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Middling Adventures of Mana Says Much About the State of Portable Gaming

Why Final Fantasy Adventure's new remake doesn't demonstrate much in the way of improvements, despite the passage of 25 years.

Review by Jeremy Parish, .

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."

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Comments 26

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  • Avatar for TernBird #1 TernBird 2 years ago
    I played Sword of Mana back when it came out, if only because I fell in love with the art and said, "Hey, I've never played a Mana game!". I really dug the battle system, even though upgrading weapons was like pulling teeth and enemy weaknesses kept forcing me to use weapons and magic I had never leveled up. Fun on paper, not in execution.

    One thing about that game that sticks with me was the Amigo system; you could link up game save files across different cartridges, allowing players to summon all of their friends for a single special attack (that consisted of them dropping onto enemies from the top of the screen). Link up with enough friends, and you could unlock cool summons. Another great idea... that was way too ambitions, because I only knew of one other person who ever played Sword of Mana. I never, ever saw a single one of the summons. In today's Streetpass world, such a feature would be par for the course. Pretty prescient for Square Enix, but being too early for the world is a problem. Just look at the N-Gage.
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  • Avatar for MetManMas #2 MetManMas 2 years ago
    Actually, it's more like the third remake if you count the Japan-only cellphone one

    While there are things I like about the game, I don't think I would ever claim that Final Fantasy Adventure was even remotely in the same league as Link's Awakening. FFA had some fairly impressive story focus for an early 8-bit Game Boy release, but so, so much about the game screams "This game is heavily compromised for early handheld limitations." In contrast, Link's Awakening brought along an 8-bit experience that managed to be better than the 8-bit games before it while rivaling its older 16-bit brother in terms of quality.

    Still a shame they couldn't (or wouldn't) do a better job on the new remake. Though I guess things have always been downhill for the Mana post-PSone so that's sadly just business as usual, I guess.
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  • Avatar for MetManMas #3 MetManMas 2 years ago
    @TernBird I really wanted to like Sword of Mana, I did, but what I got was a thoroughly mediocre game shabbily wearing the skin of a much better Mana game (Legend of Mana). And Secret of Mana and Seiken Densetsu 3 both did top-down action way better than this game.
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  • Avatar for TernBird #4 TernBird 2 years ago
    @MetManMas Seiken Densetsu 3 fans really do wear that game as a badge of pride, but it's merited. Like, Sword of Mana apes SD3's class system... but makes it totally unuseable! I can understand your character's sprite not modifying to reflect your class, but once you're in a class there's no going back OR forward unless you just so happen to know the stat alignment for the next step. What?!
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  • Avatar for nadiaoxford #5 nadiaoxford 2 years ago
    I really enjoyed Adventures of Mana on iOS, but I suppose part of that could be *because* I played it on iOS and therefore know how action RPGs on the platform tend to be "meh" at best and over-complicated at worst (Bastion was never meant for touch screens). I never considered how the game might feel cheaper and emptier on Vita, but that's my lack of long-sight for you!

    (I still think the iOS version of Secret of Mana is lovely, though -- now THERE'S a game that would thrive on Vita.)
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  • Avatar for Yortralient #6 Yortralient 2 years ago
    Even if Adventures of Mana sticks too close to its roots in the Gameboy original, I guess it's nice that it's available for people who never had the chance to play it when it came out on Gameboy. I imagine the original Gameboy cart is pretty expensive these days.
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  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #7 SatelliteOfLove 2 years ago
    Mana's such a long-damaged IP I don't even bother getting my hopes up when new ones are announced.

    That quip about talky talk 00s JRPGs was apt.Edited July 2016 by SatelliteOfLove
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  • Avatar for nadiaoxford #8 nadiaoxford 2 years ago
    @MetManMas The re-done character art for that flip-phone remake is some sexy-ass stuff.
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  • Avatar for moochan #9 moochan 2 years ago
    "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."

    Well you are going to be doing that someday anyways.

