30 years of Mana: Series creator Koichi Ishii looks back on three decades of magic

To celebrate the 30th Anniversary of the Mana series, we spoke to some of the key creators who have brought the games to life. We start with the man who started it all...
By Duncan Heaney

Reaching 30 years is an impressive milestone for any video game franchise… but of course, Mana isn’t just any franchise.

For three decades, these action RPGs have brought fun, emotion, laughs and excitement to gamers all over the world - and that’s an achievement well worth recognizing.

2021 marks the 30th Anniversary of the Mana series, so it’s time to celebrate. First, we’ve just released an updated version of Legend of Mana - regarded as one of the most beloved games in the entire series.

It’s been greatly enhanced with lovingly redrawn backgrounds, a partially rearranged soundtrack, additional content and more , all of which really drive home the emotional and evocative themes that make the game so memorable!

Legend of Mana

But that’s not all. No celebration is complete without family, and what better time to honor those who brought these incredible games to life? We spoke to a number of creators, from current series producer Masaru Oyamada to legendary composer Yoko Shimomura, about the series, and what its success means to them.

But what better place to start than with the father of the series himself: Koichi Ishii.

Legend of Mana trailer

(Legend of Mana)

Koichi Ishii talks Mana

In the long-ago times of 1991, the very first Mana adventure released on Game Boy, although you may not realize it by the Western names of which there were two: FINAL FANTASY ADVENTURE if you’re from North America and MYSTIC QUEST for for those based in Europe (for the sake of brevity, we went with FINAL FANTASY ADVENTURE for this article).

Directed by Koichi Ishii, the game shook up the RPG genre with an instantly charming world, evocative themes, and exciting real-time combat.

The game was positively received by both fans and critics, and two years later in 1993, Secret of Mana debuted on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System.

Ishii and his team built upon the rock-solid foundation laid by its predecessor, delivering refined action-based combat, an unforgettable setting, and some of the best visuals on the console - unsurprisingly, it was another hit for team.

Over the next decade, Ishii guided numerous Mana games, including Trials of Mana (playable for the first time in the West in the Nintendo Switch’s Collection of Mana), Dawn of Mana, Legend of Mana and more.

He’s now CEO and president of development studio GREZZO Co. Ltd, but we lured him back to share his memories of the series.

Legend of Mana

(Legend of Mana)

Hi Ishii-san - thanks for talking to us. How did you come up with the original idea for the Mana series?

Ever since the planning phase of the original FINAL FANTASY, I had an idea in mind for an action RPG with side-view battles.

Also, I had a lot of respect for the first Legend of Zelda game, and always thought about what sort of game I would have made if it had been up to me.

When I was given the opportunity to put my ideas into practice, I decided to make an action RPG where people feel like they become the main character and can experience the story up until the very end - even if they’re a beginner when it comes to action games.


(FINAL FANTASY ADVENTURE as featured in Collection of Mana)

How did the original FINAL FANTASY ADVENTURE get started?

I was involved in the development of FINAL FANTASY I through to FINAL FANTASY III and felt like it was time to move on and create a new experience… so I turned down the opportunity to work on FINAL FANTASY IV.

This resulted in me being entrusted with an entirely new project - FINAL FANTASY ADVENTURE.

To really fulfill my creative vision - to make everything just as I wanted, to infuse everything with my worldview - then I would have to be the director. I began development on FINAL FANTASY ADVENTURE with a strong self-awareness and sense of my responsibility as a creator.

Why did you want the game to be a more action-focused series than typical RPGs of the time?

I think the biggest reason was because I wanted to create an RPG that allowed players to really connect with the feel of a fantastical world - and experience that sense of exhilaration in a way that turn-based RPGs just can’t create.

Also, I was already of the opinion that RPGs would fuse together with action games as hardware evolved, so I wanted to be able to achieve this as soon as possible.


(FINAL FANTASY ADVENTURE as featured in Collection of Mana)

How did you feel when you saw players respond positively to the game?

Even after the game was complete, I was worried about whether the underlying themes in the game would be properly conveyed to the fans.

I still remember how relieved I felt when I saw that one of the testers, who wasn’t familiar with action games was crying at the ending because she was so moved. I knew then that the game’s themes had been expressed properly.

If you could change one thing about the original FINAL FANTASY ADVENTURE, what would it be?

Hmm… there’s nothing I would change.

Although the final product ended up being more compact than what I had imagined originally, I felt a sense of accomplishment that we were able to achieve all that we could with the hardware available.

Secret of Mana

(Secret of Mana as featured in Collection of Mana)

What do you think are the key elements that define a Mana game?

I think that there are a few elements which define a Mana game, but they’re not to do with things like the settings or the system, so it’s a bit hard to answer clearly.

The underlying themes in the Mana series are unconditional love and compassion. This may just be my own personal way of thinking, but I feel like the world of Mana is encompassed in the following idea:

“Humans are born alone and die alone. Meeting someone for the first time is also the precursor of an inevitable future parting. But when that time comes, if you recognize the ways that you have helped each other to improve, you will come to value the person’s thoughts and views. They will forever remain in your heart as someone precious to you.”

I think being able to feel this message as you play the games is something which makes the Mana series what it is.

This might be difficult for you to answer as the father of the series, but which Mana game do you think is the best?

I can’t choose - they’re all games which were developed based on what I felt compelled to create at the time.

If I were to change the question a little to make my selection, I would say I have an especially strong emotional attachment to the first game - the origin of it all.

There's the fact that I worked on a lot of things personally for it, but it was also the first time I challenged myself to try and convey the game’s themes to fans on such compact hardware. I felt a great sense of accomplishment when the themes came across well.

Trials of Mana

(Trials of Mana as featured in Collection of Mana)

How does it feel to see the Mana series still beloved 30 years later?

I am simply incredibly grateful that the Mana series was so loved, and that it continues to be loved. It has been about 15 years since I left Square Enix, so it wouldn’t have been odd for Mana to fade into the background as an old game from the past.

However, I can confidently say that the fact that the Mana series is still loved today is down to Mr. Oyamada - the series producer. He played FINAL FANTASY ADVENTURE when he was in primary school, and his passion for the game became his driving force.

The fact that the series’ spark has been preserved to this day is also thanks to all the fans who continue to support the series.

Legend of Mana

(Legend of Mana)

Speaking of the fans, is there anything you’d like to say to them?

The Mana series sets itself apart from other Square Enix series such as FINAL FANTASY and SaGa, in the way it continues to undertake new challenges, and present values and ways of playing that connect to future ideas. It’s an eccentric title.

I also stuck by my ideals for development when I was the director for FINAL FANTASY XI. The fact that I could continue to work in a style that constantly takes on new challenges in development without having to deviate from those ideals, is all thanks to those who supported me.

I think of the Mana games as being the culmination of my desire to express my gratitude to all those who supported me - and to live up to their expectations.

Please join me in looking forward to the birth of new Mana games in the future - from new staff who will be carrying this torch!

Many thanks to Ishii-san for speaking to us on this special anniversary - and of course, for creating the Mana series too! He recently spoke at length about his work on the FINAL FANTASY series, and you can see the influence it had on the Mana games.

It’s a fascinating interview, which you can read here.

For more news and information about the Mana series, make sure you follow the team on social media: