As has been well-documented in the past, there is nary a game genre out there that Mario hasn’t found a spot in at some point. Platformers, fighting games, sports games, puzzle games, racing games, if you can make a game of it, the mustachioed plumber has made an appearance. Most of these, however, have been in-house Nintendo projects, which I’m not complaining about, mind you, but in the mid-’90s, Nintendo placed the beloved character in the hands of Square, the makers of such legendary RPGs as Chrono Trigger and the Final Fantasy series. That sounds great, doesn’t it? The titans of the RPG world making a game featuring the world’s most famous video game character, that’s gonna be huge! Well, in March of 1996, the world was treated to today’s game, Super Mario RPG on Super Nintendo. Would this union of Nintendo and Square be a case of getting rich peanut butter in your chocolate? Or would it be a case of two great tastes that don’t taste great together?
Super Mario RPG starts out like you would expect any Mario game to, with Princess Toadstool being set upon by Bowser, who takes her back to his castle with Mario in pursuit. However, Bowser finds himself in a bit of a sticky wicket this time, as he is forcibly evicted from his castle by Smithy, a giant sword that crashes his way into Bowser’s house and destroys the only road leading to the castle. In traditional Square fashion, however, the story evolves from a simple rescue mission to a quest to locate and obtain the seven stars that grant people’s wishes, so the story makes for an interesting combination of classic Mario, the wide-ranging and interconnecting storylines of a Square RPG, and oddly enough, the “save our dreams” theme of a Kirby game.
Now, you may be wondering how the familiar Mario hop’n’bop action translates into an RPG style. Well, the combat here is quite solid. Mario and up to two other party members, have four options during a turn: a basic physical attack with A, magic attacks that use Flower Points (the equivalent here of mana/magic points) with Y, using an item with X, and defending or attempting to flee with B. It’s rather basic on the surface, but there is an interesting wrinkle to be found with the Timed Hits system. Y’see, if you’re launching a physical attack, if you press A again at the right time in your attack animation, you’ll chain together a couple of hits and do far more damage than normal. It’s also a defensive measure, as you can press A just before an enemy attacks and blunt a lot of the damage you would normally receive, if not block it entirely. The same applies for certain magic attacks; if you get the timing down, you can turn Mario’s Jump attack into a long, punishing attack capable of wiping out regular enemies easy or taking a big chunk of health from bosses. As you work through the different enemies in a group, you can also score pickups that boost attack, defense, refill your HP, allow you to attack a second time with that character, or unlock a bonus game after the fight where you play a shell game of sorts that can double the amount of experience points or coins you get from winning the fight.
While classic characters like Mario, Bowser, and Toadstool are present, this game isn’t exactly reliant on Mario’s established canon. You’ll encounter enemies you know like Goombas and Bob-ombs, but you’ll also square off with sentient mannequins and giant artichokes. You’ll find an island where Yoshi and his friends live, but you’ll also make the acquaintances of moles, tadpoles, cloud people, a living children’s doll, and Booster, an insane man-child that looks like a miniature version of Wario who has no sense of impending danger. Ironically, while you won’t know any of these new characters, they all seem to know Mario, if not by appearance, then by reputation, and more than a few characters will ask you to verify your identity by jumping, because EVERYBODY knows Mario has sick hops. In a weird sort of way, the anthropomorphic characters and cartoony situations seem to work better in a Mario game than most of Square’s own work; it makes more sense for happy-go-lucky Mario to do battle with smiling skeletons and floating goofy jesters than Square’s usual Super Serious Teenage Misanthrope Main Character to do the same.
