I picked up Sword of Mana because I heard it was a remake of Final Fantasy Adventure, the first Game Boy game I ever bought and a game that I am quite fond of. See, Adventure for the Game Boy is actually the first game in the Mana series, which was followed up by the great Secret of Mana for SNES, but has more recently been known for some pretty mediocre games. A remake of an early Game Boy game updated for GBA that brings it more in line with the SNES graphics and systems of later games sounds great on paper, but something just feels wrong about the whole thing.
One thing that is retained is the basic framework of the story and its characters, which is both a positive and negative thing. The story of Adventure was relatively dark for its era, starting off with with the main character as a gladiatorial slave whose friend has just died. The writing isn't of very high quality, probably due to bad translation, but the ideas are there, and most importantly, it is mercifully brief. The story is there, it leads the player along (well, most of the time) and it is just fine.
For some reason Square Enix thought it was important to expand upon the simple story and make it more complex. The problem is that it isn't particularly interesting, and while it was fine in small doses, this version drones on and on with its rote story and typical RPG nonsense. In the beginning of Adventure, a guy named Dark Lord is forcing people to fight monsters to the death for his enjoyment. That's a simple way to setup that the guy is evil and a villain. In the beginning of Sword, the player is put in the same situation, but it goes into all this extra detail about the situation and how it sucks to be gladiatorial slave. That's just not necessary, because the villain is still called DARK FUCKING LORD. Clearly he's an evil dude, I don't need to see him give an evil speech or whatever. It's just not necessary. If a game has to explain how someone named Dark Lord gained political power, it's doing something wrong.
There are some nice things about the remake. Graphically it is a great-looking 2D game, and the day/night cycle adjusts the color to keep it continually interesting. The music is very nice, with new versions of the original game's music that is some of the best sounding stuff on the GBA. The ring-based menu system from Secret of Mana works well in place of the original's more traditional menu system, though it sometimes takes a few more button presses to accomplish an action. I like the addition of the choice between playing the male or female lead, and there are stories are actually different, as they are distinct characters that cross each others paths throughout the game.
One thing that does bug me is that Adventure allowed the player to save anywhere, but Sword uses save points, which seems like a stupid step backwards, especially for a portable game. There are other little things that I prefer about the original, like the way special attacks are charged over time instead of by getting successive hits on enemies. This makes combat and choosing when to attack more tactical. Not everything is better in the original though. I don't care for the need to stock up on disposable items like keys and mattocks, and there are some really absurdly obtuse requirements for progression, like walking around a couple of palm trees in certain way in order to open a dungeon.
Sword mostly benefits from changes of art and character design. The original world was pretty flat and is basically a cross between the look of Final Fantasy and the mechanics of The Legend of Zelda. It's a really fun game, but the remake incorporates stuff from later Mana games that makes it feel like a richer and more unique world. It's a shame that the game lost Boco the chocobo, and by extension the later mecha-enhanced Boco that can run on water, but overall I think the change was good. At the very least it is fun to travel by cannon, though it does seem a bit out of place in a darker themed game such as this.
In the first thirty minutes of Sword of Mana, the player does pretty much nothing, especially on the female's side. In the first thirty seconds of Final Fantasy Adventure, the player kills a big goddamn monster, and at the thirty minute mark has made a decent way into the game, leveled up, and gained a good grasp of what makes the game entertaining. Maybe I just don't give a crap about RPG stories anymore. I still find Adventure to be a great and fun Zelda-like game, and I would recommend it to people looking for that type of game, but I don't think I would recommend Sword even though it is capable. It just doesn't draw me in. Maybe I'm blinded by nostalgia for long car rides with my Game Boy Color and Final Fantasy Adventure. I dunno.