The Secret of Mana Remake is a Missed Opportunity to Fix the Original's Flaws

It's still an enjoyable game, though.

Analysis by Nadia Oxford, .

To play a game like the Secret of Mana remake is to stare your childhood nostalgia square in the face, unblinking. Square-Enix's 2.5D update of the classic 16-bit action-RPG is flawed—but nearly all those flaws are baked into the original game's blood and bones. Heck, my SNES Classic Edition review for Secret of Mana SNES has a checklist.

As a remake of one of my favorite games of all time, Secret of Mana for the PlayStation 4, PS Vita, and PC could be better. After all, a good remake should patch up its source material's problems, and the Secret of Mana remake largely opts to lay off. That's a downer.

However, as a straightforward Zelda-style adventure about a boy and his friends trying to save the world from an evil empire with designs on world domination, the new Secret of Mana is fun, filling—and yes, it's flawed. Nevertheless, the classic monster-bashing gameplay is still strong enough to overcome the weak links peppered throughout the experience. It's good, but it can be more.

Neko is still a rip-off artist in the remake, of course.

I haven't finished the Secret of Mana remake, so I can't offer up a final score. That said, I can relay the small struggle I endured to "forget" everything I know about the original game and try to peer at the remake with fresh eyes. Within a few hours, I stopped balking at every change I wasn't sure about, and I began to enjoy myself.

Not every single song on the remake's remixed soundtrack is a winner, for instance, and I almost immediately switched back to the original 16-bit score I'm so familiar with. But then I slapped myself on the back of my hand with a ruler (I keep one handy for just such an occasion) and said, "Give it a chance." I did, and sure enough, I discovered some surprising auditory gems in the remake.

I'm not going to deny the new soundtrack has some questionable experimentation in it, though. Accordions, Square? As a replacement for the beautiful flutes in Into the Thick of It? Really?

Getting into the Secret of Mana remake isn't just about giving its new audio a thorough listen, though. It's also about deciding to accept or reject its graphics, which make me say "Cool!" on some levels, then disappoint me on others.

The enemy models are big and colorful: Perfect for sinking your sword into (it took me a long time to get used to the new timing required to dispatch enemies, but again, that just required me to overcome my bias. After all, I have 16-bit Secret of Mana's combat embedded in my muscle memory). The boss character models are impressive. There's even a menu option that lets you view a gallery of the foes you've fought, though unfortunately there's no zoom in function or viewable action animations.

The original Mana's graphics are special for an SNES game, but the remake's graphics have a unique appeal to them, too (though it's clearly a budget production).

On the other side of picture, it's painfully clear where Square-Enix cut corners on visuals. The "animation" of your heroes entering travel canons is pathetic; they just slide behind the canon instead of entering it, same as they do in the 16-bit game. The illusion of entry barely works with flat 2D sprites, and it's a horror show with 2.5D graphics.

Additional sad points: There's no Mode-7 (or mock-up equivalent) travel effect when you're fired out of the canon; just a black loading screen. Worst of all, the characters' mouths don't move in cut scenes. That's far and away the most befuddling exclusion in the Secret of Mana remake, and it's uncomfortably noticeable in a game with so much voice acting (it's your choice between English or Japanese. I recommend the latter, though the former won't cause your ears to pack bindles and run).

Otherwise, outside of some additional story cut scenes that occasionally pop up when you sleep at an Inn, I can comfortably say the Secret of Mana is far more of a one-to-one remake of its source material than an honest-to-goodness actual remake—something fans have been pining for across the decades. Secret of Mana for the PlayStation 4, PS Vita, and Steam, is Secret of Mana, warts and all. And those remaining "warts" is what has me a little disappointed with the remake.

"Oh no, an NPC with unique hair color. We're going to have to bail her out of trouble, aren't we?"

I advocate for Secret of Mana on the SNES on a regular basis, but I don't clam up when it's time to discuss the game's problems, of which there are many. Secret of Mana's menus are clunky, its AI is dumber than a Rabite with bricks for brains, there's a great deal of backtracking to pad out game length, there's a wide-open world map that's ultimately kind of empty, and there's a general "rushed" feeling to the latter half of the game that makes it obvious Squaresoft was hurting for time.

The Secret of Mana remake does little to fix its predecessor's problems. There's still a lot of hoofing between the same locales, the AI still lacks any kind of brilliance (though at least your party members won't hold you back if they get stuck behind something), and the ring menus are somehow worse. When you bring one up, it doesn't appear over the relevant character. This makes shuffling for equipment changes and magic spells a big slog. The pain is alleviated somewhat by the new option equip spells and items to the L and R buttons, but two hotkey slots is a piddling number. The mobile version of Secret of Mana lets you equip up to four slots.

I never expected Square-Enix to disassemble Secret of Mana's history and build it back up for the remake, but some extra content would mean a lot to fans. Something to remind us, "Hey, we know you guys love this game, and so do we, so we're giving it a little bit of extra content." It doesn't have to be anything special or costly; some new enemies, a new dungeon, some insight into the currently-tepid motivations of the Vandole Army—stuff like that. Instead, Square-Enix chose to be as faithful to the original game experience as possible. It's understandable, but disappointing.

Hey kids! Write your own Canada joke!