Super Mario RPG does stick to pretty much all the pillars of the genre you would expect. You level up by defeating enemies, and there are a few locations along the way that serve little purpose besides being spots you can grind for experience points. You’ll stop at shops to buy better equipment and items, and stay at inns to refill your health and Flower Points. There are sidequests to partake in for a shot at better weapons and armor than can be bought on the open market, even the occasional spot where you have to decide which of your party is best suited for the task at hand. You’ll happen upon the occasional action scene, like screaming down a mine cart track or rolling a log along a river, trying to scoop up coins along the way. There’s some light humor tossed in at times, for example, there’s a scene where you’re disguised as a statue and have to maintain your cover by faking out a giant crow who pecks statues. And of course, there’s also plenty of scenes with long stretches of dialogue, because even in an RPG about Mario, Square had to make sure to cram in as much exposition as possible.
On a lighter note, there are enough Mario-centric quirks to be found here to lighten things up. You can find items in Question Mark blocks, like healing Mushrooms, Fire Flowers that increase your Flower Points, Stars that instead of making you invincible, allow you to plow through enemies instantly instead of having to have actual combat (and can level you up very quickly if you manage to run through an entire clump of them), and of course, coin blocks that you bash repeatedly until the money runs out. Mario’s arsenal consists of weapons like hammers pilfered from the Hammer Brothers, Koopa shells, and magic attacks like launching fireballs at enemies, and Mario can be a weapon himself at times, as one of Bowser’s attacks involves him literally chucking Mario at an enemy like a cannonball.
While Super Mario RPG is very good, there are a few major drawbacks. Number one, hardcore RPG veterans might thumb their nose at this one, as there’s certainly a lighter, more “My First RPG” feel to the proceedings here. There’s no complex system of combining items or chaining magic together, there are no major life-and-death decisions to make; nothing you do now really affects what happens later on, and the highest level you can achieve for your characters is Level 30, so you’re not exactly putting in days’ worth of time getting your characters up to snuff. Also, while the magic attacks can sometimes be very powerful, they are nerfed considerably; a LOT of enemies are actually immune to certain attacks, and there’s no real indication that this would be the case, and it’s not fun to burn off a quarter of your Flower Points to launch Mega Flame or Bowser Crush only to do zero damage. Some enemies, like the Dry Bones, require magic attacks to defeat them, but you might not know that, so you’ll end up spending way longer than necessary doing huge damage over and over with your regular attacks and wondering why you can’t seem to kill this guy after pumping a thousand hit points’ worth of damage into them.
One thing I should point out is that the art style here definitely feels…different. It’s not bad or anything, but there’s a very watercolor feel to the design that looks fine, but doesn’t quite feel like the style you’d probably be used to in a Mario game. It’s certainly a lot lighter and friendlier than what you’d see in a Final Fantasy game or Chrono Trigger and the like, but just still somewhat out of place. The same kinda applies to the music, while there are some familiar Mario tracks here, most of the soundtrack here is new material, and again, while it’s not bad, it just doesn’t quite fit right, and I get the impression that Square’s sound folks were more accustomed to making big, grand, sweeping orchestral themes for their games and weren’t used to make light, poppy fluff that you’d expect in a Mario title. Again, it’s not bad by any stretch, but it’s more of an A- compared to the usual A+++ you’d get out of a traditional, Nintendo-made product.
Super Mario RPG, despite the slightly off presentation and the rather simplistic design in some areas, is still a fantastic game, and alongside Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy III, and Earthbound, definitely deserves its place on the Super Nintendo RPG Mt. Rushmore. The combat is solid, especially the inclusion of Timed Hits and Blocks to add a layer of interactivity, the presentation is great, although slightly different than what you’d be used to, and the story is fun and enjoyable, even if it drifts considerably out of the normal Mario canon. I definitely recommend it, and even if RPG is a four-letter word for you, it’s certainly accessible to anyone, and even though RPG honks may scoff at the difficulty, even they’d probably admit this is a solid entry into the genre, handled by people that know what they’re doing. Give it a playthrough, just remember, make very sure you know what you’re getting into if you take the Shiny Stone.
A fun, accessible RPG starring the world’s most famous video game character, solid combat system, a good bit of sidequests to keep you busy off the beaten path.
Doesn’t quite look like a normal Mario game should, the magic system isn’t quite fleshed out very well, hardcore RPG enthusiasts may find this a little too simple for their liking.