Square Enix Season – a lesson in gaming remakes and crafting a modern Mana adventure

By Neil Merrett

Trials of Mana (remake), released on Nintendo Switch in 2020, published by Square Enix

Squareblind will be looking over the next month and a half at the output of Square Enix – a multinational games developer that has been collectively responsible for publishing some of the most acclaimed western and Japanese videogame series of all time. These range from Deus Ex and Final Fantasy to Dungeon Quest and Tomb Raider.

1995’s Seiken Densetsu 3 – later known as Trials of Mana in Western markets – was an attempt to merge the real-time action of RPGs such as the Zelda series with the more stat heavy and strategic spell casting of the then turn-based Final Fantasy series.

Many of Trials of Mana’s features – some better explained than others to the player during gameplay – arguably paved the way for mechanics now commonly used in the more modern adventure games and RPGs.  

A 2020 remake of Trials of Mana seeks to graft the original game’s setting and structure onto a 3D Map, while adding new moves such as jumping and evasive manoeuvres to help spruce up combat for the Dark Souls era.  However, does the addition of modern gaming mechanics and graphical flair to the original story and characters improve and enhance something intended for gamers over a quarter of a century ago?

When it comes to videogame remakes at the very least, the industry still seems to be working out that answer.

Why remake something?

The movie ‘A Star is Born’ has been officially remade three times over the best part of the last 100 years.

All of these movies keep the same title, while obviously swapping out their casts for the icons and emerging starlets of their day. In each case, they take a remixed look at the seemingly timeless tale of the allure and cost of fame, adoration, stardom and its often-inevitable end.

Though released decades apart from each other, each movie, regardless of genre, is essentially a study of heartbreak, doomed ambition and love persevering and sometimes breaking under the tremendous strain that an average, or not so average life can have on a relationship.

The original 1939 is handily described via its Wikipedia entry as a ‘technicolor romantic drama’ starring Janey Garnoy and Frederic March.

By 1959, the movie was remade to match the changing tastes of the era. So it became a bombastic old school Hollywood musical that combined colourful dream like musical numbers – performed by screen icon Judy Garland – while exploring the darker underbelly of the stardom industry. Both these films ultimately build to the same tragic ending in the Pacific Ocean.

The two latest ‘Stars’ – released in 1976 and 2018 respectively – shifted their focus from movie making to the music industries of their respective eras. Despite these new components, they both look at similar themes about the ways people can lose themselves and the things they love during a lifetime spent chasing dreams.

A good remake

There is an ongoing debate about the value, purpose and quality of remakes – whether in terms of a videogame or a movie such as A Star is Born. For some, the era they discovered the story defines what they see as the essential version. It is easy to argue that Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s charged musical performances from the 2018 movie will be the most appealing and easily relatable version of A Star is Born to a modern audience. Perhaps if you grew up with Streisand and Kris Kristofferson songs, then that is the movie for you.

For others, the almost meta casting in 1959 of Judy Garland as an emerging star having to smile through agonising events largely hidden from the public eye – wrapped up in a movie partially disguised as a light and frothy musical – will be seen as a seminal comment on fame and sating audience demand to unsustainable levels.

For every Scarface with Al Pacino – a critically acclaimed and highly stylistic remake of a rags-to-riches-to-dust mobster movie from the 1930s – there are a huge number of movies that fail to critically and commercially match the appeal and influence of their source material.  

For example, there is 2014’s attempt to update and modernise the science fiction movie Robocop that was seen as largely underperforming from a commercial standpoint. This was despite having some interesting and timely takes on the militarisation of urban police forces and the outsourcing of manufacturing, ethics and corporate responsibility.

Part of the Robocop remake’s challenge was that many of the elements of the 1987 original, with its searing critique of corporate culture and Reagan-era excess, remains eerily prescient concerning issues of corporate and private sector overreach that we are now facing in modern politics.

This is a movie that mixed body horror and high levels of 80s violence with biting satire and a dark streak of comedy that still impacts audiences old and new to this day.

Edward Neumeier, a credited writer on both versions of Robocop, noted at the front of his first script for 1987’s movie – “The future left Detroit behind.” 

