Over the past few years the video game consumer has been hit with a tsunami of 90s revival that doesn’t seem to be calming down anytime soon. It seems like every month a popular childhood favourite is receiving that seductive HD treatment, meaning players everywhere can once again relive their fondest video game memories, only this time it’s 3 times the price and, in some cases, only half the fun; that being said I’ve always been a sucker for a remaster. So with the recent re-release of a much beloved game from 25 years ago, will this latest cherished video game treasure be tarnished with that same expensive, cynical paint brush?
The newly released Secret of Mana is a remake of the 1993 Super Nintendo RPG of the same name, now making a go for it on Steam, PS4 and PSVita. Adapting the same premise as its original, Secret of Mana sees Randi, a young boy who mysteriously removes the sacred sword of mana from its rocky pedestal, an act that causes the world’s monsters to become restless and the nation’s villains to become a tad more evil. Alongside your mouthy companions you must traverse the land and merge your powers with the legendary mana seeds, earthly trinkets that maintain the balance of mana and help you unlock some sweet abilities. Though over 2 decades old, the original title still holds a special place in people’s hearts, and with its vibrant characters, fun hack ‘n’ slash gameplay and beautiful soundtrack it’s difficult to disagree, so does this 2018 reboot share any of that same magic and elegance? Well I guess it depends on how fondly you remember that original game.
I think Square Enix have done a wonderful job turning the once vibrant yet pixelated world into a vibrant, adorable 3D one, and dare I say one worthy of being considered a remaster. Every character I ran past and every monster I fought radiated a cute and charming aroma that comforted and eased me into this world I was exploring for the first time, however as soon as they opened their mouths (or rather didn’t), I felt like I was stabbed in the back. As a gamer I don’t ask for much, and what I expect from a game releasing in the year 2018 is to have features and presentation that pleasantly reflect the price I’ve just paid, and unfortunately huge grinning characters that don’t open their mouths and excrete unenthusiastic dialogue just isn’t my bag. From a narrative stand point however, Secret of Mana is pretty great. Despite following that tired ye old trope of playing as a young outsider trusted with the power to save a struggling nation, there was definitely a sensation of magic and awe coursing through my veins as I discarded formidable foes left and right, especially when (SPOILER ALERT) the villain actually succeeded in his plot and the stakes were perilously heightened. By modern standards Secret of Mana’s plot isn’t as thrilling or action packed as the games it went on to inspire, however in place of all the glitz and glamour is a simple yet heartfelt adventure of overcoming evil against all odds, which is all you could ever need.
As lovely as this magical realm looks and as delightful as the cast and supporting extras look, everything else around it sadly doesn’t do it for me, I shudder imagining how I’d feel if I did have fond memories of this game originally. Perhaps the most bewildering problem I have with this game is also the one that frustrates me the most, the poorly detailed item wheel. It’s all well and good picking up items or buying new armour, but I can’t use them or justify spending money because I don’t bloody know what it’ll do. Having to resort to an online guide telling me how beneficial an armour set is before I buy it is painfully annoying, as is dying and being unaware that I was carrying an item that could have prevented it. Perhaps this lack of instruction and guidance was the norm in the early 90s, but 25 years later it’s unacceptable, and I’m truly baffled as to why this decision was made.
The gameplay behind Secret of Mana is a unique and, in some cases, an unusual one, a sort of hack ‘n’ wait ‘n’ slash RPG that caps how much ferocity and energy you can put into your actions. With every strike you use stamina, and waiting for that bar to be full will ensure that your attack deals the most damage it can. Though this element makes you think more carefully about your attacks, applying patience and restraint to a close combat fight zaps all the fun out of it, turning it in to an unexciting back and forth exchange. Once stricken, enemies will also be temporarily invincible whilst they pick themselves up off the ground, meaning even the easiest and most basic battles are more tedious than they need to be. It isn’t just physical attacks that grind my gears, but magic ones too, because these attacks are unavoidable, even if you are miles clear of the enemy who inflicted the attack. Boss fights as a standard practise are difficult, however in Secret of Mana they are just unnecessarily difficult because every attack will hit you regardless of whether you’re close to it not, meaning your poorly equipped companions will die as often as you sigh. Difficulty spikes too are common practise in your standard RPG, however once again every drop of piss has been taken here as without warning you can be killed instantly by the most basic of enemies, causing you to use all of your resources and effort combating death before even getting close to quest’s objective.
From the immense critical acclaim and fondness amongst long time fans, it’s obvious that Secret of Mana was a terrific game 25 years ago, however in 2018 it simply doesn’t work. It may look bright and the soundtrack may be beautiful, but its archaic gameplay just don’t belong in the 21st century.