Trials of Mana Retrospective: The Game 24 Years In The Making

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Why Trials of Mana is the one true successor to Secret of Mana.


Want to know what game made me cry at E3 2019? It wasn’t Final Fantasy 7 Remake, though hot damn did it look awesome. It wasn’t Phantasy Star Online 2, though I can’t believe it’s finally coming west. It wasn’t even the Smash Bros. reveals or the Breath of the Wild sequel, and yes, those did throw my hype into overdrive.

Despite this incredible competition, the game that brought actual tears to my eye was the Square-Enix title revealed in the middle of Nintendo’s Tuesday Direct: Trials of Mana.

For many gamers who watched E3, Trials of Mana may have looked like another action RPG amid a sea of incredible games. But for retro gamers who grew up on fan translations, Trials of Mana is the dream we thought impossible. Gamers have waited nearly a quarter of a century for this game to come West, but even in our wildest dreams we couldn’t imagine it’d arrive like this. Join us as we explore why this long overdue game means so much to fans of Square’s often forgotten Mana series.

Our journey begins in the early days of the Super Nintendo.

Secret of Mana Screenshot

If you’re an RPG lover or retro-gaming enthusiast, you know that Secret of Mana is one of the most beloved games on the SNES.

It’s a co-op action RPG created by Squaresoft near the beginning of what fans consider the “golden age” of RPGs. Featuring vibrant graphics, a legendary soundtrack, and a whimsical yet bittersweet story, Secret of Mana was one of the first Japanese RPGs to garner critical and commercial success in the West. Sure, Secret of Mana has a few rough edges nowadays, but those are easily forgiven considering its scope and vintage. Oh, and did I mention the soundtrack? Just want to make sure I was clear on that.

It didn’t take long for Western gamers to beg for a true sequel to Secret of Mana. And we did get a new Mana game six years later, in the form of… Legend of Mana for the PS1. Don’t get me wrong, Legend of Mana is a good game. However, it is not a great follow up to Secret of Mana. With its open-ended world and lack of a focused narrative, many fans at the time were confused by Legend of Mana. Why couldn’t they just expand on what made Secret of Mana great? Where’s the permanent character for player 2 to control? Why is it so different!?

Little did Western gamers know that a proper Secret of Mana sequel did exist that would have contextualized Legend of Mana‘s existence. It just never left Japan.

Enter Seiken Densetsu 3.

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By the late 90s and the early 2000s, the internet became ubiquitous across the modern world. And through this new information age, gamers learned all kinds of fun facts about their favorite franchises. For example, fans across the net eagerly told everyone and their grandmother that Final Fantasy II and III in the United States were, in fact, Final Fantasy IV and VI in Japan. Also, there were a plethora of video games based on Dragon Ball and Sailor Moon that gamers got to play for the first time. Back in the day, these were mind-blowing discoveries.

Of these revelations, fans discovered that Secret of Mana was, in fact, part of a larger series in Japan known as Seiken Densetsu. The first game in the series was actually Final Fantasy Adventure in the States, and Secret of Mana was the second game. And following this trend, Seiken Densetsu 3 was… not Legend of Mana. What the heck!?

As it turns out, Legend of Mana was actually a spinoff of the larger Seiken Densetsu series. The actual third game in the series was the title that all Secret of Mana fans were waiting for all this time.

Why Seiken Densetsu 3 is so good.

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On the surface level, Seiken Densetsu 3 does everything a good sequel should.

It takes the combat system of Secret of Mana, fine tunes the heck out of it, and adds in a plethora of new gimmicks. Players create a party consisting of three out of six total characters in the beginning, each with their own skills and histories. In fact, the characters you choose radically change the outcome of the story, as your characters’ personal arcs become more deeply entwined with the plot depending on who you choose to be your leader. It’s an incredibly clever way to make each character feel personally motivated to complete their journey. Even the final boss totally changes for different party leaders!

On top of this is surprisingly deep character customization for an action RPG in 1995. You get to choose which stats to boost every time you level up, and each character has a branching class tree that changes their abilities as you progress in the journey. Each character can settle into four completely unique classes by endgame, not shared by any other character. Between this and the myriad of story paths, you could play the game a dozen times and still discover content you’ve never seen before.

And that’s only scratching the surface of the game’s innovations. One you throw in some of the Super Nintendo’s best graphics and another legendary soundtrack, and it’s easy to see why Seiken Densetsu 3 is considered one of the best games on the system. It packed ideas far ahead of its time, but it still felt true to its predecessor. Add to this clever callbacks to Secret of Mana throughout the quest, and you get the game every Mana fan always wanted.

The fans step in.

SD3 Fan Translation

Fortunately for all of us, Seiken Densetsu 3 was caught in a wave of incredibly ambitious fans who were eager to localize every great SNES RPG we never got in the West. This movement gave us the Seiken Densetsu 3 fan translation, a patch which easily surpassed the quality of translations that were common during the SNES era.

To this day, the Seiken Densetsu 3 fan translation is one of the most famous video game fan translations ever created. But as time marched on, fans wanted to see Seiken Densetsu 3 officially come West. The Mana series continued to experiment to middling review scores, and fans continued to regard Seiken Densetsu 3 as the best game in the series. Yet even as long lost Final Fantasy games came West, Seiken Densetsu 3 appeared to be forgotten by time. This was a big blow to Mana fans, and Squaresoft (who became Square-Enix in 2003) seemed content to let the series flounder as other action RPGs like Kingdom Hearts took its place.

