Children of Mana

Nintendo DS Lite
I've been hit with a "back in the day, things were better because ..." moment, while playing the "Children of Mana" for the Nintendo DS handheld console.

It's like enjoying ice cream from your childhood sugar shack, then returning years later to find it's now a national ice-cream chain. While the concept is essentially the same and the experience is enjoyable, enough has changed to make you notice the difference and miss the original that you treasured so much.

Riiinnnnnnnngggggg! OK class, time for a quick video gaming history lesson!

Back in 1993, Squaresoft (sans "-Enix") released "The Secret of Mana" in North America for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, and the gaming masses were pleased. A wonderful action game that integrated attribute-building role-playing elements into the core of it's design.

Combined with a lengthy, if sometime loopy, storyline — you meet, fight and free Santa Claus! — spot-on controls, vivid sprite-based graphics and three-player cooperative gameplay (which was unheard of at the time), this game holds a special place in the hearts of most gamers who owned an SNES at that time by simply doing just about everything right. Heck, the three-player simultaneous feature alone was probably the reason Nintendo sold so many multi-tap accessories. At the time, you could count on two hands the number of games that used multi-tap — and that's out of the almost 100 games released at the time.

While several sequels (and a prequel, as the North American version was actually the second game in the Japanese series) were released here for different consoles and were good in their own right, nothing released here ever came close to the gaming greatness of "The Secret of Mana."

Nintendo has now released "Children of Mana" for the Nintendo DS handheld console and from the very start it brought me right back into the essence of "Mana," the sentient life-force that sustains the world.

All the elements of that world that I remember from years ago are back on my Nintendo DS, from the life-giving Mana Tree and monster-defeating Mana Sword, right down to the first set of monsters you will fight on your way to correcting what has gone wrong with the world. (Yes, the Rabbites are back!)

The story is simple: The world has enjoyed 10 years of peace after narrowly preventing a world-ending cataclysm. Unfortunately, a strange force is once again throwing the world into chaos and it is up to one of four adventurers to save the world. Once you pick a character based on your fighting preference: speed, strength, magic or a character that is balanced against all three. The game takes you through the initial world simply but effectively, never once leaving you in a state of "What do I do next?" which is important on a handheld, as most handheld games seem to be built for quick bouts of gaming versus the marathon sessions of their living room console cousins.

So, whimsical storyline, choice of fighters and it's easy to get into. CHECK!

The gameplay is of the real-time action-based variety, so you will be frantically button pressing as you swing your sword and three other weapons at the myriad of enemies coming at you.

While it's a top-down dungeon hack at heart, it keeps the action fast and varied with randomly generated maps and exits as the "key" to the exit will appear under different circumstances for each level.

To add strategy to the equation, customizable gems you can equip on your character which can make them stronger or increase their defense against attacks, among many other things. These are collected (of course) from defeated monsters or they can be bought from shops.

Another feature that adds to the strategy is the fact that once on a mission, you cannot change the equipment until you reach a certain level of the mission. While battling for four floors without the ability to change weapons doesn't seem so bad, if you've brought along the wrong gear, it's four floors of pain until you can fix it! Add to this the ability to bring along one of the eight magical nature-based "Mana Spirits" and you are a force to be reckoned with.

Gameplay, magic wielding, stat-boosting hack and slashing fun: CHECK!