In spite of the fact I’m a big fan of the Mana series, I missed out on the original Legend of Mana when it first hit PlayStation way back in 1999. I had my reasons for never having played it, and in hindsight they’re very stupid: for instance, back then I’d written off 2D games entirely. Now that I’m older and wiser, I recognize the error of my ways and consider myself fortunate to be able to give Legend of Mana a second chance as in its newly remade form. I’m kind of glad I waited, to be honest, because as beautiful as Legend of Mana was even on PS1, on modern hardware it’s astonishing in its visual charm. It’s still very obviously an old-school game in its directionless design, but the long and short of it is the Legend of Mana remake is a fantastic example of a 2D remake done right – even if that means a lot of first-timers are going to get lost.
I knew this was going to be something special right off the bat because the logo for M2 flashed across the screen during start up. M2 is the legendary development house behind some of the most lovingly crafted restoration and preservation works in video gaming, which includes the software in both the SEGA Genesis Mini and the TurboGrafx-16 Mini. M2 is famous for going well above and beyond expectations when it comes to emulation and restoration, and its work on The Legend of Mana is no exception.
The original PlayStation version is famous for being one of the best-looking 2D games on that system. Hand-drawn backgrounds, coupled with beautiful character and enemy sprite work, gave it a magnificence unlike anything else seen up to that point. Looking at the original version, it’s surprising how well it holds up. The backgrounds are a little chunky due to the limited rendering size of the OG PlayStation, but the colors really pop.
The Legend of Mana remake has lost nothing in its translation to modern hardware. Every screen has been redrawn to work with modern, 16:9 displays. It’s quite a feat, when you think about it. Each location looks absolutely stunning, a real testament to the skill and dedication of M2 when it comes to honoring our video game past.
The balance it strikes between hand-drawn and sprite work is just perfection.“
The character and enemy sprites retain their original, chunky and pixelated looks and honestly I wouldn’t have it any other way. The juxtaposition of such gorgeous sprite work with the smooth, clean lines of the anime-style backgrounds works incredibly well. It was the right artistic choice because the sprites – particularly the screen-filling bosses – are some of the most beautiful around and it would’ve been all but impossible to improve upon them. The overworld map, too, keeps its original PS1 sprite look but is now in 16:9. It’s so charming and evokes feelings of nostalgia while moving Legend of Mana forward. The balance it strikes between hand-drawn and sprite work is just perfection.
The music, something the Mana series is famous for, has also been remade with orchestral arrangements of its original soundtrack. You can enter into the in-game menu and listen to any favorite tracks at will, and you also have the option to switch from the remade soundtrack to the original version during gameplay. It’s a nice touch for nostalgia’s sake, but since I have no connection to the original I left it on the modern arrangements instead.
As far as story and gameplay are concerned, the Legend of Mana on Switch or PlayStation 4 is pretty much the same as it is on the PS1. Since this was my first time playing I can’t speak from personal experience, but I can say if you go and watch any part of any playthrough of Legend on original hardware, it sure looks functionally identical.
Man oh man does The Legend of Mana provide you with absolutely zero guidance.“
It’s fun, with a huge cast of characters, but the overall story isn’t particularly engaging or novel. There’s a great peril, the world is in danger, and it’s up to YOU to make things right. The individual stories connecting to the secondary characters have a little more in the way of creativity, but not much. I did like how some characters’ stories play out over the course of several different quests, while others are single-serving, opening and closing in a quest. As far as cohesiveness between individual stories, there’s not much and man oh man does The Legend of Mana provide you with absolutely zero guidance. Going in blind, I spent close to 20 hours going from quest to quest, without any clues as to where or what I should do next, before I finally got frustrated and consulted a guide and burned through the Dragon Run path to the end in under three hours. If you know what you’re doing it’s entirely possible to beat the story in just a couple hours (the world-record speedrun for the original is about 90 minutes, although the shortened loading times of the remake will make it possible to do it even faster).
Legend of Mana Screenshots
In my blind playthrough I learned (after the fact) that I had closed off some of the quests through my actions, which meant I have no hope of ever going back to that save file to do a 100% completion run. Since Legend of Mana has been out for over 20 years, there’s no shortage of guides to help you through it, but it feels bad to know that playing with a guide is basically a requirement if you want to actually progress the story rather than just wander from location to location hoping one of the townsfolk will trigger a quest when you speak to them.
You can turn off the encounters entirely if you’d rather just wander around the gorgeous hand-drawn world.“
In spite of the obtuse and nonsensical quest structure in Legend of Mana, which makes it feel like a PS1 game more than anything else, I still had a lot of fun playing it. The battle system is similar to the previous Mana games, minus the in-battle circle menus. You come across some enemies, the action switches to battle mode, and you do battle in action-RPG style. You set your attacks to whatever buttons you like in the menu, with different attacks available either through leveling up or depending on which weapon you’re wielding. It took me a bit to reacquaint myself with the Mana battle system, but once it “clicked” again, I found it quite fun. There’s a rhythm to each encounter, and if you’re hacking and slashing just right, you can blow through them with ease while still feeling satisfied with your performance. It’s not very deep, but there are some techniques I picked up along the way that increased my lethality, such as canceling certain enemy attacks by slamming them with a power attack at just the right moment.
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I never found myself struggling with the difficulty. There’s no option to play in “hard” mode, but on the flip side you can turn off the encounters entirely if you’d rather just wander around the gorgeous hand-drawn world and take in all the scenery. But once I’d figured out the rhythm of battles and the awesome power of the Counterstrike move, it felt pretty easy. On the rare occasion when I did fall in battle, Legend of Mana started me right back at the start of the action, so there was no need to retread half a dungeon just to get back into the thick of things. That’s surprising for a game from that era of JRPGs, and I definitely appreciated that approach.
The Legend of Mana of 2021 is as close to the original version as you could hope for while still bringing this classic original PlayStation JRPG into the modern era. The sprite work is timeless, and the newly redrawn widescreen backgrounds are just perfect. Legend of Mana is a game I just want to look at and absorb into my eyes as much as I want to play it… maybe even moreso, because while combat holds up, the old-school structure of its story makes it a little tougher to recommend unless you’re going to play with a walkthrough guide open on your phone the whole time. I enjoyed my time with Legend of Mana, don’t get me wrong, but wandering through its world from one unconnected quest to the next makes reaching the end feel like a very long guessing game – and there’s little or nothing that can be done to remedy that without fundamentally altering the DNA of Legend of Mana.
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