Friday 18 December 2015

Snes Review - The Secret of Evermore (Game 095)

‘Secret of Mana’ was a game adored by critics and fans alike. You would think that a SquareSoft published game deliberately designed to replicate it would be popular, so why do so many people hate this action RPG?

Developed by SquareSoft USA
Published by SquareSoft
Released in 1993

There are lots of reasons to dislike a game. A fantastic concept but terrible execution does not make for a good experience. Even worse would be a terrible concept with terrible controls, awful graphic and intrusive sound - why would anyone play that? However, dismissing a potentially great game just because you believe its creation meant a much loved sequel would never be localised, is not logical; especially when this is factually incorrect. 'Mystic Quest' is typically voted the worst thing that SquareSoft produced for the Snes, however the most polarising 16bit game the company made is ‘Secret of Evermore’. 

While it certainly isn't on par with 'Final Fantasy VI', 'Chrono Trigger' or ‘Secret of Mana’ it is leagues ahead of the majority of JRPG games produced by non-SquareSoft companies during the life of the Super Nintendo. So you have to ask, why do so many people despise, what is by all accounts, a pretty good (though not excellent) game? It's not because of anything ‘Secret of Evermore’ does wrong, it's simply because it's not 'Secret of Mana 2', it's not 'Seiken Densetsu 3'. If you look up "16bit RPG scapegoat" in a very peculiar, very niche dictionary there would be a picture of the ‘Secret of Evermore’ box. 

‘Secret of Mana’ was universally adored by critics and though the Japanese and U.S sales didn't eclipse the likes of 'Zelda: A Link to the Past' they were certainly significant enough to warrant a sequel. Fans were understandably excited when a new "Secret of ..." game was to be published by SquareSoft. However although this new game had the same DNA as 'Mana', it wasn't a sequel at all. Instead, it was to be the first game in a new 'Evermore' franchise, which was going to be developed entirely by SquareSoft's newly formed Seattle based development studio (imaginatively titled SquareSoft USA). 

You must applaud the Japanese publisher's desire to break America. After 'Final Fantasy II' failed to sell, SquareSoft made 'Mystic Quest'. This was a Japanese developed game, designed specifically to appeal to an American audience fearful of the complex nature of Jrps. The end result was a game that is so simplistic it patronised new fans and bores established ones. At some point it was clearly decided that if SquareSoft were to find success in the West, they would have to have Westerners make their own games.  ’Secret of Evermore’ was always intended to be a Western game for Western audiences and tellingly it is the only 16 bit SquareSoft game not to be released on the Super Famicom. 

Development of ‘Secret of Evermore’ was completed while a Japanese team began working on a true follow up to ‘Secret of Mana’, which was later released exclusively in Japan as 'Seiken Densetsu 3'. It therefore really makes no sense that customers boycotted ‘Secret of Evermore’ under the assumption that it delayed the development or the localisation of a "true" ‘Secret of Mana’ sequel. The two games were being made contemporaneously, with neither one having a bearing on the other. As lead programmer Brian Fehdrau remembers "the common belief is that resources were allocated to develop ‘Evermore’ rather than bring 'Secret of Mana 2' to North America. I can assure you that no one was reallocated. The entire 'Evermore' team was built from the ground up with new hires. None of the people involved in North America localisation were tied up by our game. In fact, if memory serves 'Breath of Fire', 'ChronoTrigger' and 'Final Fantasy 6' were all localized for America, while we were in development". 

The irony of all this is that ‘Secret of Evermore’ is much closer to ‘Secret of Mana’ than the actual follow-up is. According to Fehdrau, the team "were, simply put, to make an American-flavoured ‘Secret of Mana’-alike game. The exact details of how we did it were up to us, but it did have to be infused with that essence. This was our prime directive coming straight down from Square in Japan". 

