Secret of Evermore is one of the most underrated RPGs in gaming. Released in 1995 on the SNES, it's a love letter to what is best about JRPGs, with influences from Secret of Mana and even cameos by Final Fantasy characters like Cecil from FFIV. But it also weaves its own identity with a quirky narrative encompassing fictional B-movie references and a boy and his dog tale that is as classic as it gets. In fact, Secret of Evermore has the distinction of being the only Square RPG developed entirely in North America and is in many ways the quintessential American tale with tons of customization, multiple worlds, and a humorous plot. There are darker elements as characters have to face their twisted halves years before Persona made it a central theme. Alan Weiss, who was both producer and designer on the game, explained in an email interview that the creativity and diverse elements were part of the company philosophy. "For Secret of Evermore it was design by committee - democratic but sometimes very difficult to achieve. Everyone on that game should get some design credit, the doors were always open to everyone."
Vex and the Mesmers
Secret of Evermore's evolution began at Broderbund where Weiss had worked on Lode Runner with the game's programmer, Doug Smith. "In 1989 I had taken a pleasure trip to Japan with Broderbund Software and ended up doing a lot of business with Broderbund co-founder Doug Carlston. This trip was offered to company employees, $750 for just over a week in Japan (the company paid the rest). 90 people took this offer (mostly employees, some spouses). During this trip I met Hironobu Sakaguchi for the first time during our tour of Square and we enjoyed a meal together with a small group. Broderbund had been encouraged to establish a relationship with Square, but for various reasons, that didn't pan out. Square had a lot of respect for Broderbund because of the wild success of Lode Runner. They remembered Doug Smith when looking to start a development office in the US and since he lived in Seattle, he was chosen to lead the Square USA game development effort. Doug Smith hired me as Game Studio Employee #2 to build what eventually became a team of around 25 engineers and artists." Weiss's role as game producer meant he "started the initial concept with our Lead Artist, Al Dumo." The original concept was connected with the working title, Vex and the Mezmers, and as Weiss explained, "My original design was a story about a group of magic users (Mezmers) who could tell dream stories and transport the listeners into the experience, virtually. During one of these storytelling sessions, Vex got trapped in one of these worlds and started to corrupt the dreams. The game was going to be about finding Vex and defeating him."
As development progressed, the game increased in complexity and they hired "George Sinfield (formerly a writer for Nintendo Power) to design the game through to the end." But this also led to the demise of the Vex title. "George Sinfield had a friend from High School who had changed his name to Vexx on his quest to conquer his own little world and George couldn't bear to publish a game associated with him that used that name. So we had a naming competition and out of that we came up with Secret of Evermore. And we dropped the idea of the wizards and made the adventure about a kid lost in a fantasy world (hmmm, sounds familiar)." Familiar, but also self-aware, it was the metaphysical tongue-in-cheek dialogue that has endeared Evermore to so many gamers. "The B-movie references were put into the game initially by George Sinfield to make the narrative more fun. Everyone liked them so we asked him to keep it up and they ended up all throughout the game. Notice the movie marquees at the beginning and end of the game, they sort of tie it all up. One of the movie titles on the marquee is about Vex." The films became a prism through which the boy could examine and make sense of the zeitgeist of the surreal madness of what is typically elusive game logic, even if in the context of fictional movies. It imbued the game with an unexpected light-heartedness that appealed to American gamers, including myself.
Working with Square Japan
North American audiences were squarely on Square's mind when they began the studio. "Square USA was in business to market and distribute their products in the US (ENIX was a different company at that time). They were having good success localizing and selling the games into the US market. Square Japan wanted a US development studio which would be close to Nintendo when the next gen (CD-based) machine was released. As we all know, that machine wasn't released by Nintendo but was instead released by SONY as the PS1." And to add an incredible what-if that would have probably had huge ramifications for Square fans everywhere, Weiss said, "Final Fantasy 7 was supposed to be a flagship product for Nintendo but that all fell apart. Interestingly, Secret of Mana was also supposed to be a CD-based product which explains why there are so many empty places in that game (it eventually came out on cartridge)."
When I asked about the relationship with Square in Japan, Weiss said, "They were totally hands off and seemed to appreciate the work we created. We were very fortunate to be given the responsibility of creating another fantasy world for the standard-bearers of the genre and to have achieved a competitive game in that realm. The studio itself was in a business park, attached to the product warehouse. We were within a mile or two of Nintendo's North America offices, which never really seemed to provide us with any serious advantages."
"A Boy and His Dog - what could be more American than that?"
