While the rest of the world has been freaking out about Pokémon Go, I've been hunkered down with a different mobile game altogether: Square Enix's Adventures of Mana, which showed up without warning last week on PlayStation Vita. Despite being a Vita release, though, Adventures' iOS origins shine through, and not necessarily in a good way.
Well, it's probably misleading to suggest Adventures of Mana began life on mobile. This particular version did, yes, but the underlying game itself dates back nearly 25 years, to Game Boy, and Adventures is actually the second time this particular action-RPG has been remade. The first arrived more than a decade ago for Game Boy Advance in the form of Sword of Mana, which in turn remade the original work: 8-bit Game Boy classic Final Fantasy Adventure.
Final Fantasy Adventure kicked off the Seiken Densetsu series (Mana in the U.S.), and the fact that this venerable action RPG now exists in three different versions across three different decades of portable gaming makes it rather unique, to my knowledge: It's not the only game ever to have been wholly remade twice over like this, but the nature of its remakes certainly sets it apart.
Final Fantasy Adventure on Game Boy was about as complex an action-RPG as that system could handle, which is to say pretty simplistic. Still, it did its best: Besides its fast-paced combat, it also featured non-player companion characters, RPG-style experience-building, an economy, and multi-class capabilities for its protagonist. It was downright ambitious for a Game Boy release, and held its own even against Nintendo's masterful The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening.
Its first remake, Sword of Mana, arrived a little more than a decade later, and it felt very much like a product of its times. Sword abandoned the snappy pace of Final Fantasy Adventure, reworking the overall game flow to feel more structured and guided. It also added story - a lot of story, in fact. As in, "When will these people shut up" levels of story. Unfortunately, it proved to be a drag at best and downright laughable at worst, embodying the worst excesses of '00s RPG design: Talky, slow-paced, and pretentious. It had the audacity to present a villain named "Dark Lord" and try to create a sense of ambiguity about his moral alignment, as if maybe he got the name "Dark Lord" because he favored a smart black wardrobe or something.
Adventures of Mana turns back the hands of game design trends to fall more in line with the original Game Boy release. Really, that's something of an understatement: For all intents and purposes, Adventures of Mana literally is Final Fantasy Adventure with some minor gameplay embellishments and a visual facelift. It's been quite a while since I last spent any time with Mana's 8-bit debut, but I'm pretty sure this mobile and Vita release plays out as a 100% faithful recreation of that classic. Turn monochrome pixels into colorful polygons and add some mobile-friendly interface tweaks — touch menus, auto-aim for magic spells — and you have Adventures of Mana.
The final results leave me feeling torn. On one hand, I appreciate the fact that Square Enix rewound time to do away with Sword of Mana's overwrought additions. About the only thing Sword had going for it was its art; the new rendition consists of clunky, simplistic 3D models, whereas the GBA game had some of the most gorgeous hand-drawn art ever seen on that system. Art was the only area in which Sword of Mana excels over Adventures of Mana, though, and the reversion to Game Boy-style immediacy and speed make for a welcome design choice.
At the same time, Adventures of Mana plays it too close to the original. The team behind Dragon Quest VII's 3DS revamp told me at E3 that the key to a good remake is to create a game that plays the way fans remember, not the way it actually was. The best remakes involve substantive modifications to the game experience, and Square Enix has traditionally been pretty good about this: The Tactics Ogre remake from a few years back underwent a massive, amazing overhaul, and the upcoming Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age will be totally rebalanced to address flaws and frustrations that players experienced with the original PlayStation 2 game.
Unfortunately, Adventures of Mana's changes all sit at the superficial end of the spectrum. It has new graphics and new menus, you can stream the music in either original chiptune or remix modes, and it incorporates numerous sound effects from Secret of Mana — and those are all well and good. Mechanically, however, it offers no real improvements. Enemies and companion characters alike are completely brain-dead and wander erratically as you explore, and none of the play mechanics have been rebalanced (except to make an already easy game even easier by granting an auto-targeting capability to projectiles).
All told, this remake suffers from a profound sense of cheapness — something all-too-common with Square Enix's mobile games. The combination of high-resolution screens and low-detail graphical assets doesn't help, but Adventures of Mana's issues run deeper than that. What worked as a Game Boy action RPG in 1992 feels painfully slight in 2016... but painfully slight is practically a necessity for mobile games. Adventures of Mana's simplicity makes for a game that plays far better on touch screens than the older iOS port of its sequel Secret of Mana did... but you transport that over to Vita, a system designed for games like this (rather than for simple touch-based apps) and its flimsiness becomes instantly apparent.
And herein lies perhaps the most heartbreaking part of the industry's shift from portable consoles to mobile platforms. Mobile can be home to some great game applications, there's no question about it; the current global Pokémon Go panic should silence any doubters once and for all. And mobile is where the money's at these days, so that's where most publishers would prefer to focus. More traditional handheld gaming experiences continue to be in demand, though, which frequently amounts to releases like Adventures of Mana. For all of Sword of Mana's faults, at least it demonstrated some degree of ambition; Adventures feels shackled to quarter-century-old conventions, and almost certainly because of technical limitations.
So that's the state of handheld gaming in 2016: The dedicated devices continue to fade, and the classic forms have had their design cast back into the early '90s — which is still better than being killed altogether, I suppose, but nevertheless frustrating. I had high hopes for Adventures of Mana after hearing praise about the iOS release, but in hindsight I realize that praise meant "It's really good for a traditional action RPG on iPhone"... which, sadly, is not necessarily the same thing as simply being really good, period. It's not a terrible port, but at the same time, it's so faithful to the Game Boy release I think I'd rather just dig up my old Final Fantasy Adventure cartridge and play it with visuals more appropriate to its gameplay. Adventures of Mana kind of feels like watching a colorized version of It's a Wonderful Life — an entertaining work either way, but not actually improved by its "improvements."