In 2017, this all changed.

A Seiken Densetsu Collection was released for the Nintendo Switch in Japan, featuring the first three core games in the series. For Mana fans, this was a do or die moment. We finally had a version of Seiken Densetsu 3 on current generation hardware, and the dream of an official localization for the game flourished. Petitions for the collection to come West went wild, but unfortunately, it seemed these pleas fell on deaf ears.

Things would get worse for Mana fans.

Secret of Mana Remake

Even if Seiken Densetsu 3 wasn’t coming West, it did seem, for a split second, that the Mana series might make a comeback. A remake of Secret of Mana was announced to the pleasure of fans everywhere, but the resulting game was… not great.

On one hand, the Secret of Mana remake was arguably better than some reviewers gave it credit for. Regardless, it was immediately apparent how phoned-in this remake was. For starters, the game used cheap 3D assets that were literally ripped from a mobile game. While this was technically true of the newer remake of the first Mana game, at least the low budget visuals were an improvement in its case. Also, while the new soundtrack did rise to great new heights at times, other times it didn’t necessarily improve on the original.

That said, the remake’s biggest problem was how little was actually added or changed. Secret of Mana had an infamous development history filled with cut content, and fans hoped a remake could restore some of these lost ideas. But rather than take the time to refine the original game, the Remake hewed almost religiously to the original while offering only marginal improvements mechanically. As a result, flaws that were forgivable in 1993 became jarring in the remake.

Fans and critics dismissed the Secret of Mana remake as an empty money grab for fans’ nostalgia. Even if the underlying game was still good – perhaps even great – it didn’t help the Mana series’ reputation. It seemed Square was, again, content to leave the series by the wayside.

The buildup to E3 2019.

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I’ve taken you on this long journey so you can appreciate the enormity of what happened during the week of E3 2019.

Before the show started, the rumor mill started to run wild about a Switch game called Collection of Mana. Trademarks were filed for the title in Europe, and fans were hoping that the collection might finally be announced during Square-Enix’s E3 show. Well, that show came and went without any reference to the Mana series, so fans assumed this was another rumor gone awry like many trademarks in the past.

Then, right after the Link’s Awakening Remake footage ended during the Nintendo Direct, the Square-Enix logo pops up.

Familiar music starts playing, a tree we’ve seen before is in the background, and the camera pans down to the Mana Sword sticking out of the ground.

The rumors were true. Seiken Densetsu 3 is finally coming West after all this time. But then… we see something fans never would have guessed.

It’s Trials of Mana.

It’s the cast of Seiken Densetsu 3. It’s the story of Seiken Densetsu 3. But what are these graphics and full 3D environments!?

Many gamers couldn’t even comprehend what they were looking at. It was a full remake of Seiken Densetsu 3, now given a proper English name for the first time in history: Trials of Mana. And this wasn’t a half-measure remake like the last Mana remake was. This is a full-on remake with visuals rivaling that of the recent Dragon Quest XI. The environments are fully reimagined, the combat is evolved well beyond the SNES original, and full Japanese and English voice acting was promised. This is the future Mana has always deserved, and it’s here for the first time on an international scale.

And then, following this surprise reveal, we actually get the announcement of Collection of Mana, featuring Trials of Mana‘s original release in English for the first time. And it’s out now.

So not only are they remaking the game, they’ve completely localized the original SNES game so we get the best of both worlds. As for how ambitious of a localization this must have been, early reports are that Trials of Mana achieves feats that the original fan translators thought would be impossible. The localized game can actually run on a real Super Nintendo, but to be clear, please support the team the brought us this localization should you choose to play it.

Though it’s disappointing that the Trials of Mana remake will be single player only, all other details about the game have been overwhelmingly positive. The developers even said they listened to feedback from the Secret of Mana remake when deciding what direction this new game would take. And all the while, the ambitious storytelling and customization of the original appears to be intact. What a victory for Mana fans!

The Future of Mana.

Trials of Mana Remake Screenshot

Many gamers know by now that waiting for vintage RPGs to come West is almost always an exercise in futility. Fans have wished for so long to get Mother 3 in English that Nintendo referenced it during their own E3 conference. Trials of Mana has long been one of these impossible dreams, yet it’s finally in English after originally releasing in 1995.

Some have decried the price point Collection of Mana launched at ($40). But we have to wrap our minds around the fact that we just got a new SNES game in the west in 2019. Considering that the original collection hit Japan at a higher price point and featured no new localization work, it’s clear that we’re getting the better deal in the West. Square-Enix is even doing a limited run of physical copies so die-hard fans can own Trials of Mana in English forever!

But most importantly, the fans have proven how much love they have for this series. Heck, the developers didn’t even know Trials of Mana had a cult following in the West prior to development! Between Trials of Mana and Romancing SaGa 3 HD, Square-Enix seems to have finally learned how much RPG fans love these niche series. And while we can’t predict everything the future will bring, the Mana series finally has a foreseeable path forward to new and better games. And in the meantime, new fans have a chance to fall in love with these games alongside hardcore fans!

And that’s why Trials of Mana brought a tear to my eye during E3 2019. It’s proof that no dream is too impossible, and with enough passion, fans can make their voices heard. So welcome home, Trials of Mana. Let’s make up for lost time.

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