A few weeks ago, I published an article on the ongoing draw of classic RPGs inspired by the release of Secret of Mana HD. We concluded that the remake should, if it is worth the time and money, imbue fresh life into the already beloved title, and ideally improve upon the limitations that restricted the original. But, is the update enough to justify the $40 price tag? Even more so, does the HD remake provide a better experience for gamers both familiar and unfamiliar with the original? After spending time with both, I can safely say that while the remake does add a certain level of vibrancy, it ultimately detracts from the experience rather than improving upon it.
Secret of Mana, originally released in 1993, follows the adventures of three unlikely friends: a mischievous sprite child named Popoi, a girl named Primm who is desperately trying to locate her missing love, and a young boy named Randi. Years before, a massive battle ensued between men and the gods. Humans had built an enormous super weapon called the Mana Palace and in response, the gods loosed hordes of creatures that ravaged the Earth. A hero used a sword powered by mana to destroy the palace and return the world to peace. Randi finds the Mana Sword and removes it from its resting place, unwittingly becoming the designated hero of the day as monsters are beginning to rise and an evil empire threatens to misuse the power of mana once again. You are sent on a quest to locate all eight of the mana seeds and thus restore the sword to its original power.
Secret of Mana, while simplistic in comparison to some of today’s action RPGs, offered certain standout features back in the day. Secret of Mana offers a multitude of weapons that can be collected throughout your adventure and upgraded using weapon-specific mana orbs. A stamina meter allowed for what amounts to a quick-turn system where you had to wait for the meter to refill before attacking at full force, thus marrying traditional RPGs with more Zelda-like adventure types. The action grid, which I will mention in a bit more detail later, added some level of customization to the AI for non-player controlled characters during combat. And though not unique to Secret of Mana, the drop-in multiplayer was fun. Unfortunately, though this is included in the remake, I was unable to participate in it and therefore it will not be a part of my review.
Though combat was one of the areas that made the original stand out, it is unfortunately an area where the remake actually takes away from the experience when it should have made improvements. In the original, character AI could be set using an actual grid that dictated the behavior of characters not being directly controlled. This allowed for some nuance as you set the character somewhere within the four sides representing Attack, Approach, Guard, and Keep Away. This has been simplified in the new version. The grid is done away with entirely and replaced with three choices: the character can target the same enemy as the character under player control, the character can assist one of the currently non-player controlled characters, or the character can attack any enemy currently not being targeted by any ally. While some might appreciate the simplicity, it seems odd to remove control from a player rather than adding, particularly in an action RPG.
The act of combat, while not worse in the remake, sees no improvements. Combat already felt rather airy in the original due to the fact that feedback is often delayed after contact with an enemy. This means that once you strike an enemy, frequently the resulting sound and number display showing how much you caused is delayed, resulting in a dissolution of the visceral feel necessary to making game combat satisfying. This remains in the remake. Being able to move about within three dimensions also adds somewhat to the difficulty. In the original, you were restricted to striking in the four cardinal directions. The ability to chase enemies about in 360 degrees should make combat more fun and also feel more up-to-date. Instead, it somehow makes the experience feel more slippery as if connecting with your target has an added element of unnecessary exertion along with the original airy feel.
There are, nevertheless, a few things the remake does which the original needed. For example, HP was displayed only in number form in the SNES version. The remake adds a life bar along with the numbers which makes keeping track of everyone’s HP count during battle a much simpler task. Being able to switch between characters is also more intuitive, requiring nothing more than a simple push of the d-pad to the left or right. If only they had sped up the stamina bar that does often feel more like a nuisance than anything else.
The impact of HD on an old classic
The new opening sequence is gorgeous. The watercolor visuals provide a powerful and imaginative introduction to the story. Sadly, the developers decided to leave this visual style behind immediately after, using instead zoomed-in versions of the in-game character models for cut scenes. This leaves the impression that Secret of Mana is from the early 2000s instead of a 2018, HD remake. Also, the fact the characters’ faces rarely move while you are listening to spoken dialog adds a certain level of dissonance that never quite goes away. The dialog itself is also sub-par, making you wish even more that the art style from the opening had been used throughout. This, at least, would have added some visual appeal to the narrative sequences, along with avoiding the noticeably outdated and awkward look of the character models.
