Secret of Mana was originally released on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System way back in 1993. Developer Square Enix has decided to release a remake of this beloved with 3D polygonal characters, but with the same classic gameplay and feel. This was a mistake.
1993 was a long time ago, and not every game from that era has aged well. Secret of Mana, surprisingly, aged well. It’s not timeless, but it’s a classic: so much so that it found a place on the recently released Super Nintendo Entertainment System Classic, that mini SNES that was a hot-ticket item this holiday season. At least the original still retains a charming art style and gameplay quirks that were normal for their time. 25 years of video game history and technological advancements later the Secret of Mana remake manages polygonal characters with very few quality of life improvements.
If you want a pure Secret of Mana experience from 25 years ago, you might think you’re in luck: gameplay-wise, Square Enix has done little to modernize this classic. Sure, the animations are smooth, and everything is colorful, but ironically the polygon characters detract for the classic look and actually make Secret of Mana look cheaper than its progenitor. Unfortunately, these 3D models with their 3D collisions sometimes make travelling down tight hallways with NPCs impossible. There has been voice acting added, but they’re just reading the awkwardly translated dialogue from a quarter of a century ago, so you can’t really blame the voice actors for their stilted and awkward takes.
This remake of Secret of Mana starts off well enough. Watching Randi and his two friends in the beginning cutscene reminded me of the carefree days of yore. The characters looked great, if not a little blocky. The voice acting was… okay, at least. But that’s better than terrible. Everything was looking good (if not a little cheap) until I started to do more than move Randi around the screen. The user interface and inventory management have changed little since 1993—if at all. It took me a while to even remember how to use it properly, as there was little to no in-game instructions. A system not being updated for modern usage isn’t always a bad thing, especially if that system worked well, but Secret of Mana inventory management is so woefully outdated, it hurts the whole experience.
The combat system, again, retains most (if not all) of the same functionality and mechanics. When Randi attacks he must wait a short while before his attacks do full damage again—a sort of reverse stamina bar. You can switch between your two companions at will to use their various attacks and items, or you can let them stay as backup. There are ways to change their behavior: attack other targets than your own or to assist you, etc. but this system, again, remains mostly untouched from 1993. The combat is in real-time, but it uses behind the scenes rolls to determine hit, miss, etc.
There are some small quality of life improvements. Early on you can anger one of your companions by going in the wrong direction, thus making you have to find her again. The remake adds dialogue to retain her company instead of instantly losing her—one of the few smatterings of modernization. But there just isn’t enough newness to justify this remake. You don’t have to look far to see how something like this should be done (Nintendo’s wonderful remake of Metroid 2 for the 3DS immediately comes to mind) but there is no lack of terrible remakes, either. Secret of Mana has added to that list.
Instead of highlighting what was great about Secret of Mana, this remake does little but detract from it. The 3D models end up looking garish, the inventory system badly needed an update, and the voice acting does little to add to the experience. If you’re a diehard fan of Secret of Mana, this might be worth a look for curiosity sake. But if you’re looking at this remake as a way of introduction to this beloved classic, you might as well just play the original. Secret of Mana is out now on PlayStation 4 and Windows.