Reviewing… Secret of Evermore (SNES)

Secret of Evermore PAL box

Secret of Evermore is a curious beast. At release it caused a stir amongst the press and the wider gaming community for (a) not being a true sequel to Secret of Mana and (b) taking the role of the scapegoat in light of Seiken Densetsu 3 being skipped for localisation in the West. While time has allow that last point to be corrected, it has also allowed the dust to settle so that the game can be experienced free from the enthusiasm the Seiken Densetsu franchise traditionally emanated (which in itself is a relic given the downward trajectory of the franchise in a post-16-bit world).

Back in 1996 when my younger brother and I finally joined the SNES bandwagon, a handful of games kicked-off the collection – Killer Instinct (no laughing!) and Secret of Mana, closely followed by Super Mario Allstars, Super Mario World then Zelda. Knowing my gaming habits, I would have picked up Secret of Evermore some time between May and September (thanks to Retro Gaming Australia for the reference – Secret of Evermore received a score of 92% in the April 1996 issue of Hyper), given the release date of April-ish (with a few exceptions, back in the mid-90s we didn’t really have release dates) and my historic purchase of a Sega Saturn in September (yes, it’s historic, even if it’s only in my head). After enjoying Secret of Mana (who wouldn’t?), picking up Secret of Evermore was a no-brainer. What eventuated out of that purchase though, was a bit of an anomally. The UI and a large portion of the game mechanics were familiar, but the premise was a little different and the presentation (audio and visuals) was certainly a departure from its namesake prequel.

1996-Sean didn’t really let this bother him – the game in some ways was disappointing, as it lacked a persistent connection with the familiar world of Secret of Mana, lacked polish, didn’t seem quite as broad in scope and the multiplayer was sorely missed. On the flip-side, the music was great, the locales were certainly interesting and some of the mechanics were well-implemented. The story also made a bit more sense, though this is easy to identify retrospectively given it’s now much more common knowledge that Secret of Mana suffered from being abruptly hacked together in light of the Super CD falling by the wayside, and the ongoing issues with space and programming logic inherent to localising 16-bit JRPGs.

From a historical perspective then, the game was enjoyed and appreciated, but ultimately fell shy of filling the impressive shoes left in the wake of Secret of Mana.

So what does 2011-Sean think of the game?

For me, it was an altogether different experience. It had been over 15 years since I last fired up the game, and in that time a lot has happened. Aside from getting older and having less hair on my head, we’ve had the internet come in and fill the gaps around the game’s genesis, development and its place amongst other Square RPGs of the time. Seiken Densetsu 3 has been unofficially translated, which means the blind faithful (like yours truly) can sup at the table Square denied us in 1996. There has been distance gained beyond the various threads spun of rampant fanboyism that only the changing guard of 1996 could have produced.

Perspective, as it is, continues to be an interesting creature, and in the context of this review, has made Secret of Evermore a better game.

The soundtrack continues to impress despite its differences in thematic composition to Kikuta’s soundtrack in Secret of Mana. Especially worthy of note is its progressive implementation of atmospheric noise in place of background music during some key areas (Hardcore Gaming 101’s excellent thoughtpiece lists a few poignant examples). The game looks far less “squishy” now that I can play the game in 60hz, it controls well, the worlds are imaginative, and alchemy is fun when you get your head around it. I even enjoyed the collect-a-thon in the markets, though I admit to seeking some help from GameFAQs on that one to clear things up.

I’m not saying the game isn’t flawed – it is, but it doesn’t mean the game is any less endearing. The writing is a little hokey, but at least it isn’t the fragmented mess that was Secret of Mana and there are some nice (predictable) spins in the narrative. The graphics teeter between very good and drab depending on the world you’re playing in – world three is an example of the good, while the swamps in world one float the other way. Multiplayer continues to be a sticking point, but I appreciated the functionality offered by the dog in tracking down ingredients this time, rather than sulking about the lack of multiplayer.

Even the game length was well balanced. There are a few spaces where tedium kicked in (such as the dessert in world 2 or the grinding required when levelling up your weapons), but it wasn’t enough to present a roadblock to progress. Being time-poor these days, it took about a month or so of casual play during weekends to finish up the game, which was perfect for me. The 60+ hour marathons common in later generations was thankfully absent, which for me is also part of the appeal of 16-bit JRPGs. Interestingly, the game length seemed pretty reasonable from 1996-Sean’s perspective, despite the price of entry – I don’t have the docket, but I’m pretty sure my (now-defunct) local independent game store charged $89 for the game, which equates to $128.23 today. Despite this, I don’t recall ever feeling short-changed by the game.

