a review of Secret of Evermore
a videogame developed by Square Los Angeles
and published by Squaresoft
for the super nintendo entertainment system
text by tim rogers
Secret of Evermore is constructive criticism of the best form. It’s a Japanese role-playing game made by Americans. It is a love letter to the most insipid feature set to ever grace the trade of game design, penned by a gorgeous woman, saying nothing in particular, though capable of making a man quit smoking if he’d just take the time to read it. Japan, however, did not take the time to read it: it was never released there. America and Europe hardly listened, either: here is a game that stood in the shadow of a hideous giant from the moment of its announcement, in a quarter-page preview in an issue of Electronic Gaming Monthly (we’d tell you the issue and page number, though that would make us look vaguely like weirder people than we really are): the screenshot-accompanying, paragraph-long blurb, written with all the joy of the side panel of a cereal box, focused entirely on the fact that, though the game was being published by Squaresoft, though it featured realtime combat, and though it had the word “Secret” in the title, it was not a sequel to Secret of Mana. The groaning began, and eventually evolved into LOLling. Eventually, the game was released; EGM didn’t even review it. If you came down with an ear infection before your local Blockbuster heaved a great sigh and tossed the ignored rental copy into the Used ‘n’ Abused bin, then no doubt, to this day, you will look back on the game with a kind of delicate reverence. We here at Action Button Dot Net hold that same reverence. In the interests of history, we have gone back to this game, breathed very deeply, and dove in: not only does it hold up, it holds all the way up.
Perhaps no one has appropriately loved Secret of Evermore, except for maybe this one game review site called Action Button Dot Net. It’s unfortunate. As touched upon briefly in the previous paragraph, the game was a “failure” because it shared many conceptual similarities with irreparably flawed Japanese games; in filling in all the holes in Secret of Mana‘s game design, all Secret of Evermore ended up obviously doing was making the games its creators had idolized look flat and &^#$#ed. The attention to detail regarding world locales and game mechanics — for better or for best — and corresponding cultural conscience employed by Secret of Evermore were way ahead of their time. It’d take a decade and change for pointed, intelligent rebootism to become an entertainment zeitgeist (see the new “Battlestar Galactica” TV series, “Casino Royale”, and “The Dark Knight”). Secret of Evermore was trimming away the fat and streamlining the experience of its peers in real-time, which flies fiercely in the face of one of the most ironclad rules of Japanese game development: Never. Cut. Anything. To cut something out of a sequel, or a game that aspires to be better than an established game, is quite simply to make less of a game as far as the critics or money-holders are concerned.
This review, so far, has been pointed, dreary generalities. We hereby seek to pretend that that’s the point: pointed, dreary generalities are the only thing that Evermore ever really managed to objectively triumph over. From where we stand at this exact moment, it’s only obvious that, as much as the main character in Evermore quotes drop-dead-unfunny non-existent B-movies, the one thing Evermore never is is tacky. You want tacky? Get a load of the fact that Square-Enix has released the original, creatceaous Final Fantasy game seven times (twice for the Famicom itself (once as part of a collection of Final Fantasy I+II), once for the WonderSwan Color, once for the PlayStation, once for the Gameboy Advance, once for the PlayStation Portable, and once for the Nintendo Wii Virtual Console), without changing an iota of the core mechanics. (To be fair, in the first remake they fixed the crippling oversight wherein you had to buy potions one at a time; to be even fairer, they did not fix the fact that you absolutely need 99 potions at all times.) So we’ve got this molasses-thick battle system, dungeons as much “fun” as crawling through a minefield on your two front teeth, and booming, fetishistically recorded orchestral music. The music only highlights the absolute stuff you’re drowning in; though seriously, as people who have seen the way Japanese video game developers spend their lunch breaks (usually leaning back in their chairs with towels over their faces in hopes that The Boss will walk by and think “That guy’s definitely not not a hard worker!” before remembering that he’s supposed to be thinking about hookers), we know that The One Nice Thing that ends up in any game made by these hate-pushers is usually at the very bottom of a spreadsheet list of “things we could perhaps maybe do to please our mathematically loyal customers”. Time rolls on, the future becomes the now, and the past is still the now: we have Lost Odyssey, a game with nice-enough artistic conscience, well-composed music, interludes of actual literature, and The Same Battle System they’ve been using in these games for an eternity. On the one hand, we have actual literature; on the other hand, we have sixteen-hit combos, accessories that teach party members new abilities, and the option to fiddle with the triggers to as to close a circle on the enemy as your character goes through his attack motion for the twelve-thousandth time. It’d be naive to think that the designers of these games don’t realize that they possess the potential to bore literally thousands of people; it’s just that the realize the innocent people will pay them anyway. It’s like, the rule “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” applies worldwide; in Japan, however, the planning meetings go one step further, and conclude that “if it sells enough copies to pay for development costs and put one yen in the boss’s pocket, it isn’t ‘broken'”.
