Who knew a role-playing game about everyone's favorite Italian plumber would go on to be one of the best games for the SNES? That's what a lot of gamers must have thought back in the day when they first laid eyes on Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars. When the game first came out, many gamers were skeptical about how well the prince of platforming could translate into a Final Fantasy-esque, turn-based RPGs. But as it turns out, it translates pretty darn well.
In many ways, Super Mario RPG could be seen as a swan song of sorts. Released late in the Super Nintendo lifespan back in 1996, it was the last Mario game to be released on the SNES, and was the final game Squaresoft, known today as Square Enix, produced on a Nintendo console before entering an exclusivity agreement with Sony. And Square’s final contribution to Nintendo turned out to be not only one of the finest and most beloved RPGs of all time, but also one of the most beloved Mario games in the history of the franchise.
The game starts with an all-too familiar set up: Bowser has kidnapped Princess Peach, known as Princess Toadstool in the US version, and taken her to his castle. Mario, naturally, must go after him and rescue the princess. But things quickly get more complicated when a giant sword appears out of the sky and crashes into Bowser's castle. As it turns out, the sword is part of the "Smithy Gang," an evil organization of living weapons and villains bent on world domination. Now Mario must not only find and rescue Princess Toadstool, but also stop the Smithy Gang from taking over his world. To do so, he must collect the seven Star Pieces, fragments of the fabled Star Road that was shattered upon the Smithy Gang's arrival, and whose fragments are now being guarded by the gang. And along the way, Mario gains four other allies to aid him in his quest: the "frog" boy Mallow, the possessed doll Geno, the mighty King Bowser himself, (one of the few times Bowser and Mario actually work together in the series, with hilarious results) and even the fair princess, who takes an active role in the adventure for once.
Super Mario RPG plays much like your typical RPG, except with a more action-oriented approach. Platforming and jumping have always been Mario’s strengths, and this game incorporates his trademark talents beautifully. You’ll progress through all the different areas as you normally would in a Mario game, by running about, jumping on platforms, and encountering the various enemies that patrol the kingdom, some who are familiar faces and some who were made exclusively by Square for the game and, regrettably, haven’t seen the light of day since. Speaking of enemies, I appreciate that the game does away with the “random encounters,” of most RPGs of the day. If you see an enemy, you can try to avoid it if you're not up to do battle with it.
Combat, for the most part, is your typical turn-based fare. You select the action your character takes during their turn, (attack an enemy, use an item, use a special attack, and so forth) and normally, you’d sit back and watch as the battle unfolds. But one of the things that really made the game different from other RPGs of its time was the "Timed Hits." By hitting the attack button again at a certain point during the attack, usually right before you strike an enemy, you can inflict extra damage. Likewise, hitting the correct button right before your enemy hits you can lessen the damage. This is a fantastic way to add a little action and variety to what could have otherwise been a mundane battle system and was so useful that it was incorporated into other Mario RPGs like Paper Mario. Learning the timing of not only your attacks, but the rest of your party members’ attacks, is a key part of combat for getting the most out of your attacks.
And as with any good RPG, there are dozens of side quests to complete, mini games to play and secrets to find. Some of the most fun mini-games are the Midas River course, which is a two-part mini game involving careening down a waterfall straight into a barrel roll down the river, and the Moleville Mine Cart, a really cool 3D-mine cart ride that requires a quick eye and even quicker reflexes. And those are just in first hour of the game. There are tons more fun little diversions to find all over Mushroom Kingdom if you want to take a break from the main game.
As far as graphics go, this game really showcased the best the Super Nintendo had to offer. All of the areas are lush, colorful and distinctive, from tropical jungles and mushroom-filled forests to dank sewers and giant fiery pits. Not to mention they’re all accompanied by the game’s incredible soundtrack, headed by some of the best video game composers out there: Yoko Shimomura (Kingdom Hearts, Legend of Mana), Koji Kondo (Legend of Zelda series) and Nobuo Uematsu (Final Fantasy series).
One thing you’ll notice right away is the unique viewpoint of the game. Instead of the typical side-scrolling vantage point of the other Mario titles, Super Mario RPG presents the Mushroom Kingdom in a 3D isometric perspective. This was one of the first times Mario’s world was realized in 3D, and for its time, was incredibly impressive. Admittedly, the isometric perspective can make the platforming a bit tricky in parts, but once you get the hang of it, it’ll become like second nature, and is one of the few early isometric games that really got it right.
One of the things people have always loved about Mario RPGs is their tone and humor. Unlike some RPG series that take themselves far too seriously, Super Mario RPG is for the most part lighthearted and upbeat, yet still manages to deliver the emotional punch when needed. The writing for this game is top-notch, and has some absolutely hilarious moments that not only break the fourth wall, but also provide plenty of in-jokes for fans and some just straight-up silly moments that made me grin from ear to ear.
Personally speaking, I played this game about two of three times through prior to writing this review. Not once was I ever bored with it, and not once did it ever feel old. Even though I knew the story and knew all the areas, I still thoroughly enjoyed playing the game and even to this day, I’m still uncovering secrets and finding out things I never knew about before. That in itself is a testament not only to the scope of the game, but also to just how enjoyable of an experience and how well-made the game is.
The Test of Time
Super Mario RPG is one of those rare games that hits all the high notes: great graphics (for the time), amazing soundtrack, distinctive and colorful environments, interesting story, a loveable cast of characters, unique gameplay, hilarious writing; you name it, this game had it. It’s easy to see why this game was, and still is, so beloved by fans of both Mario and RPGs. And best of all, it’s still perfectly playable today.
While Super Mario RPG unfortunately never saw a proper sequel, it did spawn a number of "spiritual successors." The Paper Mario series and the handheld Mario and Luigi series, both of which added their own unique spin and unmistakable Mario style to the typical turn-based RPGs, borrow a lot of elements from Super Mario RPG and are both fantastic series in their own right. So if you enjoyed Super Mario RPG, I highly recommend you check those games out as well.
Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars is available for download on the Wii Virtual Console.