Secret of Mana (Remaster) Review

Secret of Mana has held a special place in players’ hearts since its original 1993 release on the Super Nintendo. The charming action-RPG allowed up to three players to hack and slash through colorful worlds together. For its 25th anniversary, Square Enix has fully remastered the game with 3D graphics, musical remixes, voice acting, and some minor but notable changes. The end result is very faithful to the original, though additional updates to modernize the game would have been appreciated.

You play as Randi, a boy who discovers the legendary Mana Sword, and embarks on a quest to restore its energy by visiting eight temples. Eventually, the spirited girl Primm and the mischievous sprite Popoi join him. The story moves at a brisker pace than most modern RPGs, zooming through multiple subplots in its approximately 15-20 hour running time. Consequently, the game rarely feels dull, especially during the zanier moments, like exploring a forest of ever-changing seasons or saving Santa Claus. Almost everything about the story is the same as before, with the exception of new dialogue between the main trio at inns. These short banters are welcome additions to inject more personality into the characters.

For the most part, the remaster is very faithful to the original game. The most obvious changes lie in the aesthetics. The graphics are now in 3D, though the action is still presented in an isometric top-down view. The characters’ super-deformed 3D models are cute, and translate well from the original sprite-based art. Meanwhile, the backgrounds look decent and are comparable to Lost Sphear or I Am Setsuna, only more colorful. However, they are bland compared to the SNES version’s gorgeous artwork. Since the original 16-bit style is recreated in the game’s mini-map (a well-placed nod to the original), it’s easy to compare the two. Whereas the pixel art looked amazing for the SNES hardware and the era, the remake’s dull presentation isn’t particularly impressive for a modern game. It doesn’t help that the few cutscenes look awkward; characters have limited facial expressions and their mouths don’t move when they talk, which lowers the overall quality.

On that topic, the English voice acting sounds amateurish - as if the game just used everyone’s first take. Still, I have to give credit that every line, including NPCs, are fully voiced. The immersion could have been better with improved acting, though, but at least there’s an option for Japanese voices. The remixed songs are hit or miss; each track is remastered with a variety of instruments, though none of them are truly orchestral. Some remixes with choir arrangements are wonderful enhancements. Other compositions, like the town theme, sound more subdued compared to the rich drumbeats of the SNES original. Unlike graphics, you can switch to the SNES music, if you prefer.

Gameplay-wise the remaster is nearly identical. You run around slashing foes with your weapon, much like in The Legend of Zelda. But unlike in Zelda, you must wait for a certain amount of time between each hit to restore the stamina gauge to 100%; any less and your power is reduced. I don’t mind this system as an alternative to most RPG’s turn-based mechanics, but since enemies are invulnerable when they are downed, there’s quite a bit of downtime. Unfortunately, there’s no way to manually dodge attacks, besides running out of the way. Combined with the fact that characters seem to miss attacks all too often, sometimes the battles frustratingly boil down to a chance. Regardless, fights never get too difficult, and I never had to grind, even for bosses. Nevertheless, the level-up progression, both for characters and weapons, kept me engaged.

You can choose between eight weapons, including the standard sword, the throwable javelin, and the martial arts knuckles. As you locate orbs to strengthen your weapons, you can level up your own skill to unlock stronger attacks. You must charge up to use them, which provides a nice power balance. Unique powers of the weapons extend beyond battle, allowing you to whip across gaps or axe down rocks. I liked the weapon options but didn’t switch out often to take advantage of the power-up system. Rather, I had my two teammates utilize the different weapons.

Unfortunately, when controlled by AI, your partners can be fairly helpless. They tend to get stuck behind walls, die often, and attack sparingly. They also don’t use magic on their own. You can change the AI personality in the action grid, though it’s much simpler than the SNES version’s customization system. In the remaster, you can only choose who they will attack and how much they will charge their weapons. Playing multiplayer with friends, who can take care of themselves and grow alongside you, is by far more efficient and enjoyable. The game was designed for co-op camaraderie, and it's rewarding to experience the entire journey with a friend or two. Online would have been nice, but local play is still the defining way to play.

There are some small alterations to the underlying systems, which will be noticeable to the fans of the SNES game. For one, the item limit has been raised from four to a generous 12. It compromises the difficulty, but you can optionally reduce the item limit. Additionally, in the original game, your stamina would have to recharge after running, but the remaster refills your stamina immediately once you let go of the run button. That, along with the ability to set items or magic to the shoulder buttons as shortcuts, smoothens gameplay transitions effectively. An autosave function is a great quality of life improvement, since you can manually save only at the inn. It also helps alleviate one of my biggest woes with the game; its tendency to crash. Secret of Mana glitched several times, returning me to the home screen with lost progress. It was painful each time when the error message appeared after defeating a boss.

Regardless, Square Enix could have made more effort to modernize the original’s clunky infrastructure. Even though the SNES classic is lauded, it wasn’t entirely user-friendly. The unorthodox menus are particularly difficult to navigate due to their circular arrangement. In the remaster, the menus no longer save your cursor position when you go back in, so you must thumb through each cumbersome sub-menu every time you want to use that same magic spell. Even worse, each character has their own separate menu, which you have to switch between. However, unlike in the original, the menu no longer circles the respective character, which gets very confusing. Another issue is the lack of item descriptions, which is problematic when shopping or managing inventory. The remaster could have been the perfect chance to fix these issues, but it ignores them - or somehow makes them worse.

The Secret of Mana remaster is faithful to the SNES original, to a fault. The game’s authenticity is nostalgic, but enough archaic systems remain when they could have been updated. The graphics and sound are the biggest changes, but they aren’t as inherently charming here. Aesthetics aside, the game’s combat is still fun, thanks to a multi-layered weapon progression system, and enjoyable, albeit flawed, battle mechanics. The game only gets better with the drop-in, drop-out multiplayer. The remaster’s asking price is high for what it offers, but hardcore fans who want to experience a new coat of paint may still want to check this out. Although the original game was a better package for its time, the remaster is still a fair way to enjoy this classic action-RPG.

I am a lifelong gamer, having grown up with Nintendo since I was young. My passion for gaming led to one of the greatest moments of my life, my video game themed wedding!