Hello and welcome, RetrowareTV devotees! This is Franchise Fatigue, a new column about game franchises past and present, and the strange, odd, terrible, or otherwise notable entries that they inevitably spawn.

I guess I should introduce myself a little bit to the crowd. My name is Brian Hanson, and I’ve been writing about anime for websites and magazines long before it was cool to do so, and far longer afterwards. But I’m not here to talk about imported cartoons. Nope; I’m here to talk about one of the more curious bits of Squaresoft’s 16-bit apocrypha: Secret of Evermore!

It was 1995. Squaresoft’s US office in Seattle was riding high on the success of Final Fantasy III in the west. Chrono Trigger was being localized for an August release, and their attempt at localizing Final Fantasy V as “Final Fantasy Extreme” had just been shuttered. Meanwhile, a group of ragtag, young, enthusiastic programmers, writers, musicians, and artists were toiling away in Squaresoft’s new development studio with the mandate of making a “Secret of Mana-esque game,” designed and tailored specifically to appeal to western sensibilities.

But while Square’s Japanese office was hard at work crafting a direct sequel to the irrefutably terrific Secret of Mana, Square’s carefully-assembled US team was given a firm “Holiday 1995” deadline and access to some of Square’s RPG development tools and scripting software. Probably the most indispensable bit of information about the game’s creation comes from a Nintendo Life interview with Brian Fehdrau, the lead programmer. “We really did everything, absolutely everything, with little or no prior experience and no outside help, and that’s something to be proud of, all by itself. I’m also proud of the fact that we managed to mimic the Secret of Mana engine pretty faithfully, to the point that most people think we inherited the code and tweaked it for our own purposes,” he says.

The team was pretty small, which was pretty customary to make a 16-bit game I suppose, but it’s interesting to look at the crew who made Secret of Evermore and notice some notable folks who have moved on to bigger, more prominent projects. The art direction and creature designs were created by Daniel Dociu, who most PC gamers would recognize as the face behind the character of Father Grigori in Half Life 2. The music was produced and composed by a very young Jeremy Soule, who probably lists his credit on Secret of Evermore further back on his resume than Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker and Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Spearheading the development of the game itself were Douglas E. Smith and Alan Weiss, two guys who worked at Broderbund in the 80’s, creating stuff like Lode Runner and Deadly Towers. The script was written by one of Squaresoft’s better translators, George Sinfield, fresh from localizing the original Breath of Fire, and previously, StarTropics II.

So, there’s some good talent there. They’re working with Squaresoft’s own SNES development tools and software, on a 24 megabit cartridge. What the hell happened?

From the perspective of the internet, Seiken Densetsu 3 is considered the pinnacle of the Secret of Mana games. I disagree with that – the game is too complicated, too buggy, too unfocused – but I understand where they’re coming from. Considering it never made its way stateside, there’s obviously a lot of ill-will towards Secret of Evermore which isn’t entirely justified. It was considered gospel, until that same Nintendo Life interview I linked earlier, that Seiken Densetsu 3 was shuttered for a Western release in favor of Secret of Evermore. But that’s not true. As Fehdrau explains, “…the common belief is that resources were re-allocated to develop Evermore, rather than to bring Seiken Densetsu 3 to North America. I can assure you that no one was re-allocated. The entire Evermore team was built from the ground up with new hires. None of the people involved in North American localizations were tied up by our game. In fact, if memory serves, Breath of FireChrono Trigger, and Final Fantasy 6 were all localized for North America while we were in development.”

But I’m not sure I buy that completely. If I may be allowed to supply some baseless conjecture, I think it’s simple to find the reasoning behind it: Secret of Mana was a hit, Square wanted to release another game, but Square also had this silly notion that they could broaden their audience. They could craft a game from the ground up that would “appeal to Western sensibilities.” Instead of shipping maybe a million or so cartridges of their “niche” Japanese games re-written for a Western audience, they could potentially ship several million cartridges of a game that would target American gamers like a heat-seeking missile.

So they hired some eager, young, hungry talent and let them go nuts. What do western kids want? They want some blonde-haired milksop of a protagonist in a Marty McFly costume! They want to play a game with their dog as their sidekick! And they… want a sort of convoluted economy that changes currency in different areas? And a magic system that is entirely item-based and similarly restrictive based upon your location?

So, shockingly, they missed the mark. They missed the mark like every single Japanese developer missed that same mark whenever they get a wild hair up their butt about “targeting a Western audience.” Which isn’t to say that I don’t think the game is “fun.” It is, to an extent – the core joy of the original Secret of Mana is still there. There’s something primeval, something wondrous, about whacking creatures with swords, bones, spears and bazookas while little numbers bounce out of them, until they collapse in a poof of dust and clattering critter bones.

But the joy is gone. The script is witless and devoid of charm. (Sorry, George Sinfield, but your hodgepodge of made-up B-movie dialogue reeks of tongue-in-cheek precociousness.) Worse yet, there’s no multiplayer! Not that you’d ever want to – controlling the dog is a clunky, slow bit of un-fun business.

The bright side is, after Secret of Evermore failed to light the world on fire and Square dissolved their in-house Western development studio (don’t worry, most of the staff found work around the Seattle area – working at Microsoft, Electronic Arts, or starting their own studios), Square never again missed out on localizing a Mana game, aside from one oddball mobile phone game. Although, that itself is a mixed blessing; after Seiken Densetsu 3, most of the Mana games ranged from interesting but flawed (Legend of Mana) to dire and execrable (Dawn of Mana).

It’s also the last time Square bothered to create something “in-house” for the western market, at least until their recent acquisition of Eidos. The lesson from Secret of Evermore is pretty obvious: what made Secret of Mana great was very difficult to duplicate, and it was something even series creator Koichi Ishii struggled with for the rest of his duration at Square. This group of young and enthusiastic programmers and artists and designers, left to their own devices with little corporate oversight, poured their hearts and souls into this game. This mild, somewhat forgettable game.

In case you haven’t forgotten about it, getting a hold of the original SNES cart will only set you back between 30 to 60 bucks, which isn’t bad, considering how rare most SNES RPGs are these days. It hasn’t ever been rereleased or ported to any other system, even Virtual Console, which is puzzling. Seems like Square is doing its part, for whatever reason, to make sure nobody remembers it.

Maybe it’s because the TV commercial featured a horrifying scene of dog-transformation terror that scarred a generation of children.

–Brian Hanson