This resulted in a game almost unnecessarily and excessively flooded with Western popular culture references. According to Nintendo Power magazine, this was because the game's associate producer and writer, George Sinfield, decided that cultural nods would make the game feel “easy to get into and recognizable to American players”. The only problem was that all the intended references to real life actors, Films and TV shows had to be changed due to copyright infringement. This lead to many cultural allusions feeling abstract and bizarre. Many players have no clue what "It came from the Swamp", "Attack of the Appliance People" and "Mars Needs Lumberjacks" were meant to be referencing. Arguably the American pleasing pop culture jokes were as cryptic as the Japanese folklore motifs that they were intended to replace. 

"Games like 'Mana' were the first ones where I felt like I was part of the story, rather than simply moving a colored block around a grid of other colored blocks and making numbers go up" admitted programmer Fehdrau. Accordingly ‘Secret of Evermore’ needed a story as epic as ‘Mana’, albeit one washed in Americana, rather than Eastern symbolism. It also needed to be a story that some-how justifies why a hero would continually spout out obscure pop culture jokes about made up films. 

The story initially takes place in the American town of Podunk where we meet the main protagonist, who according to the instruction book is called Billy. He is leaving a cinema that happens to be showing a rerun of 1950s B-movie 'The Lost Adventure of Vexx' (which was actually ‘Secret of Evermore’s working title). His accompanying dog (Scruffy if the instructions are to be trusted) starts chasing after a cat and they both find themselves in Professor Sydney Ruffleberg's mansion. Here, 50 years earlier, a parallel universe experiment had gone horribly wrong. Predictably the pair discovers the abandoned experiment and accidentally activate it - sending both to a place known as Evermore. This is a world divided up into four distinct districts and each one reflects a different time period: prehistoric, ancient civilization, medieval and futuristic. Your task seems to initially be just navigating this strange world finding a way to get back to your own time period. But naturally, with this being an RPG, characters you met on the way have their own agendas and the path of the hero is never a simple or easy one. 

‘Secret of Evermore’ is an action RPG rather than a tradition turn based JRPG. It's play style echoes the 'Zelda' games, but there's an emphasis on strategy rather than repetitive slashing. Unlike 'Final Fantasy'  there isn’t any random encounters, just monsters in plain view. Anyone who has played 'The Secret of Mana' will be very at home in ‘Secret of Evermore’; the battle systems are identical even down to the same font and on-screen display. You are free to attack whenever you wish, but doing so exhausts a meter, which must refill before you can perform another full powered attack. Like ‘Mana’ it's a hit and run play-style, where timing is critical and every attack needs to connect especially on boss fights. Sometimes you'll have to grind and level crunch for a while to overcome them, but that's just the RPG way. 

For lead programmer Fehdrau there was no shame in borrowing so heavily from an existing SquareSoft game. "There were two fairly simple reasons for swiping some of our systems from 'Mana'.  For one, we were supposed to be creating a ‘Mana’-like game, so it made sense to retain the interface. For another, those systems were proven to work well." Many reviews state that the game is built using the same engine but that is not actually true.  "I'm proud that most people think we inherited the code and tweaked it for our own purposes," acknowledges Fehdrau. "We did end up writing absolutely everything from scratch." With a battle system that was based on an existing game, the developers of ‘Secret of Evermore’ had the opportunity to find ways to enhance it. Consequently, unlike 'Mana' there does seem to be more variety in the way normal level foes behave. Some are slow and awkward like the man-eating plants, from which you can run away whenever you need to recharge your attack. However, if you're fighting something fast like the prehistoric raptors, then you won't always have time to charge. You just have to frantically swipe to  fend them off.  Because they're so unpredictable, the enemies are a challenge to fight and the game feels much less monotonous as a result. Additionally, unlike ‘Mana’ you have the ability to hold down a button and charge up all attacks (provided your weapon skill has been upgraded). It adds another layer of tactics to the game, as while they take time to charge, leaving you vulnerable, they are devastating when unleashed.   

