When I was a wee Goggle Bob, I had a very limited number of NES games. This paired very poorly with being a child, and having approximately 32,000 hours a day to burn up before hitting the sack. Thus, I played my limited collection of games nigh constantly, and practically memorized the ins and outs of such luminaries as Back to the Future. There was also Super Mario Bros, which meant that, by the early 90’s, the Mushroom Kingdom had soaked into my DNA. So I played World 3 once or twice.
World 3, as you can see, is Mario’s first “dark world”. After World 1’s sunny skies and World 2’s moist oceans, World 3 is a stage set against a dark, foreboding backdrop. As a child, my friends and I discussed this ominous level, and determined that this was an area of the Mushroom Kingdom already ruled by Bowser. It was dark and frightening because evil had already subjugated part of the land, and a resistance against this encroaching blackness was exactly why Mario had to fight. Battle through the night of World 3 to the shining future of World 4!
And then Super Mario All-Stars was released. This increase in Mario fidelity lead to…
Oh. It’s just a snowy night. Huh. It wasn’t a dark and scary place at all. It’s… kinda nice. A lovely oasis of tranquility for our dedicated plumber. Maybe he could start up some Winter Games while he’s here…
And this blew my young mind.
Super Mario All-Stars is likely as “pure” of a videogame remake as we are ever going to get. The original staff was directly involved in the remake, and there wasn’t a dramatic shift in “what players want” in the years between OG Mario and his All Star incarnation. There wasn’t a need to change Mario’s controls or iconic look, it was just an opportunity to use new hardware to make right what once went wrong. Old, compromised graphics could now be replaced with what was always intended.
Which, apparently, included snow. I guess.
This is a longwinded way of saying that I’ve been considering “directorial intent” versus “what is actually possible” since roughly 1993. Super Mario Bros. was practically my Bible when I was seven, and, straight from God Miyamoto himself, here was the latest testament, and it didn’t match my outmoded beliefs. What did this mean? Were other games similarly compromised? Was every black background just an excuse for a snow level? Were modern (1993 modern) games similarly compromised? In some glorious, far-flung future, would we find that Celes Chere was supposed to wear pants?
Well, the future is now, and here’s Randi with a grim visage of how we don’t understand anything.
Secret of Mana was always a hard game to tonally parse. On one hand, we have the iconic title screen with its gorgeous watercolor visual and deeply emotive opening theme. On the other hand, it’s hard to take a game seriously when you’re summoning a magical mermaid to cure your woodland sprite of the “moogle” affliction. But, when you take the plot of Secret of Mana as a whole, it is downright tragic. Boy is an orphan who finds his mother just in time to watch her get chopped down. Girl is trying to save her kidnapped lover… and it ends poorly for everybody. And Sprite loses memories, an entire village of family members, and, eventually, existence itself. And I’m pretty sure you have to murder your own airship somewhere in there. It’s for the good of the planet!
Combine that heartbreaking plot with music that would be right at home with classical requiems, and you might get the impression that Secret of Mana is serious business. Or, at least, that was always my impression of the game. When I was playing SoM back in the early 90’s, my imagination went wild with thoughts on the “real” Secret of Mana, a game that could nary be contained by a simple 16-bit cartridge. The sunken Mana Palace? That was supposed to be a window into a destroyed city from “our” modern times, right? The faux subway car fall of zombies could have been indistinguishable from Resident Evil if the SNES had a little more horsepower. The gorgeous forests would still have been a tour de seasons, but it was only a lack of bits that held us back from witnessing Flammie’s mother’s ultimate fate in the jaws of a giant serpent. I was a pre-teen that played violent videogames, of course I imagined Secret of Mana as a gore fest. And, while my desire to see a submerged city full of corpses has lessened over the years, I still have always seen Secret of Mana as a serious game for serious people. I might have scored a midge mallet from a dwarf after fighting a whacky robot, but the somber opening and ending of Secret of Mana leaves an indelible impression that this was a story slightly deeper than your average plumber v. turtle morality play.
And now we have Secret of Mana 2018, and… not exactly what ’93 Goggle Bob expected.
