Secret of Mana held my attention for many, many hours as a youngster. There was something about the careful blend of immediate action and strategic nuance in its combat system that won my Final Fantasy-loving sensibilities over more than something like The Legend of Zelda. Plus, the (at the time) superbly animated sprites and infectious soundtrack had me praising the power of the SNES and the artistry of the good people over at Square. Fast forward to a few months ago, following the announcement of this ‘remake’ of the game for the PS4, and I decided to give the original another spin for old time’s sake. What I encountered was something of a reality check, because although Secret of Mana’s charming presentation has aged gracefully, its poorly written story and cumbersome mechanics have not. That’s okay, I thought to myself, I’ll wait until the remake where they’ll have fixed all of this.
Pictured: Square Enix trying to save the Final Fantasy VII remake
Before I even get started on any of that though, I need to address the most important thing about this new version of Secret of Mana: it looks a bit shit. Gone are the energetic and expressive sprites from the SNES, now replaced by awkward new 3D models that possess none of the whimsical elasticity of the originals. Same goes for the environments. In retrospect the 1993 pixel art backdrops might have been a little on the ugly side with their garish colours and endlessly-repeated tilesets, and for some reason the new renditions have continued those same mistakes. Worse still, most of the effort seems to have gone into newly overhauled cutscenes with more dynamic camera angles and full voice acting that blatantly highlight the fact that nobody’s mouth ever moves when they’re talking. It’s disconcerting to witness and further drives home the fact that rather than put in the effort to really modernise the game, or instead stick more closely to the visual language of the original, Square Enix saw fit to awkwardly straddle the middle ground. I do appreciate the old-school environments becoming the game’s mini-map though.
I’ll give you two guesses
This behaviour continues with the game proper. Secret of Mana was decidedly unconventional back in the day, an action RPG that also possessed the depth and strategic opportunities of the more full-blooded turn-based JRPGs that were currently gaining popularity. Perhaps its most distinct feature was the ‘ring’ menu system, a mechanic whereby all necessary battle commands (save for the basic attack buttons) and character management were done in a wheel-based menu that overlaid the play area rather than cutting to a separate interface screen. It was a mostly elegant and novel approach, if occasionally cumbersome and confusing for new players thanks to a lack of explanation. You’d think given the opportunity that a remake would fix these kinds of issues, but alas no. Players will still need to stumble upon any of the ring menu’s existence and functions almost by accident, and navigating it is still a pain. Worse, the in-battle menu no longer hovers above the appropriate character in battle, making it harder to figure out who’s doing what in the heat of battle. On a positive, three-player cooperative play is back in full and much friendlier on modern consoles that support more than two controllers without a costly attachment, so that’s nice.
One minute they’re harassing rabbit-creatures in the woods, next thing you know they’ll be saving the world from certain doom
It’s not even that playing this remake of Secret of Mana isn’t fun. Exploring and fighting is still a good time (especially with friends) and the overall adventure is still grand, it’s just such an ill-considered combination of missed opportunities and legitimate backwards steps. The storyline and dialogue are exactly as ham-fisted as they always were, far from a crime in the burgeoning days of video game storytelling but cringeworthy enough today without being highlighted by a full suite of awful voice acting. Even the soundtrack has been tarnished. Opting to replace the old chiptune music with new, high quality arrangements was always going to be controversial and while most of the new stuff is okay, some of it really sucks. Thankfully, the option is there to switch to the original sounds, which is a nice inclusion but just highlights more what a mixed bag the new audiovisual treatment is.
Secret of Mana is a classic of the 16-bit era, and the existence of this remake still goes to highlight the lasting power of its unique systems, but it also sucks a lot of the life out of what made the game shine. Much to my disappointment, Square Enix have somehow exacerbated the original version’s issues while diluting its more redeeming qualities and slapped a $60 price tag on it in the name of nostalgia.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro | Review code supplied by publisher