‘Secret of Evermore’ uses the "Ring Menu System" that ‘Secret of Mana’ invented.
This allows quick access to items magic and equipment. You can switch control to your companion dog, who actually has higher defence, more HP, and a vicious leaping attack. Indeed, you’ll ask yourself why you shouldn’t use him when Billy spends a lot of the start of the game armed with just a bone. The dog can also help you find hidden items, but if you're in control of him and the protagonist dies it is game over. Of course if this were ‘Secret of Mana’ someone else could take control of Scruffy the Dog, but ‘Secret of Evermore’ is strictly one player only. This felt like a big back step for many and few reviewers didn't acknowledge it as a shortcoming. According to Fehdrau it was a calculated, if regrettable decision. "The single player game choice was actually an attempt to reduce complexity. We were a brand new team, many of us new to the industry. Having two or more players independently controlling characters on a large scrolling map is a bit of a minefield. Early on, we had experienced a couple of instances where we managed to get our characters stuck in ‘Secret ofMana’, and had to reload the last save. That worried us. If an experienced and clever team in Japan hadn't quite gotten it right, it looked bad for us."

It wasn't the only poor decision made by the team, many found the game too difficult, with levelling up taking too long and opening enemies taking too much damage. Some of the enemies can knock you out in three hits, which seem particularly brutal when you're only twenty minutes into the game.  "We'd made some bad choices" Fehdrau mournfully acknowledges. "Worst of all, I think, we'd placed the save point before the first big boss way too far ahead. When you inevitably didn't figure out the winning trick fast enough and died, it was very upsetting to go back so far. That even happened to me. I swore at the game, turned it off, and didn't touch it again for ten years."  You have to wonder how many other players do the same now, when there's a plethora of similar RPGs to play, many with more plentiful save positions. Once again, emulation “save states” saves the day. 

The other big departure from 'Mana' is the magic system, which is often the man or break of RPGs.  Instead of using “Magic Points” or magic XP, you make spells by collecting ingredients in the stages. Each spell needs a different combination of ingredients and many ingredients are difficult to find in a plentiful amount. Some may love the flexibility of the system, but I was reluctant to ever use magic. I was left afraid that I would need to use a healing spell but couldn't because I'd wasted it's ingredients on fireballs. To complicate things more, you can only craft magic if you have been taught the ingredient combination. This means lots of backtracking after each major dungeon, just to see if any random villagers have learnt a new spell tags they can pass on.  

‘Secret of Evermore’ was the first published work of multi-award winning composer Jeremy Soule. Described as "the John Williams of video game music", Soule has since gone on to compose soundtracks for more than 60 games including all the 'The Elder Scrolls' games, the 'World of Wardcraft' series and 'Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker'.  "Jeremy was, what, 19 at the time? Something like that" lead programmer Fehdrau remembers. "He was a real trooper, and a genius to boot. Jeremy's work in 'Evermore' is one of its primary assets." With such an acclaimed composer making his debut you would hope there would be more music, but actually the soundtrack consists of just nine tracks. Instead of big melodies, ‘Secret of Evermore’ is largely devoid of music and all you can hear is location sounds, "environmental ambient sounds" to quote the box. If you're in the jungle, you'll hear birds and leaves rustle, very different to the crowded with its cacophony of voices talking at once. These sounds are almost CD quality at times, creating a forbidding atmosphere when needed. Indeed, there is an atmospheric darkness to the game, which seems at times, to be at odds with the whimsical dialogue. 

Given that ‘Secret of Evermore’ was released in the twilight years of the Snes' life, the game unsurprisingly looks great. The main character may be dressed like Marty McFly, but he is also wonderfully animated and full of charm. There's a nice level to detail, huge screen filling bosses, and enemies only appearing in one dungeon. Your dog companion also changes to match the levels' surroundings; at times Scruffy is a robot and sometimes he resembles a pink poodle or a wolf.  The original game was intended to be released on a 12 megabit cartridge but this had to be double to cram in all the art assets.
However, it wasn’t just the artwortk that had to be restricted the team building ‘Secret of Evermore’ also had to compromise their vision, owing to the limitations of the Snes console itself.  "Other than the obligatory Mode 7 fly-about, there wasn't a whole lot you could do to go above and beyond what your competitors were showing" observes Fehdrau. "Visual quality sort of levelled off after a while." 

