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.
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.
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.
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.
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.