Thursday, January 19, 2012

Review: Secret of Evermore (SNES)

Secret of Evermore
Action RPG, Super Nintendo Entertainment System
1995 Square Soft
See this beastie? Yeah, he's the first boss.
As a kid, I frequented my local grocery store to peruse the small video rental alcove near the checkout lanes. It was a time before video rental stores existed in my town, so I took what meager media entertainment I could get. The selection was mostly comprised of VHS versions of major release movies, but there was always one small wireframe shelf that held what my child self regarded as the motherlode - Super Nintendo games. The variety was minimal to say the least. Occasionally they would refresh the stock with games rotated in from neighboring stores, but at $1.00 USD per rental, how could I protest?

The result of this formula - a young kid starving for Nintendo games, plus allowance money burning a hole in his pocket, plus limited selection of games to play - meant that a great deal of what I rented ended up being terrible. I mean godawful. But all in all, it was worth it for the few gems I stumbled upon. And the day I spotted the cover to Secret of Evermore, my naive brain could only vaguely comprehend the cornucopia of nightmare fuel that I would fall neck-deep into (and I mean that in the most wonderful way possible).

The game opens with a sepia-toned cutscene of a quintessential American town. In a rather creepy mansion, a mad scientist is conducting a Nikola Tesla style electrical experiment. Cut to thirty years later: the present day. An unnamed boy's dog chases after a stray cat and the boy follows closely behind, eventually leading the two of them inside the now-abandoned mansion. They discover the scientist's old machinery and are zapped into another world: Evermore.

Early on in the game, I knew I was in for something different. Something strange. A gaming childhood full of Mario, Kirby, Sonic, and other lovable characters was now to be deflowered by this frightening world of deadly creatures, somber music, and pseudo American pop-culture references that seemed both at odds with the rest of the game and yet somehow contributed to what made it so special.

After a short series of events, the boy (named only by the player) finds himself in a bleak swamp. His dog has transformed into a wolf-like beast, grizzled and wild, much like his surroundings. From here, they traverse four distinct regions of Evermore, each based on a familiar historical period. The dog transforms cosmetically in each region, and each also uses a unique type of currency.
  • Prehistoria: A primal jungle addled with dinosaurs, bugs, and other horrendous enemies that make for a steep learning curve in the early game.
  • Antiqua: The desert land of monuments, statues, and generally anything large and carved from stone.
  • Gothica: A densely-forested medieval region with castles and a rotund queen.
  • Omnitopia: A space station. Yeah, you heard me.
It's worth noting that the style of gameplay in Secret of Evermore is lifted straight from Secret of Mana. Though they share an identical action RPG battle system, menu system, and naming convention, that's really where the similarities end.

The canine companion is controlled by AI, and offers the player the ability to switch to manual control, or even to tweak the aggressiveness with which the dog will pursue enemies. All are nice features, but I couldn't help but feel the dog was a burden most of the game; namely during boss fights, when he is particularly apt at putting himself in harm's way and attempting to deal damage to the wrong targets.

The most interesting aspect of the dog is that he can sniff the ground to seek out alchemical ingredients and other treasures. The player can manually adjust the dog's tendency to track, or commandeer control of him and search on their own time. These alchemical ingredients are used like MP, mana, or magic are in other RPGs. Different items combine to enable the player to use different spells. It's a unique system to be sure, but can be frustrating when lacking specific ingredients to be able to cast desired spells. Suffice it to say, this game is a loot-fiend's wet dream. Every screen has pots, jars, plants, and invisible hotspots waiting to be plundered.

But really, all of what I just said is a digression from my main curiosity with this game. It is disturbing. Uncharacteristically so for games of this era. It is dreary, nightmarish, and even strangely lonesome. For the better part of this game you really feel alone in a world both surreal and oddly familiar. The soundtrack, which was the virgin musical endeavor by prolific Jeremy Soule, stuck with me long after playing.

Tell me that's not scary as hell.
No game since Secret of Evermore has captured that same feeling for me. It's a dreamlike experience, really. And I think that dreamlike state is exactly what the developers hoped to capture. The player eventually finds that each region of Evermore is created wholly in the mind of the key character that resides within it. Almost like a living, breathing, interactive surrealist painting. So gameplay flaws aside, the experience of this game is what makes it so memorable, wonderful, and in my mind, timeless.


  1. It beat the hell out of Intellivision games, huh?

  2. Secret of Evermore... Brings back memories.

  3. What a great concept for a blog. I grew up on Nintendo and RPGs of this ilk, like Secret of Mana and Chronotrigger. I still play these types of games; I just finished Final Fantasy 4: The After Years. Looking forward to what’s in store for this blog. Reading about Secret of Evermore brought back a lot of memories. I only ever rented it and so never finished it, but it really was a unique selection for the time. Nightmarish elements can do a lot for games, or movies.

  4. Giovanni - Glad to have you reading! I have a mile long to-do list for the blog, so expect much more to come. I already have a few other games in mind along the same vein as Secret of Evermore that deserve the same attention.