I’m late to the party on Secret of Mana. Back in the days of the Wii shop, I played past the bit where the main character gets kicked out of his village, only to fail to recruit the girl early and subsequently die in a “[CHARACTER] was never heard from again” incident. Despite resolving to move past this setback, it was only the release of both the PS4 remake and the Switch Collection of Mana that finally got me to touch the game again.
Prior to spending any more money on this title, I did attempt to do my research. I watched YouTube videos that compared the two versions and advised on which was better. Based on the recommendations in those videos, I couldn’t decide – so I ended up just buying both versions and playing through them back to back.
Secret of Mana is a beloved fan favourite from Square’s SNES RPG heyday. Other games from that era include the excellent Chrono Trigger, and the elaborate and absorbing Final Fantasy VI. With all that in mind, my expectations were high, and I was looking forward to finding out what all the fuss was about.
Unlike its turn-based siblings, Secret of Mana is an action RPG, albeit one where spamming the attack button repeatedly is not the key to success. It’s a game with something of a troubled development history – it was originally intended to be a SNES CD game until the cancellation of that peripheral forced the game’s content to be cut back to fit onto a regular SNES cartridge. Some of the unused assets were recycled into Chrono Trigger, but the damage was done – later sections of the game are rough and unpolished when compared to the earlier content. Everyone’s favourite example here is the Moon Palace – a dungeon where all you have to do is walk across a black screen until you find a switch to activate.
But even if we account for these issues, Secret of Mana comes across less as a rough diamond and more like a catalogue of what not to do when making a game. Let’s examine some of the specific issues.
Game Design: what not to do
- Ring menu: I’ve heard that people like the ring menu, but I’m not one of them. Instead of the usual list menu that most RPGs have, Secret of Mana has a per-character ring menu that appears above your character’s head. Navigating it is a pain, and if you end up in the wrong part of the menu and have to cancel out, you frequently have to start over. What’s even worse is that if one of your AI-controlled allies is performing an action, you can’t even access their ring menu, and will just have to wait until it’s available again. It’s a surefire method for increasing frustration and interrupting the flow of battle.
- Party AI: Unless you have friends available to play as your two other party members, you’re stuck with relying on the computer to control them. And the computer sucks – not just “ally AI is never really that great” sucks, but properly “why on Earth would you do that?” bad. Since I usually played as the boy, the most robust of the three characters, I would often deliberately put myself in harm’s way just to stop my frailer allies from getting in trouble. Yes, there is an “Action Grid” system where you can control how aggressive your allies are, but it’s far too simplistic – either your allies uselessly do nothing, or they barge into the fray regardless of personal circumstances.
- Ally pathfinding: Although this is related to the above, it really deserves its own bullet point. In any game where AI-controlled party members are set to follow the player character, the pathfinding isn’t going to be perfect. That’s why a good programmer puts in some kind of mitigation – the usual option being to have your allies respawn next to you if they get too far away. Not so in Secret of Mana, which chooses to solve the problem in a very different and irritating way. You are restricted from straying too far away from your allies, which means that if one of them gets stuck while you’re trying to run away from something, you’ll find yourself unable to retreat until you go back and get them.
- Hit or miss?: When you attack an enemy, a good game should give you swift and definitive feedback on what happened. Not so Secret of Mana, where a block and a miss are basically indistinguishable. Did you land the blow but have the enemy parry it, or are you out of range? There’s really no way of knowing, and that leads to a disconnect between you and the action.
The developers also wanted to add an element of chance to charged attacks, which are quite likely to miss entirely. On paper, their reasoning sounds fine – overpowered moves should have some limitations, after all. But charged attacks already have a built-in cost – the time it takes to charge them up in the midst of a heated battle. To commit all that time and then have the attack miss just meant I hardly ever bothered with charged attacks at all. In fact, for a while I forgot they were even an option.
- Bugs: Maybe it’s a little harsh to group the bugs with the deliberate design decisions, but in terms of inducing frustration, it’s on the same level. Casting magic is pretty central to getting through this game, but sometimes, when you cast it, nothing happens. Sure, you needed that healing spell promptly, but for whatever reason the game dropped your inputs and did nothing with them.
There are also some presumably unintentional effects in the way hits register on enemies. There seems to be some sort of ‘one thing at a time’ queuing system in the calculation. In some cases this means that there’s a huge lag between landing a hit and seeing the damage done, whereas in others it means you can dodge enemy spells entirely by simultaneously casting a spell on yourself.
