“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars / But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”
-William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
Peanut butter and jelly. Milk and chocolate. Cream and sugar. Eggs and bacon. Square and Nintendo?
The one-time collaboration between the two game-developing giants in the mid nineties was the best example of a match made in heaven. Before Square abandoned Nintendo and their N64 for Sony and their PlayStation, there was Super Mario RPG.
The result of their alliance, their matrimony, was no ordinary RPG and no ordinary Mario platformer, but a game of a new quality. This game took the best of both worlds and mated them to produce one of the definitive titles on the Super Nintendo. As delightful and magical as the Mario franchise but as riveting and full of character as the Final Fantasy games, Super Mario RPG was a huge leap forward for the world’s most iconic plumber as he made the transition from a 2D platformer to a full-fledged, pseudo-3D, turn-based battling, role-playing protagonist. Fans of Square and/or Nintendo had a lot to smile at here.
But why even create such a game? What could possibly be in it for Nintendo? Surely, Mario was already doing quite well for himself. The landmark Super Mario Bros. for the NES remains one of the best-selling games of all time, having sold over 40 million copies. Yes, his platforming games were beginning to become formulaic but that didn’t appear to slow him down, either in Japan or in America. Nintendo wasn’t suffering for a lack of sales.
Contrariwise, Square (now Square Enix) wasn’t suffering for a lack of storytelling. By ’96 they had already created six numerical Final Fantasy games in addition to the Legends, SaGa, and Mana series (and don’t forget The 3-D Battles of WorldRunner, Square’s gimmicky gem!). They had also helped Capcom with the first Breath of Fire, created King’s Knight, and blessed the world with Chrono Trigger. Several of these titles were at the forefront of the RPG genre and would prove to define the direction of that genre for decades to come. Many of them are hailed as classics, and they should be. Their innovations such as the Active Time Battle system or the infusion of action gameplay elements are still in employ in various forms today.
Consider then what each developer had to gain. Nintendo could benefit from Square’s genius and their experience with gameplay and storytelling to enrich and deepen their most popular IP, whereas Square could benefit from using Nintendo’s star character to increase their own company’s presence worldwide instead of just Japan where their RPGs sold best.
Both developers saw success for their combined efforts. Super Mario RPG is beloved and fondly remember. By all? Well, I haven’t met anyone who hates its guts. It was the game that served as the launching pad for the Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi franchises. It all started here.
The game includes Square-esque gameplay and storytelling, even a cameo and some music influenced by Final Fantasy, namely Final Fantasy IV. At the same time, Shigeru Miyamoto oversaw the project and ensured the game contained plenty of lighthearted and genuine humor. SMRPG pokes some self-aware fun at the RPG genre. For example, Mario is unable to speak through the whole game. He does charades to explain things, hilariously, a playful jab at the typically silent heroes in RPGs.
Nintendo populated this new and detailed world with the Mario franchise characters we’re all so familiar with: Yoshi, Toad, the inhabitants of Mushroom Kingdom, Bowser, Peach. But, as if knowing beforehand that no RPG can be successful with fewer characters rather than more of them, Nintendo created new peoples and persons: Booster the grizzly man-child, Mallow the ugly tadpole, Geno the magical doll brought to life, Croco the fleet-footed thief, and of course all of the fresh antagonists pouring into Mario’s world.
Super Mario RPG is such a delight because it adds to and expands upon the mythos of the Mario universe, which up to this point had been rather vaguely defined. Sure we knew about the Mushroom Kingdom and Bowser’s Castle and maybe mistily that there were eight different worlds, but we didn’t know how they might be connected geographically, culturally, ethnically. None of that. We didn’t know what kind of government the Mushroom Kingdom had. We didn’t know the proximity of Yoshi’s isle. Opening up this whole new exploration of Mario’s universe took everything we were familiar with and made some sense of it, as well as providing a backdrop for a much longer and more involved narrative than we’ve seen thus far in Mario games.
The story begins like it always does. Princess Peach is sitting, idly daydreaming among the flowers, when the sky darkens and she’s captured by that misogynist kidnapper, King Koopa. The villain! Mario dashes out of his house to find his princess is missing and without a moment’s thought, he runs off to rescue her. Battling through Koopa’s troops, he and Bowser have an epic duel among the chandeliers of the castle. Hardcore!
But their battle is brought to a standstill when a terrific tremor resounds through the keep.
There is war in heaven.
A gigantic sword descends from the rent skies, clouds tearing as sundered shards of scattered star-stuff are strewn across the land. The sword plummets into Bowser’s castle and the impact throws Mario clear into the air, where he comes sailing down through his own chimney, landing safely in bed. Convenient!
