It’s like Zelda with heavy RPG elements and two buddies that fight alongside you! If you haven’t played Secret of Mana yet, hopefully that got your attention. The game is a classic, and while the visuals and gameplay of even this newest iPhone version remain unchanged from the game’s first release almost twenty years ago, it is still very much worth playing. Real-time action RPGs have become quite common place in this day and age, but back when Secret of Mana first came out on the Super Nintendo that wasn’t the case. Unfortunately, due to the touch screen controls of the iPhone and iPod, this doesn’t turn out to be such a good thing for this newest port of the classic.
First, let’s talk about the good stuff. This adventure cooked up in 1993 is still great fun and features likable characters and great gameplay. You play a teenager named Randi who has been thrust into the role of hero unwillingly. Despite a rocky start Randi soon gets into the groove of things and is eventually joined by two companions, Primm and Popoi, who fight alongside him. Secret of Mana looks brilliant on the iPhone, and makes full use of the screen real estate. The game may be old, but the graphics are still refreshingly colorful and vibrant. The soundtrack is also top-notch.
And now, for the not so good stuff: the cooperative gameplay Secret of Mana is so well known for is nowhere to be seen in the iPhone port. There is no way to play with your friends, which means Randi’s companions will remain CPU-controlled throughout the entire adventure (unless you manually switch roles to play one of them). Obviously providing online co-op support would require Square-Enix to jump through some extra hoops, but considering how many iterations of this game there have been (including a mobile phone port from 2009 in Japan), it would have been very nice to join up with a pal or two for some monster-slaying goodness this time around.
Touch screens are great for navigating menus and playing certain types of games. Real-time action RPGs are not among them. Controlling Randi and company on the iPhone is not an optimal experience. While you certainly get used to playing on a touch screen, it can be a bit frustrating at times. You take the accuracy of traditional d-pad and button-based controls for granted until you struggle to cross a bridge for a full minute on the iPhone’s touch screen, or have trouble facing an enemy thanks creeping up behind you. It can be especially cumbersome during a boss battle that requires you to hit specific areas of a monster. To Square-Enix’s credit, there isn’t much they could have done to make the game control much better, except for perhaps an adaptive control area that wasn’t anchored to the left corner of the screen, but for me that’s just splitting hairs. Either way it would be fussy and imprecise.
Playing Secret of Mana on a small screen with touch controls isn’t always easy, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth picking up, especially if you have never been through the adventure before. If you own an iPhone or an iPod and you’d like to have a classic RPG adventure with you wherever you may go, you won’t go wrong with this game. That said, if you have a Wii, I would recommend picking up Secret of Mana on the Virtual Console instead—if only for the chance at cooperative play.