This game is an interesting and very important part of history. A landmark partnership between Square and Nintendo would see them go on to… well, do nothing, because Square fucked off to Sony after this game. You’re welcome. Nonetheless, it spurred an entire legacy of Mario RPG games, including the immediate follow-up Paper Mario, and 5 games in the Mario & Luigi series. When Square changed their ways, some of the Super Mario RPG staff actually left to form Alpha Dream, who are still creating Mario RPGs to this day. Even though Super Mario RPG was the very first Mario RPG, I had never played it until now because it never had an original SNES release in Europe and Australia.
Thanks to the Virtual Console, I picked this up on Wii U and had an absolutely wonderful experience discovering it for the first time in 2016. The art style did not look that impressive to me in screenshots, but it feels so much better when you get into the game. Once you start playing, everything comes to life like a beautiful story. The game is very well-designed and it struck such a chord that I got completely immersed and beat the game over the past week. So what’s so good about it? Let’s get into our first battle.
That was quick! Two attacks, and this Goomba is down. The battle system is very fast and streamlined, and I was having fun straight away in this game. Instead of cycling through a wheel, you simply press A, B, Y or X to expand the tree and select what you want instantly. I can’t believe how well it works. It means you can still pick an attack while in the item menu, for example. Battles are fast without feeling rushed, just because the interface is so good. It just feels normal and fun. Mario’s movement in the overworld also carries this no-nonsense approach. In this game he just charges forward with confidence like Super Mario World, and his jumps are high and instant with a run button to go crazy fast. It’s not too different from Mario & Luigi, but the freedom and speed of it had me running around joyfully like an idiot.
I’ve played every single Mario RPG that has released since this game, so the fact that Super Mario RPG still managed to surprise me is quite an accomplishment and a huge testament to its original design. There’s something fundamentally different about the world design here, than almost any other game I’ve played. It has the balls to break the “rules” of normal event progression, randomly panning the camera, changing the music and allowing unexpected interactions. I don’t want to get too specific in case you haven’t played the game, but all the events in this game instill a sense of curiosity and wonder.
This might look a bit rough but the 3D elements really give the feeling that this game is pushing the boundaries. There’s a mine cart section, swimming, barrel hopping, and all sorts of mini-games that felt a lot different to me than stuff in modern Mario RPGs. Instead of giving the whole “stop everything, here is a mini-game” speech they just sort of happen. Of course it still tells you the controls and stuff, but I had a larger sense of excitement going into them simply by the way they were presented. It just feels like you’re going to the next place, instead of being judged in a circus. It continues being a role playing game.
Even though I’ve just ragged on modern Mario RPGs a bit, I think they do a lot of things better. The battle system is one huge difference, as Super Mario RPG’s is enjoyable but a bit simple. This is where the timing mechanic of all Mario RPGs was introduced. Pressing A at the right time will increase the damage you do, and also help you defend enemy attacks. However it’s not always clear what the timing is, because there aren’t many cues and the sound design is a bit vague. Some defense actions have to be initiated 3 seconds before the animation hits you, while some are meant to be pressed immediately before. It’s all over the place with no consistent method, and some I figured out by complete accident.
Overall, it’s just less interactive with less gameplay systems overlapping at once. This is both of a pro and con of the game, as I found the battles happen more naturally and quickly, but also craved a bit more depth at times. It just made me grateful that we have so many different Mario RPGs to play in 2016. Every time these games add to the battle system, I feel like it’s improved the game. A lot of RPG series I would say the opposite has occurred, like Pokemon. Another topic, though. I also feel like the newer Mario RPGs have more exciting overworld movement, with drilling, turning into planes and such. In this game you pretty much just have the jump. That’s more of a natural evolution though, rather than a flaw of Super Mario RPG. It does a lot with what it has, and takes more opportunities to surprise the player. I find dodging enemies on the overworld more fun and intense in Super Mario RPG, just because the basic jump is so good. As a result I was under-leveled for the final area, but still had plenty of options. This game is not too strict in its difficulty or grinding.
Super Mario RPG does an amazing job creating a surreal and somewhat realistic world with 2D isometric graphics. The pixels are so beautiful you don’t really think about them, it just resembles a painting you walk around on. You can see the edges of the levels but it never once put me off, because the style is consistent. The “weirdness” of this game resonates with an indifferent attitude. It’s not an overly wacky game, but I found myself asking “what?” quite often with a sense of wonder. The somewhat “realistic” approach allows for some really terrifying enemy designs that would only make sense in this art style, and a lot of weird things are passed off as “normal” in the game world. Nothing weird going on. It’s just Super Mario RPG.
