I can’t stress enough how important the “nostalgia factor” is to me when it comes to the impact a video game has on me. The experiences I had growing up with games like The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy III (aka Final Fantasy VI) have stuck with me for literal decades and many of the first games I ever played are ones that I go back to revisit at least every couple of years – with one of the games consistently at the top of the list being Squaresoft’s Final Fantasy spinoff: The Secret of Mana.
Now, some gamers may not know that Secret of Mana was originally titled Seiken Densetsu 2 when it was released in Japan, with the first Seiken Densetsu title releasing in the United States as Final Fantasy Adventure on the Game Boy. The Seiken Densetsu was initially approached as a side project for Squaresoft (now Square Enix) as opposed to a full-fledged series like Final Fantasy. Instead, what they created was a critical success with Secret of Mana, as its incredible story, beautiful visuals, enchanting soundtrack, innovative gameplay, and revolutionary multiplayer capabilities blew people away – in fact, the game was so critically acclaimed that many believe it to be one of the greatest RPGs ever made, and I am inclined to agree. But, with all this being said I have to admit I was surprised when I heard that Square Enix planned on releasing a remake of this SNES classic. But, I wasn’t surprised because it didn’t deserve it but because I wasn’t sure if it really needed a remake.
Games from the glorious SNES days had something really magical with their 16-bit art styles, and many of them (i.e. Secret of Mana, Chrono Trigger, Link to the Past, etc) felt like the perfect versions of themselves on the Super Nintendo – when I dust off my Chrono Trigger cartridge, for example, you want to know what absolutely never crosses my mind? “Gosh, I’d love to see this remade with next-gen graphics!” And you want to know why? Because it has aged so well – the gameplay is still great, the music is still perfect, and the visuals were incredible. Now, some of the best games ever made haven’t aged quite as well, and therefore are better suited to receive a remake, or a remaster, or whatever you’d like to call it. But, while we’ve seen spiritual successors for games like Chrono Trigger and Secret of Mana, a true remake has never really been something fans have been clamoring for (now, a Final Fantasy VII remake?! Well, that’s a story for another time…). And yet, a remake of one of the best games from the 16-bit era has made its way onto PS4 and PC with yesterday’s release of Secret of Mana. And because I am a sucker for the aforementioned “nostalgia factor”, I threw down the 40 bucks and bought it. Now, I obviously haven’t had time to play all the way through it, but after a few hours of playtime, I can tell you that this has been a welcome trip down memory lane. Some reviewers have had quite a few negative things to say about the game, and while the remake certainly isn’t perfect, I’ve still loved every minute of it. So, I wanted to give a quick rundown on what I’ve loved, and maybe what hasn’t quite landed as well – both for fans that may be interested in the remake and for Secret of Mana newbies that are looking for a great action RPG to sink their teeth into.
The Secret of Mana has the same great story – I have to admit, the overall story and writing for Secret of Mana certainly aren’t winning Pulitzer Prizes, and that hasn’t changed from the original to the remake. However, the story is charming, fun, and filled with political intrigue, romance, heartache, tragedy, and overcoming challenge in the face of overwhelming adversity in the form of an evil empire building a giant fortress in the sky that can obliterate the world – basically, Secret of Mana is like a magical Star Wars fantasy action RPG that sees you and your two companions “rebelling” against an evil “empire” that is basically seeking out the power of Mana to build the Mana Fortress, which is more or less the Death Star. While that isn’t necessarily the most original premise for a story, it’s executed pretty damn well and the characters and settings you are introduced along the way truly are wonderful and awesome to experience, and the remake has done nothing to change that outside of adding voice acting to the game, which in some cases adds some great depth to the characters, and in others some unintentional (or maybe totally intentional) silly moments, with the Mushroom Shopkeeper being one of my favorite voices that I’ve encountered so far. At the end of the day, are you going to be mind blown by the most amazing and never-before-seen storylines? Maybe not, but it’s really damn good, and really damn fun, nonetheless.