What is this? What could possibly come between Mario and Bowser’s ancient vendetta, the recurring collision of equally immutable object and force? Turns out the giant sword is a celestial entity (à la Final Fantasy) named Exor, an agent of Smithy who himself is a dark overlord who has ruined Star Road in order to prevent anyone from having their wishes come true. What a punk!
Mario soon embarks upon a quest not merely to rescue the princess (that’s now old hat) but to save the world from the eternal disappointment of not being able to wish upon a star anymore. He must collect the scattered Star Pieces and repair Star road. He will find that Smithy’s underlings are everywhere, corrupting government, impeding justice, harassing citizens. But he will also find new allies, some in the least likely of places, to combat this new threat.
Inserting Nintendo’s candy-colored, happy-go-lucky Mario into a world of good vs. evil and fantasy-esque supernaturalism ended up being the perfect mixture. Mario became a character with much more background and RPGs became a genre that could now have a chuckle or two. In the history of the RPG, things have never been the same since.
Dream collabs like this need to happen more often!
The 8-bit Review
“Now you’re playing with power.” The Super Nintendo was capable of 3D graphics. Do you have any idea how mindblowing that was to an eleven-year-old version of myself? Super Mario RPG’s graphics have indeed aged, and maybe not as gracefully as cleaner, 2D graphics in other games from the era, but its sheer ambition is unrivaled. These graphics took full advantage of the SNES and the rare SA-1 chip.
This is what the 16-bit era was capable of. Not only did the isometric backgrounds look great with their sense of depth and scale, but also there’s a definite attention to lighting in SMRPG. Lighting greatly aided in the illusion of three dimensions.
Many characters were seen here for the first time in 3D. Chomp chains, goombas, koopas, Bowser, Peach, Toad… we’d never seen them like this before. In many ways, they look much better than their 3D polygon counterparts in Super Mario 64. The character animations, particularly in battle sequences, are fluid and full of personality. This is even true during simple conversations where Mario demonstrates a wide range of pantomime emotion. He was more expressive than ever, despite being unable to speak.
The soundtrack is as good as you’d think it would be if Koji Kondo and Nobuo Uematsu got together for a jam sesh. There are so many joy-inducing tracks, I wish I could share them all. As expected, it’s a fusion of Super Mario and Final Fantasy music. Many of the overworld themes are adaptations and developments upon classic Mario tunes, yet there are also some dungeon and battle songs which sound like they could’ve been ripped right out of Square’s famed RPGs.
Composer Yoko Shimomura, who has brought her talents to bear in Street Fighter II, Kingdom Hearts, Parasite Eve, and recently Final Fantasy XV, expressed that this project was very dear to her. She found the balance between the carefree sensibilities of Mario and the more dramatic and often morose audio aesthetics of Final Fantasy. She even adapted the boss battle theme from FFIV for the battle with Culex, a hidden boss:
Musically, SMRPG had to convey a far broader range than the typical sunshine ragtime and steel drums of previous Super Mario games. While remaining true to the joy of its characters, this soundtrack did that. It had a wealth of songs depicting foreboding, sadness, terror, and of course happiness.
Many of these songs are so catchy. Some of them are even iconic. The arrangements within the soundtrack are great but a lot of the original material is first-class. For example, no shortlist of songs from SMRPG would be complete without the following:
Super Mario RPG plays out like two different games. It has an overworld map with designated paths similar to those on Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World, but in villages and dungeons it employs an isometric environment wherein Mario has a huge range of motion. He can move in any direction and of course jump. There are even hidden question-mark blocks to found by jumping, so it’s not like they just threw that in there for no reason. In many ways, exploring the dungeons is a lot like characteristic Mario platforming, only without the bottomless pits and with a 3D perspective.
Enemies can be seen in the environment and contacting them will trigger a battle, so there are no random encounters and you can avoid enemies if you choose.
In battle, things play out very much like a traditional turn-based RPG. Player characters select their actions and then they trade blows with the enemy before the next turn comes up again. Square handily mapped out the character actions to the A, B, Y, and X buttons of the SNES controller, where each one accesses a different action such as Attack, Items, Defend, or Special. Special allows you to choose from the equivalent of a spells list for each character.
When attacking, there is an audio cue unique to each attack which reminds the player when to tap the button again to trigger an extra add on attack, increasing damage. Tapping the button when Mario punches an enemy will trigger a one-two punch combo to aid you in plowing through enemies. This is a little different with special moves, which require different button inputs, such as Mario’s fireball attack that demands you tap the button repeatedly as fast as you can to deal the most damage.
To my mind, this ingenious timing mechanism helps keep the battles from becoming too monotonous. In the very old, very traditional RPGs, grinding out levels or just plodding through lower level enemies in a dungeon could easily get boring. Sitting back and tapping the same button over and over again to select the same attacks is tedious, but with SMRPG’s innovation these battles can require a little more focus. Paying attention to the varying demands of timing from different weapons and spells made things more interesting as the game progressed. You’d have to adjust your timing if Mario had punch gloves equipped, or a koopa shell or a hammer.
