The early 1990s were the golden age of role playing video games, and the Super Nintendo Entertainment System was the console of choice for these epic adventures. SquareSoft, now Square Enix, dropped two amazing Final Fantasy games on Nintendo’s system, and even created an RPG starring Super Mario and his friends. Others, like Falcom and the Ys series, also saw prominence, while Nintendo itself published EarthBound and Illusion of Gaia, among many others. But the biggest and best unconnected trilogy of SNES RPGs began in 1993, which included the Secret of Mana, Secret of Evermore, and Chrono Trigger. These three games, all from SquareSoft, made genre fans swoon. Today, Chrono Trigger is still considered one of the best RPGs ever, and Secret of Mana is considered an absolute classic with a huge following of fans.
Because of that following, Square Enix announced a full scale remake of Secret of Mana, remastered for current gen systems like the PlayStation 4 and PC. Fans everywhere rejoiced, as the additions of 3D graphics, cut scenes, and voice acting, and a newly recorded score could make a great game even better. What could go wrong? Turns out, almost everything.
The Secret of Mana is the story of three heroes: Randi, a precocious orphan, Primm, a conceited “princess”-like girl who’s madly in love with a ranking soldier in her kingdom’s army, and Popoi, an asexual sprite that refers to itself as “they.” These three are thrust into a plot of the evil empire of Vandole to resurrect something called the Mana Fortress. The last time the Mana Fortress was used, the gods punished the world by sending the terrible Mana Beast to destroy it, so the three heroes must prevent that from happening again. It’s a simple concept, using some tried and true RPG tropes, and in 1993, it was a blast to play.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the remake. The problems begins almost immediately, as the 3D graphics and additions of cutscenes are pedestrian at best. Characters talk, but their mouths don’t move, even in cutscenes, and everything feels jarringly off about the production. While the game world is as vibrant and colorful as ever, the interface feels much like a game that you’d play on your phone. Randi and his team run around this world tracking and backtracking over the same areas as they seek to power up a special Mana Sword with the energy from eight Mana seeds.
At one point midway through the 20 hour adventure, a mission sends the group bouncing from one location to the next with minimal exploration as they quickly amass Mana seeds. While this may have been okay 25 years ago, gamers today will be flummoxed at the narrative cheating Secret of Mana does to quickly more the story forward.
One of Secret of Mana’s best features has always been the combat and it seems to be irreparably broken here. The ring menus, which got their start in this franchise, return, as well as the ability to swap between characters on the fly. You can also add two spells to L1/R1 hotkeys for quick spell casting, which is new and very welcome. The gimmick of being able to couch co-op with friends to play together is still available, but some janky hit detection and poor AI suck all the fun out it — alone or with friends. There have been multiple times that I’ve sat and tried to hit a monster, only to miss over and over and over. No matter which of the eight Mana weapons I used, or which buff spell I had activated, I couldn’t land a hit. And 20 hours of this begins to grate on you.
During one boss battle, I was so angry I wanted to throw my controller at the wall — something I haven’t done since 2003 and Ninja Gaiden on the original Xbox. I’d love to tell you it gets better as your levels rise, and your stats increase, but I can’t. This cacophony of misses carries on until the very end and the last boss battle, and if a character can’t hit something as big as the last boss, something is wrong with the game, not the player.
Another selling point for the remake is the addition of voice acting. Unfortunately, it also happens to be some of the worst acting I’ve experienced in a modern video game. The dialogue was always hokey, which was part of Secret of Mana’s charm, but when Square Enix apparently hires a local dinner theater troupe to perform those lines, it turns into theater of the absurd. I’ve even witnessed instances of characters changing voices mid-conversation, which is utterly unacceptable.
The one bright spot of Secret of Mana is the newly arranged music score. The classic songs sound great, and there’s even an option to turn on the original game score if you prefer that classic low-fi sound. Having played the original game a few times in the ’90s, it’s amazing how much this music is ingrained into my psyche, and hearing it again brought back 20-year-old memories. Also, on the walls in shops, houses, and inns are paintings featuring classic characters from the Mana/Seiken Densetsu series, which is a nice call back to the past. If Square Enix had put in that much love to the rest of this remake, this review would have been totally different.
Secret of Mana did some amazing things in 1993, and in many ways helped usher in a new era of RPGs. It is still regarded as a beloved adventure, and was even included as part of the SNES Classic console that Nintendo released last year. A full scale remake sounded like a great idea and charged up the game’s legion of fans, but poor execution and head-scratching decisions hold it back from coming anywhere near the greatness of the original game. One of my friends, who considers Secret of Mana his favorite video game ever, is equally frustrated by this remake. Gamers would be better served playing this game in its original form on the SNES Classic than to try and play this overpriced mobile game disguised as something new and exciting. And if this is how Square Enix handles remakes of beloved RPGs of the past, we all should be very afraid at what the Final Fantasy VII remake has in store for us. As it stands, maybe the Secret of Mana should have remained a secret.
The review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of Secret of Mana. A review code was provided by Square Enix.
Unfortunately, everything is wrong with this remake of the classic SNES game. From shoddy voice work and pedestrian graphics to janky combat, the experience is nearly ruined, and a classic game's reputation is forever soiled.