- Weapon switching: One of the good things about Secret of Mana is the range of weapons available to the characters – everything from your standard sword to a selection of ranged weapons. Unfortunately, there are obstacles in the field that can only be cleared with certain weapons – grass needs to be slashed with a blade, rock formations require an axe, and chasms can only be crossed with a whip. What this means in practice is that you frequently have to switch out of your preferred setup to equip whatever weapon is needed to navigate the current environment. Since there’s no hotkey for switching weapon, this is pretty tedious, and indeed is something addressed in one of the many fan mods to the game.
- What am I buying?: When you go to an item shop in an RPG, it’s nice to have some idea what you’re buying. How much HP does that potion restore? Is the armour on sale better than the gear you’re wearing? Most games will offer some explanatory text about the items on sale, and may even show whether equipping new gear is a good or bad idea. There are no such explanations in Secret of Mana, where you pretty much have to just know what items do, and your best bet for determining how good equipment is is to just check the price tag.
- Magic levelling: In the world of Secret of Mana, the way to level up magic is to use it. And it’s pretty essential to have high level magic if you want to go toe-to-toe with the game’s many bosses. However, in the normal run of things, MP is so precious that you’ll end up using it sparingly. What this means is that you then have to go somewhere where you can easily heal and just repeatedly cast spells to grind out their levels. Again, what seemed like a reasonable idea on paper just fails in the execution, because instead of using and incorporating magic into the natural run of battles, you end upin a vicious circle of grinding magic levels in safe places and then saving all your MP for boss fights.
Of course, there are MP-restoring items, but since you can only carry four of each item, you’ll want to save these for boss fights too.
Number of times you need to cast a particular elemental magic at level n in order to reach level n+1.
- World map: SNES-era world maps frequently don’t have town names on them, so Secret of Mana can hardly be singled out for that. However, it is bad in so many other ways. The default map view isn’t top down, but rather a dragon’s-eye view of the horizon. Switch to the complete map, and you get to see an equally useless globe view. It takes one more button to display an actually useful projection view of the map, and only after it’s loaded line-by-line. Also, since you can’t move around in the projection view, you’ll have to frequently switch in and out of it to see where you’re going.
- Balance: With all this in mind, it seems unsurprising that Secret of Mana doesn’t get the difficulty curve right. Even by JRPG standards, there are frequently times when you need to go away and grind levels or magic, sometimes even needing to work your way through the same dungeon multiple times. Late in the game, you’ll probably need to take time out to earn enough money to buy the best armour. It’s not like you can even grind by doing sidequests, as Secret of Mana’s lack of content also means there’s basically one optional quest in the entire game.
Like so many other RPGs, Secret of Mana starts with an unremarkable protagonist who just happens to acquire a legendary sword. Unfortunately for him, drawing the sword also attracts a load of monsters to his home village, and so he is permanently exiled. Thus begins a journey to unleash the power of Mana Seeds and stop the machinations of the evil Empire. At best, the story feels phoned in – villains come and go, portentous revelations are shoehorned in at the end, and a fair chunk of the game is spent just going from one town to another because the legendary Sage might be there.
Due to space limitations, the English dialogue is pretty concise, with nothing in the way of character development. The hero is completely without personality, while his two companions fare a little better. The game’s developers were proud to have written a leading female character who didn’t have any romantic interest in the hero, but the catch is that her entire reason for coming on this adventure is to rescue her boyfriend. Apparently it’s a real leap forward for a female character for her entire story to be defined by a man other than the protagonist.
The sprite, meanwhile, starts off as a trickster character who tries to scam the hero, but who is largely unremarkable beyond a spell of amnesia that is meant to be important, but feels tacked on and disconnected from the plot. Perhaps their greatest claim to fame is that, as a genderless non-human, they are given they/them pronouns in the remake translation. Your mileage may very as to whether this counts as some sort of representation or not.
Graphics are the one place where Secret of Mana can stand strong alongside its contemporaries. Both the sprites and the word they inhabit are rich and attractive, showing off 16-bit graphics at their best. From the cute series staple, the Rabite, to a forest that showcases four seasons on different screens, the game is at least pleasing to the eye.
The soundtrack is often praised, too, but whilst I found it reasonably catchy and serviceable, it doesn’t scale the heights of Chrono Trigger or Final Fantasy. Themes are often overused to the point where a decent song just becomes a little tedious, whilst many have short loop times that just compound the problem. Even one of my favourite tracks, Mystic Invasion, only runs for 59 seconds.
But what about the remake?
Boss trophy progression (with one out of order). Over 90% of players made it to the first boss, but fewer than 30% got as far as beating the final boss.
