Secret of Mana (2018)

The old man is looking at old man things again. Surprise surprise. There's plenty of "it doesn't need to be said" about Secret of Mana. It's one of the classics of the SNES and makes plenty of best games of all time lists for good reasons. Sadly, it doesn't for me. As aesthetically perfect as it is (The soundtrack is in the Top 5 of all games. Easily), playing it is an occasionally buggy mess with a battle system with too many unnecessary pauses and characters that are too thin for me to get attached to after the HUGE jump in gaming narratives that was Final Fantasy II... uh, IV. But it was one of the few non sports and Goldeneye 007 games my brother would play with me and seem to genuinely enjoy, so I get the wide appeal. Seiken Densetsu 3 fixes almost every one of my problems and is one of the most ambitious SNES games to boot, but we didn't get that one. We got Secret of Evermore, and if I try to discuss that, my rage will burn down everything and the universe will be nothing but crispy ashes. WHY WOULD YOU REVEAL THE FINAL AREA AND THE VILLAIN FROM THE OUTSET AND THEN TREAT IT ALL LIKE A SURPRISE?! WHY DOES THIS GAME THINK NAMING NON-EXISTENT B-MOVIES IS FUNNY?! WHY MAKE A GAME ABOUT CREATING WORLDS FROM HUMAN IMAGINATION AND THEN HAND THAT POWER TO PEOPLE WHO CAN ONLY CREATE THE MOVIES FROM MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 WHERE THE CAST MOST OPENLY DISCUSS OFFING THEMSELVES?! AHHHHHHHHHHHH!...

...My original point is a remake that tunes up certain aspects, expands the narrative, and smooths out the translation isn't a bad idea. From the get-go though, it seemed this particular remake's prospects were more limited. The 3-D rendered graphics seemed an odd choice for one of the most charmingly sprite-animated games of all time. The early cutscenes showcased models that had awkwardly stationary mouth movement and voice acting that was... there. So perhaps not the shiny a new set of wheels one would expect. Getting my hands on the new version, it feels like one of the remakes that were prominent on the PlayStation mixed with the experiments from when the Sega CD and Turbo CD first expanded what could be done with a game: A decent enough replication of the experience utilizing new technology that is occasionally ill-fitting with some of the soul is lost in transition. I wish I could leave it at that, but AN ERROR HAS OCCURRED IN THE FOLLOWING APPLICATION.

Not that there aren't moments where the expectations are met. Right off the bat, the title screen recreates the wonder of opening up Secret of Mana for the first time with an ultra HD version of the title's key art and a majestic orchestration of the main theme. The prologue then takes the unique style of the artwork and winds a short narrative out of it. Then the reality of what the rest of the game is like sets in with the intro of our hero Randi as he and his friends sneaking into the forbidden woods of their village. The staging hasn't improved much since the days of the SNES, the characters mouths oddly stay in the same expression as they talk, and while the voices certainly fit the characters, the performances are off, like none of them are actually speaking to each other (Which is usually the case, but it's rarely so... overt). We'll get to the voice acting in a bit. As the main gameplay settles, the adjustment in the overhead view takes away their profiles and makes it so most of what can be seen on the characters and creatures is the top of their heads.

For those who are unfamiliar with the story, young Randi gets lost in the woods and at the urging of a spirit, pulls a rusty sword out of the ground. The sword turns out to be the legendary Mana Sword, an ancient weapon that defeated a fortress which almost caused the destruction of the world. With the sword's job these days only protecting the village, the removal causes monsters to attack and gets Randi banished. Why they would want the sword that is solely responsible for their protection far away instead of training the kid is one of the many "just go with it" moments from the game's 16-bit era story. Randi is eventually joined by Popoi, a mischievous sprite with memory problems, and Primm, a well-to-do girl escaping an arranged marriage to rescue her real boyfriend. Together, they try to stop an empire from reviving the Mana Fortress, a weapon that will lead the world to ruin, and restoring the power of Mana, the energy that gives life and protection to the land.

The story wasn't anything too advanced back in the day and it's only gotten weaker with time. The real thrust of the narrative was usually dramatic moments mixed with Hiroki Kikuta's masterful music cues. What really hits me this time around is how much it feels like the plot was made up on the spot. There are three criminals who fade in and out of your periphery that only feel like they were added to pad the time and to fill the quota of two guys and a girl comic relief villains that were the fad at the time (See also: Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water). Later on, we find out some of the main villains did a deal with the underworld and a demon named Mavolia who was never even brought up before now and had nothing to do with the world's mythology until this point. This past and potential cataclysms are mostly Miyazaki "the earth striking back on humans for their greed" tales before plopping THE DEVIL onto the table. As I said, just go with it. There's also obnoxious plot bottleneck Sage Joch who is there to make sure you did all of your homework before getting to the final part of the game and disappears the moment you do.