So, Secret of Evermore – flawed and often misunderstood, but ultimately a very solid game.

Autumn reminds me of Secret of Mana

Back in 1996, my younger brother and I pooled our money together and bagged ourselves a great little SNES combo – coming to the end of the 16-bit era meant that there were good opportunities to see the other side of the fence for a small outlay (our household was a staunch Sega proponent) and enough time had passed to bury the proverbial hatchet. If memory serves, we put together around $200, which bought us a SNES Killer Instinct pack – SNES console with RF lead/AC adapter, controller, as well as a boxed copy of Killer Instinct (don’t laugh :P) and an extra controller as a bonus. We’d been thinking about it for a while at that point, as one of my brother’s mates had a SNES and had brought it over a few times and I’d been able to play some Zelda here and there, and one of my mates, McAdam, had snapped up a SNES the X-Mas prior to ’96 and had introduced me to the awesomeness of a rented copy of Secret of Mana one weekend. To complete the peer pressure, another mate from school got me hooked on Killer Instinct (again, stop laughing!). So, we took the plunge. Or rather, my little brother went away on camp for a weekend, so Mum and I went out to the mall and grabbed a SNES pack, and I picked up a copy of Secret of Mana for myself. The only catch was that I wasn’t allowed to play the SNES or even open it until he came back from his trip. It did make for an awesome Sunday evening of gaming though, and 3:30pm couldn’t come fast enough the next day at school 🙂

The time of year we got the SNES was when it starts to get a bit of a cold snap in the evening (well, “cold” by Australian standards anyway), so whenever we get a burst of cold like we’re getting at the moment, it reminds me of cranking out the SNES for the first time, and just as importantly, playing Secret of Mana with my brothers.

There was so much about the game that made it special – despite the nonsensical plot thanks to the game’s initial development as a Super CD title, there was so much to love about it. The graphics were pure 16-bit era Japanese development – colourful, charming and packed to the rafters with great animation and flourishes. The music was absolutely amazing – the SPC700 was able to do some amazing stuff, but the quality of the compositions for Secret of Mana were enchanting, especially since my other 16-bit adventures were dominated by the Mega Drive’s synth which didn’t have anywhere near the range of features of the SNES’ audio system (that being said, there’s a particular charm to what some of the better developers were able to pull off with the Mega Drive’s audio setup). But more than all of that, the game was so much fun to play and accessible. While the AI was a bit stupid, playing the game with someone else made it so much more fun and broke down a lot of barriers that surrounded the RPG systems in the 16-bit era. While I was already a JRPG convert thanks to the sublime Phantasy Star 2 (thanks to my brother Miguel on that one, and for starting me on the RPG path with the SSI-developed D&D games on the C64 and PC before that), it was great to see those concepts presented in such a different format. The only bummer is that I never got to play through the game on 3-player mode – my younger brother managed to do this with some of his mates when they rented a multitap from one of the neighbourhood video stores, and he assures me that it was awesome.

As much as I adore this game, there are two things about it that saddens me – first of all, the direct sequel, Seiken Densetsu 3, never got an official English release by Squaresoft (instead we got Secret of Evermore, which while not as polished, actually isn’t too shabby if you can psychologically separate it from the former when playing it). Secondly, all the games since the SNES games have arguably been rubbish. I remember downloading trailers for Legend of Mana on the PSX off Gaming Age on my old dial-up connection and being absolutely gobsmacked by some amazing hand-drawn visuals and sublime audio. Sadly, the final game featured a terrible translation and didn’t carry anywhere near the charm and persistent game world that the SNES games had. Fast forward to the PS2, and we get Dawn of Mana, yet another terrible interpretation of the franchise. Thankfully, the 3-party action-RPG spirit lived on in the excellent Kingdom Hearts games, but even that’s bittersweet – the natural extension of the engine that powered Kingdom Hearts would have made a natural base to build up a living, breathing and colourful world to set a new Mana game that echoed the successes of old. Such a wasted opportunity.

If I could make one last-ditched and naive request to SquareEnix, it would be this – create a HD remake of Secret of Mana with glorious 2D artwork, and tell the story that you originally wanted to tell before the game got chopped apart to fit the limited space of a cartridge. I’m not asking for voice work or anything like that (because in all likelihood it means they won’t make it a bilingual release) or animated cut scenes – 3 players online or offline simultaneously, great music, beautiful spritework, the full story, digital distribution (to reduce costs, though I’d love a physical release). I have a feeling SquareEnix like money, and this kind of project would be a virtual printer of cash. At least in my naive view of the current state of video gaming.