I’m in the last phase of a boss fight in Secret of Mana, sweat pouring out of my fingertips. I’m at a sliver of health, and the faintest mistake, the slightest hiccup in my regimented breathing, might end my journey. The screen only three feet from my face might as well be my world. I’ve never felt so invested in the success of a singular moment before, and when I succeed, the air somehow tastes sweet on my tongue. My neighbor, several years older than me, shifts in his spot on the couch before offering me a curt nod, a show of respect for what I’ve just accomplished.
Secret of Mana isn’t just another JRPG. Its endearing and simple characters underscore a soundtrack that, at the time, was one of the very best in gaming. In 1993, the game felt like a larger than life adventure, and even when I picked it up five years later in a friend’s basement, it felt grand. Given that this sentiment is a common one among those who have played Secret of Mana, it’s no surprise that Square Enix dipped back into the well to produce a remake twenty-five years after it first debuted on the SNES. What I expected to be an enjoyable nostalgia trip, however, quickly devolved into an ugly reminder that time is unkind, and some things are better left in the past.
A Scratch on the Lens
The most striking thing about Secret of Mana is just how anachronistic it feels. It’s a remake of a game made over two decades ago that has been reworked to have the graphics of a game made ten years ago, maybe? While the cutesy aesthetic present certainly has a time and place, most recently in a Square Enix title like World of Final Fantasy, this implementation takes away from the game. The character models feel like they’ve been ripped out of an early Nintendo DS effort, and the cutscenes don’t even feature fully animated events. Character mouths don’t move while they talk, and it feels like each party member has a total of four facial expressions.
This wouldn’t be that big of an issue given that the game doesn’t actually have too many breaks for dialogue, but the game world isn’t any better. The landscape doesn’t have any soul, and my journey through it reflected that. Secret of Mana was so ahead of its time when it first debuted that it is almost heartbreaking to see it be so thoroughly left behind by its contemporaries now. The world can be extremely confusing to navigate, and most of the progression seems to rely heavily on having played the game at some point before. While that made it relatively simple for me, I can imagine it would be frustrating for anyone without prior knowledge of the game’s intricacies.
Because They Could…
Let’s not exaggerate; some of the elements in Secret of Mana are still welcome. The game still features a frenetic combat pace that is only amplified by the ability to freely switch between any of the three party members. This allows for some deep strategical adjustments on the fly, and the ability to use local co-op to have friends substitute in as party members is just as enjoyable an experience now as it was so long ago.
Unfortunately, these positives are overshadowed by a sea of inept or just plain awkward decisions. Not revamping the wheel menu system is puzzling, especially given how seamlessly menus are integrated into games these days. The enemy AI is atrocious, but not nearly as bad as the party when controlled by the computer. I routinely found myself healing and reviving my team despite setting them to be as self-preserving as possible, with each member all too excited to wander into a hailstorm of arrows without protection should the chance ever arise. Every time I entered a town, I would inevitably come across a few NPCs walking headfirst into walls. It’s not enough to severely hinder a playthrough, but it’s just so strange that it would happen in a rather simple title in 2018.
Combat, too, still features some of the elements that really should have been done away with by now. The enemies having temporary invulnerability after being struck makes screen-to-screen combat take much longer than necessary. Even if Square Enix wanted battles to drag out, there are other ways to achieve that effect without making it so plodding.
The changes that were made are also curious. The game’s soundtrack, one of its finest points in the original release, has been remixed. Results will inevitably vary based on a given player’s personal tastes, but it felt like a cover band had been hired to reproduce Secret of Mana‘s entire musical score by memory alone. Likewise, removing the Grid System simplifies combat and gives way to the issues I experienced with AI-controlled party members. Why remove something from a game and then not replace it with anything meaningful?
Not Because They Should
The biggest hindrance to Secret of Mana‘s success is that it isn’t a true remake, but more of an extensive remaster. At its core, the game remains the same, flaws and all. The additions, rather than being boons that bring Randi and friends into the future, are hindrances instead. It’s baffling to me that this release could have just been the original game, graphics and all, and likely make for a better investment of time, but that’s where we are.
Secret of Mana is an entirely skippable remake of a game that was the progenitor for a number of JRPG conventions. That’s a shame. The greater failing, however, is what happens when fans will inevitably pick this title up in the hopes of recapturing some of the feelings of grandeur the original game contained so much of. They, like me, might end up realizing that a game they had placed on a pedestal for decades is actually rather ordinary by today’s standards, and any magic that made it a lasting impression on those who played it has long since been left behind by the cruel, inexorable march of time.
Secret of Mana review code provided by Square Enix. Version 1.00 reviewed on a PlayStation 4 Pro. For more information on scoring please see our review policy.