‘Secret of Evermore’ shares 2/3rds of a name with ‘Secret of Mana’ which is apt because with all things considered, it's only 2/3rds as good. As Super Play magazine's Wil Overton says "placed in the glare of the best of Square's Japanese games, 'Evermore' withers. [But] to be honest we weren't expecting SquareSoft USA’s efforts to come anywhere near emulating its illustrious Japanese developed predecessors: So many of the things that make SquareSoft RPGs good have been ignored".  Overton in particular was not a fan of the game's repetition and levels design, which are more often-than-not simply mazes filled with frustrating dead ends. "'Evermore' is in love with the formula of A) walking around a town chatting. B) Walking around a maze hitting things, followed by C) coming up against a boss" Overton criticised. "It happens over and over again only with different graphics to try and convince you you're not doing exactly the same thing as five minutes ago. 'Mana' manages to disguise the fact that the landscape you're running around is really just a maze, 'Evermore' just isn't good enough for you to be able to suspend disbelief long enough not to realise". 

Perhaps the reason why ‘Secret of Mana’ feels more varied is down to the colourful characters that surround your three playable characters. Aside from Billy, his dog and a robotic Butler, everyone else in the ‘Secret of Evermore’ is actually pretty forgettable. As the game progresses you learn that the four distinct regions of Evermore are actually shaped and defined by the characteristics of the four different people caught in the 1950’s parallel universe experiment accident. It's quite a complicated idea, but makes much more sense within the game.
Armed with this knowledge I was excited to meet each regions ruler, but every time I did, I was disappointed. Yes there are narrative twists and turns but they all involve everyone having an evil twin who happens to be a robot. If the repetition was meant to be an amusing joke it didn't work, it just made the story feel gimmicky and throwaway. As Tony Mott points out, ‘Secret of Evermore’ doesn't meet lofty narrative expectations. "It all feels so damned lightweight when you compare it to something on the scale of Square's Japanese productions" he noted in Super Play. Indeed, at the end of the game, when you take to the skies for an obligatory flying section, you quickly realise just how small the game world is. With only four world locations you can cover the entire map in seconds which hardly makes ‘Secret of Evermore’ feel epic and sprawling in the way 'Final Fantasy VI' is. It's a game that can be finished in 12 hours and a quarter of that involves two rather boring fetch quests, back through the environments that you've already been in. As Mott says, "the bottom line is that 'Evermore' will make you realise just how spoilt you've been with 'Mana'."

It was critical opinions like this that made lead programmer Fehdrau feel very deflated about the game he spent years working on. "We had gotten panned by many reviewers, [...] taken a lot of flak for not being 'Seiken Densetsu 3'" he recalls. "For a very long time, I was actually reluctant to go back and play 'Evermore'. I had developed a feeling like the game had turned out poorly, and I didn't want to have to look at it."

But is it really fair to criticise ‘Secret of Evermore’ for not measuring up to a game that many consider one of the finest on the Snes? It may not equal ‘Secret of Mana’ but it's far better than the majority of other RPGs churned out by companies eager to get a bite of SquareSoft's lucrative RPG pie. ‘Secret of Evermore’ may be comparatively short, the humour may fall flat and its inexcusably hard at the start, but it is inventive. If SquareSoft USA's task was to create an enjoyable western feeling 'Mana'-esque game they succeeded. 

"These days, I'm proud, even fond, of 'Evermore'" Fehdrau acknowledge. "Sure, the dialogue's hokey, there are a few glitches, and some of the maps are a bit silly, but overall, the depth, breadth and quality of the gameplay really surprised me." 

He is right to be proud. Even with its flaws, ‘Secret of Evermore’ is probably the best 'Mana' game that doesn't carry the 'Mana' name. 

Where did I get this game from?
Look at eBay for long enough and eventually you’ll see someone has listed something terribly which presents a bargain opportunity. I got ‘Secret of Evermore’ with ‘Secret of Mana’ for a fraction of their normal price, simply because the seller listed them both as “Secret of Mana and Evermore guides”. £92.50 is a lot to pay for two guide books, no matter how rare they are. It’s a bargain for two very sought after  SquareSoft RPGs in fantastic condition. The seller wouldn’t post to the UK though, so I only have these games in my collection thanks to the help of an American friend. 

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