He has since come to view troubling parallels from the film in our real world politics and the actions of corporations and contractors in cities all over the world.

Gaming remakes

The question around the value and purpose of remakes is increasingly being felt in the videogame market as well as art forms such as movies and music.

The 2020 remake of 1995’s Trials of Mana is an interesting case in point – but hardly a new development for the industry.

After all, we have had countless remakes and sequels to the original Pac-Man that have ranged from co-op re-releases with a new female protagonist – to more recent iterations that imagine the game as competitive online experience where you compete against 98 other players.

Likewise, 1993’s Super Mario All Stars saw the three original Super Mario Bros games, as well as a Japanese only sequel, being ported over the Super Nintendo Console. As well as giving gamers the chance to play three hugely successful and one highly challenging game in a single package, it also used the superior hardware power of the SNES to spruce up the graphics, colours and sound of the original.

By contrast, Trials of Mana seeks to update a game that was largely unknown in Western Markets before being officially commercially released outside of Japan for the first time in 2019.

A year after being released as part of 2019’s Collection of Mana, a 3D remake then came to consoles including the Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4.

A new Mana game

After decades of anticipation, Squareblind.co.uk found the original game to be a frustrating and ambitious sequel to the beloved SNES RPG Secret of Mana. It certainly had a similar sense of flair in terms of its audio and visuals that will go down as perhaps some of the finest examples of the SNES’s technical capabilities concerning graphics and sound.

Yet some elements and innovations in the game – particularly after 24 years since it first release – can seem punishing to play through for extended periods in a modern era of immersive games. This is particularly the case when spending hours battling and levelling up characters across the game’s pretty pixel arts worlds.

The game’s combat itself – especially in its early stages – is clunky and time consuming, as opposed to being satisfying and challenging for players having to fight similar enemies countless numbers of time. This is partly due to the limited control options in the game that result from the era it was originally programmed in. Fighting in the original game basically involves slowly moving to or from an enemy, while attacking or using magic spells.  There is limited strategy around how best to dispatch a group of monsters, werewolves or cursed knights.

The intention of 2020’s Trail of Mana seems to be to retain the game’s more interesting and successful mechanics, such as the choice of three of six playable characters that will impact the game’s overall story depending on the squad of heroes you select, while updating other aspects of gameplay.

The exact plot and game world is ultimately retained from the earlier game. However, it is overhauled with more modern graphics and sound design. The game world is likewise expanded from a 2D plain into more dynamic 3D landscapes where the player can not only move in eight different directions, but also leap from cliff edges and platforms as would be expected of most modern adventure games released on current hardware.

Stylistically, the characters and settings remain highly stylised as befitting a colourful Japanese fantasy role playing game from the 1990s. Certainly, the 3D worlds of the remake would have been technically impossible back in the original 90s heyday of the Mana series.

The game’s most drastic and dynamic change is in its combat. Here, the remake liberally borrows from a number of modern action adventure and RPG games to modernise the combat of the Mana series.

When set upon or sneaking into a pack of enemies, the player and their two teammates are enclosed in an invisible circular arena where they can decide to perform more powerful and time consuming charge attacks, or quick combos of less powerful hits with blades and spears. Much like the original, it is possible to pause the game and summon magical attacks or buffs that make you stronger for a set period of time or until rival magic is used to counteract these effects by an opponent .

This is very much in keeping with games such as Secret of Mana and Trials of Mana. However, the remake makes these options more dynamic by the including the ability to now jump up and over opponents to perform ground or aerial combos. The player is asked to not only think strategically about when it might be best to use magic attacks of protections, but also in how best to dodge and weave around an opponent to uncover or exploit weaknesses.

Likewise, the enemy’s intent to attack is highlighted by translucent red lines and circles on the ground that highlight the area of affect and give a player an opportunity to try and avoid harm. Otherwise, they have a small window of time to deal enough damage before the bad guy can fire off a combo of kicks or coat the player in poisonous gas.

This is an important innovation to make the game appeal to modern gamers used to much more dynamic action, not least with the inclusion of a roll move at the touch of the button to allow the player to possible leap out of the path of incoming damage.