A double edged sword of the realistic, isometric approach of the graphics is that it can be hard to tell where to go sometimes. The obscured view creates some awkward moments, and makes some of the platforming absolutely terrible. I normally welcome this element of action gameplay in an RPG, but when you’re holding diagonal on the dpad, PLUS the run button, then press jump, Mario’s ridiculous speed coming off a block makes it very tricky to land where you want. The isometric view also makes some exploration confusing, but most of those progression issues can be solved by randomly jumping into gaps and hoping for the best. Overall this didn’t put me off the game or frustrate me too much, but it’s a notable part of the experience.
The music varies a lot but shares a similar “thick” feeling through every track. The remixed Mario tunes are a bit less over-the-top than the originals, with slower pacing allowing more elements to creep in. There’s a lot of busy melodies going on, but it somehow sounds more chill than frantic with a comfy feeling to the bass. The game’s original tunes are a bigger highlight, with great compositions making every area of the game feel unique. Booster’s Tower for example has a really bouncy bassline to reflect his erratic personality. It makes the platforming in that section really fun when you’re having a great time moving to the music. The core battle tune is also really good. Some battle tunes can get really annoying when you get deep into a game, but I could listen to this one all day because it’s just really chill. It’s a seriously impressive soundtrack that would not gel with any other Mario RPG, because it compliments this art style and nothing else.
The writing in this game was another pleasant surprise for me. For some reason I expected really basic half-hearted lines for a SNES-era RPG, but this is FULL of heart. Super Mario RPG reads like an epic children’s story in the best possible way. Rather than come off as simplified, it feels very wholesome because they make all the little things feel important. I would have loved to play this game as a kid, because when it’s scary it feels like the scariest thing in the world. When it’s funny it seems like the funniest thing in the world. Instead of overly expressing itself with detailed descriptions, it just points out the right things. It’s easy to go into autopilot while playing an RPG and just grinding away in battles, but this game makes everything feel like a big deal. It’ll say “This enemy is sleeping” and you realise… oooohhhh… it’s sleeping! Better attack the other enemies and save it for last! Hope it doesn’t wake up!
Animation plays a huge part in this game’s expression, and I noticed a lot of things that future games have borrowed. Toads jump around excitedly, cower in fear, and run around in circles. It makes the game world feel active and you still see those exact actions to this day in Paper Jam. There is one particular Toad in Super Mario RPG that jumps faster than any Toad I’ve ever seen and becomes a white blur. I wanted to tell him to calm down but it looked like he was enjoying himself. He really wanted to impersonate Mario. You can either encouraging him, or make him stop with a dialogue choice and I love that kind of interaction.
The characters are a huge strength of Super Mario RPG, and pretty much give this game its own unique identity. Bowser not being the main threat creates this extra scary feeling of the unknown, and this is another theme that makes Mario RPGs as a whole so interesting. The enemies have trended more towards the comical side in modern games, but in Super Mario RPG they have an unsettling evil streak to them that is quite scary and captivating. Bowyer here for example is scary not just in his mannerisms, but the way arrows rain down from the sky as you approach him. Even during the battle he has a very unique style of fighting. I don’t want to spoil too much. It’s just great how the enemy designs are not just an integral part of the story, but gameplay.
The good guys also have some unique character designs. I loved Mallow and Geno so much that I always had them in my party instead of the traditional Mario characters. I found Mallow a bit weird at first, but the adorable little blob grew on me with each excited interaction. It’s an extremely weird tadpole-potato hybrid that should NOT fit in, but he does because this is Super Mario RPG. Geno also has a pretty weird “higher being” vibe to him, but when he starts fighting alongside Mario you realise they are the same. Their differences in design just makes them a great team in red, green and blue. They’re all trying their best and have the same common goal in the storyline, and that’s a good enough reason to be friends.
This is a small detail I found really charming, when you heal anyone on your team they say THANK YOU! It’s so dumb to point this out, but I found it really sweet and refreshing. It made me happy seeing them acknowledge the action. I just didn’t expect to see such a polite element during battle when things get rough, but in my opinion this shows strength of character. I liked using Mallow’s special move to heal Mario or Geno, just because they were so grateful. The restored health is a nice bonus too. I’ve never thought about it before, but healing is a pretty significant action when you are saving someone’s life. It’s interesting how some games drown you in layers of dialogue to make concepts understandable, yet the small details in Super Mario RPG go so much further.
I highly recommend this game if you want to get comfy with a good story and pretend it’s 1996. I thought maybe I was burnt out on Mario RPGs after playing so many recently, but this game has such a different feeling. Even though the battle mechanics are stripped down, I found it refreshing to dial back the tension a bit and put the focus on exploring the world and characters. It’s almost EarthBound-like in its serenity at times, with those early transitional 3D days reflected in the robust world design and purposeful writing. It’s the most 90s, SNES, RPG, Mario-ish game it could possibly be, yet still manages to create its own identity as an absolute gaming classic. Seven stars out of seven.