A new paragraph, the same story (think of it as a “random battle”): the developers of Secret of Evermore liked Japanese RPGs. We’d say they particularly liked Final Fanasy VI (speculation). They must have also liked Secret of Mana, because the game plays something like it. It’s not for us to decide whether or not the makers of Secret of Evermore worked within the Japanese RPG genre because they saw “potential”, or if they were merely attempting to make a game exactly like Secret of Mana. If it was the latter, they failed miserably. If it was the former, they did an excellent job. We love the game either way.
Secret of Evermore is a game about a boy with a dog. They live in a terrifyingly boring town called “Podunk”. The only thing to do in Podunk is to see terrible films at a rotten cinema. This is all the pleasure the kid knows: terrible B-movies. Since they’re all he knows, of course, he’s obtained a sweet taste for sour stuff. (The same could be said of all RPG fans of the time. Hmm! We might just have an unintentional metaphor.) He quotes space captains and zombie-slayers in much of his dialogue — which is sometimes monologue, because we get the impression that the dog isn’t really listening. His dog is a dog. The dog basically does things that dogs do, like sniffing the ground. Early on, the story makes a cute little curtsy, and deems the dog “Important”: it’s because the dog is chasing a cat that the boy ends up in some old creepy mansion. In the dark, he stumbles on a machine. In minutes, he’s inside some orbital space-station thing. An old bald man sees the boy, greets him, gets nervous, and leads him to a door. The door happens to lead the bewildered boy to an escape pod that crashes to the surface of a prehistoric jungle. The boy regroups with his dog, now transformed from a little yappy mutt to a broad-shouldered wolf-like animal-contraption.
The adventure begins.
It turns out that the prehistoric jungle is just one of the four worlds in “Evermore”, a synthetic planet created by a group of intelligentsia who found life in Podunk too boring to bear. Each of the world’s creators lords over one region of the world: there’s the prehistoric Prehistoria, the Roman megalopolis-like Antiqua, the dark-ages dungeons-and-dragons-and-decadence of Gothica, and the orbital space station Omnitopia. Fantastic as these places are, the boy will spend the duration of the game trying to get out of Evermore and back into Podunk, though not until after uncovering the “Secret”: all of the creators of Evermore kind of want to go back, too. It’s just that they can’t. This is where the adventure comes into play.
According to the Wikipedia page that shares the same title as this game, the concept of a young boy questing through worlds inspired by b-movies was “dictated from overseas”. What that truly means, no one knows. Was it Square Japan’s idea? Whatever the case, there are a million ways it could have gone wrong. It didn’t go wrong. Secret of Evermore is a masterpiece of flow. The prehistoric world is just barbaric enough — our hero wields a bone in lieu of a sword — to warm us up to the action. The on-the-fly tutorial is invisible. Eventually, we’re in the ancient-Roman kind of world, with cliffs and Mediterranean vistas and caves and temples. There’s more adventure in the second world of Secret of Evermore than in most other games of the time, anchored by vast environments that, unlike the field segments in all other “Japanese RPGs”, each contain a minimum of one shockingly personable gimmick. In Antiqua, for example, there’s an enormous, gray, desolate desert. You can cross the desert on foot, or you can offer a specific precious item to a skeleton in a rowboat in exchange for a quick trip across the sand. The quirks, here, split like a skill tree in a real-time-strategy game: if you don’t have the medallion the skeleton requests, you’ll have to walk. If you walk, you lose hit points as time passes. The desert is many screens wide and many hundreds of screens tall. There are several oases in the desert, located at seemingly random points. Enter one to recover all of your hit points. Monsters dot the desert as well. They’ll follow you. Eventually, walking (or running) across the desert comes to feel really hopeless and kind of depressing.
