Super Mario RPG is a game that, when it was originally released, likely met with a lot of skepticism. Squaresoft’s RPGs are generally known as their huge sweeping tales that were not like anything that most gamers have seen at the time. Mario games, on the other hand, generally had no story beyond the typical excuse plot involving rescuing the princess. I can imagine the surprise when the two ended up going together like peanut butter and chocolate.
Since then, there have been two sub series that have been considered spiritual successors to Super Mario RPG; those being the Paper Mario series, and the Mario & Luigi series. Super Mario RPG was also one of the last games released for the Super Nintendo in 1996 and was the last game Squaresoft developed for a Nintendo system until Final Fantasy Tactics Advance in 2003. Super Mario RPG was the source of many technical achievements and innovations for the time of its release, but the real question is if it is as impressive today as it was in 1996.
As I have previously stated, Mario games are not typically well known for their stories, while Squaresoft games generally are. So that begs the question of which one Super Mario RPG will follow. At first it looks like it will be the former as Princess Toadstool, or Peach as she is typically known as nowadays, is snatched up by Bowser less than a minute into the game’s intro sequence. Unlike typical Mario games where Mario needs to go through eight worlds to reach Bowser however, he conveniently lives right next door to Bowser in this game As a result, Mario’s fight against Bowser occurs less than half an hour into the game atop chandeliers that for some reason are hung up by Chain Chomps with their mouths.
While Bowser’s defeat typically means the end in Mario games, it is only the beginning in Super Mario RPG. Immediately following Mario’s fight against Bowser, a giant, sentient sword known as Exor, whom is often mislabeled as the game’s main antagonist Smithy, crashes into Bowser’s Keep, sends Mario, Toadstool, and Bowser flying off in three separate directions, and destroys the bridge leading to Bowser’s keep. From there, the plot continues until Mario meets up with Mallow, a cloud like being who claims to be a tadpole but looks nothing like one, and Geno, a possessed Doll sent from the heavens to collect the missing star pieces to repair star road. The game then becomes a Macguffin fetch quest to retrieve these start pieces.
While the plot may be simple on paper, there is surprising amount creativity in the execution. Despite the plot progressing like a typical JRPG, the game never actually says that you are saving the world. The main reason that you are collecting the star pieces is to re-build the Star Road. Without the Star Road, dreams and wishes will never come true, which naturally is a depressing situation.
In addition to this, the game’s antagonists consist of living, sentient weapons that are lead by a guy named Smithy, which is the name of a person who makes weapons. There is a commonly recurring motif regarding weapons in Super Mario RPG in the way that Smithy’s minions and Smithy himself do not show any human qualities and are just focused on creating a world full of weapons. They ultimately have no reason to do what they are doing but are simply doing so anyway, almost as if they are robots that are programmed to do so.
What is great about Super Mario RPG is that it never felt too much like a Mario game or too much like a Final Fantasy game. The two series are combined almost seamlessly yet are still subtle in the way that elements from both series are used. There are several slight references to both series that appear that will be noticeable to dedicated fan of either series, but it is not simply “Mario in a turn based RPG” or “Final Fantasy with Mario characters.”
Another great aspect of this game is the attention to detail. Super Mario RPG has so many hidden or optional scenes and strange Easter eggs that I actually feel a bit sorry for the people who programmed them seeing as how most people will not even notice them. To give a few examples, you can see an extra scene with two of the game’s subvillains if you decide to go through a previous dungeon at some point in the game, you can buy fireworks in order to slightly change the parade in the ending credits, you can find cameos from both Samus and Link, and several more things that would be easy to miss. While none of these things really have any major effect on the game as a whole, they do still deserve praise for deciding to include these little things that make the game just little bit better on their own.
Mario RPG is also commonly praised for its humor when compared to other JRPGs which were rather serious. While Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger did have some light hearted moments, they were generally quite serious in terms of the main lot and tried to possess a deep story and atmosphere. Super Mario RPG does not really go for the large epic style that most JRPGs even today tend to do, which in and of itself is something rather unique regarding Super Mario RPG. Granted EarthBound was released a year prior to Mario RPG and had much better writing but regardless it was not something that was common back then.
