To my mind, a remake is called for when a much-beloved game is considered beyond clunky, and its design is as stale as three-day-old doughnuts, but the feelings that game invokes are still present. The process is supposed to take everything that its predecessor created and bring it into the modern age, carving out the worst parts or, at the very least, making them bearable. Mechanics and styling might be tweaked as it goes so that the final product feels as close to what you remember as possible. That’s not what’s happened here with Secret of Mana, however, and I’m sad to say that you would be better off playing the original version of the game.
Also, Square Enix automatically puts its watermark on any screenshot you take. So, uh… Thanks, Square Enix, for that…
A lot of changes have been introduced in this remake, and while the story remains unchanged, the dialogue has been re-translated from the original Japanese. This is an excellent decision since even the original translator didn’t like how the original localisation turned out. The issue here comes from the new, extra dialogue between the main characters, taking place whenever you sleep at an inn. It’s meant to add more character and relationship building between the three, but the added airtime that these characters get only shows how annoying they all are now.
Whoever wrote the new dialogue picked only the most well-beaten of horses when crafting what would become these characters’ personalities. The girl is obnoxiously contrary toward anyone or thing that doesn’t help her find her man and otherwise acts like spoiled royalty the entire time. There is no redemption arc for this. The Sprite is a megalomaniac, taking its initial introduction as a con artist and using that as its sole motivating force for everything. And, finally, the boy hero is an idiot. That’s it, that’s his whole thing.
The tragedy of all this is that so much of the original story was absorbed via context rather than dialogue. Your characters did talk, but it was done so sparingly, opting for the classic silent and exaggerated expressions for reactions that RPGs of this era were known for. It meant that their personalities were mostly up to player interpretation, and made the few moments that they did have something to say all the more meaningful. Now you know exactly how much they suck, and you get to sit through and listen to all of it.
The original already had questionable moments involving Primm, but this remake encroaches creepy new grounds on a number of occasions.
The remake still plays very similarly to the original with a few minor changes. A credit to the game is its camera angle, and how characters move around in the space provided. Getting hit during boss battles in the original Secret of Mana was so easy to happen because it was difficult to see exact placements in a 3D space represented on a 2D plane. In the remake the camera is angled to provide a kind of top-down view, which made it feel like getting hit was never the fault of poor presentation. Instead, it’ll happen because this is a game from 1993, and the promises of it being changed to meet the standards of a modern action-RPG are complete lies.
Some things were changed that shouldn’t have been, and some things that weren’t changed definitely should have been. The new autosave, for instance, isn’t worth a damn; it’s inconsistent as to when it saves, and it’s damn near impossible to tell whenever it does. The menu systems haven’t aged well either, being clunky and painful to navigate mid-battle, which should have been improved or outright changed in this remake. And good God, the waiting. I forgot how much waiting was involved in this game’s combat – you take a swing? Wait until your stamina recovers before taking another You got hit? Looks like you’re still waiting! Want to cast a spell? Gotta wait for your ally to finish whatever animation they were part-way through. Otherwise, you won’t even be able to access their menu until they’re done flinging their boomerang, or whatever. Nothing has actually been improved in the remake, none of the niggling annoyances were taken out. Instead, those differences that are present only serve to highlight the most frustrating aspects of Secret of Mana’s gameplay.
In the original, these flower monsters were almost indistinguishable from the surrounding flowers until you got too close. Looking at these floral-dildo monsters, I have to wonder if they were deliberately ignoring their own designs.
Speaking of changes, I’m not a fan of how this game looks. In a style similar to Chrono Trigger and Secret of Evermore, the original Secret of Mana had some of the most amazing pixel-art visuals of its time. There was a lot of attention to detail, using visual tricks to create the illusion of something more, and the simple fact that everything about it looked absolutely stunning for the time. It still does, in my opinion. This all seems to have gone out the window in favour of a dull, rather bland and simple appearance. Textures are often flat, only creating an unconvincing illusion of depth. There’s a weird “clean” feeling about everything in the remake, inexplicably offering less detail in its 3D models than what was present in the original’s 2D sprites. It’s a style that feels all too familiar, reminiscent of the art direction seen in Square Enix’s recent(ish) remakes of the early Final Fantasy games. It lacks the unique flair of the original art-work, immediately sinking one of the most significant selling points of Secret of Mana as a whole.
This also extends to the enemies, most of whom have been modeled faithfully on their 2D counterparts, but all of whom lack their former charm. Enemy animations are stiffly recreated in 3D, as opposed to using the new style as a chance to breathe life and personality into the game. Some of the monster redesigns just look flat-out terrible. For example, here is a screenshot of the Great Viper in the caves outside Matango in the original Secret of Mana:
This thing moved with unnatural speed, and its very presence felt intimidating. It would slam its balls into you at high speed and turn you into a midget. It was awesome.
And here is how it looks in the remake:
This is a fat caterpillar…. thing? It waddles its way across the screen to slowly curl around you. It wants a hug, but it only knows how to kill with its girth. And I hate it.
Even the little cinematic of your characters sailing across the overworld map sky whenever you use the Cannon Bros. travel points has been removed for seemingly no reason. It’s not like the development team haven’t demonstrated that they know how important these elements are. A considerable amount of the original sound effects have made their way into the remake, the mini-map in the corner is a shrunk-down version of how that area looked in the original, and the musical score very closely covers the original tracks. It’s disappointing that so much attention to the smaller details is present, only for the rest of the game to feel so uninspired compared to the original.
Also, did you know their names were actually Primm, Popoi, and Randi? I mean, I can sort of buy the other two but Randi the Mana Knight? Ugh.
This isn’t a bad remake, per se. The game functions without crashing, and it’s a close approximation of what the original Secret of Mana had on offer. The problem is that in recreating the game, Square Enix forgot what the point of a remake is. Very little in this remake can have a serious claim to being “better” than the original, and in some cases, it’s arguably worse. Once the nostalgia wears off for returning players, your enjoyment with it will go downhill fairly quickly. It’s also hard to recommend to anyone that hasn’t played Secret of Mana before since there isn’t anything noteworthy you would get out of this version that you couldn’t experience in the original. If more time, money, and effort had been put into this project, this remake could have been something truly special. As it stands, however, it feels like a cheap attempt to cash-in on a sudden resurgence in popularity of the original, brought about by the recent re-release of the SNES version. If you have the money, get yourself a SNES Classic if you want to see what the fuss is about. Or… You know… Any other number of methods. Secret of Mana came out in 1993, after all.