    And it is sad the state of Japanese gaming. Mobile is where all the money is but porting console gaming to it feels (and sadly mostly looks too) cheap. I was able to get FF2 for free from SE and after a few minutes of walking I feel like I overspent. I don't know what will happen in the next few years but it really is sad what has been happening for the past couple of years. Maybe NX will be something to inject new life and will somehow bring everything together again. But until we know what NX is the best we can hope for is somehow Japan somehow moves away from the mobile seen so Japanese developers can move more towards handheld/console gaming.
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  • Avatar for qTheMusic #10 qTheMusic 2 years ago
    I'm glad you decided to write about this, Jeremy. There's a FFAdventures cart for sale at my local retro shop, and now I won't regret buying it over the remake.
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  • Avatar for Ghopper101 #11 Ghopper101 2 years ago
    I think I have bought this game several times over the years. I keep confusing it with Final Fantasy Legend.
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  • Avatar for KaiserWarrior #12 KaiserWarrior 2 years ago
    "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."

    I beg to differ. Profitable game applications? Absolutely. Great game applications? Not so much. As you've noted, the iOS (and now Vita, natch) version of Mana is little more than a prettied-up port of a 25-year-old Game Boy game that somehow manages to be dumbed down even further. Pokemon GO may be raking in the dough, but it is objectively a rickety, barely-functioning, heavily-stripped-down Pokemon game who's only redeeming quality is that it encourages people to go outside. In every other possible way, the upcoming Sun/Moon release is a better game.

    Mobile works as throw-away time-filling entertainment product... but I'd rather my video games be more substantial than that. Sword of Mana may have ultimately been a dismally boring exercise in overwrought pretentiousness, but I'd much rather have that than a straight-up copy of a a game I played almost 3 decades ago, now in extra-braindead flavor.
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #13 jeremy.parish 2 years ago
    @KaiserWarrior Not everyone plays games for the same reasons, you know. Most people actually want a quick, time-wasting experience rather than sitting down to master something like Dark Souls, and a game that delivers on that front is great for them.Edited July 2016 by jeremy.parish
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  • Avatar for nadiaoxford #14 nadiaoxford 2 years ago
    Nintendo under-estimated the appeal of mobile games, and it's one of their biggest mistakes to date. We're talking "Who needs the PlayStation"-level mistake.

    I'll always head to my dedicated handheld, consoles, or PC first and foremost, but if a unique or fun game comes to mobile, I won't turn my nose up at it (and yes, they DO exist).

    Besides which, I kind of abhor game snobbery. Games are for everyone. Doesn't matter if you want a forty-hour experience or a quick round of Candy Crush. You are entitled to have a little fun.
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  • Avatar for docexe #15 docexe 2 years ago
    @KaiserWarrior Mmmm....

    1. Yes, there are great mobile games out there. USgamer has actually covered some of them along the years (granted, the vast majority of them tend to be built from the ground for mobile rather than ported from other platforms).

    2. Yes, the vast majority of mobile games are quite simple. But, speaking in general terms, a simpler game is not inherently bad or worse than a more complex one. Some of the all-time greats (Tetris, Pac-man, etc.) are actually quite simple, and some designers would even argue they are great and timeless precisely because of their simplicity rather than in spite of it.

    3. Yes, I tend to prefer more complex games as well as playing on a console or a handheld rather than on my phone, but isn’t it time we finally grow out of this hateful mindset of “I’m a true gamer! Dead to mobile and the filthy casuals!”?
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  • Avatar for Linked-to-the-Past #16 Linked-to-the-Past 2 years ago
    @docexe couldn't agree more. It's the future so we might as well get used to it. I have several consoles but I play more on my phone than anything else. It's exciting, there are new games every week. (And Hearthstone, Downwell, Vainglory, puzzles and dragons, and monument valley are not simplistic games). Anyway the two can co-exist. Don't people still listen to vinyl after all?
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  • Avatar for link6616 #17 link6616 2 years ago
    I actually liked Sword Of Mana quite a bit. Although I had plenty of time when I got it, and it does do a number of terrible things (mostly MP... Endless sitting required to play with magic, but not to keep sane).

    Oddly, I also like the look of this, bold flat polygons do a lot of remind me of nicer PS1 3D...

