Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Lost Art Of Keeping A Secret

There are spoilers and sad revelations here, you're warned.

Looking at the modern gaming landscape, if a game about a boy and his dog in a weird, sci fi world came out and happened to be sprinkled with ironic, albeit fictional B-movie quotes came out today, it would worm its way into the hearts of ironic hipster gamers everywhere. Fifteen years ago, this game was released, this was before the ironic age for those of you who don't remember, and it quickly became one of the most divisive action-adventure RPG games of the late Super NES era.

Allow me to provide you with a little backstory. In the latter days of the Super NES, when it was going through that phase that all consoles go through when it wants to continue being a competitor. Squaresoft, because this was before the merger, pushed the 16 bit hardware to its absolute limit between April of 1994 and May of 1996 before it left Nintendo for Sony, proving that some companies will just jump between controlling, abusive relationships (cough FFXI for PS2 followed by the slimline). Of the thirteen games developed in that period, only about a third of them reached North American shores. In fact, the one discussed this evening was developed by the American branch of Squaresoft.

Have you guessed what it is yet?

If you guessed gaming's biggest, saddest consolation prize, Secret Of Evermore, you win.

Many sources reference an interview with lead programmer Brian Fehdrau that state that Secret Of Evermore was not released here to preclude Seiken Densetsu III. The staff behind the game had been new hires brought in to specifically make a game. Their hiring did not divert Square resources from translating Seiken Densetsu III any more than it prevented translations of Live A Live, Front Mission, Romancing SaGa III, Bahamut Lagoon, Front Mission: Gun Hazard, Treasure Of The Rudras or Treasure Hunter G. Similarly, there were no plans to localize this game to Japan, nor do I believe there are any plans to do so by Japanese classic gaming, rom hacking and translating enthusiasts.

The interview also states that while certain elements of the Mana series were taken by example such as the ring menu system and overall controls. Visually, it's a beautiful game. At times it's an absolute stunner and I still want a chessboard garden thanks to this game's interesting design choices. This release certainly has the looks and the gameplay elements, but does it have a story that would match the War And Peace epic of Final Fantasy VI or the massive experiment in causality that was Chrono Trigger? Would it have the breadth of a story needed to satisfy Secret Of Mana fans who were hungry, bitterly disappointed and yet, after a few development interviews in Nintendo Power, cautiously optimisic?
In short, no.

Sorry Moviebob, but in this case, the video game is not from Japan. This is an entirely North American game made by people who were told to make something close to an Americanized Secret Of Mana. Nothing sells like ironic pop culture right? Well, fifteen years ago, cute irony was not in fashion. The lion's share of attention went to programming this from the ground up, making it visually beautiful for NTSC televisions, making rather atmospheric music and letting it slip through Nintendo's radar with the bugs it carried.

The story is essentially a boy and his dog get trapped in a virtual game world and, through the conflict of man versus nature, they have to get through this world, save the actual inhabitants who have been there since 1965, not aging but aware of the passing of time and preferably leave intact. This game has “boys' own adventure” almost literally stamped on its cartridge. The use of fictitious B-movies for apt quotes and the character's main trait not being bravery or skill but being a walking monster movie trivia master is an almost eerie prediction of a generation that would drop references like pennies and have a Simpsons quote for all occasions. The very end of the game even had the villain, an evil robot butler named Carltron, rubbing his fist and looking evil, bringing a very “the end... or is it?” feel to Secret OF Evermore.

At one point in the game, there is a puppet show that the main character considers boring. While the puppet show's script does not attribute lines to the speaking characters, it can be discerned as a dialogue between a man who believes himself free and the woman he loves whom he believes to be a puppet. She rebukes him by saying “it is hope, faith and love/that pulls my strings.” and the man, believing himself free says “I shall away/in search of easier folly!” The text of the play can be viewed here, just search for “The Puppet Show Script”. The puppet show shows the greater themes of life and existentialism explored in many of Squaresoft's titles before and after the merger with Enix.

The interesting construction of Secret Of evermore is the world of Evermore itself. The world is divided up into four sections, Prehistoria, Nobilia, Gothica and Omnitopia, each being a representation of the four trapped people's utopian vision. There is no additional utopian creation when the boy enters the world, the only effect is on his dog who changes form depending on which utopia he is in. A theory could be posited that his utopia is the adventure itself, culminating in not believing it happened upon his return to the town of Podunk, seeing the name “Secret Of Evermore” on the marquee of the Bijou.

The problem with Secret Of Evermore, aside from the bugs and the downright terrible timing of release is that there was no secret. If the game had been called Evermore or Adventure In Evermore or Fictitious B-Move Reference: The Game! It probably would not have taken the flak that it got for not being a certain sprawling, action adventure role playing game with 6 selectable characters, interweaving plots and the sort of existentialism and crises that ended up becoming Square's bread and butter. This game fits well in the adventure section but is ill-fitting overall in the company's history, being the only game made from the ground up in North America for Squaresoft and certainly not a game that should have had “Secret” in its title.

You know, Square-Enix could probably make a killing if they collected the games that were not released here, translate them, eschew the usual bright lights and big noises their current re-packages add (though I do like the remake of Romancing SaGa), and released them all on a compendium disc. That's a thousand hours of gameplay right then and there.


  1. I wish I'd seen this back when it was originally written. I'm the aforementioned Brian Fehdrau. I thought you might be interested to know that, indeed, there was never intended to be a Secret at all. The game was called just "Evermore" for most of its production. At some point, very late in production, someone (who probably wore a suit or at least a tie) decided it would be wise to ride Mana's coattails and dictated that the game would be renamed to Secret of Evermore, with a similar logo. Many of us were unhappy about this, because we expected exactly what happened and what you discuss here. To this day, 20+ years later, it still bothers me that that was done. I wonder how things would have played out if it hadn't been.

    1. Hm, not sure why that post shows up as Unknown. But yes, it's me.

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