– Enchanting, hilarious story set in the Super Mario world
– Combines turn based battles with an active attack system that makes them more engaging
– Fantastic soundtrack
– Did I mention this game is funny? It’s wit goes a long way.
– Sits at about exactly the right length to provide an engaging experience the entire time
– Tons of minigames and side stuff to do
– Enemies are actually in the game world so you can dodge them rather than fight them
– Doesn’t require the usual grindfest of normal JRPGs
– Graphics, which looked great in the SNES days, look a bit dated now
– Battle song will forever be embedded in my brain
– Despite not needing to grind, this is “fixed” by having tons of enemies on the field
– Has a maximum level cap, inventory space, and coins. I hate it when games do that.
– Characters like Geno and Mallow are owned by Square, and will never be seen again
Time to take the train to nostalgia town
It’s May 1996. Everybody in the US is freaking out because we all knew the N64 was coming out by the end of the year. Most people have packed up their SNES systems in preparation for this new polygonal behemoth, promising full 3D graphics and a new collection of Mario and Zelda games. That is probably why Super Mario RPG was overlooked when it was released at that time. Essentially the swan song of the SNES, Super Mario RPG was a weird hybrid of two of the biggest companies in gaming at the time: Squaresoft and Nintendo. Essentially an “RPG Lite,” Super Mario RPG took Nintendo’s star mascot and planted him firmly in turn-based battles, an “epic” and “enthralling” storyline, and a battle to save the entire world and everybody’s wishes. Did it work?
You bet it did.
Super Mario RPG‘s story is silly nonsense. When Mario once again has to go save Princess Peach from the clutches of Bowser (an event that, even in 1996, the characters in the game joke about it being so routine), just as he about to deliver the final blow a giant sword from space or something rams into Bowser’s castle, sending everybody flying across the land. You later find that the titular Seven Stars have been taken, and without them all wishes will cease to exist. Heaven forbid!
Since Mario is drawn to stars like flies to dog poo, he sets off on a magical quest to retrieve them all. On the way you’ll encounter some of the weirdest characters ever to grace a Mario game (and then never to grace them again, thanks to Square and Nintendo fighting over copyrights), journey across the Mushroom Kingdom (which never seems to have any consistency in its layout), and meet old friend and enemies. It’s an extremely simple story, but there are a few things that really make it shine.
Oh yeah, stupid Birdo is in this game. I almost forgot.
First off is that it’s just…really, really charming. I know that, in a world where having a viewpoint character nuked and chainsawing guys in half is standard gaming fare, this might not be considered a plus by a few people. But, despite the fact that Mario never says anything and most of the game is a load of nonsense, nearly every character of this game is endearing. The pace does fluctuate a bit, with some dead time between the Seaside Town and the Cloud…place, but as a whole the game constantly has funny cutscenes and entertaining dialogue that keeps the flow.
Something it does really well is “emote.” You know what I’m saying: they mad a big deal about it in Final Fantasy VI when characters winked, laughed, shook their heads, etc. Mario RPG does this to an overexaggurated sense, adding some character to Mario even though he never speaks. All the characters also have distinct personalities (except Geno, who I have never seen why he’s the fan favorite when he only exists to spout expository dialogue) which are in turn overemphasized, making this a silly, juvenile yarn that existed when “juvenile” just meant “silly for children” rather than “body excrement jokes.”
There’s a lot to love here.
So what do you actually do in Mario RPG? Well, at it’s core its a simplified turn based JRPG, with some minor twists. You take turns to execute attacks based on the speed stat, either attacking or casting magic spells. You’ll gain XP and Coins and level up and buy new weapons and armor. Very basic stuff.
What Mario RPG does well is add little things to keep you engaged in the battle. When every character attacks, you have the option of hitting the A button at just the right moment to initiate a chain (an idea Legend of Dragoon stole and then ramped up to the 9th power) which does bonus damage and can’t miss. Eventually you get so good at these you can do them in your sleep, but at least you can’t just mash the A button through every fight.
The same goes for magic. Weirdly enough, everybody shares “Flower Points” (MP), meaning I hardly ever used magic except with my main casters (sorry, Bowser). But each of these spells often requires something as well, be it holding a button or mashing one, or just tapping the “magic” button again at the right time for similar bonus damage. It isn’t much, but it goes a long way to keeping the battles from becoming boring.