But does Secret of Mana's disappointment as a remake mean it's a bad game overall? I don't think so. Once my brain wrapped around the new music, new graphics, and new character movement, I discovered I want to keep on playing even though I have other games to work through for the purposes of fun and employment. I'm looking forward to visiting old locations built up with new models, and I'm itching for showdowns with the revised bosses.

I believe established Secret of Mana fans might have a harder time swallowing the remake, but I also believe they ought to give it a try anyway. Newcomers to Mana shouldn't neglect the original by any means, but if you just want a fun, light-hearted top-down action-RPG, it's easy to enjoy the Secret of Mana remake if you isolate it from its pedigree.

(Seriously, though—accordions?)

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Comments 11

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  • Avatar for jeffcorry #1 jeffcorry 9 months ago
    I was pretty excited for this...then I read some reviews.
    Then I watched a play through video. The new music is mostly...atrocious. It's like they ran it through a blender.
    I think I will still pick this up some time...on sale...and switch the tracks to the original.
    Ugh. This could have been so much more.
    On the bright side, I do like the graphics...mostly.
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  • Avatar for tvsadam #2 tvsadam 9 months ago
    I had the $40 spent in my mind already but now everything I've read has made me hold off. I've been slowly playing through the original on the SNES Classic; I guess that will tide me over until a price drop.

    Nadia, timing readjustment aside, how do you feel about the combat? Jeremy Parish's article on Retronauts mentioned some new wrinkles that made it sound rather frustrating.

    Also, a crucial follow-up: can you still stack attack magic by recasting it right after the elemental's animation stops? Asking for a friend who likes to cheese boss fights like a big stinky cheater and who is definitely not me.
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  • Avatar for SIGGYZtar #3 SIGGYZtar 9 months ago
    This is a costly way to stop us from playing the Secret of Mana Collection on the Nintendo Switch.
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  • Avatar for Funny_Colour_Blue #4 Funny_Colour_Blue 9 months ago
    any word on the multiplayer? is it drop in drop out online co-op?

    or just fuddy duddy local ad-hoc play?

    man, what a way to botch a remake. :'(

    in the perfect world, I was planning on playing this through cross-play with a friend who owns a PS4 and I'd play through the game with him on the PSVITA, online - doesn't sound like this is possible...Edited February 2018 by Funny_Colour_Blue
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  • Avatar for moochan #5 moochan 9 months ago
    It is sad how a common theme with most reviewers is "you could have fix some things guys" not a overhaul but everyone agrees Secret of Mana is a great game but has many issues with it. And this was a chance to fix some things. I get how most of a lost content was put into Chrono Trigger so that would have been weird but a small bit of something more might have been nice. Guess budget really hit the development of it but it would have been nice to get something more or tweek it just a little to make it worth a replay. I'm a sucker for Secret of Mana so I might play it anyways. Might wait to see if this will go on Switch since there seem to have been some talk about it and I feel it would be a nice fit for the game.
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  • Avatar for donkeyintheforest #6 donkeyintheforest 9 months ago
    I like the color palette a lot. In still frames I think the game looks great. Haven't watched much video though. I've got too many other games on my plate lately so this will prob slip by me based on the middling (at best) reviews.
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  • Avatar for DrCorndog #7 DrCorndog 9 months ago
    I don't understand the point of a remake that doesn't touch the game mechanics or content to begin with, even for a game that doesn't have SoM's flaws.
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  • Avatar for Monkey-Tamer #8 Monkey-Tamer 9 months ago
    At least it wasn't like the FF6 release for Steam. Now if I can just get a vanilla port of Tactics, Chrono Trigger and Cross for PC I'll be happy.
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  • Avatar for link6616 #9 link6616 9 months ago
    I really like how the game looks, so I hope we see this engine used for maybe some original works?
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  • Avatar for Vonlenska #10 Vonlenska 9 months ago
    I've warmed up to the visual style. I mean, it's so close to the original's art assets and yet...doesn't quite work in 3D, somehow...but the original imagery is pretty nice so it certainly doesn't look bad, either... I've had so much trouble figuring out what looks "off" about it, to me. It's not as bad as FF6!Mobile, and I'm getting over it, but something just feels misaligned or shoddy about how it looks.

    I think that's how I feel about the whole game. On the one hand, it seems super faithful to the original; and that's kind of neat. On the other, that magnifies its flaws, really, since it's not 1993 anymore and the game's shortcomings are more obvious now. It's kind of neat to see/hear slightly different interpretations of the same compositions and designs... but I'm not sure they're different enough.

    And so on. I just don't know how to feel. What I do know is that the TPR album released alongside the remake is stunningly beautiful and deserves to be heard:Edited 2 times. Last edited February 2018 by Vonlenska
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  • Avatar for Flipsider99 #11 Flipsider99 8 months ago
    I don't agree with the premise that the original SoM has a lot of flaws. I think the ring menus were always fine, charming even. The "padding" in the later parts of the game still feels like quality content to me. Character AI can mess you up in certain spots but it's a very minor problem.

    I personally consider the original Secret of Mana to be an unabashed masterpiece, that is still one of the best games of it's kind.

    That being said, if your remake has music and graphics that make you go "hmm, I'd rather have the original music and graphics" then I guess we'd have to say it kind of fails as a remake, huh?
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