Also, if you’ve decided to name your main character something profane (you get sixteen letters), the skeleton will refuse to carry you.
At the other end of the desert is a mammoth town called Nobilia, with a marketplace that transcends perhaps any location ever represented in videogames. Children play in the streets, insects scurry in sunlit shop buildings, a crazy old man shouts conspiracy theories, chickens peck at stone, people bustle between market stalls. (If you talk to the man shouting the conspiracy theories, it turns out he’s actually Hideo Kojima (not really): he insists that someone is standing beyond where our eyes can see, pressing buttons, manipulating the world. Talk to him enough, and the game offers you a choice to turn him into a chicken.) The marketplace scene is epicly great for several reasons, one being that it is only a small part of the city of Nobilia — which also has a palace with shiny floors, a fountain square with some surrounding houses, and a coliseum. Far from merely making the marketplace look good, the game designers go one further, and decide to immerse the player in its logistics. It’s an honest enough idea to try to impress Roman marketplace microeconomics upon a player; it’s a lukewarm miracle that they manage to make it feel like an essential part of a videogame. (Even though it’s purely optional.) Each stall in the marketplace trades something for something else. You might be able to trade beads for a jar of spice. Then you can trade the jar of spice for something else. Some sellers offer one-of-a-kind items in exchange for other one-of-a-kind items. Getting the first one-of-a-kind item might require a half an hour of researching what several-of-a-kind items will yield the most of another, more useful several-of-a-kind item in a trade. Before you know it, you’ve spent two hours of your life walking back and forth across a large, gloriously textured, living chunk of digital real estate, and at last, you’ve gotten your hands on a Very Useful Accessory. Though you don’t know it for certain the first time you play the game, you get the impression that if you don’t complete this challenge now, you won’t get another chance ever again, unless you start the whole game over. This impression is correct: Evermore is about the here and now, and unlike virtually every other Japanese-styled “RPG” to follow it, it manages to reward your weirdly existential-like curiosity without ever feeling like busywork. The marketplace of Nobilia presents you a sweater with a dangling piece of loose yarn. You pull at it a bit, and suddenly you’re entranced. In any other RPG, this feels (and looks) like kleptomania. In Evermore, it looks like a cute kitten playing with a ball of yarn. The act is joyful, and innocent. Evermore‘s more “Final Fantasy“-titled contemporaries had enforced within players the tendency to search anything that looked like a clock in hopes of finding an Elixir, an all-powerful medicine. The average Final Fantasy player never uses those Elixirs; they stack them up, like trophies. Though unlike trophies, they are not anything hard-won — they are received, through brainless (and usually fruitless) repetition of one rarely reinforced obsessive behavior. What Evermore does is posit that the “RPG fetch quest” can be contextualized through a wondrous environment, actualized by interesting play mechanics (ie, not “kill 100 of [quirky RPG monster variety name]”), and solidified with valuable — though highly optional — rewards that express their value when used in the context of the main thrust of the game (battle). In Final Fantasy VI, for example, we have to equip the Cursed Shield for 255 battles, suffering a plague of status ailments, before the curse is lifted, so that, finally, we can fight more battles with no disadvantages. In the world of the game — and on paper — this seems like something to do, though in the Real World, all it’s doing is making the player dig a hole so that he can marvel as the hole fills itself back up in an instant. On the one hand, you just did a bunch of work; on the other hand, all you get for it is the sight of dirt.
