Super Mario RPG was one of the last games released in Nintendo’s then-long running relationship with Squaresoft (now Square Enix). The game was released in North America in March of 1996, just six months before the launch of the Nintendo 64, which also makes it the final Mario game released on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (it has since been released on the Wii’s Virtual Console). The game was released to very warm critical reception, and, for those of us who played the game, it became an instant classic. Still, despite respectable sales numbers and positive reviews, the game has floated under many gamers’ radars for the last fifteen years (I feel old). Super Mario RPG was released in a time when loyalties to console makers were incredibly fierce, so non-Nintendo loyalists, especially those who pledged their lives to SEGA, may have missed out on this truly remarkable game.
Mario? In a RPG? You betcha. See, Super Mario RPG was the first game to throw everyone’s favorite plumber into the genre. Since then, Mario has made quite a few ventures into the RPG genre, but none of that would have been possible without the inspiration from this game. Squaresoft took everything we knew and loved about Mario (except for poor Luigi) and framed it within a Final Fantasy-esque turn-based roleplaying game. So let’s take a look at what made Super Mario RPG so special.
Plot & Characters – 9.5/10
Super Mario RPG starts off much like many other titles featuring the Nintendo mascot: Bowser kidnaps Princess Peach (known then as Princess Toadstool). Mario heads off to confront his nemesis and rescue the Princess, but his plans are interrupted when a gigantic sword comes crashing through Bowser’s castle. Mario is thrown from the castle, which becomes inaccessible. He heads to the Mushroom Kingdom where he meets up with Mallow, a young “tadpole” (who looks nothing like a tadpole). Mario pledges to escort Mallow back to his home, where the two discover, to no one’s surprise save Mallow’s, that he is not a tadpole. From there, they meet up with Geno, a doll brought to life by one of the star people who inhabit Star Road. Geno informs them that the sword in Bowser’s castle is a member of the Smithy Gang, a devious organization who shattered the Star Road, an action which causes everyone’s hopes and dreams to no longer be fulfilled. Geno joins Mario and Mallow, who vow to destroy the Smithy Gang and repair the Star Road. Along the way, Mario is joined by Princess Peach and, reluctantly, Bowser. The gang ventures from town-to-town, investigating problems related to the collapse of the Star Road (and some not related to the Star Road, but, hey, this is an RPG, what did you expect?). Their travels lead them through a mining town, a town populated by “reformed” Koopa henchmen, a sunken pirate ship, a kingdom in the clouds, and a volcano – to name a few destinations. Their journey leads them to Smithy, a sinister blacksmith from a different realm. Will Mario and Bowser reconcile their differences in order to save the world from the Smithy Gang? Will the Princess save her kingdom? Will Geno be able to repair the Star Road? Will Mallow ever discover his true identity?
The memorable plot is over-shadowed by the game’s fantastic characters. Mario, despite being mute for the game, interacts through over-the-top motions and facial reactions. Mallow is an overly emotional boy who tries his best to match the bravery and strength of his comrades. Geno is a knowledgable, strong, goal-oriented individual. Princess Toadstool humanizes the group a bit and acts a liaisonne between her friends and the various people they encounter. The game’s breakout star is Bowser, who, for the first time, appeared as more than a sinister, kidnapping villain. His dialogue and actions were hilarious, as were his plot lines. The supporting cast and vilains offer plenty of laughs and enjoyment as well, especially Booster and the Axem Rangers.
Overall, a great plot, stand-out characters, and top-notch physical and written humor make this game an enjoyable experience from start-to-finish.
Sound – 9.5/10
Of course, no Squaresoft game is complete without an excellent soundtrack, and Super Mario RPG is no exception to this tradition. The soundtrack was composed by Yoko Shimomura, who would later become the series composer for Kingdom Hearts, among many other credits. Shimomura’s fantastic soundtrack was a blend of her unique style and the styles of Koji Kondo and Nobuo Uematsu. The result is a soundtrack the reflects the game’s roots in Nintendo and Squaresoft history. Even now, as I write this article, fifteen years after playing the game for the first time, I can hear so many of the game’s tracks pounding in my ears. It has remained a favorite soundtrack among game-music enthusiasts since its release. One song, a theme for the game’s forest section, was adapted into a pretty popular viral video a few year ago. Perhaps you’ve heard it before:
Graphics – 9/10
For its time, Super Mario RPG featured some great visuals. Environments were fairly detailed, as were the character models. Of course, the Nintendo 64 was mere months away, so this game’s visuals would become old news fairly quickly. Still, the impressive 3D models that Squaresoft used really showed the power of the SNES.
A massive overworld featured several unique, fairly large zones, each marked by a distinct visual style. The game featured a variety of splashy special attacks that positively lit up the screen with each use. The game’s opening sequence, which depicted Princess Toadstool being snatched by Bowser, featured some relatively smooth animations and character models. Overall, Super Mario RPG‘s visual atmosphere was imaginative, unique, and technically impressive (for its time, at least).
Gameplay – 10/10
Super Mario RPG‘s gameplay was also top-notch. Using a framework inspired very much by the Final Fantasy series, Squaresoft crafted excellent combat, stat upgrade, and inventory systems. One of the most notable features was the inclusion of a forced-crit system. Players could time a button press with their attacks to increase the power of a move. To this day, I still press a button whenever I attack in an RPG, a behavior that I doubt I’ll shake anytime soon. The turn-based combat system was smooth and required careful strategy, especially with some of the game’s tougher boss battles. Squaresoft also gets a lot of credit for integrating platforming sections, which were actually rather difficult, that required the player to use Mario’s famous jumps to traverse great heights. There were no random battles – physically engaging a creature in the overworld immediately transported players to the battle screen. Puzzles and mini-games also brought a lot of flavor to the game. There were plenty of sidequests, including five “super weapon” missions, that allowed players to engage the game in a more detailed and extravagant manner. In general, Super Mario RPG’s gameplay allowed players to become involved in a unique experience inspired by one of the most innovative RPG series of the time.
Overall – 9.5/10
Super Mario RPG is always on the short list for best Super Nintendo games. It isn’t even that strange to see the game in lengthy “Best Game of All Time” lists. It’s a memorable experience that hasn’t been properly duplicated since. After Nintendo and Squaresoft’s “divorce,” Nintendo attempted to carry on the legacy of this game through subsequent Mario RPGs, but they were never the same. This game was a unique moment in time: two gaming giants combined their most successful franchises and ideas. The result was an ambitious title that managed to do a lot of things incredibly well. Take a break from the modern gaming scene and jump into an undeniable classic.