25 Years 25 Games 22: Secret of Evermore

Secret of Evermore is a Squaresoft SNES game that is largely forgotten when talking about the 16-bit RPG giant’s output. It’s not Final Fantasy or Chrono Trigger or even Secret of Mana. Though Secret of Mana is part of the reason the game is remembered by those who do remember it. Secret of Evermore is the first and only game developed by Squaresoft USA. It plays much like Secret of Mana and got a bad rep largely for supposedly preventing us in the USA from getting Secret of Mana’s real sequel. That loss appears to have more to do with Squaresoft’s falling out with Nintendo and the difficulties in compressing the dialogue to fit onto an American cartridge. Still, while the game is not actually connected to the Mana series, Evermore is built along the same lines.

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For better or worse, Secret of Evermore does feel “American.” It weird, but it is weird in a somewhat familiar way. The protagonist is an everyday kid that gets sucked into an alternate reality with his dog. The closest thing he has to a personality is that he loves what sound like terrible science fiction movies. His dog has more going on, if only because the dog changes form in each area of the game, going from a monstrous cave dog to a sleek greyhound to a fancy poodle to a jet power toaster. It is something at least.

The game starts with the main character getting sucked into a prehistoric world and movies through a few different realms before ending in a science fiction world. Each world is the creation of one of the people who were originally involved in an alternate reality experiment, and each one created a world to their liking. The game plays out a little like Chrono Trigger, moving from one setting to a completely different one every handful of hours. The game looks good, though not great. The music, though, is pretty great. It does play a lot like Secret of Mana. It has that same hit and wait battle system, with a meter at the bottom that must charge before you can effectively attack again. It has the ring menus for choosing spells and weapons. There are some changes to how spells work, but the game is definitely a sibling of Secret of Mana.

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There are two things that stop the game from being one of the SNES’s greats. The first is one of those changes from Secret of Mana, the differences in the magic system. Magic in Secret of Mana was already a low point, since you had to level it up by repeatedly casting spells. That seems to be somewhat alleviated by having only one character in Secret of Evermore, but something new added to what in Secret of Evermore is called Alchemy makes it even more tedious. In order to alchemy, you have to have the spell ingredients. That means you have to scour levels with dog to find invisible ingredients or spend all of your money stocking up on ingredients so you can cast the magic. Plus, you still have to level up each spell individually. So you cast the spell repeatedly to level up so it is strong enough to be useful, but then you run out of ingredients so you can’t actually cast it. It really makes you want to stick with some magic you learn early in the game, assuming you stocked up on enough spell ingredients to keep casting the high level versions of it. Without checking a guide there is no way of knowing which spells are actually worth using, other than leveling them up some and comparing, but that leads to even more ingredient hunting.

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The problem with alchemy is connected to the game’s other big problem: it is horribly balanced. One area will be super tough, but it will be followed by one that is super easy. One boss will be little more than a speed bump, but the next one might be a game ending obstacle. One spell you get fairly early (Crush) is super powerful, but the effectiveness of alchemy is all around a crap shoot. The whole game just feels super uneven.

That unevenness is not particularly surprising given that this was a rookie team making their first game. It feels like a rookie effort. There are quite a few good ideas here and a lot to like, but the game also feels kind haphazard. It is a good game, but there are a lot of good action-rpgs on the SNES. Games like Illusion of Gaia or A Link to the Past. Secret of Evermore doesn’t belong in the upper echelon of SNES games, but it is a worthy addition to the system’s library and still decently fun to play today.

The RPG Machine

Anyone who reads this blog should know that I am a pretty big fan of RPGs. A large part of my love of the SNES is due to it being probably the best RPG console to ever exist. The SNES library is glutted with great–and not so great–RPGs. More so than anything else, the SNES is great for RPGs.

That is not to say that subsequent consoles haven’t also had great RPGs. With the exception of the N64 they all have and I guess even the N64 had Paper Mario and Ogre Battle if you squint to make it count. The SNES, though, has an overabundance of all-time great games from the genre.

By my reckoning, there are 4 categories of SNES RPGs. The first are the “disputed” ones. These are the games that aren’t widely considered classics, but so have supporters, often vocal ones. This group covers most of the SNES’s RPGs. Games like the Breath of Fire or Lufia series. These are the games that you know one person who swears they are amazing, but most everyone else could take them or leave them. Some have tried to tell me that Breath of Fire II is a classic on par with the systems greats, but this is just not true. BoF II is too grindy and the translation it too mangled for the game to be anything but mediocre. My personal hobbyhorse in this category is Secret of Evermore. Despite longstanding hatred for not being Secret of Mana 2, I’d say that Secret of Evermore is a damn fine game. In fact, I like it more than Secret of Mana. I realize, though, that I can’t change the established narrative that they are the classic Secret of Mana and Secret of Evermore is its bad, or at the very least misguided, semi follow-up. That is how the disputed group works. History has already judged these games and found them wanting, but there will always be those that claim Final Fantasy Mystic Quest is the “secret best” SNES Final Fantasy game. It makes all the games I’ve mentioned, and many more, worth a look, though you most likely find many of them to be not to your taste. However, there is the chance that you might find one of them to be a hidden classic.

The next group are the “great, but” games. This is a much smaller group than the one before it. These are the games that would be truly great, save for one flaw (or several small flaws). Like Secret of Mana and the fact that you can almost see the seams where large parts of the game were removed and the surrounding part sewn together. Or Super Mario RPG and its goddamn infuriating isometric platforming sections. Or Final Fantasy 2 and the fact that it is not Final Fantasy 3. My experience with FF2 really is a tragedy. After spending years wanting to play that game, I didn’t end up getting the chance to until after I had played FF3 and Chrono Trigger and next to them, it felt primitive and shallow. All of these games are definitely worth playing, though.

The third group is the “unimpeachable classics.” I say there are only three games in this group: Chrono Trigger, Earthbound and Final Fantasy III. Not only are these the three best RPGs on the SNES, I would say they are the three best RPGs, period. There are plenty of games on a similar level, but none that are genuinely better. Chrono Trigger is elegant. It is graphically stunning with a straightforward story and a deceptively complex battle system. Earthbound is truly unique (other than its Japan only sequel) with its modern setting and often absurd sense of humor. Final Fantasy 3 is simply bursting at the seams with game. The party has more than 12 members but never feels bloated, each with unique skills, as if they split each of the jobs from the previous game into its own character. There is a 20-hour game that climaxes before opening before another 20-hour game. All three of the games have terrific music. Everyone should play these three games, as often as possible. I make a point of playing 2 of the 3 every year.

The last group is the “not available” group. There are the numerous, numerous games that never made the trek across the ocean. It is lead by Final Fantasy 5, Dragon Warriors 5 & 6 and Seiken Densetsu 3 (Secret of Mana 2). Many of these games have since made it to America, but they will never be truly part of the SNES experience here. Many of them are great games; some have inflated reputations due to their inaccessibility. No matter the quality, the sheer number of games that we didn’t get–RPGs for the sake of this post, but there are many other games as well–is a tragedy.

Overall, there are so many great or nearly great RPGs for the SNES. I am not one to say that the genre has not evolved since the SNES days, but the games on this system were such a large part of shaping my tastes in video games that I cannot but consider it the best RPG console.