First of all, if history has taught us anything, it’s that I absolutely don’t want to see a Secret of Mana “complete remake”. Yes, SoM is right up there with Xenogears for a legendary production cycle that eventually led to much of the game being cut. Secret of Mana was originally intended for the Nintendo Playstation, but, when that system wandered off to greener pastures, it was scaled back to its current incarnation. And, incidentally, the game was only ever held together with duct tape and good intentions to begin with, so things like “fighting”, “using magic”, or “walking” don’t work in the most pleasing manner. And maybe a version of SoM that gave a purpose to the lighthouse or bothered to code an actual Moon Palace would be interesting, but I don’t want to risk playing through another Mana remake that is objectively worse than its source material. They just don’t make ‘em like they used to. And I’m not sure I could take another vastly reimagined remake this year. I’m not saying Secret of Mana Remixed couldn’t be a good game, simply that the odds of it being what I consider “Secret of Mana” are low.
So SoM 2018 is “just” a Secret of Mana upgrade. And that’s fine! It’s not like a wildly popular videogame system was just shipped bundled with Secret of Mana, so having a way for a new generation to experience the glories of Thanatos-slaying with a few modern upgrades sounds like a great idea! The whole experience controls slightly better (less like steering a train, now more like steering a minecart), voice acting eliminates the need for all that pesky reading, and the translation has been punched up with at least one Who Wants to be a Millionaire reference. The kids like Regis Philbin, right? And the most obvious change of all: the graphics and music have been not just “upscaled”, but completely replaced with new tunes and models.
And If I had to use one word to describe the 2018 SoM design choices, it would be… “pastel”.
The new, randier cast of 2018 SoM is theoretically exactly the same. But, take a moment to participate in any inn-based party chat event, and you’ll find they’re a tweak sillier. Popoi the sprite has an ongoing fascination with licking mana seeds. Primm is still in love with Dyluck, and that’s still going to end poorly, but now she gushes about him like a teenage girl (which is appropriate, as she is a teenage girl). And our brave hero of Mana has gone from nearly mute swordsman to your typical shonen hero that has doubts about his own ability to save the world ten seconds after receiving his first sword. And these “changes” absolutely work, as the character work was already there. Sprite was always kind of goofy, Girl was always rather single-minded, but now their only defining personality traits are their only personalities. The world was expanded just to show how tiny it really was. The potential opera has become a Saturday morning cartoon.
The darkness is still there, technically, but it is, now and forever, a gorgeous snow scape.
And, in the end, I can’t even be mad. I’m not sure why I would be! When I played this game as a ten year old, I thought it was the most “adult” story in the world, something right up there with Final Fantasy 3 (6) and maybe at least one Stephen King novel. Now it’s all… kiddy. Now it’s deliberately presented like something for, ugh, ten year olds, and the deep, somber Secret of Mana of my younger years is all but gone. This game adds nothing to Secret of Mana but a fresh coat of paint, and it’s a shade I can barely stomach.
Secret of Mana 2018, you have destroyed my memories, and dumbed down one of my favorite experiences. This shall not be forgiven.
Well, maybe I’ll forgive you… After I earn this platinum trophy…
FGC #388 Secret of Mana (2018)
- System: Playstation 4 and… There was a Vita version, wasn’t there? Anybody want to fire up the ol’ girl and check the Vita store? No? Fine.
- Number of players: Three, and that’s always awesome. Yes, couch co-op makes a return.
- I Run So Far Away: So the “run” button depletes your 100% Weapon gauge one percent at a time. Was it always supposed to work like that?
- Just play the gig man: The new soundtrack puts its worst foot forward, and leads with the absolute foulest remixes it can muster. However, by the time the party is blasting off to ice countries and desert lands, it’s clear the composers know what they’re doing. Yes, it would be nice to have another orchestral remix for every last area, but, more than being “epic”, it seems like the music tries to be tonally appropriate. And I guess early areas deserved an accordion.
- Regarding Voice Acting: I did not expect every last NPC to be voiced. I also did not expect “The power of Undine” to sound so much like Primm shouting “The power of undies!”
- Favorite Weapon: Was the whip always this good? Or the spear? For a series named for its signature weapon, the sword kind of sucks by comparison.
- Did you know? Kettle Kin, the second robot unleashed by the Scorpion Army, was inexplicably “censored” into being an exact copy of Kilroy in the original Secret of Mana USA version. However, Kettle Kin is back to normal for the remake, and sports his unique chainsaw and drill bottom. Welcome back, robo guy, please use your chainsaw responsibly.
- Would I play again: Probably yes. I honestly prefer this version to the original, as the combat seems a lot more manageable (and some kitty-based bosses no longer strike fear into my heart). I’ll probably revisit this Mana World again in no time at all.
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Super Mario 3D World! It’s Mario! And kitties! Please look forward to it!