Much like the game’s Mad Mallard, a soldier helmet-wearing waterfowl who lays exploding eggs, the upcoming remake of Secret of Mana is an odd duck.
The 1993 Super NES action RPG, one of Square’s classics of the 16-bit era, is having a bit of a moment in 2017. It’s been re-released on Switch in Japan, is included on this month’s SNES Classic hardware worldwide, and was recently revealed to have a full 3D remake in the works for PlayStation 4, Vita, and Steam, coming in February.
A demo version of the remake was on the PAX West show floor, and I made a beeline for it as soon as I could. What I found was in many respects exactly what I expected from the screenshots: a game that plays similarly to the SNES original, including a zoomed-out, top-down perspective, but with 3D graphics replacing 2D sprites. What I found a little jarring was that the game seems to be produced on a tighter budget than I was expecting, producing something that feels a little cheaper than I’d imagined.
The demo began just as the SNES game does, with main character Randi, a boy from a small remote village, crossing a log bridge accompanied by two pals. But instead of that bird’s-eye view of the action, we see the cut scene from more dynamic camera angles. This adds a little variety and drama to the proceedings.
Of course, this also makes it very clear that the characters’ mouths and faces do not animate during their dialogue. The tough-guy bully kid, in particular, has this permanent rictus scowl etched into his face, like Jack Nicholson as the Joker but upside down. It looks fairly ridiculous and painful. This is an example of what I mean when I say that the Mana remake is a low-frills affair.
Once the game itself kicks in, things feel quite familiar. You can’t go around slashing that rusty Mana sword willy-nilly in the original Secret of Mana, and you can’t do that here, either. After you hit an enemy, you have to wait a second for your power meter to fill back up to 100 percent before you can hit again at full power. Slash before you’re ready and you’ll only do a tiny bit of damage. Mana’s remake has retained the deliberate pacing of the original, which is a big step towards making this 3D PlayStation 4 game feel like the SNES game on which it is based.
The remake has also kept the original Super NES music. While some Mana fans might want a fully orchestrated arrangement to replace it, I’m happy with things as they are: The unique instrumentation of the SNES’ sound sampler is a major element of the appeal of the Mana soundtrack, and I’d rather listen to that than a modern remix.
Things progress exactly as they do in the original: You walk through the forest back to your town, Mana sword in hand, whacking Rabites, until you get back to your town and find that a giant ant monster is attacking. Unlike the SNES monster, this one can actually rotate his body instead of constantly facing forward. It doesn’t actually change much about the boss fight, though, since he can still use magical attacks that target you no matter where you are.
Since the demo ended after this boss fight was over, I didn’t get to explore much more about how this remake might change up Secret of Mana’s gameplay. Square Enix does say, on the game’s official home page, that there will be unspecified tweaks: “The original system has been reworked in an effort to realize a modern action RPG with improved gameplay.” And it’s true that, for as much as I love Mana, it had some broken elements, the magic system being the worst offender.
We’ll have to wait until February 15 to truly understand how much has been tweaked. Based on what we can see now, Secret of Mana is a fairly straightforward, low-frills rebuilding of the original. Since Square Enix has had serious trouble creating new games in the Mana series that even come close to touching the greatness of this one, perhaps a return to the original is what the series needs to move forward. But looking at the tight scope and the low-frills nature of the project, I’d just keep my expectations in check if I were you.