    However, I played this a little and yes, its certianly shows a difference of how people see experiences, and in many ways even want experiences.
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  • Avatar for Cynalus #18 Cynalus 2 years ago
    1991. FFA came out. I was 12. I got this for Christmas and loved every minute of it. [As much as the (quite different but awesome) FFL2 and 3].

    I am super hyped and have enjoyed the remake so far. (Still a fan of the original graphics actually though... I don't see Square's obsession with the odd graphical decisions in their remakes (I enjoy the graphics in Exvius much more, in terms of Square efforts..).)

    *

    BUT -- the MUSIC in this Adventures of Mana. Wonderful.

    Especially recalling the original soundtrack.

    I love this music so much. It deserves a mention. The re-done "Rising Sun" (especially at the 1:30 mark) is beautiful. The "Village Theme" remains one of my favorite from that era. And "The Throne Room" nearly recalls early Dragon Warrior.

    Just lovely. Lovely.

    - Vince
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  • Avatar for lisajenkins #19 lisajenkins 2 years ago
    Deleted July 2016 by lisajenkins
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  • Avatar for docexe #20 docexe 2 years ago
    @Samustroid I’m not really what you could call a “mobile partisan” (so to speak), but I have never considered console gaming or “traditional” gaming threatened by mobile the same way a lot of other gamers do (indeed, I find the resentment towards mobile in some corners of the internet increasingly silly as time passes). It’s probably because I understand how different products cater to different necessities and different market sectors, so they can coexist for extended periods of time without one necessarily supplanting the other.
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  • Avatar for Thad #21 Thad 2 years ago
    @Yortralient A quick glance at eBay shows the original going for a pretty reasonable $15-$20, unless you want a copy with the box and manual.
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  • Avatar for Yortralient #22 Yortralient 2 years ago
    @Thad you're right. I'm surprised it's so cheap.
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  • Avatar for ericspratling56 #23 ericspratling56 2 years ago
    Nothing frustrates like the Mana series, huh?
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  • Avatar for camchow #24 camchow 2 years ago
    @docexe I can understand their frustration when say Capcom releases something like Mega Man Xover or Breath of Fire 6 in the same way we might resent Konami's beautiful rendition of MGS3 scenes for a pachislot game. But I guess at the same time this Mana game is just a simple remake and it did get a console release too, idk. I don't think you can blame people for venting frustration that some of their favorite game companies don't have the desire to make the kind of games they used to.

    Speaking of wasn't there another Mana game not to long ago, I think they featured the Secret of Mana cast as bonus characters or something. I remember seeing a trailer for that and feeling a bit disappointed when it turned out to be a free to play mobile game, though I could be remembering this wrong.

    Oh well, can't blame them for targeting their domestic market I guess. but man... Breath of Fire 6...
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  • Avatar for docexe #25 docexe 2 years ago
    @camchow Well, I don’t fault anyone who laments or resents that Capcom, Konami and almost all the other Japanese giants are now primarily focused on mobile rather than on console gaming like they used to do. Heck, I personally resent that as well. However, these days I’m increasingly lacking in patience for people who extend that resentment to the entirety of the mobile industry or that try to paint every single mobile game with the same brush. One way or the other, it’s an unfair overgeneralization.

    What happened in Japan, with console gaming being reduced to an endangered niche and mobile becoming the dominant platform, was not only the result of the rise of the mobile sector. It was also the result of certain unhealthy market trends that took hold of the console sector in the previous console generation, and of very specific market conditions that were endemic to the Japanese market. It sucks for me and many other people who grew up with the classics produced by the Japanese gaming giants, but I can’t truly blame the entirety of the mobile sector for that.

    If anything, I actually bemoan more the state of the AAA sector of the gaming industry that is so tied to console gaming, for precipitating those unhealthy trends I mentioned before.
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  • Avatar for Thad #26 Thad 2 years ago
    @Yortralient It did get a second release a few years after the original run; I expect there's a pretty high number of those carts out there.
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  • Avatar for Ghopper101 #27 Ghopper101 2 years ago
    @marianthompson I'm going to dox every post you make. Get off this website monster.
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