The original Secret of Mana was one of my favorite games back in 1993. It’s story is a tale of lost identity, it has a gameplay loop that revolves around upgrading unique weapons, and the game’s quirky radial menu system still feels fresh today. This week, after playing several hours of an in-development build of the PS4 Secret of Mana remake, I found lot of things to like, a few things that aren’t great, and several places I hope the developers can still improve on the original.
Obviously, the first thing you notice about the Secret of Mana remake is its graphical upgrade; and for the most part, the remake looks better. Despite the nostalgia I have for the 16-bit era, there are some details that just come through better in 3D. Take the opening boss battle against a massive mantis creature. The 2D sprite from the original game (the introductory boss never turns; you only ever see it from the front) is replaced with a version that not only looks more complete, but it provides a more enjoyable fight since you can circle around and attack it from behind.
With this graphical update, the main characters stand out, showing off minutiae in costume design that was lost in their 16-bit forms. And smaller enemies come to life in ways that, while not radically different, feel like they are free from the constraints of their flat-sprite animations. However, not everything benefits equally from the transition to more-detailed models. The manic dancing of the game’s shopkeepers, for instance, is distracting and feels out-of-place. In the original, the movement helped bring those characters out of the background, but in the remake it just looks weird. And the re-used NPCs, a regular occurrence in RPG design from the Secret of Mana’s original era, feel a little more egregious and harder to ignore when the game has gone through such a huge facelift.
But while the the gameplay looks better overall, Secret of Mana’s cutscenes are a mess. Now, I don’t mean the new introduction (which you can watch in the video above). The mix there of hand-drawn art with minimal animation is gorgeous and captures the beauty of the game’s lush setting. But when the story begins in earnest and you’re staring into the eyes of a character that looks like it was pulled straight from a mobile port of the game, it’s hard not be disappointed. Secret of Mana’s remake seems to use the same in-game models for both gameplay and close-up cinematics. And those characters that look great from a distance feel like ’90s CGI cartoon models when you zoom in too close, with the stiff, plastic look of old shows like Reboot.
Part of that is because the characters mouths and faces don’t move, so it gives the impression that everyone is wearing a mask. The main characters have a few different mouth shapes, and sometimes characters will close one or both eyes, but otherwise, you’re watching passive faces read out overdramatic lines. That effect is especially jarring with characters like the bully with a wide, toothy grin that you meet in the game’s opening. He always has the same wide-mouthed grin, even when he’s angry or surprised, and it’s endlessly distracting.
The other problem with the cutscenes is something that should be a positive for the remake–this version adds fully voiced dialogue for everything, from the cut-scenes to the the ancillary dialogue of all the villagers. But at least in this preview build, it’s not very good. The spoken lines draw attention to the sometimes weak writing and odd translation choices (why would you say you need a “weapon” to cut through bushes to get to town?). But the voice directing is just mediocre. There is one bright aspect to this, however; in the game’s settings you can turn on Japanese voice acting at any time. It’s still not great, but it is an improvement over the English cast and a really nice additional feature.
Another welcome option is the ability to change the game’s music from the remake’s arrangements to the original 16-bit soundtrack. To the game’s credit, the re-arranged soundtrack is fantastic, but the original score still holds up beautifully, throughout the game’s early hours.
The sound and graphics see the biggest changes from the original, and although those options feel mostly locked-in at this point, there are some other elements that I hope have time for minor tweaks before the game’s full release. The equipment screen has been altered in the remake into something much more intuitive, but when you’re buying armor from merchants you’re still given no indication whether or not you already own a piece of equipment, who has what equipped, or whether the item you’re looking at is is any better for your party. In addition, consumables still have no description, so you also have to buy and use something just to find out what it does, and several items have very steep price tags for such trial-and-error shenanigans. This final omission is particularly odd since the remake adds a Guide option to the menu. But this extra info is limited to just characters, weapons, and enemies, and even there it just gives you a closer look at the models; there are no additional descriptions.
Combat is more complex in the remake, though it needs some modifications to make it more consistent. For example, in the original Secret of Mana, your one major sword attack was simply a wide, sweeping blade arc. In the remake, you can alternate between that same wide swing or a forward jab, but sometimes even when you’re standing still and expecting to execute a wide arc swing, your character throws out a thrust instead (the pattern seems to be two big arc swings followed by a thrust, regardless of whether you’re moving the analog stick or not). It’s better to have control over what kind of attacks you’ll throw out than to feel like your character might do something unexpected.
And one minor (but very missed) element not included in the remake is how the the original Secret of Mana indicates when you’re back at 100% for an attack. In the combat system, there’s a quickly replenishing stamina gauge; you can throw out a flurry of attacks, but each blow you land before getting back to 100% is substantially lower in power. Both versions of the game have an audible ding when you return to full strength, but the SNES version also made your character flash slightly until you were at 100%. It’s such a small difference, but it made knowing when to attack much clearer, and let you focus your attention on your character and enemies rather pulling you away to look at the stamina gauge.
But beyond that lack of attack consistency and the flashing indicator, combat is better in the remake. You can switch between party members with a tap of the directional pad. The game has added a customizable hot button for quickly using items–you can set a restorative piece of candy to R1 or R2 for a quick pick-me-up without completely pausing battle. And the drop-in, drop-out local multiplayer works just as well as it did back when I was a kid.
The Secret of Mana remake isn’t out until February of next year, so there’s still plenty of time for refinement from the preview build that I played. And while there are some genuine improvements from the original, there are also a few weird missteps that make it difficult to recommend its predecessor–especially when the original is readily available on the SNES classic. But we’ll be keeping a close eye on this version as it progresses. If nothing else, the remake holds a lot of promise for a future of 16-bit remakes done right.