The concept of a Super Mario RPG doesn’t seem strange now considering the Paper Mario series is a modern day staple. But at one point even suggesting such a thing would invoke laughter. Square Enix and Nintendo didn’t seem to care as Super Mario RPG would go on to become one of the best rpgs of that era. Considering the parties involved it shouldn’t be so surprising. But it can’t be stated enough just how amazing the game is. With its charming story and innovative gameplay this is more than worth tracking down.
Those expecting a quest leading up to a final confrontation with Bowser to rescue Princess Toadstool are in for a shock. Super Mario RPG defies expectations and actually begins with that exact scenario. However it is just a setup to introduce the real protagonists, the Smithy Gang. These mechanical foes take over Bowser’s castle and kick him out in the process. In fact he actually joins you to deal with this new threat. It completely shatters expectations once again.
Super Mario Rpg is the first game to really explore the mushroom kingdom in depth. It proves to be a fascinating world thanks to the witty dialogue and writing. Alongside Illusion of Gaia and Earthbound this made me realize Nintendo of America’s localization staff really are some of the best in the business. The story isn’t too serious and the cast of characters ooze personality. Although Mario does not speak the running gag is that he says everything he needs to by jumping. Newcomers Geno and Mallo would become fan favorites even though they have yet to appear in any other games since. Even Bowser is a likable protagonist although his personality doesn’t stray far from being a borderline asshole. The plot is funny, full of familiar characters from the series and moves at a brisk pace, something many RPGs fail at.
The isometric view is certainly a strange choice but works since you are rarely called on to do any sort of precision platforming. Although you spend the majority of time on typical RPG activities there are numerous elements carried over from the Mario games. There are coin blocks and invisible blocks that hold items. Power stars grant invincibility with any enemies defeated still awarding experience. Even the large variety of minigames are actually fun and worth going back to once or twice.
When it comes to combat it would be easy to dismiss this as Final Fantasy with a Mario skin. To some extent that is true. The game’s turn based battles follow familiar conventions but that would be selling it short. There are numerous small additions that add depth and force you to be strategic. All enemies are visible like Chrono Trigger allowing you to avoid battle if you choose. Rather than individual magic points “spells” are cast using one pool of flower points. It has a huge impact on the use of characters that rely on magic since you can’t spam your way to victory. There are numerous status ailments and such that can even disable the use of certain buttons in combat which sounds frustrating but is actually fun to work around.
Perhaps the game’s greatest innovation is its timed hits. Nearly every attack and spell will deal additional damage if you press A at the right time. Depending on the character this can be two or three times in succession with the timing changing depending on the weapon equipped. It also applies when defending; it’s possible to completely negate all damage if you are good enough. Another incentive to taking advantage of timed hits is the random battle bonuses. There are large variety from increasing one of your stats to even granting an extra turn. This brilliant system not only encourages active involvement it is also perfectly tuned so that even if you miss you’ll still deal a normal amount of damage. Timed hits become a staple of many RPGS such as Shadow Hearts and it is easy to see why.
Surprisingly the game is not the cake walk you would expect as the challenge ramps up considerably. Toward the end as bosses have large health pools that really encourage experimenting with different party setups. The battles against Exor and Smithy are incredibly long and see the sharpest spike in difficulty. Some amount of grinding is required but since you control how frequently battles occur it isn’t annoying. Plus if you allocate your stat upgrades when leveling up properly grinding can be avoided somewhat. Most will not have trouble seeing this through to its conclusion but it is worth noting.
The pre-rendered graphics have aged since the original release but the art direction still makes this an attractive title. Most areas are small and split into multiple screens which allows an exceptionally high level of detail in its environments. The sprites are host to a wide range of animations both in and out of combat which adds to their charm. It also showed that even toward the end of that era Square were still pushing the envelope. Spell effects are a bit subdued compared to Final Fantasy 6 and Romancing Saga 3 but can still impress at times. Although created primarily by Square the world still feels like Mario even if it is a bit dark.
Super Mario RPG is host to a wonderful soundtrack that, while more orchestral in nature retains that upbeat Mario sound. There are an equal number of remixes of signature Mario tunes accompanied by new arrangements that are simply fantastic. Personally this is my favorite soundtrack among all of the rpgs in the series but I’m in the minority.
With its genuinely funny story, innovative gameplay and exceptional music Super Mario RPG is still great after 20 years. This is a deep and fun game that offers something for both fans of Mario and Final Fantasy and one that I recommend tracking down as soon as possible.