‘Secret of Mana’ review: Can't capture that old-school magic

Chief Tech Correspondent
Yahoo Finance
‘Secret of Mana’ is a beloved game, but its remake doesn’t do it justice.
‘Secret of Mana’ is a beloved game, but its remake doesn’t do it justice.

If you’re going to remake a venerated video game, then for god’s sake, do it right.

For the 25th anniversary of “Secret of Mana,” developer Square Enix has created a 3D released of the title for Sony’s (SNE) PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita and Valve’s Steam service. Unfortunately, it fails to capture the same old-school magic that made the original a beloved classic.

“Secret of Mana’s” charming plot was never very complicated, which was part of its appeal when it arrived in 1993 — a gaming scene dominated then by games like “Sonic the Hedgehog” and “Contra III: The Alien Wars.”

Unlike many of its role-playing contemporaries at the time, which were downright Tolkien-esque in their storytelling ambitions, “Secret of Mana” kept it simple. You follow a goofy trio of odd-duck characters — Randi, Primm and Popoi — as they combat an evil empire trying to resurrect a giant floating battleship called the Mana Fortress, powered by the magical energy of mana.

Unfortunately, the jump to 3D wasn’t a smooth, or memorable, one. The original game eked out much of its charm from a cute and memorable virtual world stitched together by vibrant 2D pixels. The remake offers equally vivid colors, but they’re offset by occasionally blurry textures and oversized, bobblehead characters whose mouths don’t move, even during conversations.

‘Secret of Mana’s’ jump to 3D hasn’t been kind to the classic.
‘Secret of Mana’s’ jump to 3D hasn’t been kind to the classic.

It’s not a deal breaker, but the 3D characters lack the charm of their pixel-based counterparts, which compensated for the technological limitations of the Super Nintendo console with simple, yet effective animations that still charm to this day.

The combat in Secret of Mana is also a mixed bag. One of the original’s best features was that combat occurred in real-time: instead of waiting your turn to attack as you did in those early “Final Fantasy” games, you could hack and slash away as you saw fit.

Again, that’s still the same case here, but combat is actually harder in some cases. Characters no longer have to attack in the four cardinal directions — north, south, east, west — like they once did. Now, you can attack in any direction, even diagonally.

That sounds like a step up from the 1993 classic in theory, but in practice, I found it harder sometimes to line up my attacks. It also transformed several areas in the game that were previously fine to get through into agonizing slogs.

Combat can be more difficult in the ‘Secret of Mana’ remake than its original.
Combat can be more difficult in the ‘Secret of Mana’ remake than its original.

Just one-and-a-half hours in the game, I stumbled upon the fog-ridden Haunted Forest. Over the course of an hour, I died over 20 times as dozens of oversized chipmunk archers slung arrows my way in rapid succession from every angle. That’s not just challenging gameplay — that’s mediocre game design.

One of the original “Secret of Mana’s” biggest strengths was the fact you could play it with another player‚ even two other players, if you had the Super Nintendo (NTODY) multitap controller port to plug in up to four controllers. That’s still the case here, if you have a few extra PlayStation 4 wireless controllers handy, and I highly recommend it.

If you play the game in single-player mode, you’re saddled with some truly dumb A.I.-controlled teammates that frequently get stuck behind walls, bushes or some other pastel-colored shrubbery because they’re not smart enough to keep up with you. (Hint: Try walking around the object — not through it.)

Yet another sign that Square Enix lost its way with this remake is the fact that you can’ and play cooperatively with players.

‘Secret of Mana’s’ AI teammates frequently get stuck behind walls and bushes.
‘Secret of Mana’s’ AI teammates frequently get stuck behind walls and bushes.

“You have three players sitting next to each other on the couch with three controllers — all playing at the same time,” “Secret of Mana” producer Masaru Oyamada told GameInformer last September. “I think a lot of the enjoyment that people have in their memories of the original game relies on that playstyle. We felt it was best to have that recreated in the same way.”

That philosophy just about sums up the entire experience of playing this “Secret of Mana” remake, a game with some questionable design decisions that hews closely to the original in some ways and makes the jump to contemporary game design in other ways that don’t actually benefit players.

While other recent remakes of video game classics like “Shadow of the Colossus” make a terrific case for remakes in general, “Secret of Mana’s” makes a solid argument for the opposite. In this case, go find yourself a Super Nintendo and play the original. For “Secret of Mana,” at least, it doesn’t get better than that.

Reviewed for PS4

What’s hot: Addictive combat; Simple, but endearing plot; Colorful visuals

What’s not: Questionable 3D design decisions; Insane difficulty in some areas; Teammate A.I. can be dumb as bricks.

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JP Mangalindan is the Chief Tech Correspondent for Yahoo Finance covering the intersection of tech and business. Email story tips and musings to jpm@oath.com. Follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

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