Despite its many flaws, Secret of Mana’s cult following meant there was plenty of appetite for a remake. Surely this was the chance to right the many wrongs with the gameplay, and to restore the story to its original vision. All of that missing content could finally be returned to its rightful place.
Sadly, the truth was far more mundane. Few remakes have been cheaper or more disappointing than that of Secret of Mana. There are a handful of improvements, which we’ll cover, but everything else is pure disappointment.
First, let’s talk about the most noticeable aspect of the remake. Although the game has been remade in 3D, it isn’t good 3D – in fact, all the assets are lifted from the mobile game, Adventures of Mana. Everything is hideously brightly coloured, a slightly nauseating assault on the eyes that just gets worse the more you look at it. When you interact with elements of the environment, the characters all merge together into one amorphous blob. It’s hard to see where the edge of the screen is, meaning you’ll frequently step onto the next screen when you didn’t even want to. The UI is equally cheap and basic – not only does it reimplement the awful ring menu, but even if you rename the characters, there are places in the menu where the default names are still hardcoded.
The game itself is a monster-for-monster reimplementation of the original in the new engine – there’s been no attempt to add any new content whatsoever. A few things have changed with an eye towards improvement, but not always with success. Here are the headlines:
- Dialogue: Although the main story is no better, the remake does have a lot more interaction between characters – in particular there are extra scenes added when you stay overnight at an inn. This does help to establish the characters a lot better – the boy now comes across as something of a reluctant hero, the girl is clearly strong-willed and unimpressed with her comrades, and the sprite is mischievous with a penchant for winding people up. Hardly the most fascinating of characters, but certainly an improvement on what we got before.
The game also now features voice acting – I’m told the English dub is incredibly annoying, but I stuck with the serviceable Japanese audio.
- Hotkeys: two of the trigger buttons can now be assigned as shortcuts, which at least means you can navigate the Ring menu a bit less. However, if the character who you assigned the shortcuts to leaves the party, the shortcuts get deleted and must be set again. Accidentally pressing a trigger button in the ring menu can also reassign the shortcuts.
- Ring menu: Sadly this is still present, but it is a tiny bit friendlier. It’s now much easier to switch between characters when setting equipment or looking at skills.
- Party AI: The AI is still poor – the Action Grid has been replaced with a list of options that is meant to be more comprehensive, but really it doesn’t offer an improvement. I still found myself acting as a human shield for the weaker AI-controlled characters, or just leaving them KO-ed while I finished the dungeon solo.
- Ally pathfinding: You can now stray as far as you want from your allies, but with the caveat that they won’t reappear beside you until you move onto the next screen. Given that the pathfinding is still poor, that means that your allies can get stuck over the other side of the screen right when you need them to deal with a tricky enemy.
- Hit or miss?: Fortunately, it’s now obvious when your attack connected and just did no damage. However, there’s still a lag in showing damage values when more than one attack connects at the same time, and between an enemy dying and no longer being able to attack it.
- Bugs: The magic casting bug appears to have been fixed. Apparently the game occasionally crashes for no reason, but it’s possible this has been patched in an update as I got through the game without it happening to me.
- Weapon switching: Having to switch weapons to navigate the environment is still an issue here.
- What am I buying?: Items for sale now have a short description of their effects, and weapons and armour have arrows to indicate whether they are better or worse than your current gear.
- World map: The world map in the original game felt pretty empty, so in this game everything has just been moved closer together, and locations now display their names when you however over them. Unfortunately, any sort of overall world view is gone, so you only have the horizon view with which to navigate.
- Balance: The difficulty spikes are gone, and overall the remake is much easier than the original – to the point where I could blaze through almost all the dungeons in a single go, and didn’t even have to level up my magic to take on any of the bosses. Since the game isn’t that much fun, it’s actually good that it’s easy enough to power through it so quickly.
- Item limit: You can now manually change the item limit to carry up to twelve of each item instead of just four, helping make the game even easier.
- New soundtrack: Although you can switch back to the original music, there’s also a new version of the soundtrack available. Overall it’s not as good as the original, but actually it’s pretty decent, and certainly felt a bit less repetitive.
Secret of Mana was a game I wanted to enjoy, but ultimately neither version of it really gelled with me. The original is full of poor design decisions and cut content that just made it a little too tedious to be truly enjoyable. Meanwhile, the lack of effort put into the remake represents a real missed opportunity.
With a 3D remake of Trials of Mana due in 2020, I’ll be giving that game the same treatment.