Secret of Mana HD: The more things change, the more they stay the same

The year was 1993. It would be two years until Chrono Trigger would enthrall many gamers with its spell of time traveling adventure and discovery. But a more whimsical fare had just been released. A game that was light and bright and snappy, as were its graphics, gameplay, and soundtrack. Landing a coveted spot on the cover of Nintendo Power, Secret of Mana would spin its own web of adventure, built on a foundation of charm, simple gameplay, and a story that will take you from a small village to the skies, and beyond.

Secret of Mana HD brings us back to that charming world of 1993, perhaps a little brighter yet somehow still as familiar as it once was. The gameplay, for better or worse, is largely unchanged since its original inception. The gameplay revolves around your three active main characters who can be switched in and out as your active character on the fly. Normal attacks involve a simple button press and charging attacks require a hold. The stronger your weapon, the longer you hold down for a mightier charge attack, the more involved your charge animation is and (theoretically) the more damage your attack will do.

Switching weapons, using magic or items, and changing equipment is all done via a ring-based menu system that was never super intuitive before and hasn’t changed much now. They did add a couple of shortcuts that you can bind any of your spells or items to, activated by two of the top controller buttons. This is nice, but begs the question: since none of the top buttons are used for anything else, why would they limit themselves to only two shortcuts when they could have four?

Story-wise, the game plays out just as it did the first time around. It all begins when a young boy finds a sword and is thrust into a long and winding tale of monster slaying and world saving. It wasn’t exactly a new and original narrative back in ’93 so it definitely isn’t today. Probably one of the weaker elements of the story, which happens to be the character development, was almost nonexistent back when the game was originally released.

The original story has a young boy (the hero) finding a mysterious sword at the base of a waterfall one day and subsequently monsters appear and begin threatening the world, setting off a number of world altering events. More locally, however, he is banned from the only home he’s ever known, by the village elder, and sets out on his adventure (a version of the hero’s journey).  Along the way he runs into a young lady who’s searching for her lost love and has a penchant for spellcasting (the girl). Early on he also encounters a small elf who has a penchant for practical jokes and has lost her memory, so she volunteers to accompany him on his journey (the sprite).

In terms of character development, that’s pretty much all you get. These never felt like entirely developed characters, but rather thin slices of caricatures, with nothing beyond simple motivations to save the world, find love and restore one’s memory. The narrative that plays out as your adventure continues was largely devoid of any further development, leaving these characters two dimensional and ultimately unsatisfying. The remake aims to fix a little of that by featuring short scenes between your three protagonists whenever you rest at an inn. They aren’t groundbreaking or anything, but they do manage to fill out a bit more of each of our heroes’ development that was sorely missing from the original game (and sometimes even one of the elementals that you’ve collected on your quest will pop up in a scene as well).

Many of the changes in the remake are pretty minor overall. The game’s new orchestrated score and voice overs can be adjusted via the menu ( or for “purists”, there is the option to have the original score and no voice overs at all).  Also through the menu, you can select the max number of items you can carry of each consumable at any given time, be it 4, 8, or 12. It seems to make little sense why you’d elect to have 4 items that can revive you if things take a turn for the worse, instead of 12, but the option is there nonetheless. In terms of gameplay, some little things have changed, such as level ups completely refilling your health and mana, and some of the critters in the original have that were overpowered have been weakened substantially while others have been strengthened. At times, it feels as if there is little rhyme or reason for such changes except to say that something besides the graphics and soundtrack have been changed.

In the end, Secret of Mana HD is, at its core, essentially the same game that it was back in 1993, with all the positives and negatives that entails. Charge moves are still too time consuming and not guaranteed to hit, higher level monsters still have way too much evasion, bosses generally are still best defeated by spamming magic. The game hasn’t aged perhaps as well as one would like, but the complete experience is still there. If you enjoyed it back when it was new, despite its shortcomings, then you’ll find its lush world worth revisiting. If you weren’t a huge fan back then, this version isn’t going to change your mind.

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