The only good Geno is a dead Geno, hur hur hur.
If anything, Mario RPG could be criticized for being too easy. Aside from an extremely difficult optional boss that basically requires you to get cheater items to beat, 90% of this game is a total cakewalk. If you’ve ever played any JRPGs before (or most video games, to be honest) than you’ll probably have an easy enough time. Money is plentiful, and the ability to both do bonus damage and block damage means you can breeze through battles. Killing enemies can frequently drop bonuses like “Full HP” and the like, making the game even easier, and since it requires almost no level grinding (yay!) if you do happen to accidentally overlevel the game will become a total cakewalk.
Outside of battles the game keeps you engaged as well. Set on an isometric view (aka the hardest view to control anything in ever), Mario still has his signature jumping ability, which is used for some mild platforming puzzles and item collection. You can see enemies on the field to avoid them, which is nice, though jumping on them doesn’t earn you any kind of bonus (unlike the future Paper Mario and Mario and Luigi games). It keeps things interesting and in the vein of the Mario games, which means it works.
Dodge ‘dem barrels! And I just now noticed the sword in Bowser’s castle is in the background. That’s a nice touch.
The game also has a load of minigames, most of which it requires you to do once as part of the plot, opening it up later for multiple replays. There’s also a secret casino that requires a bit of guessing to get to, but there’s enough side crap here to keep you entertained for a long while, even if you don’t decipher it’s mysteries.
This game draws from the Mario well quite frequently.
Graphically, it’s hard for me to decide. It has that “pseudo-3D” thing that Donkey Kong Country and Killer Instinct did, though Mario RPG look a lot cleaner than those two games. It’s weird though…I have two TVs in the house (yeah, I know, M. C. Moneybags here), an LCD HDTV and a flat screen tube TV for my retro games. On the HDTV this game looked like absolute garbage, and yes I made it so it wasn’t stretching to widescreen, duh. The game looked really pixelated and grainy and just straight up bad. On my tube TV, however, I thought the game looked fine (as did the rest of my pixel-centric games). So I guess it looks good if you put it on a crappy TV? Who knows.
The art design is excellent throughout, with the new characters fitting in well to Mario’s world, and the game constantly keeps pushing you forward to new, exotic locations. It has a fire level (of course) and a sewer (of course) though no ice level, so it gets points for that I guess. It does have a water level, though. Well, whatever, I think this game’s art design is great and it looks fine (on my tube TV).
This game has some great music
The soundtrack certainly lives up to both Nintendo and Square’s SNES reputation, with nearly every song being memorable and fantastic (except that main battle song, which I have heard so many times I kind of want to erase it from my brain forever). The song above, “Beware the Forest Mushrooms” has been my phone ringtone for almost four years. I keep trying to change it and it weasels its way back in somehow. It’s just an awesome song. All the songs are awesome songs. This game has a really killer soundtrack, that compliments the whimsical style of the game well.
More music, because it’s all so good.
So. The big question of this review might be: Has Mario RPG actually aged well, especially after Paper Mario and Mario and Luigi did the whole “Mario is in an RPG” thing to critical acclaim? Well…yeah, it has. Unlike many older games, this one holds up well because it was a really good game when it was released. But what I really think helps it work is the fact that it doesn’t take itself seriously at all, focusing more on humor over telling some epic, earth-rending story. Melodrama, the staple of most JRPGs, quickly becomes seen for what it is after several years (which is why replaying any Final Fantasy game after VI is a chore), but whimsy and wit tend to persevere. Even if the RPG mechanics would be considered dated by a modern crowd, Mario RPG does well enough sticking to its gun for both its story and presentation to still be endearing, even so many years later. It’s why people still love Monkey Island and Day of the Tentacle and other games where the gameplay has since been outdated: because there’s still a soul in there. Mario RPG is a game with a lot of heart (if you’ll forgive the cornyness of that statement), and I think that makes it work, even now.
Also because Mario’s house is awesome.
You can get this game for the almost offensively low price of $10 from the Wii’s Virtual Console. If you want to snag the SNES cart you’ll be looking at a bit more ($50-$80, depending on condition), but since they’re exactly the same game it doesn’t really matter. If you haven’t played this game and you have any fondness for either Mario or Squaresoft (back when they actually made good games) you are a horrible fan and you need to get this game right now. Trust me. It’s held up.