Villains know how to make an entrance. The hero of the story, any story, is the star of the show by default: We started with this person, which immediately gives them the benefit of the doubt. We are privy to their backstory, to the moments where they make difficult decisions for the good of humanity, to their failings and the lessons they learn. The villains, however, get none of that default cred. They’re pigeonholed. There is good, and there is evil. And they are evil.
There is a pageantry, then, to the way a villain behaves. Because if they’re going to be branded and abhorred, they might as well do so with flair. You know the classic flourishes: Capes are worn, mustaches groomed into hilarious spirals. Their bankrolls are as deep as that of the Monopoly guy, and they spend every pretty penny on ironic dungeons or pet saber-toothed tigers that shoot fire spells from their claws. They are the brand ambassadors for the ad campaign of evildom, and the best villains know how to sell it.
The villains in Secret Of Mana are a ragtag bunch loosely affiliated with the government. They seek immense power, wishing to control Mana, the magic of the world, and to create an unstoppable fortress from which to rule. The heroes aren’t that much different: an orphaned boy, an orphaned sprite, and the runaway daughter of an aristocrat. They, too, pursue power capable of not only destroying the Mana Fortress but the Mana Beast as well—a dragon-like creature simply trying to do Captain Planet’s job and restore his own idea of ecological order. They’re not so different, the heroes and the villains. But while the good guys skulk around in caves and temples, quietly and doggedly gathering strength, the villains’ havoc is visible merely by looking up at the darkening, lightning-filled sky. That’s the distinction between these two sides: showmanship.
None of the characters in Secret embrace the pomp of villainy quite like Thanatos. The mystic of the bunch, he has the obligatory cape, but there are personal touches, too. His purple hair dips and dives like colonial mutton chops. Plus, he has what appear to be horns. You might expect bombast from this guy, but Thanatos instills fear with a more insidious touch. Your first visit to the regal city of Pandora comes with a caveat: People are losing the ability to speak, and these mindless drones are slowly making their way to the ruins south of town, where none dare tread. Each time you pass through Pandora, the sickness claims a new victim, and the name Thanatos never once enters the conversation. Finally, when two of your own friends go missing, it’s time to confront the nebulous evil within.
Up until this point, Secret Of Mana is an upbeat game. An earlier level, the lair of evil witch Elinee, seems dark—since it’s embedded deep inside the haunted woods and infested with kung-fu werewolves and giant eyeballs that grow from the floor. Yet the soundtrack is a jaunty score that’s carries through much of the game—elevator-music organ and third grade-recital flute. And thanks to the gentle, cartoony edges of the character design, when you’re cracking a whip at hooded rats, it feels like handing them a comically large ice cream cone.
But Thanatos is not so saccharine. The ruins of Pandora are accompanied by the sound of a music box slowly stabbing itself to death. It is dark, with clouds (indoor clouds!) obscuring your vision of the freak-show enemies that skulk in the shadows. There are giant chessmen and swords that attack on their own volition. Tomato Man, a sentient version of the fruit that rides on a floating, frowny-faced skateboard, cannot be harmed with any of the weapons you’ve collected—only the magical spells you so recently acquired and have yet to master. Oh, and it spits out an endless supply of zombies until you either figure out its secret or run away. Running feels appropriate.
Even running is harder than normal, however. The halls are narrow and winding, and it’s impossible to make an escape without taking a few licks. This is near the beginning of the game, no less, when your stockpile of healing supplies is likely to be thin. Given the brutality of the ruins, it’s natural to assume that the boss at the end will be just as unforgiving. You must ration candy, chocolate, and magic power without so much as an inkling of what’s next. This is the first of many cruel mind games Thanatos plays: The fear in your head magnifies the horrors to come.
Any great showman knows how important it is to defy the audience’s expectations. So Thanatos greets you with a twist. Your reward for reaching the heart of the ruins is a confrontation with the fiend himself, who parades your two kidnapped friends in front of your eyes before zapping them away. The floor falls, and you find yourself in a pit with spikes on one end. The boss music starts. But there’s no boss.
Secret Of Mana is a game that forces you to take multiple looks at your surroundings. Beyond these ruins, for instance, there’s an endless forest that cycles between seasons until you divine the key to escaping the wooded möbius strip. So there you are, in this basement, no boss in sight, and you run to the other wall. The one without the spikes (if you know what’s good for you). Nothing there, either. Then the eyes open. The wall’s eyes.
Every step of the fight induces panic. Each eye has magic that far surpasses your own, and the strength to withstand the most savage beatings. But worst of all, and in keeping with the mysticism angle, there is a third, even tougher eye in the center. Those other two eyes are red herrings. If you beat them back, then the entire wall starts moving, inch by inch, toward those spikes on the other end, Star Wars trash compactor style.
That’s the conundrum. You can either focus on the third eye and take a pounding from its brothers, or take out the sides and start the clock ticking on your spiky death. Whether it’s physical or psychological, you’re in for some hurt. It’s reminiscent of the scene in Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince where Dumbledore must drink poison that clouds his mind to reach the evil inside the cup. Or the scene in The Dark Knight where the Joker forces Batman to choose between saving Harvey Dent—the future of Gotham City—or his long love Rachel. Or countless other acts of villains who delight in the anguish of heroes because they hate something in themselves.
When the show is over, there’s only the memory of Thanatos, and the promise that later in the game, you will meet him again. That’s what a true villain does—he not only tries to blow you up and cut you down but also worms his way into your psyche. While you may overcome The Ruins Of Pandora, they linger because Thanatos wants them to linger. That’s really their whole point. He knows you seek the power to destroy him, but given the way he flaunts his own power, he wants you to question what you’ll do once you find it. His over-the-top villainy defines what it means to be a hero in Secret Of Mana. The secret of mana is that it’s not about the mana. It’s about how you use it.