The remake tries to bolster the characters and plot by giving extra cutscenes, cleaning up the dialogue from the original and adding extra dinner table conversations to expand the leads when you stay at an inn. While underlining certain aspects that were unclear in the original (Or at least, its translation) is nice, the dinner chats only hammer in the two-dimensional points of the leads over and over. Every third word out of Primm is Dyluck and Popoi has a consistent schtick abut how the rest of the party are his underlings. Since someone like me who has played through the game many times can breeze through it often without stopping to rest and save, the inn talks will lag far behind what's happening at the moment. The addition I really wanted was fleshing out Thanatos as a villain. I mean, you have a guy who sucks the lifeforce out of people and makes them his slaves while hanging out in ultra-creepy shrines with unsettling horror music (Where they presumably worship that Mavolia thing. You'd think they'd bulldoze those...). His deal is essentially he's an ancient sorcerer who body hops to maintain immortality, but the rest of him is he's evil because he's evil. There're some added lines about how the empire wants the Mana Fortress to attain ultimate order, but nothing groundbreaking. The cutscenes add little to the mix and mostly squander what potential they do have. They leave an awesome reveal of Flammie, your flying dragon transport, to unconvincing cutting between cutscene and in-game elements. You couldn't have ONE shot of Flammie rising above the castle walls to the awe of your party in the cutscene? How do you miss that slam du-AN ERROR HAS OCCURRED IN THE FOLLOWING APPLICATION.

Added to cutscenes is almost everyone in the game has their lines read by a voice actor. Every villager, ferryman, lighthouse manager, and dancing merchant is voiced by an actual person. The results are wildly uneven. Again, like a CD remake of a cartridge game where they have access to more memory to add novelties like ACTUAL PEOPLE TALKING! WOW! The biggest concentration seemed to be on whether the voice fit the character than the actual acting. You'll have a random NPC give a really good performance for the all of two lines, and then one of the main characters will seem completely uninterested for blocks of conversation. I don't feel like calling anyone out since I'm pretty sure this was done as cheaply as possible and the people were rushed and not compensated very well. Since there are so many people, they also try so many random accents with no cohesion. Southern belles and guys from tha' Bronx are EVERYWHERE (Granted, you can hardly go anywhere in the U.S. where there isn't a guy from New Yahk whose only attribute is he's from New York). It's hard to get absorbed into any of this, but one can be amused by the people who just Kevin Costner their way through whatever dialogue they're given. You can switch to Japanese, but the only reason it would be better is if you don't have a sense of what a good or bad performance in the language sounds like.

The graphics themselves are better than comparisons would grant. Look, the original was so full of life in every sprite and animation and they did mess up that by not staying true to that as well as taking some "cuteness" out of certain enemies. There's a vampire boss where its expressive face and constant finger snapping are completely facelifted to make it more threatening, I guess. To me, it feels like a maker of a Dragon Quest game sending a note to Akira Toriyama saying, "Look, buddy, I know you're EXTREMELY famous, but we're going to have to pass on these enemy designs because they're not scary enough. Sorry." Which is a shame, because the 3-D artists took serious effort to transition the character designs to this style if you take a look at the beastiary and character guides. The scenic quality of the world is cut a decent amount due to the rounded edges of modeling (You can get an idea how it compares to the SNES directly as the mini-map in the corner is lifted from the original's graphics). However, I will say the animation is smooth and there are specific textures and details that shine such as water and the feeling of height and depth of field when you're facing certain altitudes.

To my favorite aspect from the original: The music. This is certainly a fascinating case. As someone who knows of Hiroki Kikuta's experimental Secret of Mana+ album, it's not surprising to see the soundtrack take some risks. Instead of merely upgrading the sound quality, each piece is completely remixed and given its own approach. This reminds me of Overclocked Remix, a website that consists of various artists giving their own takes on classic video game music (Who have, coincidentally, done a Secret of Mana project). That's because this soundtrack essentially is a remix joint between nearly a half-a-dozen composers, most notably Yuzo Koshiro (Old buddies with Enix from the Actraiser days).The approach defeats the uniformity of the original, but there are some amazing takes and occasional involvement with the Tokyo Symphonic Orchestra as well.

