The most distinctive part of Secret of Mana was its multiplayer. In an age where two controller ports were standard on every console, Secret of Mana allowed for up to three players to take part in the action (if the third player had a MultiTap adapter that is). What is more, additional players could jump in at any time, since the game did not distinguish between singleplayer and multiplayer modes. Since the three controllable characters were always part of the combat team regardless of how many players there were, having multiple players did not change the overall power of team, nor did it change the story around. It was a simple solution that avoided the problems that can be seen in many similar, more-recent multiplayer games like Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles, which often featured gutted plot-lines and segregated single-player and multiplayer modes. Secret of Mana stands out for having both a full length story with complex characters and really strong multiplayer gameplay at the same time.
Secret of Mana was also a game that gave the player a lot of freedom, particularly in its opening stretch. For example, the player has the chance to recruit the Girl at a few different places in the opening stretch of the game. The player can recruit her at Pandora castle before going to Gaia's Navel (though only temporarily, she leaves before you enter the main dungeon), at Pandora's castle after recruiting the Sprite, or by saving her from a werewolf attack if you try to go to the forest without recruiting her first. Later in the game, when cannon travel becomes fully available, three areas open up all at once: the desert, the snow-field, and some parts of the Empire. While it is necessary to complete these areas in a rough order, the player is free to explore them as he sees fit immediately. There are no artificial barriers preventing the player from entering the Desert Palace before he completes the snow-field, for example.
Instead of relying on saying "you can't go there yet" to the player, Secret of Mana borrows from its predecessor, Final Fantasy Legend, and uses a lot of tool-based obstacles to control the player's movement. For example, the party can't advance very far into Elinee's Forest until they acquire the Axe, since the Axe is the only weapon that can cut down the pillars blocking the road. Of course, the Axe can only be acquired by completing a major story sequence. Many of the weapons in the game have such special properties, such as the Whip's ability to cross gaps and the Sword's ability to cut through thick bushes. These powers are derived from the Flail, Hammer, and Axe of Final Fantasy Legend, which were put to similar uses (it can be assumed Final Fantasy legend borrowed the idea from the Legend of Zelda series, which it strongly resembled). The game also requires the player to use certain magic spells to open up paths by casting them on magic orbs. I like these methods of preventing player movement, since it lets the player check out an area ahead of time if the player wants and encourages the player to explore the gameworld to look for places where he can use powers to open up new areas. It is a much better solution than many alternatives that I have seen.
Another thing about Secret of Mana's weapons that I liked was that all three characters can equip any of the eight weapons. At the same time, you have to build up weapon skill levels to unlock more powerful charged attacks. So the game encourages the player to divide up the eight weapons among the three characters. I liked giving the hero the sword, the axe, and the bow, while giving the girl the whip, glove, lance, and javelin. The sprite (who was usually controlled by the CPU) got stuck with just the boomerang. Thinking about it, this system supported the multiplayer system by letting the players use the weapons they liked, no matter which of the three characters they were playing. Of course, this also encouraged the players to each choose one of the three characters to main. At the very least, the game did not punish any of the players for playing a certain character, since all three characters could put up a decent fight in physical combat. Though in hindsight, giving the male hero access to magic would have evened out the three characters even more.
While the Mana series seems to have been suffering a decline in recent years, Secret of Mana still holds up as a fun game. The series would be well served by returning the the simplicity of its second iteration, and by returning its focus to Secret of Mana's excellent multiplayer.