The new Secret of Mana is billed as a remake, but “reconstruction” is probably more accurate. If not for the updated graphics, it could almost be considered a port of the SNES game. Combat, magic, and movement are much the same. The new mini-map—one of the scant few quality-of-life tweaks–is the original SNES bitmap of each stage. It also ports over every mechanical flaw and obtuse element from the 1993 original. It’s a strange game to assess, then; it simultaneously shows how far ahead of the curve Secret of Mana was 25 years ago, while also making its problems all the more pronounced under a modern lens.
Secret of Mana tells the tale of a spiky-haired boy named Randi who frees a mystical sword stuck in a stone. Instead of his home village giving him the King Arthur treatment, Randi is admonished for accidentally undoing the balance of the magical forces in the world. Monsters, an evil empire, and a world-ending dragon threaten to ruin the world as they know it, unless Randi can find the mystical Mana seeds and use his sword to restore order.
It’s a fairly rudimentary tale of swords and sorcery, but one that’s easy to see through to the end thanks to the cast’s charming personalities. Newly written dialogue for the remake smooths out the original translation’s rough edges, and introduces a few completely new scenes, where Randi and his cohorts–Primm and Popoi–hang out and talk over dinner every time you book a night at an inn. The remake sees our characters learn to know and love each other in new ways, and it makes a big difference in the long run.
The biggest change, of course, is the complete graphical overhaul, putting it on par with I Am Setsuna and some of the better Final Fantasy mobile ports. It maintains the original game’s striking color palette, bathing the world in vibrant greens, blues and pinks. Most environments look delightful, but particularly dazzling locales like the Sprite Forest and Ice Country are breathtaking. Character models are a step up from Square Enix’s previous remakes as well, though the decision to introduce voice actors yet not let characters’ lips move is a jarring one. The fact that the voice acting is played so campy and cheesy–in both English and Japanese–doesn’t help.
The remixed score is the same two-steps-forward one-step-back situation. For the most part, the expanded instrumentation works well. Some areas, like Matango and its ’70s prog-rock theme, introduce surprisingly catchy tunes. The score keeps the original freewheeling approach as the world design, with no limits on what a particular dungeon or area might be accompanied by. But this occasionally leads to one too many strange, dissonant moments, with many of the village themes defined by the heavy use of bagpipes and accordions.
Secret of Mana’s “anything goes” approach extends to gameplay as well. You can swap control between the three characters at any time, and they are each capable of wielding any of the game’s eight weapon types. Each strike during combat initiates a recharge time where the chances of actually landing your next attack or doing decent damage improve as your character regathers their energy. This system forces you to move around the playing field as much as possible to avoid getting hit by enemies while you wait. Magic attacks can hit from anywhere, as long as your enemy is in range, but magic points are limited, and items that refill the meter are expensive. There aren’t many console RPGs from the early ’90s that forced you to consider so many things at once, but in 2018, it actually feels right at home.
There are, however, quite a few aspects that are less welcome by modern standards, and despite a golden opportunity to do so, nothing has been done to address them. The Ring system–the game’s quick menu–is serviceable, but the color-coding used to indicate whose options, weapons, and magic you’re accessing is too subtle for its own good; it gets worse as your repertoire grows over the course of the game.
It’s also still extremely easy for your crew to get surrounded by lesser enemies during combat, getting smacked around from all directions with nowhere to go. Yet if you walk into another room where huge, dangerous enemies are lurking, you can often stroll right past them without raising alarm. Sometimes, the NPC A.I. being oblivious is a good thing. When that same obliviousness applies to the CPU controlled characters in your crew during a major battle, and your offensive spell caster is stuck behind a doorway, it’s an unforgivable annoyance.
The original game’s Grid System, where you could adjust how aggressive/passive you wanted your A.I. characters to be, is gone. In its place is a much more simplified system of dictating basic behavior, but there’s not an effective way to instruct your allies to favor self preservation. Granted, that’s a problem easily solved with the game’s local multiplayer, where two friends can jump in at any point and control the other two characters in your crew–another area where Secret of Mana was way ahead of its time–but it’s still no excuse for the issues experienced while playing solo.
Altogether, the new Secret of Mana exists in a weird nexus of being a forward-thinking RPG that occasionally shows its age, or a very modern RPG with some baffling design decisions and sub-standard A.I..
Other problems the original game didn’t have, however, stem from the lack of general information. The Super Nintendo release came with a full-fledged world map and a manual which explained what store items were meant to do, and where certain cities were located in reference to major landmarks. The latter is critical once Flammie, a friendly dragon, comes into play, allowing you to travel anywhere in the world at will. None of that is included here, which could very well create a problem for newcomers since there’s no place in-game that explains what anything does. That disconnect extends to weapons and armor, where there’s no way to know whether a piece of equipment is better or worse than what a character is already wearing aside from buying it anyway and praying.
Altogether, the new Secret of Mana exists in a weird nexus of being a forward-thinking RPG that occasionally shows its age, or a very modern RPG with some baffling design decisions and sub-standard A.I.. Its ambitions, coupled with the outright charm of the world, are certainly more than many RPGs offer, and very few as visually dazzling as this. Secret of Mana remains an adventure worth taking, as long as you’re prepared for a bumpy ride.