When the Sega CD and Turbo CD were first implemented, there was a rush for composers to add in live instruments to works like the shredding guitar on the Sega CD version of Final Fight that's in there because they could. Some of the examples here are excellent. The acoustic guitar section of the Lofty Mountains, the Xenogears-esque chanting of the Mana Fortress, or the Jerry Garcia solo of Matango (See, because it's a land of mushrooms and Jerry Garcia was known as Father Mushr... you know what? I'm not helping my "I'm old" business with this....) are all inspired or do something to make an old work new. There are also absolute disasters that are nothing but layers of noise working against each other with the original melody trapped over bagpipes and an obnoxious beat. How you screw up something as simple and wonderful as the Empire town theme this badly is beyond me. The rule of thumb for the remixed tracks is the louder and more boisterous the song, the more likely it got messed up. The ratio of great, okay, and terrible is about equal. Thankfully, you can flip on the original soundtrack as you'd like.

With the gameplay, there is a decent amount of monkeying around, but what it fixes and breaks is still a bit unclear. I stand by the assertion the original, despite being exceptionally charming, is rather clunky to play and many of its features don't mesh together. The ring inventory and magic system was neat for the time, but everything is comparatively slow now unless you have a couple friends on local multiplayer to manage their own magic. The addition of a few hotkeys helps, but trying to level up your magic is still tedious. You level it up by casting spells from each elements and Popoi and Primm each have their own leveling system for each individual disclipline. Somehow, casting is slower on this new version and it still takes a good while to level up spells. It especially gets rough when the spellset attacks have a random status effect on either the party of the enemies with usage, or the only thing Primm has on one element besides revive is wall, which prevents your characters from healing with non-items. It's rewarding when you can effectively use the good stuff, but it's also grinding that is at many times unnecessary. Weapons rely on a similar leveling system, and even though there are plenty of fun instruments of death to experiment with, you'll mostly keep it to three or four with two of them likely the whip and ax to help venture over environmental obstacles in the dungeons.

However, my biggest issue with the original was the wonky hit detection and the fighting mechanic that required you to wait until your swing charges up to 100% or higher, depending if you want a heavier blow.  This ground the game to a halt at times and made melee combat obnoxious. Striking with a regular hit is cleaner in the remake, hitting an enemy at 90% rather than 100% is no longer useless, and adjustments to computer AI of your partners make it easier to chain together attacks and keep an enemy own. In the old game, you had a chess board that adjusted each character's computer AI for defense and attack. In this one, they are simplified to being able to assist by attacking the enemies you're attacking or getting the other creatures off you. Maybe it's because I could never tweak the AI in the original correctly, but I had way more success in this version to the point where I never got a game over until the Pure Lands, where the difficulty intentionally spikes to make sure you can handle the rest of the game. Single enemies (and therefore, bosses) are no problem whatsoever, and the only trouble comes when you're overrun by three or more or the computer allies gets caught up with enemies after you've run past and forgotten them. After all these years, your AI pals STILL get stuck walking around corners, but at least the entire screen doesn't get held up as a result. It's far from perfect, but the more streamlined battle is especially welcome to a person whose characters would constantly get glitched and exploited by enemies to death. No no, the main glitches have less to do with battle and more to do wi-AN ERROR HAS OCCURRED IN THE FOLLOWING APPLICATION.

All right, I was willing to give this a straight good rating. It's not what it could be, but the game has never felt breezier and I enjoyed myself. I can live with bugs. Given the original where even legendary programmer Nasir couldn't straighten everything out, it's almost expected. I experienced one where all my characters died but could still wander around, and another where Popoi's physical form would vanish until I quit out of the game. Weird and mildly funny. Then the crashes started happening on my PS4 physical edition. Earnestly at first. Oh, I have to backtrack five minutes. Shoot. Then as the dungeons kept getting more cumbersome and lengthy, the crashes started getting more irksome. It usually happens after an hour of playing and if you're in the middle of combat. Once you get to the endgame areas with multiple bosses, this is a common happening and tearing yourself away to save is either extremely difficult or a huge hassle. Thankfully, there is an auto-save feature added to the normal saving, but I still have to re-watch certain dialogue scenes and IT SHOULDN'T BE HAPPENING. This is almost the remake of Flashback levels of amateur where you occasionally fell through the floor in that game by doing nothing at all.

So until a patch is made, this gets a downgrade. Still playable as I made it through the dang thing, but certainly annoying en-AN ERROR HAS OCCURRED IN THE FOLLOWING APPLICATION. AHEM, certainly annoying enough to warrant further pondering as a potential purchase, especially given we are awash in a wealth of modernized games inspired by the SNES era that have improved on their foundations, at least on a fundamental level (Warm and fuzzy emotions attached to titles and nostalgia are an entirely different metric I can't measure for you). Hmmm, this is my third 6 in a row. 6...6...6.... Man, if I hadn't proposed to my wife on Friday the 13th showing how much credence I give to this hogwash, I might be in trouble.


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