I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: remaking a video game is hard. How much do you change? How much do you keep the same? If a system is outdated, do you update it to modern standards, or do you leave it alone in homage to the original? Do you update the graphics? If so, how? Higher resolution? New characters models and backgrounds? Do you replace sprites with 3D models? If a game doesn’t have online multiplayer, but would benefit from it, do you add it? What’s the line between improving a classic and fundamentally altering it? Getting it right means walking a fine line, and as remakes become increasing common, it’s a question that’s getting harder and harder to answer. Change too much, and your risk alienating your original audience. Change too little, and you may not find a new one.
Square Enix is no stranger to this conundrum: over the last few years, the company has ported and remastered titles ranging from Final Fantasy to Kingdom Hearts. Secret of Mana’s remake, though, is a bit more surprising. While the game is inarguably a stone cold SNES classic that appeared most recently on the SNES Classic, the series as a whole isn’t particularly well-known, having sold only 6 million copies through 12 games, many of which received a middling critical reception. Secret of Mana is the exception here, making it even more important that Square Enix get this right, and while their dedication to preserving the nature of the original game is admirable, there are also some missed opportunities.
"It’s a simple premise, granted, but it’s easy get involved in because of how damn charming the cast and game world are. This is the kind of world where many of the enemies are absurdly cute and you actively feel bad for killing them."
Secret of Mana is the story of a boy named Randi, who is separated from his friends in the woods. To get home, he’ll need a weapon, so he pulls a rusted old sword from a nearby rock. Turns out that it’s not just any rusted old sword – it’s the Mana Sword, and pulling it out of its stone upsets the magical balance of the land. Monsters, an evil empire, and even an apocalyptic dragon threaten to destroy the world unless Randi can find the mystical Mana Seeds, restore the power of his sword, and do the whole “save the world” thing that was pretty ubiquitous in 90s JRPGs.
It’s a simple premise, granted, but it’s easy get involved in because of how damn charming the cast and game world are. This is the kind of world where many of the enemies are absurdly cute and you actively feel bad for killing them. This sense of charm is aided by a revised script that irons out the flaws of the original translation and adds new scenes between Randi and your other two party members – a princess named Primm and a sprite named Popoi – whenever you stop at an inn. These conversations help flesh out these characters, and add to the story’s charm.
The biggest change, of course, are the new visuals, which update the original sprites into 2.5D models. While it’s always saddening to lose good sprite work, the new visuals are lovely – think the best work from one of Square’s better Final Fantasy ports, only better. The world is bright and colorful and peppered with details and the character models are great. The game even includes the original bitmap as a mini-map in a nice nod to the original release. But there are some inconsistencies, too. The remake adds voice acting, and it’s actually pretty good, but the characters’ mouths don’t move when they talk. This is particularly jarring when it becomes increasingly obvious that the only time you see their mouths are in cutscenes. In a game with this many cutscenes and this much voice acting, it’s a jarring omission that feels cheap at best and lazy at worst. The way the characters “enter” the cannons that allows you to fast travel is equally lazy. Like in the original game, they simply move behind the cannon. While a visual trick like that works with sprites, it’s actively strange to watch with 2.5D models.
"Each swing of a weapon depletes your character’s stamina, which recharges after each attack. Attacking with less than 100% energy reduces your damage and your chance to hit, so it’s often better to run around and allow your characters to recharge between attacks."
The other big change is the new music. The entire soundtrack has been remixed, mostly to positive effect. In many cases, the advanced instrumentation works just as well, or better, than the original soundtrack. But there’s some questionable decisions here, too, usually involving an overuse of accordions. The most egregious example is in the song Into the Thick of It, where the accordions were somehow chosen to replace flutes. Thankfully, you can switch between the original and remastered soundtracks from the menu if the feeling that you’re stuck on a merry-go-round begins to overwhelm you.
Beyond that, Secret of Mana is largely the same game as is was in 1993. The combat is simple and takes place in real time. You can swap between any of the three characters at will, and each one can wield any of the game’s eight weapons. Each swing of a weapon depletes your character’s stamina, which recharges after each attack. Attacking with less than 100% energy reduces your damage and your chance to hit, so it’s often better to run around and allow your characters to recharge between attacks. There’s also magic, which can hit your or your enemies so long as you or they are in range, but magic points are a limited resource and items that recharge it are costly, so you’ll likely save it until the moments where you really, really need it.
The system is engaging, despite its simplicity, and becomes more fun if you play the game in co-op, which supports up to three people locally (there is, unfortunately and bizarrely, no online co-op). This has two benefits: first, it makes the ring menus, which use the color of your cursor (and nothing else) to show whose menu you’re in at any given time, easier to navigate. Second, it solves the issues inherent in the game’s AI which isn’t particularly smart (the original Grid System that allowed you to determine how passive or aggressive you’d like them to be is gone, replaced with a series of options dictating basic behavior) and has trouble pathing, especially if you decide to run from a fight. Finding your healer stuck fighting a monster half the map away while you’re trying to accomplish something is exceptionally annoying.
"Like most games on the SNES, the original release of Secret of Mana shipped with a detailed manual that explained what items in the store did and a map that showed where cities were in relation to certain landmarks. Unfortunately, none of that information has been put into the actual game."
If there’s one major issue that the remake has that the original has, it’s that it doesn’t give you enough information. Like most games on the SNES, the original release of Secret of Mana shipped with a detailed manual that explained what items in the store did and a map that showed where cities were in relation to certain landmarks. Unfortunately, none of that information has been put into the actual game. This even extends to the armor in the store, since there’s no way to see if what’s available is better or worse than what you have until after you’ve bought it. Often, your best bet is to look at something’s cost, try to remember what you’re wearing, and hope that this new item is better.
And of course, there are still flaws that are carried over from the original game. There is an absurd amount of backtracking in Secret of Mana, especially in the game’s first few hours. You’ll often have to trek across the map to talk to someone you’ve already met, only to be told to return to yet another place that you’ve already been.
None of these problems, however, can keep Secret of Mana down. There’s simply too much charm here to contain; the characters are too likeable, the combat too enjoyable, the world too beautiful and the music too good. It’s true that Square Enix could, and probably should, have done more here to bring Secret of Mana into the modern world, but what’s here is still quite good, as long as you’re willing to put up with a few annoyances here and there. And if nothing else, Randi, Primm, and Popoi are at least worth that.
This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 4.
The redone graphics look good. Two great soundtracks. Fun combat system. The option to play local co-op. Incredibly charming. Engaging characters.
The characters' mouths don't move. Some weird menu choices. You often don't have information you need regarding items. Lots of backtracking. No online co-op. Too much accordion on the remixed soundtrack.