For as long as technology keeps improving, beloved games will keep getting remakes. A skilled remake can pluck a game from the past, polish it up with care, and create a love for a forgotten classic in a new generation of gamers. Unfortunately, the 2018 version of Secret of Mana proves that a bad remake can do just the opposite.
The original Secret of Mana released in 1993, and at the time, it was revolutionary. It hit all of the marks of the best JRPGs, following three heroes as they gear up to prevent an evil empire from conquering the world. Action-based, real-time combat separated it from the popular turn-based combat of the time. An innovative Ring Command menu let players swap out magical skills, weapons, and items in the middle of combat, and other players could even jump into the adventures at any time by controlling the Girl and Sprite AI members of the party (traditionally called Primm and Popoi, you can name them whatever you want; a classic 90s RPG motif). Pair that with a fantastic soundtrack and some gorgeous pixel art, and you have a game that holds a beloved place in the hearts of many gamers 25 years later.
Secret of Mana has been polished up and re-released before, but never to the extent of the current 2018 remake. The game received a complete graphic overhaul, complete with chibi-esque animated cutscenes. Every line in the game, from the opening narration to the most inconsequential tucked-away NPC, is now fully voice acted in both English and Japanese. The remake also provides an alternate soundtrack, adding a sort of tecno-synth soundtrack (though the original 16-bit soundtrack can be toggled back on at any time).
Sadly, though, most of these changes weren’t executed with enough care to make them actually feel like upgrades. While I don’t hate the new designs of the characters, the “animation” is barely worthy of the word—none of the characters move their mouths to talk, expressions are clearly just pasted on faces that swap between “large grin,” “slightly surprised,” and “furrowed eyebrows,” and there’s hardly any actual animation at all, since characters tend to just stand there or occasionally turn around in all of the cutscenes. While pixel art leaves the motion and expression up to the player’s imagination, these HD models leave no room for interpretation, since the characters really are just standing around like lifeless dolls. The new soundtrack, while not as terrible as the animation, often sets an entirely different mood than the original, making for some jarring transitions when jumping back and forth between the two.
These “upgrades” also clash oddly with the original limitations of the game. Actions like talking to an NPC or using the whip to cross a gap cause the game to pause for a moment as the entire party gathers up and stacks on top of one another. While that’s understandable for a SNES game that’s trying to make sure the AI party doesn’t end up in a weird place, it looks incredibly odd with modern graphics and feels clunky when every dialogue initiation is met with a second’s pause for the game to organize its own AI.
And that’s far from the only example of an archaic game design choice that was, inexplicably, left in the main game, or made actively worse by the remake. Your motion in combat, for example, is now no longer bound to grid-based movement like the original. As a result, the dynamics of many fights have been changed with no consideration for the new movement. Archer enemies that could previously only aim in certain directions can now hit your party from anywhere, making one early area incredibly deadly. Other enemies are difficult to hit simply because there’s no way to tell if you’ve actually lined up with them properly—and in a few rare cases, the game just straight up glitched and made it so that I couldn’t hit certain enemies at all. The AI wouldn’t help out, either, since the game wasn’t detecting that I was attempting to hit the enemy in the first place, despite being pressed right up against it. On the flip side, many other fights were incredibly easy, letting me stunlock bosses through overlapping use of magic without the bosses getting much chance to fight back.
The game also suffers overall from being deliberately obtuse. There’s no way to see what stats gear in the shops have until you buy the gear, for example. Is an Ivy Amulet better than Ninja Gloves? What about a Quill Cap compared to Head Gear? There’s no way to know until you’re actually equipping it. At other times, the information the game gives you is flat out wrong; many NPCs told me to head to the Fire Country, and it was only after wandering around for a bit and finally checking a walkthrough that I discovered that I was actually supposed to head to the Ice Country instead to advance. There’s an “endless” desert that must be walked through in a certain pattern that the game never tells you. Certain obstacles won’t clear unless you’ve talked to NPCs two or three times in a row, despite the objective in your menu updating and not indicating that you haven’t heard everything yet. It’s as if the game still expects you to always be playing with the SNES manual on hand, except that there is no such manual for this version of the game. I ended up checking an online walkthrough several times, not because any part of the game was actually difficult, but simply to figure out where to go or which piece of gear was an upgrade.
Perhaps worst of all, though, is the fact that the core gameplay just hasn’t aged that well, and the remake does nothing to fix it or make it more fun. Much of combat is simply filler waiting time. Wait to charge your attack, use it, then wait for it to charge again. Wait for enemies to recover from their invincibility frames. There’s not much in the game that’s actually difficult, especially if you start abusing the magic system, so it really is just wandering around and playing a waiting game with the enemies until you’re allowed to hit them again. Bosses can be stunlocked into oblivion; dungeons often have only one path; puzzles are of the exceedingly simple “step on the switch to open the door” variety. Occasionally you’ll have to fiddle with a clunky menu or backtrack to pick up your AI party members that got lost trying to go around a tight corner. It’s a lot of waiting, and not a lot that’s challenging or engaging. Even the final boss was just figuring out one strategy to do damage, then repeating it twelve or so times until the boss died.
The original Secret of Mana has the potential to be made into a decent modern game, but this 2018 remake managed to do almost everything wrong. If a remake is going to add in 3D cutscenes, then go the full mile and add proper cutscenes. If the combat is going to be updated to give full range of motion and a faster pace, then adapt the enemies to use that full range of motion and speed things up a bit. And while loyalty to the subject material is admirable, there are some aspects of early ’90s gaming—like heavy reliance on manuals and awkward pauses—that died out for a good reason. Add in the fact that Secret of Mana crashed and died on me about once every two hours, proving that not even the game’s performance is good, and there’s really not a lot in this remake left to love. There’s nothing wrong with loving the original Secret of Mana, but this is one remake that proves that, perhaps, some games are better off left in the past.
While there’s plenty to love about the original Secret of Mana, this remake manages to kill off most the game’s charm while failing to modernize the parts of the game that actually need updating. Awkward animations, impenetrable menus, slow combat, and repeated random crashes add up to a game that, with 25 years of technological improvements under its belt, may actually be worse than the original.
E10+ – Everyone 10+
|Secret of Mana is available on PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, and PC. Primary version played was for PlayStation 4. Product was provided by Square Enix for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.|
Emma’s early gaming was mostly done in secret, as the only gamer in a family of normal people. She still retains skills from this dark period in her life, such as the ability to teleport instantly across the house away from the computer, and holds a gold medal in the Olympic sport of “Hide the Gameboy.” Sorry, Mom, now you know.