Trials of Mana interview: How do you make a remake?

Producers of the action RPG discuss the challenges of turning a 2D classic into a new 3D experience.
By Duncan Heaney

How do you remake one of the most beloved action RPGs of all time? That was the challenge facing the development team behind Trials of Mana.

At Gamescom 2019, we met the game’s producers Masaru Oyamada and Shinichi Tatsuke to talk about the much anticipated remake.

Despite taking place near the end of a long day of interviews and meetings, the pair were full of enthusiasm and energy, and clearly out to have a good time. Which is a description you could equally apply to the game that they’re making.

We’ve compiled their answers below, which covered everything from the making of the game, discussions about the Mana series as a whole and the challenges of turning a 2D game into 3D.

In your own words, what is Trials of Mana?

Wow. That’s a big question. Are you looking for some philosophical answer? This is so hard! You shouldn’t be asking this last thing on a Thursday!

Alright, more specifically, can you tell us about the concept behind Trials of Mana, and how it fits into the Mana series

The Mana series was originally conceived to be a sort of seamless FINAL FANTASY. That was the original concept and how it started. Although FINAL FANTASY ADVENTURE called Mystic Quest in Europe came out first, Secret of Mana was the first game where the series came into its own.

The third game in the series, the one after Secret of Mana, was Seiken Densetsu 3 - what we have remade as Trials of Mana. And the concept behind the game is a triangular story.

There are six protagonists, and based on which three you choose, the story itself changes - as do the interactions between the three people you’ve chosen.

Why did you decide to remake this particular game?

When we brought out Collection of Mana, we included Seiken Densetsu 3 in it. At the time it had never been localized into English, so we just thought that it wouldn’t be very realistic to try to try and release Collection of Mana in countries other than Japan.

When we brought it out, there were so many people who were asking, “Well, why aren’t you releasing it elsewhere? We want to play it. What’s up with that - why haven’t you released it?”

So we thought we want to give people a chance to play this game. We were already in the process of working on Trials of Mana - at that point we realized, quite early on, that if we were going to make it, we wanted to make it so that it was available to everyone who wanted to play it.

I also thought that by remaking it, it might be a way to open the door to the Mana series - introduce it to people who have never had a chance to play a Mana game before.

Tell me a little about how the project started - what were the first things you focused on?

The first thing we looked at when we were starting to remake the game was the graphics. Most people who would be playing the game in countries other than Japan wouldn’t have had a chance to experience the original game.

We wanted to make sure we put it into a form that people would be most receptive to, and ultimately chose to go with modern 3D graphics.

The next step was to take a look at the battle system and try to figure that out. At first, we put in a battle system that was very similar to the one that was in the original game. But it didn’t mesh very well with the new 3D environments we had created.

And so we ended up changing the battle system to be more in line with modern battle systems that other games are using.

On top of the battle system, we worked on other features to improve the game, such as the user interface - making information easier to understand - making sure things were clearer, adding voiceovers and lots more.

And, of course, while we did our best to be as faithful to the original as we could possibly be, ultimately a lot has changed in regards to the graphics and a lot of other elements of the game. So while it is very much the same game, it’s also a completely new experience.

Why didn’t the old battle system work for this game?

When dealing with 3D, as compared to 2D, battles have a vertical element added to them. So the fact that there was no ability to jump, for example, seemed to not fit very well.

Plus in the original game, when you were attacked, it was just a percentage as to whether or not the attack would connect with you. But in 3D, it seems so much more natural for it to be a question of whether you were in the right place, if you were evading… basically, more to do with things that are actually happening on-screen.

When we were first testing the prototypes of the game, everybody expressed that they wanted to be able to do more things in the world. It’s this 3D world, so they finally have a chance to do more than just attack and defend.

What was your design philosophy behind the new battle system?

We just wanted people to play battles in a fun and stress-free way.

Also, since the demo has been finalized, we’ve adjusted the battles even more, so they should be even more enjoyable for people playing the game.

Do you have any tips for people playing the game for the first time?

When you’re dealing with the variety of enemies that appear in this game, you have lots of different attacks at your disposal.

Some enemies may be more or less susceptible to charged attacks, others might be vulnerable to combo attacks.

Look at the enemy you’re facing and consider what it looks like they might be strong or weak against. And don’t be afraid to experiment!

One thing I like about the remake is how it captures the spirit of the original without copying it. How difficult is it to balance the original with creating something new?

One thing that was very difficult was recreating the cutscenes. We wanted to be as faithful to the original cutscenes as possible, but when going from pixel art to 3D art, there are a lot of things that don’t translate over very well.

So we had to be very careful with our adaptation of these scenes to sure they still looked natural, yet nothing would be completely different to what users who played the original game would have imagined. We didn’t want to betray their expectations.

How close are the environments to the original? In the demo it seemed like the town of Jadd was pretty exact…

(Both laugh) Actually, even Fortress of Jadd is quite a bit different! But I think what has happened is… what we’ve managed to do - what we’ve been trying to do - is to recreate what you imagined when you first played the game, looking at it with 2D pixel art from the top down.

So if it looks just like you remember it, then it means we’ve succeeded!

A lot of time, we change stuff because we have to. If you think about the fact that the original was 2D, things like windows and doors just didn’t really exist, and all the roads were completely straight - things like that.

So we added windows, and we added doors, we made the streets somewhat more winding. Though I’m sure nobody who played the original game sat there thinking: “oh these roads are all so straight! What’s is with this town?”

I’m impressed by how closely the character designs stick to the originals? How difficult was it to recreate those sprites in 3D?

In the 24 years since this game was released, there have been other entries in the Mana series. And these entries have little by little, built on what you saw in the original Trials of Mana.

We were able to look back at all of those different elements that had built up over the years, edit them and funnel them back into what you see here.

In terms of the main characters, how important was it that you stay faithful to the original? Were you tempted to change them?

From the beginning I wanted to make all the characters look exactly the same as they had when I played the game as a kid. Because going back to play something and not having it look at all as you remember was something I wanted to avoid at all costs.

And so when it came to the character designs in the remake, the goal was to keep the characters exactly the same, but to make the images clearer, more beautiful, more detailed and just bring them more to life.

Why should someone play Trials of Mana?

This game is built around six protagonists, each of them very interesting characters in their own right. But the story of this game changes depending on the combination of three characters you choose, which is something I don’t think any other game has to offer.

Out of curiosity, which three characters did you pick when you originally played the game?

I think it was… Duran, Angela and Kevin.

Finally, what message would you give to someone who’s never played the game, or the Mana series, for the first time?

Trials of Mana takes place in the same world as the other Mana games, but every game has a unique story that’s completely standalone. That means this game is a really good place to start.

Also, it’s been 25 years since the original game came out in Japan and it was a massive hit with players. So you have something to really look forward to!

Massive thanks to Oyamada-san and Tatsuke-san for taking the time to speak with us.

Trials of Mana will release on PS4, Nintendo Switch and Steam on April 24, 2020.

Buy any version of the game before May 21, 2020 and you'll get a Rabite Adornment. Based on the iconic Mana series enemy, it’s an in-game accessory that allows you to gain experience faster up until level 10.

There are also some preorder bonuses on PS4 and Steam:

Preorder on PS4 and in addition to the Rabite Adornment, you'll get access to six exclusive PSN avatars inspired by the game.

If you pre-purchase on Steam and you’ll get two exclusive wallpapers, inspired by the game’s stunning artwork, as well as the Rabite Adornment.