Forward rolls and dodging is an increasingly ubiquitous and important function of modern games to allow a player to feel they are more immersed and engaged in combat, as opposed to just hitting the same buttons and bludgeoning bad guys with the same old attacks.

Part of the appeal of the Trials of Mana remake is arguably in seeing the same thing you recognise from another part of your life, but with more modern graphics and gameplay. It is almost like playing through a theme park or artificial approximation of a world that no longer exists.

The remake ultimately promises a more dynamic 3D world in which to play through Trail of Mana’s plot. But these environments are largely confined to enclosed areas and corridors disguised as expansive desert plains, dark haunted towers or a stoic mystical ruin that is partially submerged.

As an experience, playing through the Trials of Mana remake is like playing a modern action-adventure game dressed as an old school RPG with the bright colours and wondrous fantasy creatures from the now decades old Mana series – digital cosplay if you will.

This isn’t to say it’s bad. The addition of new mechanics and a clearer level up system that better explains the potential benefits of putting upgrade points into specific skills such as strength or intelligence, creates a satisfying reason to play and battle through the game to get stronger.

It also fulfils a certain nostalgic soft spot for individuals that may have played Trials of Mana and its direct predecessor over the last few decades and may relish the experience of going through it with a less arduous grinding system and more satisfying combat owing to the mechanics allowed by modern game design. This time around, the Trials of Mana remake is only a single player game, as opposed to allowing three gamers to play simultaneously at once in the original.

It is arguably a much more accessible game with the developers including more detailed and interactive world maps and introducing an in-game compass to point directly to where a player must head and what their next objective is.  Depending on your love for the original game, this is a welcome change to finding yourself scouring the game world to determine where to go next if the player misses a vital clue from an in-game character.

Yet in clinging to the same plot, which despite some early plot mechanics around different factions and the prejudices between them, ends up turning into a slay the bad guys and keep a magical sword out of the hands of evil story.

What the game perhaps more realistically emphasizes is the evolution of Square Enix’s RPGs from the turn-based strategy of early entries in the Final Fantasy series through to the more action-focused, western orientated gameplay of the Mana series. This in turn has led towards the development of the action RPG hybrid series Kingdom Hearts.

Kingdom Harts is a mash up of the introspective and broodingly Japanese story telling of the Final Fantasy series with the movies, characters and tropes of the Walt Disney Corporation to create a series that has undoubtedly helped influence the basic combat system and many mechanics found in the Trials of Mana remake.

The game is almost like an official Square Enix mod of the first Kingdom Hearts, but skinned with the characters and worlds of another of its own RPG series.

While no doubt intended to cash-in on the existing fan base for the Mana series, the remake can also perhaps be read an example of developers showing us how they would look to make the 1995 original for modern gamers in order to meet their expectations around gameplay mechanics.

Interestingly, this development and mash up of different gaming genres with a Square Enix RPG has also been seen in the most recent iterations of its flagship Final Fantasy series. These are games that have sought to mimic and combine RPG mechanics with a wide number of genres and open world games mixed with more epic, sometimes confusing storytelling, as well as real-time combat.

Interestingly, these Final Fantasy games also incorporates elements of the Mana series, particularly the original Trials of Mana, around combining the mechanics of more turn-based strategy games and real time combat.

In all of these games, it is possible to pause or slowing down play to make use of magic attack and buffs to stack battles in your favour.

They don’t make games like 1995’s Trial of Mana anymore and, in some respects, that isn’t always a bad thing.

The ship of Theseus

But in trying to define a videogame remake, how exactly does one apply the term correctly?  Afterall, if you take the very same plot and characters and events, but fit them around an entire new gameplay system – is this still Trials of Mana, a tribute to the game, or perhaps something else? Game remakes are the latest form of the age old philosophical discussion about a boat owned by some Greek fella.

But this does raise some interesting questions around game design. What potential, for instance, is there to remake existing digital worlds and use them to tell both new stories and familiar old tales from different viewpoints as opposed to following the same old fantasy game protagonists. We don’t have to look far for another Square Enix action RPG remake, also released in 2020, to find out…..

Please join us for the next part of our Square Enix Season when we look at the Final Fantasy 7 remake….

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