For its time, the graphics of Super Mario RPG were a technical achievement. The game attempted full 3D movement and animations as opposed to the usual 2D spites and used a graphical style similar to those used in the Donkey Kong Country games. By today’s standards, however, the graphics look just plain bad. The main problem is that the game is not actually a 3D game seeing as how everything is at a fixed camera angle and the camera never moves. As a result, nothing that moves really looks three dimensional due to the fact that they are still sprite based and you can only see one side of a character, NPC, or enemy at a time.
This not only makes them unpleasant to look at, but is even worse considering that Squaresoft thought it was appropriate to add platforming segments, despite the fact that platforming works horribly with a fixed 2.5D isometric view. While platforming is something that would seem like a necessity in a Mario game regardless of genre, it does not excuse the poor execution of said platforming mechanics. Due to the fixed view of the game’s camera, it is nigh impossible to tell where you are relative to your surroundings.
This results in you being unable to tell which angles you need to jump in order to reach a certain platform. There have been multiple occasions in Super Mario RPG where I have spent up to thirty minutes trying to make a single jump in order to reach an out of the way item. Most of this time was spent trying to figure out things such as which angle to jump at and how far you need to jump, and when. In a well designed platformer, these are things that you would normally be able to understand just from playing the game for a few minutes, but Mario RPG is not a platformer and Squaresoft should have realized this before attempting 2.5D platforming segments.
On the other side of the coin, Super Mario RPG has certainly done well in the music department. Just about every tune you hear in the game is catchy and atmospheric, which is exactly what a soundtrack should do. Just about every song you hear in the game is memorable in some way shape or form and will stick with you until after you have played the game. Among the game’s best songs are the Forest Maze theme, the remixed battle themes against Bowser and Culex featuring music from Super Mario Bros 3 and Final Fantasy IV respectively, the Booster Tower theme, and both of the battle themes that play during the fight with Smithy.
The gameplay in Super Mario RPG could best be described as well executed, but hardly revolutionary. A lot of people tend to argue that the use of timed hits was a huge innovation for the RPG genre, but it really is not. The main way that timed hits function in Super Mario RPG is that, by pressing the A button at a certain point during your attack, you will do extra damage and that you take less damage if you time your button press as the enemy hits you with its attack.
The problem I have with the assertion that timed hits are a huge innovation is that they not only change very little about the way you play the game, but that they are not even all that important in the game itself. The most damaging attacks in the game are also magic attacks, which you cannot defend against with timed button presses. As a result, you are still using the same tactics that you would typically use in a turn based RPG and there is no strategy added with timed hits.
In addition to this, there are several aspects about the timed hits that are jarring. The first being that the timing required is often times at the end of an attack instead of when it connects. This oftentimes makes it difficult to tell which point you are supposed to time the hit at. Also there are certain timing requirements in order to strengthen or add additional effect to your magic attacks that the game gives no clue how you are supposed to know, nor does the game even give any indication that they exist in the first place.
The absolute worst of these is the super jump ability. The super jump move works the same as the regular jump spell, except that you can repeatedly increase the overall damage by continuously getting the right timed hit, and it can go on for as long as you can keep it up. The problem with this is that, unlike the later Paper Mario games, the enemy models do not react to the move, yet the timing is still based on the enemy’s location.
Like with the game’s platforming segments, it is difficult to tell whether you are landing on the enemy’s head or legs and which one is the correct target to time your button press at. In addition to this, you also gain an ability called ultra jump, which is the same as super jump except it targets all enemies. The problem is that this attack is useless because you cannot predict which enemy Mario will aim for and which one you are trying to get the appropriate timing for.
The Super Jump ability would not be nearly as much of an issue if it were not for the fact that there is a sidequest based around getting thirty and eventually one hundred consecutive super jumps. Now I could explain all the things that make getting one hundred consecutive super jumps one of the most aggravating and frustrating things in gaming, but the best way for me to prove my point is to the GameFAQs FAQ regarding super jumps.
