"It's clear that the team behind this version were dedicated to making the game feel like it belonged on a touchscreen device."
I was thirteen when Secret of Mana was released on the Super Nintendo, and my younger brother and I would spend way too much time - and way too much of our mom's money - renting the game repeatedly. The game had its shortcomings but we didn't care, thanks to solid gameplay married to a multiplayer option that we fully took advantage of. Late 2010 saw the release of Secret of Mana for iOS, specifically the iPhone and iPod touch. Along for the ride are a number of changes, improvements, and one notable drawback when compared to the original.
Let's get the negative out of the way first: there's no multiplayer capability here, either local or online. This is disappointing, and with other iOS games offering real-time online multiplayer (via GameCenter or other services), it should be possible in Secret of Mana. Even a local-only Bluetooth implementation would be better than nothing. That said, this doesn't ruin the game for me - and honestly, I don't know how vital multiplayer is to everyone else. However, as a game that I've long lauded for its excellent multiplayer capabilities, it's a bit of a letdown - one I still hope may be addressed one day in a software update.
Let's move past what could have been, and on to the visuals. The graphics in Secret of Mana's iOS version are essentially the same as the SNES original, but feature a surprising amount of improvements. Perhaps at first glance this isn't apparent, but it doesn't take long to realize that nearly every non-boss enemy sprite in the game has been redrawn. To be fair, these changes appear to be carried over from a 2009 Japan-only mobile phone release, but are new to most of us only familiar with the SNES original. All the menu images for the game's weapons and equipment have been overhauled as well, displaying a wider range of diversity and level of detail. Most importantly, someone at Square Enix realized the font and window options in the original were terrible at best, and unreadable at worst. Window customization is gone, and instead we get a clean, perfectly readable, anti-aliased white font over a translucent black window. Look at the screen shots, and you'll see it's a marked improvement. Oh, and the water in most outdoor areas now feature a slick reflection of the sun. While overall these are minor tweaks, they do make the game feel more like a 'refresh' than your average port.
We're talking about a game to be played on a touchscreen device here though, so what's really new - by virtue of necessity - is the game's interface and controls.
The usefulness of an on-screen D-pad will be a thing of debate for a long time to come, though Secret of Mana employs one of the better implementations I've come across. The right side of the screen has two action buttons: one to 'attack'/'confirm' and one to 'run'. When inside a menu, a 'cancel' button appears instead, and a 'read more' button appears during conversations. Making the visible on-screen buttons context-sensitive means that, in a given situation, you're only ever seeing the controls you need, and nothing you don't. Switching control of your party is accomplished by touching their portraits on the bottom of the screen, while tapping in the center of the screen brings up the familiar circular menu. There are several non-obvious but useful interface tricks too: tapping and dragging any character's portrait to the center of the screen brings up that character's menu without needing to switch control first. Weapons can now be equipped within the Level menu, which is a wonderful improvement. Also, you can now switch to other characters within the Stats and Level menus without needing to exit first. Menu selections can be made from any position in the ring now, which doesn't require rotating your desired choice to the top first. This is a great time saver.
One brand new feature is the addition of four "shortcut" slots in the upper right corner of the screen. While in a menu, you can assign sub-menu icons or spells to these slots by dragging these icons to the shortcut slots. This becomes especially helpful if you want to keep certain spells handy. Thanks to the ease of changing shortcuts, I routinely rotated my spells based on the dungeon I was in. This shortcut dock on the right and a new targeting panel on the left (which only appears when using items or magic, of course) are great additions. This isn't just because it means spending less time in a maze of circular menus, but because it makes the game feel just a little less clunky to interact with.
There's only one frustration I encountered with the controls (aside from the issue of which way is 'up' in the ring menus, something I've never memorized in 16 years): the target area to bring up the menu sometimes seems too large. If your D-pad-using left thumb wanders a bit (as mine does), you may find yourself bringing up the menu inadvertently. Often. This would seem like a design flaw, but I believe it was an intentional design choice. This target area seems to be about the same size as the menu itself, meaning once you get the hang of it, you can quickly open the menu make your selection without moving your finger. Even understanding it, this menu behavior may seem frustrating to others as it did to me - it just depends on how far you move those thumbs!
A Curious Tale
Secret of Mana's story was not the game's strong suit by 1994 standards, so it certainly won't win any awards for originality today. Dialogue is light and generally lacking any depth, with the characters saying just enough to explain what's going on and where you're going next. The party members have disposable names, but for once (in English) there are default names when recruiting each of them (Randi, Primm and Popoi). It's a shame the story is so poor, as even in a clichéd "let's band together and bring down the Empire...oh wait there's another sinister force at work, we need to save the planet" plot, it's possible to stand out with well-written characters and inventive storytelling. Honestly, it feels like the story was made to take a back seat to the gameplay. I don't know if it's true, though if so, it's worth noting this approach requires your game to shine in the gameplay department. Thankfully, that is the case here.
"Okay! Which one's ready?"
Clearly, a great deal of thought went into the gameplay and combat since it's what you'll be doing 98% of the time. Compared to some more complex action RPGs of the modern era, battle in Secret of Mana is fairly simple: mash the attack button and cast spells in between. Your eight weapons vary in attack methods and range, and can be upgraded several times. Each of their eight levels bring new status-inflicting effects such as confusion, or extra effectiveness against certain types of creatures. Swapping weapons to fit your current situation can sometimes make a big difference in how well you do in battle. Two of your three party members wield magic: Primm (aka "the girl") focuses on your party with character-buffing and healing magic, while Popoi (aka "the sprite") handles all but a handful of the game's damage-dealing spells. Magic can be leveled up for increased effectiveness (and fancier visuals) simply by casting it, so you're encouraged to use magic often. Leveled sufficiently, the sprite's magic easily becomes your most powerful weapon, even topping damage done by charged high-level weapons. While there's nothing overly complex about how it all works, the variation in weapons and spells (as well as determining what to use and when) keeps the gameplay from getting dull.
Leave Time for Love
Whenever I hear the name Hiroki Kikuta, I immediately think of Secret of Mana. He's certainly composed many other soundtracks over the years, but this one has always stuck with me for its well-composed and memorable tracks. The inspiring boss battle tunes, moody and dramatic world map music and, of course, the songs attached to the final dungeon are all intact. While none of the melodies have changed from the original version, everything has held up well.
Secret of Mana came out at a time when all but the biggest RPGs didn't make it to North America. There wasn't much competition, and we didn't hold games to the high standards we do today. Releasing an action RPG with such a shallow story might be met with fair criticism these days, but Secret of Mana comes from a simpler time. I think it's this general simplicity that allowed it to adapt so well to the iPhone and iPod touch. Creative use of the touchscreen allowed the developers to deliver a version of the game that plays as easily on this platform as it did with a 9-button controller. It's clear that the team behind this version were dedicated to making the game feel like it belonged on a touchscreen device.
There's just enough new on top of the classic game to give us a port that doesn't feel like a cash grab - and kids, $9 is not excessive for an excellent game that used to cost $60. There's always another classic RPG being ported to current platforms. But if they were all as well-done and adapted for their target platform as Secret of Mana has been, I think more of us would welcome the practice with open arms.