At its peak, Squaresoft’s Seiken Densetsu series was one of their very best, but its moment of glory was fleeting, especially in the West. 1993’s Secret of Mana, the second game in the series, represents the height of the series’ popularity here, with its true masterpiece, Seiken Densetsu 3, left in Japan due to its late arrival on Nintendo’s aging 16-bit hardware. Since then, Mana has been reimagined quite a few times, dabbling across sub-genres, and failing to find the footing that might return it to its glory days. An ambitious made-for-mobile sequel, Rise of Mana was short-lived in Japan and failed to reach our shores.
So what now? Well, start over, of course. Adventures of Mana is not a new game, but a remake of the first game in the series, released in North America as “Final Fantasy Adventure” in the hopes of exploiting Square’s more popular RPG series. This is no Final Fantasy game, although its rebranding wasn’t total nonsense either; the first Mana title did include Final Fantasy hallmarks like Chocobos and Airships, alongside Mana staples like Rabbites and Mushbooms.
This is not the first time the monochrome Gameboy classic has been remade. In 2003, FFA was reimagined as Sword of Mana on Game Boy Advance, a loose remake done in the style of later Mana games. Adventures of Mana is a very different beast, attempting to beautify and modernize the original game, while remaining stubbornly faithful to its core. It may look and sound new, but this is still the same game that graced the Game Boy’s tiny screen back in 1991.
It’s a treatment that echoes Square Enix’s mobile port of Final Fantasy IV: The After Years or their earlier DS/Mobile remakes of FF3 and 4. Everything has been reimagined in 3D, the script has been expanded and rewritten, and the controls and interfaces have been refreshed, but the quest is unchanged, as are the maps, characters, and core story. While the new visuals aren’t quite cutting edge, with backgrounds appearing especially blocky, there’s some lovely art direction and detailed characters that put it in the ballpark of the recent Rise of Mana. It’s certainly a long way from the repetitive titles and stubby sprites of the Game Boy original.
Even more than the visuals, the audio benefits tremendously. Square Enix has taken the bleeps and boops of the original and interpreted them into wonderfully lush orchestral arrangements, and it’s really amazing just how well this flatters the original tunes. I never much thought of the original’s soundtrack, but in its reimagined form, it’s become a quick favorite.
Beyond the superficial, though, this is still Final Fantasy Adventure in every way. It isn’t just faithful to the core of the original, it’s slavish in its adherence to its design. Maps are block-for-block identical. Even the snap-pans between screens, originally designed to mask the hardware’s difficulty with multi-directional scrolling are intact. This makes sense in the Zelda-like dungeons that largely consist of square chambers, but it really feels kind of bizarre and unnecessary in the overworld, which is designed as a continuous area.
So the real question is whether or not the source material even holds up. For sure, Final Fantasy Adventure remains a charming bridge between Zelda-style action-adventure and Square’s RPGs, with some fresh ideas of its own. The Metroid-esque progression – where new weapons and abilities serve as keys to new areas – remains fresh, and the simple-but-varied combat works better than ever thanks to more fluid movement. Some of its conventions, however, feel archaic now. You’ll need to constantly make sure to maintain a stock of pickaxes and keys to open up passages, often required to complete areas. If you forget, you’ll either have to backtrack to town, or start mowing down the nearest enemy that drops those items in the hopes of getting it randomly. This is made even worse by the fact that the inventory is very limited so you can’t buy too many.
Square has also missed an opportunity to elucidate some of the game’s more obtuse puzzles. Unlike most modern games, Adventures of Mana does precious little to guide you. This is usually quite refreshing and figuring out the game’s many puzzles is often more rewarding because of the lack of hand-holding. There are, however, a handful of puzzles that are just too opaque to expect anyone to solve them. One, based in the game’s desert region, is absolutely infamous, and it’s no better now. Later, after the game opens up the seas, it also become too easy to just wander aimlessly away from the main quest without knowing where to go. Expect to consult a walkthrough at some point, or face some real frustration.
Playing Adventures of Mana feels like visiting an old high school friend; It’s fun to wax nostalgic about the old times, and remember why you were friends, but eventually, you realize you’ve grown apart and the connection will never quite be the same. Adventures of Mana is still a good game, and it’s certainly the best way to play Final Fantasy Adventure¸ but its commitment to the source material brings with it all the frustration I had blocked out of my memory. In the age of the internet and walkthroughs this is hardly a capital offense, but it is a missed opportunity to make this game something more than it was.
Is it Hardcore?
Lovely to look at and lovelier to listen to, but it’s still the same Final Fantasy Adventure inside, for all the good and bad that entails.