Secret of Mana Review — Mana for a New Generation

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Even though it’s 2018, I keep finding myself playing remakes or remasters of games that I regard as some of the best video games I’ve ever played. Video games should provide experiences that aren’t easily forgotten, and Secret of Mana on SNES was a game that did just that for me. Even if you haven’t played it, I’m sure you’ve heard the name or seen it in some top ten list as one of the greatest games ever created. However, what is it exactly that makes this game so great and furthermore, what merits it worthy of receiving a remake for a new generation of hardware?

Secret of Mana came out during a time when some of the greatest RPGs were coming west. Games like Final Fantasy II and Dragon Quest III had players clawing for any new experience from Japan. Enter Secret of Mana, a game that didn’t use the traditional turn-based battle system that players were used to. Instead, players discovered a more action-based battle system with the use of menus to display magic and items. It was these clever systems and more which allowed Secret of Mana to stand out in the crowd of Japanese games to come west. Now with the release of Secret of Mana on newer hardware, we get to see if these systems are as timeless as a new generation of gamers are led to believe.

Secret of Mana has a fairly strange story that begins with an orphan boy named Randi pulling the ancient Mana Sword from a stone. Sadly, its discovered that this sword was protecting the village of Potos and soon after Randi pulled the sword, monsters began attacking. Forced by the villagers to do something, the Elder banishes Randi to fend for himself out in the world with the sword. It’s at this point that Randi heads out on an adventure to discover why he was chosen by the Mana Sword and also why monsters are causing so much trouble.

Throughout Randi’s travels, he meets two other characters, Primm and Popoi, who will accompany him for the rest of his adventures. They each have their reasons for joining Randi, but it’s not your typical, “We need to do this to save the world!” type of motivation. Interestingly, these are some of the most unlikely heroes to be featured in any RPG story. However, I feel like this is what adds to Secret of Mana‘s charm and allows for the players to see a little bit of themselves in each party member. It’s through their adventures that I easily felt connected to them, which is necessary for the later portions of the game when the story becomes more demanding of the player’s attention.

Although lighthearted in tone, Secret of Mana‘s story has some fairly complex and deep moments. I believe that this can only be consumed by the player if they take their time with the characters and the story. In this current gaming climate, players seem to want instant gratification, but Secret of Mana doesn’t reward the player in that way. As a returning player, I made sure to talk with townspeople that I have never spoken to and take routes that I don’t remember taking when I played the game so very long ago. As the player, I believe pacing yourself is the key to enjoying Secret of Mana to its fullest.

Much of Secret of Mana is spent fighting monsters and getting through a dungeon to face off against a boss, which there are a lot of. When the attack button is pressed, a percent gauge raises to 100% to indicate when the player can attack again at full force. This doesn’t mean the player can’t launch consecutive attacks, but they are more prone to miss or be fairly weak compared to if you just wait for the gauge to fill up. Like the story, battles should be taken at a slower pace, which might be an issue for some modern players.

There are a variety of weapons to choose from, and each can be upgraded over time which also changes their appearance. Furthermore, equipping weapons to a character will enable them to gain levels, which grants them the ability to power up their attacks past the 100% force gauge by holding down the attack button. Secret of Mana is clever with the way it makes the player figure out the best weapon for a particular boss battle. For example, the Biting Lizard boss will eat you if you get too close, so using the whip will allow the player to land attacks without taking much damage. This is also true when using magic in battle, which is necessary to defeat some of the later bosses.

The AI companions will inevitably let you down during a handful of battles. Also, it’s not rare that you’ll completely leave them in the dust when running through the map. However, Secret of Mana is best played and experienced when playing with friends. Each player can take control of one of the three characters whenever they want, which gives them access to the respective character’s equipment and magic abilities. When playing solo, I had to deal with the AI’s lack of understanding that we are in an intense boss battle and they are just standing around not attacking. Going to the Action Menu and changing their target often worked for me to get them do something in these fights, but it really put a damper on the immersion.

Secret of Mana Review -- Mana for a New Generation

Dungeons in Secret of Mana do not overstay their welcome, which is good because there are a lot of them. Each dungeon usually has a set path and a gimmick that needs to be figured out in order to progress. This means using a weapon to get over a gap or using a certain magic ability to get through a door. I learned very early on to enter dungeons fully stocked up on items, because some of those monsters can be heartless. It’s not uncommon to die multiple times in a dungeon and thankfully, Square Enix has added an autosave feature that saved me many hours of gameplay whenever I forgot to save.

I will admit, getting surrounded by enemies and watching my AI companions die because they can’t dodge a few arrows frustrated me at times, but I feel like strategy came through trial and error in a few of these sections. While playing, it’s as if I had to relearn how to play action games after being conditioned by more modern entries in the genre to run into a room guns blazing. Luckily, after a few hours, I found myself taking my time, watching my attack gauge, powering up, using spells, and equipping the proper weapon in every dungeon. It also helped that the developers added a hotkey for two items, weapons, or spells that you use most often, which cut down the amount of time spent in the menus.

Secret of Mana Review -- Mana for a New Generation

Square Enix was smart about the sound direction in Secret of Mana. Players are able to choose between the new and old soundtrack as well as English or Japanese audio — most of the characters, including the town’s people, have voiceovers. I played a large portion of the game with the English voiceovers, but I still ended up preferring the Japanese track. Also, I really enjoyed the updated soundtrack and chose to stick with it for the entirety of the game.

A few systems have been improved, but the game could have used some additional updates, such as item descriptions when using or purchasing items, or an HP bar on boss battles. Sure, these types of features are common in games today, but that wasn’t always the case. Additionally, there were some scrolling issues with the camera when playing with three players at once. However with that said, it felt like a lot of love went into this release to not have the updates take away from the true Secret of Mana experience, and I must admit the game ended up being just as powerful.

Secret of Mana Review -- Mana for a New Generation

Secret of Mana might be looked over by some because of its childlike character design or light-hearted tone, but I assure you this is still a game that needs to be played by RPG fans. The story and characters grow on you over the game’s 25+ hour runtime, and I couldn’t help but become attached to them all over again. Losing the 16-bit character models might be a disappointment to returning fans, but I ended up really liking the direction and appreciated it for what it was: a remake.

The developers kept the physics, systems, and gameplay almost identical to the original Secret of Mana and I’m overjoyed that they did. With Secret of Mana being grouped up by so many gamers as their favorite game of all time, it was important for Square Enix to deliver as close to that same experience for a new generation, and they did just that. Some features might not have aged well or should have been added in for good measure, but this release of Secret of Mana is the same adventure that I remember, and I couldn’t have asked for more.

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