Although SquareSoft never really rose to mainstream prominence until the PlayStation era, their SNES titles hold a special place in the hearts of many. Some of this is sincere nostalgia, and some of it is a bit of mythologizing by those that never experienced them when they were new. Either way, Secret of Mana is one of the more interesting games from that era, and its long-overdue arrival on Android is a welcome one.
Secret of Mana was always a bit different. The sequel to the Game Boy-based Final Fantasy Adventure (related to FF only in title), it was perhaps the pinnacle of the action-RPG genre at the time. Abandoning the Zelda-like trappings of its predecessor, it was more of an answer to rival Enix’s Soul Blazer, with large, free-scrolling environments and a greater emphasis on combat.
It’s undeniably one of the SNES’s most beautiful games. Big sprites, brimming with personality, explore colorful, richly detailed environments that eschew the grid-like construction of so many similar games of the time. Square’s new Android port is essentially identical to the older iOS version, and alas this means precious little had been updated visually. Unlike the recent 2D treatments of Final Fantasy V and VI, the graphics are largely untouched. Lettering, menus, and UI elements have been redrawn and look much sharper, but the same blocky sprites that graced the original appear here as well, with a handful of new effects to remind you that you aren’t playing an emulator. This might be for the best, as SoM’s sprite work is some of the best of the 16-bit era.
Square would eventually become known for some more adventurous stories, but Secret of Mana is more or less a Greatest Hits of Japanese RPG tropes. A presumed orphan teenager finds a legendary sword in a stone, and is forced to leave his village in order to restore this weapon’s power and, um… save the world. The general dullness of the broad strokes are saved somewhat by occasionally entertaining characters, but it’s the gameplay that carries the experience.
What’s immediately striking is just how fast and nimble your character moves compared to other 2D action-RPGs. Despite this agility, this is a game of carefully placed strikes. You have an attack meter that takes a few seconds to charge, and only when fully charged will your attacks do their full damage. You can still strike without letting this bar charge and chip away stunned enemies, which can sometimes be useful in keeping stunned enemies from getting back up. In co-operative play, this added a greater level of strategy.
Did I say co-operative play? Pretend I didn’t. There is no co-op here, local or online. This element, which was one of the distinguishing features of the original, is gone entirely. You’ll still have to work together with your other party-members, of course, each of which has unique weapons abilities, but they’ll be controlled by the game’s feeble AI. The absence of co-op is a serious missed opportunity for Square to add value over the readily available emulators that litter the Android store.
Secret of Mana has become a bit of a sacred cow, but the original was not without its flaws. Perhaps as a result of being moved from CD to cartridge mid-development, it suffers from a ton of filler, both in story and content. Collect X magical whatsits from X palette-swapped dungeons. Fight palette-swapped bosses and palette-swapped enemies. Luckily the gameplay itself is fairly engaging, because there are times when there’s very little in the way of narrative or new sights to keep you going.
With a hefty $8.99 price tag, there are more than enough reasons to hesitate. Secret of Mana remains a classic, but it’s far from perfect, and its treatment here not only does little to address this, but even makes things worse in a few ways. If you’ve never experienced this game, I’d recommend giving it a try in one form or another, but for those who have already experienced it, this pricey port might not be the best place to relive old memories. With any luck, maybe Square will finally bring over its never-localized sequel, and we’ll have something to really be excited about.
The 16-bit visuals don’t want for an upgrade as badly as you’d think, but touch controls and the absence of co-op don’t do this aging game any favors.