It’s impossible to state what an event Super Mario RPG was in my childhood. I could spin quite a few yarns about my initial experiences with the game, like how, when I would rent it, it would come with its Player’s Guide. Or that time my mom hooked this really crappy TV up so I could play it in my room, and I thought that was the coolest thing ever. I spare you all the boring details, though.
Due to the extensive amount of time I played it when I was younger, Square and Nintendo’s big collaboration now holds few surprises for me. I could probably recite every area you visit throughout your adventure on command, and, yeah, I know by heart how you find the game’s ultimate weapon and armor. Yet, I still go back to it every once and a while to reflect on what it was that so attracted me to it. The reasons probably had less to do with the game itself, and more that it was a new experience for me, and I was in a warm and happy time of my life.
At the time of Super Mario RPG’s release, the RPG genre was about as popular as a vegan at a butcher’s convention in North America. It was 1996, and the constantly delayed N64 was still struggling to get its act together, leaving the fans of Nintendo stuck waiting for their next generation of games. So while the genre wasn’t going to reach popularity until Square released Final Fantasy VII the following year, there was another way to reach the hearts of gaming hobbyists: graphics and Mario.
Donkey Kong Country had shown that by using 3D models to create 2D artwork was a successful way of distracting people from the actual 3D consoles hitting the market with their polygons. It’s a technique that has aged liked garbage, but at the time, it looked incredible. When I first picked this game up years ago, I’m pretty sure that the first bullet point on my list of reasons was the graphics, so good job, Nintendo, you got a nine-year-old to pick up an RPG.
FUNGAI! FOILED AGAIN!
The story starts out predictably enough, with Mario attempting to save Princess Toadstool (who hadn’t yet had her name corrected to Peach) from Bowser’s clutches. However, before he can receive a kiss for his heroism, a giant sword falls from the sky and plants itself in the castle’s roof. Things get complicated from there, and it’s revealed bit by bit.
It’s actually a pretty bizarre fit in the Mario universe. You’ll see what you’d expect; mushrooms, coins, goombas, but there’s something off about all of it. Mario’s world had not really been explored at this point, so this was the first time we really got to see the citizens of the mushroom kingdom going about their life. Bowser, Peach, and Toad are really the only characters that are familiar, so to supplement their numbers, two new characters, Geno and Mallow, are introduced.
The main antagonist this time around is an evil dude named Smithy, so all bets are off for the bosses and enemies, which is where things get really weird. The bosses are a weird scattershot of abstract designs. They’re often introduced at the exact moment you stumble across them, acting more as a temporary barrier than as their own mini-antagonists. The monster designs are completely off the wall, only sometimes resembling something you’d see in any other Mario games, some of them being almost shockingly strange. They also often have names and spells that are either obscure references or tremendous words.
Speaking of which, Super Mario RPG’s localization uses a vast array of five dollar words in its dialogue and descriptions, which is absolutely bewildering to find in a game aimed at a younger audience. I had no hope of deciphering some of the words and wordplay that the game throws at you, and even today, I’d swear I’m missing some of the jokes. I certainly wasn’t going to be able to wrap my tongue around names like Yaridovich, and I still don’t know what Oerlikon is supposed to mean.
PICK ME UP
The gameplay itself is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a typical JRPG with Mario conventions shoveled in. The most successful result of this is the timed attacks that have been added to the random battles in a way of making them more interactive. Instead of simply selecting an action and waiting for it to be carried out, you can press buttons at specific moments in an attack to either defend yourself or do more damage. It’s pretty basic, and there’s no real indication of when the button should be pressed, leaving you guessing at the timing, but it works to keep you engaged.
Another nice compromise is the removal of random battles for enemies who actually roam the overworld map. This allows you to avoid battles when you’re either wounded or impatient, or clear entire areas when you feel like grinding.
What doesn’t really work is the addition of platforming. The almost overly detailed graphics and isometric angle don’t lend well to hopping on the small platforms the game provides. The game is pretty forgiving whenever it asks you to leap over gaps, so it doesn’t really disrupt gameplay, but it’s a facet that either should have been refined or removed.
The adventure takes you through a mysterious forest, has you crashing a marriage, and even takes you up into the clouds. If nothing else, Super Mario RPG has imagination, dropping you in unusual situations and flipping the script at every opportunity.
The characters are a little weak. Bowser is perhaps the best established, having a boisterous, conceited attitude; bossing around the party to hide the fact that he obviously needs them more than they need him. Geno, a possessed wooden toy, has maintained his mystique among some gamers to this day, but he has few lines in game, demonstrates very little personality, and is only really notable for his appearance and the fact that one of his special moves can do 9999 damage to standard enemies (and some rare bosses). Mallow can just get bent, the whiny little wad.
The dialogue, on the other hand, fares a bit better than the characters. It has a weird, low quality vibe to it, where the lines either sound like they’re intended for children, or they just come across like the most minimal effort was put into translating them. It does get amusing sometimes, however, especially when Mario and his friends start acting out exposition. It’s also very positive, and while it’s too inept to really hit the mark at being heartwarming, its blind optimism is still enjoyable.
It’s also sort of short for an RPG, clocking in at under 20 hours under normal circumstances, but then, not a lot of it is wasted.
Super Mario RPG is just a weird game in general; sort of the perfect storm of developer interaction and graphical technology. The graphics have aged terribly, but the game still satisfies with its excellent soundtrack, memorable situations, and cleverly hidden secrets. There’s a nice, warming sunniness to the game that makes it difficult to hate it, even when you’re misjudging the vector to another jump.
It sometimes has a habit of coming across as “Baby’s First RPG,” but it does so without being as offensive as, say, Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest. Even after having played it about a jillion times throughout my life, I can still glean some enjoyment out of it, and that’s pretty key: even when it has nothing new to offer, it still has something to offer. It’s something of a mundane game, but it’s also a really weird one in the world of Mario, and that’s something to check out.
This review was conducted on an SNES using a cartridge copy of the game. Long ago, it was given as a gift to the author.