Fetchy quests of the shield-curse-dispelling variety may or may not exist in Final Fantasy because the game needs to mask the brainless hours of repetitive grinding some way. Evermore, however, with its scaled-back battle system, allows the concepts of the battles, not the promise of “getting stronger”, to take the center stage. Carrot-dangling is a nice way to keep a player playing a game, though in RPGs, it’s actually kind of rude: the player can’t see the carrot, and has no idea how big it is. He just knows it’s there; he smells it. He runs at that carrot, and when he finally goes after that boss, he kills him in one round. Evermore is, from its outset, deeply concerned with contextualization of play mechanics and story. The carrot being dangled is, as in any other RPG, invisible, though the carrot’s name is not “Higher Numbers” — it’s “What Happens Next”. What world do we get to see next? Do we get this poor B-movie-loving schlub back home, or not? The battles are not party-favors like in Secret of Mana. They’re not something to do with a couple of friends. They’re Serious Business. There’s a reason the game doesn’t have two-player co-op, despite its engine supporting it quite viciously: this is an introspective, forward-crawling game; its chief goal is to immerse you its world and make you feel accomplished. Switching between the boy and his dog during a battle actually feels like strategy. Either way, the dog is a dog for a reason — he takes orders. You use him like a tool. And he’s a great tool.
Some consider the “magic system” in Secret of Evermore “kind of broken”, and hey, so do we. That doesn’t mean we can’t still stand up and slow-clap at its amazing intentions. Magic in Evermore comes from execution of alchemical formulas. Each formula requires a certain number of ingredients: a couple balls of wax, a drop of oil, a dash of gunpowder. Each alchemy ingredient is packaged snugly into its own item slot. The adorable logistical fetishism of the game designers comes fully into view when you realize how alchemy ingredients are acquired: literally anywhere.
Most RPGs encourage the player — for reasons unknown to both the game and the player — to press the “investigate” button while facing any suspicious-looking object. The tragedy of the moment, however, is that, in a videogame — in an imaginary world contained inside your TV screen, everything is suspicious by default. Evermore rises above and beyond the call of duty by making some objects genuinely look more suspicious than everything else, without looking so suspicious as to force you to lie down and have a nap. It’s a delicate balance; the player nudges a rock, and out comes a drop of oil, to be collected and used for a future alchemical moment. You can also buy some ingredients in stores; sometimes, the ingredients you get in stores will be readily available in the wild, though sometimes, the ingredients in the wild might plain not exist anywhere else. Contemplating the amount of conscience, thought, and fine-tuning that must have gone into this results in an awesome headache.
It’s also a migraine and a half to ponder the brainstorming meetings that went into dungeons and combat in this game. Basing everything on the Secret of Mana template was probably a good start, and though they could have just thrown together monster closets and made back their money, they went leaps and bounds further, instead opting to create intelligent monsters who possess vaguely 8-bitty sparring patterns. Secret of Mana had allowed players to charge up weapons to eight levels — earning each charge level required the player to kill as many as a hundred monsters with said weapon. Evermore trims out the fat, gives every weapon three charge levels, with each of the three attacks being something purely optional and radically different in purpose, range, delivery, and tactical usefulness. Where Mana‘s weapon list reads like digital photograph of a whiteboard post formal brainstorming session (whip, spear, javelin, etc), Evermore only features the weapons it wants the player to use — including the staple sword and a most-deliciously thrusty spear. Mana‘s leveling system requires the more completist-minded player to raise each character’s experience with each weapon up as high as it will go. Evermore merely encourages the player to keep playing, keep moving forward. Mana — and most any RPG of the day — had featured dungeons in which rooms were merely excuses for monsters to appear; occasionally, there’d be a locked door, in which case you’d go into the door that wasn’t locked, and flip a switch to unlock said door. The dungeons were slogs, to be frank; it didn’t matter, so much, because the game’s fighting was supposed to be “fun” for multiple players. Most people (warning: using our own experience as “most people”) played most of the game alone, which sometimes felt desolate. Either way, there’s no use comparing Evermore to Mana: Evermore is more of a halfway point between Zelda and Final Fantasy — action-based fighting with numbers and slogging endurance test dungeons with actual puzzles. Bosses all require some strategy that exists in your head just seconds before its pieces become visible in the game. Within Evermore‘s running time are several two- to three-minute segments that contain as strong an “Aha!” as the part right before a point-and-click adventure starts to collapse like a house of cards. Again: there’s more to this game than there has any right to be. More than any normal player wanted. More than the games industry is willing to supply even until today — “today” being that day where a game is either a mechanical masterpiece with impenetrable atmosphere (Godhand) or a well-crafted world gimped by game logic (Bioshock). How Evermore managed to get everything right way back in 1995 is a mystery, though we can only use the word “mystery” facetiously: the solution to the puzzle here is that Evermore was made by people who just wanted to make a good game that played well, and decided that SGI workstations alone weren’t enough: they’d need to call in some common sense.
