With the upcoming release of the Secret of Mana remake, I decided to delve back into the 16-bit original. I remembered it being one of my favorite titles back in the day, but almost 25 years have passed since I last embarked on the journey. I quickly discovered that the passage of time hadn’t dulled my enjoyment. The bitrate and gaming technology has advanced by leaps and bounds since I was a preteen in the early 90s, but the story was able to pull me in and keep me spellbound just as it had then. This inspired me to contemplate what it was about some of the older 16-bit, and even 8-bit, RPGs that allows them to enchant us years after technology has left them behind.
I realize not everyone is a fan of the pixelated look. When I worked at Best Buy several years ago, I once had a customer come in and adamantly tell me that he wanted a good RPG for his PS Vita. We were a bit low on stock, but we had a copy of Final Fantasy 3 and I did my best to explain why, despite the older look, it was worth playing. He ended up leaving with a copy of Dissidia Final Fantasy instead because it had better graphics. The fact that it was not the RPG he was originally looking for didn’t matter.
Even though it remains popular as a money-saving medium for indie developers, older-style graphics do serve as a deterrent for certain gamers. Personally, even having grown up watching the evolution from Atari to systems capable of 4K display, I only learned in the last few years when I started reviewing indie games that I still garner enjoyment from titles that carry that classic look. And I think I know why: simplicity.
I think the visual simplicity of the older, pixelated style games requires more from both the developer and the player. The player is required to imagine what the world looks like as something more than the brightly colored chibi figures, one-sided fauna, and flat forest foliage. You have to give into the world in a way that games like Skyrim never require you to do within its wholly developed world in full 3D. It is a bit more like reading a book. The game only provides the template.
One of my fondest memories is the opera scene in Final Fantasy 6 (originally released in the U.S. as Final Fantasy 3). I remember the powerful impact it had on me at the time. My party is in need of an airship and the only man they know of who has possession of one is a gambler named Setzer who has become infatuated with an opera singer named Maria. Setzer threatens to kidnap Maria during her next performance. In order to gain an audience with him, Celes, a former general of the empire’s army who had defected to join our ragtag crew of fighters, agrees to impersonate Maria so Setzer will kidnap her instead. She removes her general’s garb and bravely dons the dress of a princess in preparation for her role.
Locke, a thief and member of our party, sees Celes in her gown as she exits her dressing room and blushes. He had fallen for her. During the opera, yet another villain arrives and attempts to kill Celes. The scene plays out as Celes sings on stage while above, Locke and the rest of your group is fighting to protect her. The song she sings serves as foreshadowing for future events between her and the chivalrous “treasure hunter.” It is perhaps the only love story I took a fancy to as a teen, and I remember thinking how elegant it was.
Looking back on it now, it seems so silly compared to the cutscenes or even in-game scenes of today. And while it still looks the same as it did in my memory of it, there is a life to it that outshines its limitations. And this isn’t just for older RPGs. Newer pixelated horror titles such as Home and even lesser known ones such as The Witch’s House are good examples of how visual simplicity allows the story and the feelings the game elicits to overlay what is otherwise nothing more than a wire frame for our imaginations.
Developers perhaps, have a more difficult task on hand. Without the impact of convincing visuals to carry the weight of dramatic scenes, or to more realistically convey the feel of the world they are trying to build, they have to depend on other facets such as storytelling and gameplay. Not to say that a game with flat characters and poor mechanics would do better if it had impressive visuals, but not having even that to build upon makes other shortages appear more pronounced. So, it becomes tantamount to catch the player’s attention fairly quickly and maintain it. That is why I think some of the most memorable classic RPGs pull the player in fairly quickly with what usually begins as a rather simplistic, relatable though fantastic story, and then branches off from there.
If you really think about it, some of the most beloved 16-bit RPGs follow a fairly simple pattern. Looking at just three: The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Chrono Trigger, and the Secret of Mana, they all begin a bit like a good fairytale. You are made privy to a little information about the past; setting up the current state of the world you are being dropped into, but never wasting too much time elucidating before getting right to the point. You are a young boy unexpectedly designated the hero of the day with no qualifications for the role aside from being the least likely to receive it. The hero’s journey calls, and the games help you wade into your new responsibility slowly; giving you a little direction, a few conversations, and then setting you off on your own.
Pulling the player into the world as quickly as possible through simple and clear storytelling, or through (in the case of older action titles) addictive mechanics, allows the player to become a part of the game world and take an active role in its creation. The player becomes co-creator, adding flesh to the bones. This is what 8-bit and 16-bit games offer that has allowed the style to remain relevant long after technology surpassed its limitations.
It is true that pixel art elicits nostalgia in some, and others actually find it quite lovely. I can’t personally say I enjoy lower bitrate games for their art style, even if I can appreciate the work that goes into them, particularly from indie developers. For me, they serve as a reminder that a good story trumps whatever mediums are used to tell it.
Secret of Mana, for what it is, has elements of beauty. The colors are bright and vibrant. The landscapes are vast and even over two decades after its release, I find myself excited to turn the next corner in the adventure. Sure, melee combat feels a bit airy and you have to buy items without knowing what they do. Sure, the landscapes are flat and its restrictions feel more obvious now than they did then. But the moments of joy, sadness, anger, and the exhilaration of victory lives and breathes with three dimensional life. If the remake is worth its salt, the 3D update will simply make it easier for people to experience that life. But the life was there all along.