That specific FAQ lists mostly personal techniques like the proper way to count the number of super jumps or muting the TV so the constant 1 up noise does not distract you. The fact that such simple things, which should never be of any consequence in any game, can easily slip you up is what shows how frustrating this side quest is. This side quest is entirely optional, and thank goodness it is, but it is still worth mentioning just due to how monumentally tedious it is.
Another annoying element of the game is that a majority of the game’s mini-games and side quests are poorly implemented and flat out annoying. I can guarantee that you will never bother to put any time into the various mini-games of Super Mario RPG after they come up for the first time in the plot. Not only is this due to them offering no real rewards and being tacked on, but they will likely be ignored due to them controlling terribly, being badly designed, and just not being fun to play.
Yet another complaint regarding the game is its cryptic nature. As I have stated before, there are a lot of hidden Easter eggs, but those were not the only things hidden. A rather large majority of treasures are invisible blocks that are nigh impossible to find without looking them up. Hell there is even one at that can only be obtained at one point in the beginning of the game by jumping on top of an NPC’s head in order to reach an area of the screen that blends in with the background. Note that this is before the game even tells you that there are hidden coin blocks. To rub salt in the wound, if you talk to the NPC that keeps track of the number of chests that you got after you have collected all the chests, the only response is a generic “wow you found them all.”
However, despite messing up lot of smaller aspects, Super Mario RPG nails the one major aspect that really counts. While the timed hits are kind of overrated, they do still add a small amount of flavor to the battles. There is admittedly a small amount of satisfaction whenever you guard or attack correctly and hear that ding sound effect that accompanies a successful timed hit. In reality though, it is the simple yet well balanced mechanics that Mario RPG really excels at. While it is true that the game was pretty easy for me and that I was able to make short work out of just about every battle in the game, I was only able to do so by knowing how to use the mechanics against the game. Yeah you could technically brute force your way through the game, but that is just not how RPGs are meant to be played.
Normal battles will be mostly made short work of in Super Mario RPG and if that is not the case then you are likely doing something wrong. The game does make sure to throw in a tough few enemies here and there to keep you on your toes though. Boss battles in Super Mario RPG are flat out brilliant. Unlike a lot of turn based RPGs where the main strategies for bosses are basically the same for each battle, Super Mario RPG’s boss battles have unique ways of switching things up. While you are still technically using the same damage, heal, and buff strategy for each boss, they each have their own quirks that make them distinguishable.
Some have you fight with one character, some lock out one of your three menu commands at random, and some are simply based around having to deal with multiple targets. I must give specific mention to the game’s optional super boss. Basically, this guy is a very challenging boss that requires a significant amount of strategy to beat without using a certain item in the game. Unlike most JRPGs where the super boss is so powerful that they can only be beaten one specific way, Mario RPG’s super boss can be beaten in multiple different ways, but that does not mean any of them will be easy.
While it is true that Super Mario RPG has a lot more flaws than people seem to realize, it is still an above average game in its own right. Granted I would likely not put it on the same level of excellence as Final Fantasy IV, VI, Chrono Trigger, or EarthBound, it is still a unique game that contributed that inspired two successful series, in addition to the amount of non-Nintendo properties it influenced.. I can easily suggest checking it out if you are a fan of Later Mario RPGs, or if you are new to JRPGs and need a simpler game to start out with.
This review was originally posted to GameFAQs on November 6th of 2013, and has since been re-edited with enhanced presentation.
If you would like to support me or this site, then please support my Patreon if you would like to see higher quality content with more resources to put towards it. If you don’t want to spend any money on me, then you can also help out by simply sharing my blog on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Reddit, or anywhere else where others will see it. You can also follow this blog if you would like to be kept up to date on my stuff, or you could follow me on any of my social media pages (listed at the bottom of the page) and could stop by The Guardian Acorn Discord chat if you would like to talk to me and my homies.