The multiple characters who join your party also bear some resemblance to Final Fantasy’s classes. You have a dedicated healer, a support member, some offensive characters, and so on. But for those unfamiliar with the finer technicalities of RPGs, never fear. Super Mario RPG is a streamlined game in the RPG genre. Items purchased in towns are simple and direct, there isn’t a whole lot of damage to worry about (nothing into the 9999 range), there’s no array of customizable character features to fret over. In short, this is a great introductory RPG for those who have never played one.
A few mini-games and events similar to sidequests but not as involved are also present in SMRPG. The races on Yo’ster isle, collecting frog coins, playing in the casino, getting in on an in-game Game Boy are just a few examples. Elements like these helped to make the game less linear. Yeah, apparently Square actually knew how to make games that weren’t entirely linear or entirely open-world, once upon a time. Fancy that.
If you’d like to avoid SPOILERS, even for a game that came out twenty years ago, press Ctrl+f Accessibility to skip this section.There are so many memorable moments in this game. Two of the biggest and most memorable are when Bowser and Peach join your party. That too was mindblowing as a younger me. Having Bowser on my team was the greatest delight. The guy has always been one of my favorite video game villains and to be able to control him like the bruiser that he is, throwing down acid rain, chomp chain, and tearing face with his huge claws was pure candy for me.
Another great moment is the Booster subplot, where Mario has to try to rescue Peach from someone other than the Koopa King. Booster is rushing off to Marrymore to wed the princess against her will and Mario ends up having to face down a mutant cake in a delicious death battle. This game is so silly but it owns that silliness.
When all is said and done, there’s nothing truly surprising in this game. Maybe Bowser and Peach joining the fight is the most surprising. Everything else is just off the wall. So many minor characters are memorable and imbued with such personality. Remember that Power Rangers reference in the Axem Rangers? Ah, the 90’s.
Of course in the end, Mario does prove that he is indeed Super. He invades Bowser’s Keep with his newfound friends, fights Exor and intrudes upon the dimension of Smithy and his hordes, defeats the evil overlord, repairs the Star Road and bids farewell to Geno as the power of wishes is restored. What else could it be but a happy ending?
Well, maybe not for Geno. That dude is straight up awesome and Nintendo has done nothing with him. Don’t talk to me about some Mii costume on a game on a system nobody owns. I want to see Geno as a playable character in Smash Bros. Switch!
As previously mentioned, SMRPG is a streamlined and simplified RPG. It’s perfect for the RPG newcomer, if they don’t mind going retro. Which they shouldn’t unless “pretentiousness”. Yet with all of this SMRPG isn’t pandering. Yeah it may deal with numbers that look like petty chump change compared to more vigorous RPG experiences, but it doesn’t hold your hand.
I used this game to help introduce my then non-gaming wife to RPGs, so I can attest to its high degree of accessibility.
Beyond the secret boss and his Final Fantasy awesomeness, there’s no tremendous challenge in this game. Some of the later bosses are somewhat tricky but nothing major. Funny, I remember this being a game where I whipped out a calculator as a kid and did my own number crunching to see how close I was to defeating a boss by subtracting the damage dealt from his HP. I even had a strategy guide but it was mostly used for finding all the hidden question-mark boxes. Beyond Culex, easy game!
Who would have thought that taking two tried-and-true franchises and smooshing them together would create such a unique game? Even with the future advent of Paper Mario, Super Mario RPG remains distinct. This is a game which sits on its own pedestal.
My Personal Grade: 9/10
Super Mario RPG, in my estimation, comes about as close to perfection as a game could possibly get. As a Mario game, it is just as wonderful, humorous, and magical as anything we could expect from Nintendo but with more depth and more characters. As an RPG, Square’s simplified design and streamlined gameplay can appeal to those unaccustomed to role-playing games while its mechanics of timing can hold the attention of RPG veterans.
Super Mario RPG represents a lot of what made gaming and RPGs so great in the mid 90’s. It enhanced an aging franchise, it encouraged exploration and curiosity, it built its worlds through interaction with NPCs, it featured sprawling dungeons and challenging boss fights, it appealed to a wide audience, it remained kid-friendly but magical enough to remind adults of the wonder of childhood, it presented highly melodic music that was pleasant to listen to, it was innovative yet still faithful to the RPG genre, it took what we loved from Nintendo and what we loved from Square and fused the two, and it was self-contained.
As a fan of the Final Fantasy games and the Super Mario games since time immemorial, there have been few games as enjoyable or as memorable as Super Mario RPG, so widely beloved and enduring. There’s no question of whether the game holds up today or if this is nostalgia restrospection. Simply put, games like this just don’t come around every day. Not anymore.
Aggregated Score: 9.0