Original soundtrack vs. New soundtrack? Stick with the OG – The first real glaring difference I noticed in the remake, and the one that frustrated me at first, was the changes to the soundtrack. While some have had some really intense negativity surrounding the changes to the music, I will just say that it was the first thing that they attempted to improve that didn’t quite hit the mark, in my opinion – it wasn’t necessarily bad, but it was… Different? Off? I’m not sure, but I wasn’t that big of a fan. And then I realized that I can simply go into the settings and switch over to the classic SNES soundtrack, and boom, I was getting hit right in the musical feels again. I’ve mentioned in some of my past articles that music and soundtracks in video games are incredibly important to me, and the audio quality for Secret of Mana was some of the best of the 16-bit era, and easily one of my favorite video game musical scores ever made. So while I appreciated they were trying to add an interesting new spin to the music, I was very happy when I found out I can simply opt out of it and enjoy the sweet, sweet 16-bit melodies instead.
The gameplay is more or less unchanged – The combat for Secret of Mana was, for the most part, a very unique experience when it first came out. The action RPG genre hadn’t really become a mainstream thing, but SoM did a phenomenal job at breaking out of the turn-based RPG mold and creating an identity all its own. Now, some may argue that due to the recharge time of weapon attacks that it’s still sort of turn-based, but the pacing and freedom of movement really sets this RPG apart from others, especially when it first launched. The combat in the remake feels very similar, despite it being in a completely 3D rendered world, and it’s still really fun to run around whacking rabites and taking down tough bosses. There’s one thing, though, that I never really expected would be such a big issue – the aiming of attacks. In the original game you really could only attack up, down, left, and right, so positioning for attacks and strategizing on how to approach enemies was rooted in this somewhat limited aiming mechanic, but it affected your enemies too, so it was a somewhat even playing field. In the remake, you can now swing in all directions so approaching an enemy you’ve fought 100 times in the original game is now a completely different encounter, not only because of how you have to aim, but because the enemies have much better aiming capabilities too (and I found it frustrating on more than one occasion that ranged attacks I could easily dodge before were coming at me from all angles in the remake).
Be aware of radial menu changes – One aspect of the gameplay that has been changed, but maybe not necessarily for the better, is the radial menus for accessing equipment, items, spells, and more. In the original, you jumped from character to character to use their spells or abilities (unless you were playing co-op… more on that later!), and the radial menu appeared around the character you were selecting, making it easier to know whose menu you were in. In the remake, the radial menu is locked in the center of the screen and contributed to a decent bit of confusion once I had my full party with me while playing through the first few hours. Additionally, quite an annoying little quality of life change is in the original game, the radial menu would remember what selection you were on when you previously accessed a menu. So if you were fighting an enemy weak to fire and needed to continually imbue your sword with magic, you knew when you went back to the menu, you would still be on Salamando ready to dish out another helping of Fire Sword. In the remake, however, the radial menu starts at the same place each time you open it, which requires some extra moving around to get to often used items, spells, etc. This isn’t really a game-breaking thing, but a small change from the original to the remake that didn’t quite make sense to me – just something to be ready for when you’re making your way through SoM.
The multiplayer is still awesome – One of the coolest things about Secret of Mana when it first came out, for me, was the ability to play through the entire game with a friend (or two, if you had the SNES Multitap). And for the time, it was pretty revolutionary – I mean, there were certainly multiplayer games available in the early 90s, but this is the first time that I can recall an RPG allowing two people to fully participate in the entire game (I say fully participate, because some of the Final Fantasy titles on SNES, for example, allowed for multiplayer during battles, but outside of that it was a single controller, single player, experience). A buddy of mine and I played the hell out of Secret of Mana as kids, and in fact, we busted through the game twice, once with me playing the heroic Randi and him playing the supporting cast of Primm and Popoi, and the second time with our roles reversed. With the remake coming out, I was certainly expecting the same kind of couch co-op capability as the original, and I was not disappointed. I plan on playing the entire game, or at least most of it, with my girlfriend at my side, because teamwork makes the dream work. That being said, quite a few folks online have expressed frustration over not being able to do online multiplayer, and I have to say that this didn’t really bother me that much. So much of the charm and splendor of this game is best shared with a friend right next to you, as opposed to a voice in your headset hundreds or thousands of miles away. So if you have the game, and a friend with a controller to play through it with you, I would highly recommend it!