These developers treated their “genre” less like a template and more like a format. They understood that large sections of what had masqueraded as “game design” for several years were actually just placeholders for “interesting things” to come; without the slightest hint of pretentiousness, they tossed off an armful of ideas for what those interesting things might, in fact, be. The Nobilia market, again, is a shining example: here’s a bunch of guys who loved RPGs and LucasArts point-and-click adventure games, and decided to marry them and encourage them to copulate. In an industry that has always been scared of collapsing into financial ruin and/or being pointed / laughed at, it took acres of testicles to make something so crucial to the glory of your game purely optional, though isn’t that the way it should be? Why must the optional things be so bland in these games? Final Fantasy VI (which, yes, we just dissed re: the Cursed Shield) was kind enough to make getting the majority of the characters optional, though at the same time, if you take out all those optional quests, you’re left with half a game. Somewhere between Zelda: Link to the Past and Final Fantasy VI, the concept of workflow got hecked up in Japanese game development, and it’s just never worked itself out since. Years later, we get a great man (term used loosely) like Hironobu Sakaguchi plopping out a game like Lost Odyssey, with high aspirations, shining production values, and bankrupt game design. Sakaguchi plays Gears of War, marvels at the togetherness, the unity of the (admittedly meatheaded) storytelling and the weight of the action. He says, “I wish we could make a game like that.” (Paraphrase.) The thing is, the common sense to make a together piece of artlike work has existed since dinosaurs roamed the earth. Eventually, Naughty Dog would make Jak II, with elements of racing, platform action, skateboarding, car-hijacking, flying, and shooting, and the reviewers would marvel at the heterogeneous ingeniousness of it. Meanwhile, all these years ago, there was Secret of Evermore, hand up in the back of the class, squirming with enthusiasm, and there was the teacher, thinking that the big-headed buffoon just needed to go to the toilet again.
Secret of Evermore was a way out: it was an action game, an adventure game, and an RPG all at once. It didn’t overstep any of its boundaries — it did the inverse. It set its bars at a medium height, and jumped over them so many times it started to feel good. The game was the West taking something they knew and liked about Japan, and reinterpreting it. A little cross-cultural revising. Some Greek philosopher said that imitation is the highest form of flattery; well, revision is the highest form of imitation. Japan, however, though they have made a history of imitating and revising the west, simply refuse to revise western revisions of Japanese things. It’s a weird syndrome. Look at “The Matrix”, which the Wachowskis apparently pitched to Hollywood by showing Joel Silver some Japanese animation — which had in fact been inspired by western science-fiction in the first place — and saying “We want to do this with real actors”. When “The Matrix” was a worldwide smash hit, did it change the way the Japanese thought about their own animation? Of course not; one would be justified in suspecting that Japan took a weird degree of offense, and decided to separate themselves, in shame, from the subject matter that the Americans had Done Better. A decade later, the prevailing theme in Japanese animation is “female toddlers in short skirts and omnivisible panties, with melon-sized breasts, wearing maid outfits (maybe robotic)”. They’re like that kid in the neighborhood whose birthday party your mom forces you to go to; you give him a new baseball bat as a present, and he drops it on the ground and promptly kicks you in the sack. The bastard doesn’t even hit you over the head with the bat you just gave him: that’s how little he thinks of you.
