a way that was wholly organic. We didn’t have the shadow of mom or dad that threatened reprisals if we ran off and ditched our younger siblings. We worked together because we wanted to. We wanted to share the experience with each other because it was better than doing it alone. No other activity has inspired this feeling in my motley family. Secret of Mana has faults and things that I wish were changed, but I’m grateful that it enabled a respite in the web of petty sibling rivalries that dominated much of my childhood.

While the SNES Classic does not support three controllers, I’m hopeful that new brothers and sisters will enjoy the rare chance to save the world together.