One thing that's immediately noticeable about the game is the beautiful art work. Taking place over four different worlds in seemingly different time periods, each map is very distinctive with its own architecture, enemies, and geography. From the Jurassic-styled Prehistoria, to Roman styled Antiqau, and the futuristic dystopianism of a robotic Omnitopia, the game is a stylized portal to what could be considered traditional RPG settings, blending them together in the unique canvas of Evermore. "Our Art team was amazing and we pushed the envelope to get the most we could out of a ROM cartridge." That meant they used 24-megabits rather than the original 12 that was planned. "If you look carefully, you can see a lot of mirroring and reuse of assets throughout the game. Our lead designer, Daniel Dociu, was someone who had previously worked for Ace Novelties and wanted to break into making videogames. We hired him on the strength of his personal portfolio, which was dark and very reminiscent of Amano's work in the Final Fantasy series (only with an Eastern European industrial feel to it). Check out Daniel to see what he's gone on to create subsequently (you'll be amazed). Daniel really did help hold our world together, artistically." One of the things I remember most was that the stunning box cover actually resembled the graphics in the game, particularly the enormous boss battles. The first time I saw Thraxx (the bug boss on the cover) in the game, I was blown away and disgusted by the morbid visage of an insectoid giant. "Another breakthrough in art for us was hiring Brad Clarkson from Teague Design in Seattle. He brought us 3D rendering skills and we used them and Silicon Graphics machines to create many of the boss monsters in the game. A few games had previously attempted to break away by using pre-rendered 3D art and we really liked that look."
The game has so much customization available, it can at times be overwhelming. Weapons can be upgraded, alchemy requires ingredients and can also be powered up. Each of the different worlds has a separate currency and the markets had their own haggling system, which gave the world an authenticity and vibrancy lacking in many games of that time (I'm feeling the pains of currency changes while I'm traveling through Europe at this very minute). At the same time, stick with it, and our boy and his dog become bad-asses. Each victory is earned, each level upgrade, a noticeable aid in the volley of monsters impeding their path. I loved showering down enormous fists with Crush, or launching a powered lance to decimate enemies. Energize made you practically invincible as you unleashed Armageddon with every swing. I became addicted to the combat. The relationship that anchors the experience is the friendship the boy has with his dog. I loved the dog, who has a personality all of his own. I remember watching him sniff around the ground, just like my own real-life dog did, and I wondered what he was smelling. In the game, they incorporated that curiosity as a way of collecting alchemy ingredients, a brilliant way of bonding. On top of that, the dog is a fierce warrior, rescuing you countless times. The relationship deepens through the gameplay as his absence is felt acutely in some of the parts where you are separated. Even without multiplayer, I appreciated the dog's AI which felt genuinely canine in nature. "A Boy and His Dog - what could be more American than that?" Weiss noted. "That was the genesis of that idea (I might have actually said that). The dog's appearance in each world was carefully considered by the team so that they would be compatible. I think the poodle is the most out of place and while it's fun, it really would have been more appropriate had we not cut some of the content. In the original game design there was a world called Romancia where 'everything is all flowers and sweet stuff, excessively so.' It was pink and purple. I drove the artist working on it crazy with my suggestions as it was being developed and we never really could make it work (mostly due to my poor art direction). That artist was another awesome hire and he went on to work on his passion."
We are merely sprites that dance
Rounding out the team, Weiss said, "We had a lot of first-time game developers and on our team and our audio engineer was no exception. I'm personally very tuned in to audio through my family history and my intuition. I can just feel it when it's working. When we were accepting submissions from audio engineers to work at Square USA we received a tape from a kid in Keokuk, Iowa. When I heard it, I instantly knew this was special. Jeremy's original music compositions were a mix of John Barry (James Bond, lots of movie soundtracks) and John Williams (Star Wars and - wait for it, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea). Jeremy Soule has gone on to become quite famous in the videogame realm - I am sure you've heard his subsequent work."
Towards the end of Evermore, Weiss "was doing less producing and more planning for future projects so George took over more and more Producer responsibilities. It's not widely known but the NEXT game we were working on after Evermore was going to be a 3D RTS game in the style of Command and Conquer - after our studio folded many of the team went on to work at Cavedog and made a very similar game - Total Annihilation." Another game they all played in the office was Magic the Gathering which "was still new. In retrospect, we should have followed up on our idea at the time to make an electronic version of MtG (Blizzard did that, it's called Hearthstone)."
Despite similarities in the gameplay, Secret of Evermore had a completely different engine from Secret of Mana. "During the development of the game we built two game engines from scratch to drive the game. Unfortunately, we never did get to reuse those."
In our recent article, 15 More Obscure RPGs We Wish had Sequels, many readers wrote in to say they still hoped for a Secret of Evermore sequel. I called Evermore a mix of Earthbound, Secret of Mana, and a bit of Ed Wood, and it struck a chord for gamers who wanted a storyline closer to home while creating a more immediate type of combat system incorporating swords, magic, and bazookas. Hearing some of the secrets behind the development of the game, it seems the developers got so much right, bringing together a talented team that created a unique game. While many went on to successful careers of their own, will we ever find out what happened to Evermore? Perhaps like those Mezmers, we can only dream.
Peter Tieryas is a VFX artist who just worked on Guardians of the Galaxy and Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2. His novel, Bald New World, was listed as one of Buzzfeed's 15 Highly Anticipated Books and Publisher Weekly's Best Science Fiction Books of Summer 2014. He would like to thank Joseph Michael Owens for rekindling his excitement for the game, as well as Angela Xu for playing through the entire game with him. He scribbles about RPG secrets at tieryas.wordpress.com