Secret of Mana might be one of the most beloved action RPGs from the SNES, but it’s made immeasurably better when you change the protagonist’s name from Randi, which is already childishly amusing enough, to Ayn Rand. Truth be told, I wanted it to be Ayn Randi, but ran out of characters. There’s just something delightfully silly about the creator of objectivist philosophy being lambasted for dooming the town of Potos and the world to destruction by taking a rusty sword from a stone.
Echoing the words of another Square Enix character, this is a remake that nobody asked for. While Secret of Mana is beloved, does it really need to be remade with almost obscenely bright and colourful 3D graphics? Probably not, but it’s coming anyway, and a good excuse for fans of the original and newcomers alike to return to a great game.
So it was that young Ayn Rand was tagging along behind Timothy and Elliott when he slipped and fell off a tree trunk being used as a bridge across a treacherous waterfall. Trying to find his way back to safety, he spotted a sword stuck in a stone and decided to do what the voice in his head told him to and took it. You generally shouldn’t trust mysterious voices in your head, and pulling what turned out to be the fabled Mana Sword from the stone unleashed all manner of evil beasts and monsters into the world. Admittedly, the sword had grown rusty and its power waning, but that doesn’t stop all of the villagers and the village Elder from blaming you for everything that’s going wrong and banishing you into the wilderness.
Of course, that’s not all there is to Ayn Rand and though he might be young, that mysterious voice imploring him to take the sword was almost certainly pushing him to fulfil his destiny, as opposed to simply being a manifestation of psychosis. A travelling knight Gemma instantly recognises the significance of the sword and gives you direction after your exile to try and restore the sword to its former glory.
Travelling the world is now fraught with danger, even if many of the beasts are rather adorable. Rabite’s are all fluffy looking like bunnies, but more than eager to take a bite out of you, there’s ponderous giant walking toadstool mushrooms who will pop their tops off and explode in a cloud of poisonous spores.
The series’ distinctive action RPG combat is here in full force, with the building attack meter counting up to 100% at the bottom of the screen. You’re encouraged to try and stick to striking every few seconds as opposed to simply mashing the attack button, as you deal much more damage if you attack at just the right point, with the game automatically pulling of stabs, swipes and the very occasional leaping attack. Of course, there’s added complexities to come after the first 90-odd minutes that I played, with magics, improving weapons, and a party that grows to three contrasting characters. Co-op play is also a possibility, just as it was in the SNES original.
It plays well, with the analogue stick and 360º movement fully embraced with the 3D models, compared to the eight directions of the D-Pad and the four directions of sprites found on SNES, but I actually wish that this remake went further by widening some of the paths and opening up the world just a little for more exploration. It feels just a shade too directed and a touch claustrophobic, and while it does help to funnel you through a succession of enemies, this doesn’t really stop you from just running past them if you want to. Pulling back the tree line just a little bit would have been great.
Strangely, while the general gameplay has been modernised with controls, cutscenes are stuck with the rigid grid square movement of the SNES original. When Elliott is shoving Ayn Rand around when he gets back to Potos, it’s in perfectly straight, perpendicular lines.
The game is so, so very bright and colourful now, with the greens of the grass and trees really popping in particular. It’s perhaps a bit too saturated, and that’s made all the more obvious when you look up into the corner for the minimap. This actually uses the original graphics and sprites from the SNES original, and it’s a wonderful little touch to have this in the game, but also shows how cartoonishly bright the remake is. The original wasn’t exactly dark and foreboding to begin with.
The soundtrack is maddeningly infectious, as it blasts out in glorious MIDI from the TV speakers. The development build we played had its volume boosted beyond the point that it really should have, making me have to concentrate to pick out the fully voiced dialogue in the mix, but the music is just so quirky and charming, it gets in your head and you’ll be humming or whistling along in no time. These might not be quite the same arrangements as you remember from playing on SNES, and there’s actually a toggle to switch back and forth between classic and new, but they’re still just as frustratingly catchy.
Did Secret of Mana need to be remade? Probably not, and could this remake go further? Almost certainly, but there’s an undeniable charm to Secret of Mana that I’m glad is being preserved one way or another. Not only that, but this is the first time that the game is appearing on a console that hasn’t been made by Nintendo, where it most recently appeared on the SNES mini, and this opens it up to a new audience who might have heard tales of its brilliance.