The higher definition graphics do add finer detail to the in-game visuals that is missed in the original. Villains look far more fleshed out. In fact, many of the baddies you will run across in Secret of Mana are flat-out adorable. Foliage looks fuller, water has a new sense of depth, and structures such as buildings and palaces are more artfully defined than in the 16-bit classic. The vibrant colors that made the original so memorable are used to great effect and stand out even more intensely. From a purely graphical viewpoint, it is a charming though somewhat kitschy delight. For long-time fans, it is also nice to see familiar areas more fully rendered.
However, the graphical upgrade also showcases areas where Secret of Mana retains quirks that were easily overlooked in the original, but now feel strangely out of place. Available animations were somewhat limited in the 16-bit era. So, for example, in the original there are scenes where a character is attacked or physically confronted by another. The animation is literally the character being repelled backward, along with an accompanying full-bodied jerk, though no contact between the two character models is made aside from proximity. You understood they were being pushed, or shoved, or punched. However, with fully 3D polygonal characters, it appears like you are watching a display of The Force with your character being magically flung backward along with a bizarre full-bodied spasm.
NPCs will walk into walls and remain there. I more than once had an issue with one of my own characters getting stuck if I moved along a path too quickly, forcing me to go back and coax them from behind whatever barrier they were currently running into. Perhaps, the strangest relic of the past left totally unchecked happened whenever an event was activated, such as engaging with a shopkeeper. Rather than immediately falling into a three-person line in front of the counter, my characters would gather behind one another and collect themselves into a singular mass, and then side step into a line. Sometimes this happens more than once. Sure, it isn’t a big deal, but if this is a from-the-ground remake rather than simply a graphical upgrade, then why do these awkward animations remain?
New soundtrack and other additions
The new sound design, though appropriate and often imbibing a much broader range than the original soundtrack, falls short. There are times when it becomes grading, particularly due to what sounds like an overuse of an accordion. Several times I had to switch back to the old music simply to give my ears a rest. There are certain areas where the addition of fuller base makes the tune a bit more lively, such as in Gaia’s Naval, but often the chirps and tweets of the old electronic sounds become only unpleasantly amplified.
Aside from the few mentioned improvements to combat and a graphical upgrade, the only other true addition is short chats that take place between the characters whenever you decide to stay at an inn. Though they never truly add anything to the narrative, I found them satisfyingly quaint and a charming way to attempt to flesh out what are largely flat characters. At one point, Randi contemplated whether he had the strength to go on by himself, and during another stay with Primm, she chided Randi on clearly lacking the skills of a swordsman. Like I said, not really adding to the narrative, but it is nice to see the characters interact a bit more than the original story showcased, and the scenes are never long enough to become boring.
The more time I spend with the Secret of Mana remake, it became evident that terming it a remake was a stretch. Combat receives very little improvement, and the developers decided to simplify AI commands for non-player controlled characters for reasons that surpass my ability to guess. Though the opening sequence is gorgeous and striking, it is soon left behind for older-style polygonal graphics during all narrative sequences. The more fully rendered HD graphics do add detail to the game world that is missed in the original. But, the upgraded graphics also make some of the awkward animations retained from the original feel far more awkward.
In the end, I still enjoyed playing Secret of Mana HD. It is a fun game just as it always has been, and the remake doesn’t take away from that central fact. But, I am a sucker for old-school RPGs, and all the upgrades only serve to showcase just how old this game is. None of the areas that really needed improving saw improvement, and things that were so easily overlooked in the 16-bit original stick out now like a sore thumb. If you can ignore all these quirks and perhaps get Secret of Mana HD on sale, then it should be an enjoyable experience. However, a remake it is not, and as such my advice is to save your $40 and go play the original version which can be purchased for mobile devices, as well as on the SNES Classic.