Secret of Evermore is a considerate episode of “Doctor Who”; we’d like to think that maybe we need more games like that, games that — groan-worthy “humor” included — toe the dangerous line between entertainment and education without ever sacrificing explosions or thrills. Even if The Doctor is showing us a far-off, fictional alien world, we take something away from the plot and the way it’s presented; in Secret of Evermore, every little situation, cheesy as it might sound on paper, is blessed with a sweet little injection of didactism. A decade and a puberty later, the games industry keeps talking about “casual games”, which isn’t as terrible a thing as We, The Hardcore sometimes pretend we think it is. “Casual games”, more than being brain-trainers, bilingual dictionaries, or Professor-Layton-like series of gamelike brain-teasers, could always just aspire to, you know, be genuine “entertainment”. The line between “game” and “non-game” isn’t nearly as important as the line between “entertaining” and “not entertaining”.
What we’re (maybe) (kind of) saying is — that heap of schlock called the Japanese retail scene, bloated with so many by-the-book RPGs copping Tales of…‘s button-slamming battles and corridor-slogging dungeons (the Tales of… series is excluded, for reasons we won’t get into (it’d take ten thousand words of saying nothing), or else trying to be Kingdom Hearts, could benefit from trimming out the believed-essential fat (stat numbers, equipment baubles, overcomplicated battle menus) and pouring in an ounce of the artistic conscience (simple thrusty battle mechanics, calm level design and flow) that went into Secret of Evermore. We’d probably be looking at lower high-school drop-out rates across the board.
Secret of Evermore could have perhaps left a wide and ugly mark of righteousness on the world by being a little more bombastic. We might be looking at a different games industry if that had happened, and we probably wouldn’t be including the game on our list of the best twenty-five games of all-time if it had actually been popular.
Yes, that’s a joke: we like Evermore because of its delicateness and its nobility. We appreciate way that the game’s snowglobe representation of world history shows us only prehistoric times, Ancient Rome, the Dark Ages, and the distant future. We appreciate that it doesn’t strain to include a fire world, an ice world, a dark world, et cetera. We appreciate that its many sections, varied and foreign as they feel, possess deep-bleeding visual motifs: the interior of a pyramid looks and feels like both itself and a distinct part of this world where a town is also erected inside a wrecked ship. Evermore‘s use of computer-generated imagery shuns the flashiness of Donkey Kong Country, instead opting to use the new software as a tool for better conveying the original vision, with its carefully calculated color palettes: gray morning light, dark purple leaves in a medieval forest, cold blue bricks of an city inside a tower, rain-blue sky over a cracked granite chessboard atop a mountain.
Jeremy Soule’s music stays superb throughout, never trying to take center stage. It was his first videogame soundtrack — though it wouldn’t be the last by Soule, or even the last in the same tradition: there’s just so much about the fading-in-fading-out, floating, transient composition that just works for a game, and the quiet and contemplative plucks of digital classical guitars might well be the only element of Secret of Evermore that managed to revolutionize any one aspect of game development. Playing the game today reveals its sound design as shockingly modern. Each crunchy thrust of a spear into enemy flesh, each bark or sniff of your trusty can be heard over the air-holes in the ambient wilderness-wandering background music. Back in Secret of Evermore‘s day, games were an unproven medium. They still are, to be certain, though not for lack of trying. Circa 1995, everyone was trying to make everything stand out in a game. This kind of thinking yielded splatter-painting masterpieces like Megaman, with razor-sharp play mechanics, iconic visuals, and vein-pumping music. Those games were miraculous occurrences: a group of people somehow firing, independently and constantly, on more than all cylinders. Secret of Evermore represents an early — and near-perfect — attempt to make a good game where every element fits together neatly by calculated coincidence. It was intelligent — and highly so — because its creators were intelligent, not because they wanted to give off an air of sophistication. Surely, there are people who will play this game today and call it “bland”. It’s not that the game is outdated or outdone — it hasn’t been, and it won’t — it’s just that some players are so conditioned to want everything in a game that they don’t appreciate it when everything a game does give them is very considerately thought out. Even more often than “less is more”, “good” is better than “less”. So here’s to Secret of Evermore, a sophisticated game by necessity, just deep enough in scale, just huge enough in scope, just gorgeous enough in presentation, as good as it can get, as good (not to mention polite, noble, humble, modest) as any game of similar aspirations (“have a character, have a quest, kill monsters, get (real world) money”) has been since. And no, we didn’t forget to mention that it stars an amazingly buried game-shattering flow-related “bug”: we just decided to save it for the last sentence.