The Game: The seemingly endless battle between Mario and Bowser continues with the Koopa king’s latest kidnapping of the princess. A fierce battle ensues in Bowser’s castle, ending with what seems like a swift defeat for Bowser, when another combatant appears: a huge sword from the sky impales the castle, driving both Mario and Bowser out and preventing them from returning. Mario has to embark on an extended quest through the Mushroom Kingdom and other realms, gradually accumulating a band of locals to help him fight his way through the perils he meets along the way. He has to recover the seven pieces of the Star Road before he can resume his battle against the Smithy Gang bent on taking over his world. (Nintendo / Square, 1996)
Memories: An unlikely joint project between ’90s RPG powerhouse Square and Nintendo, this game took the universe of Super Mario Bros. and overlaid it on the action RPG structure that both companies had made famous and evolved over the previous decade. As strange as it was to try to get one’s head around a Mario game with a combat system and a “special items” menu, Super Mario RPG actually works beautifully.
And it doesn’t look or sound bad either – for quite a while, this was the gold standard for a game set in the Marioverse; even later attempts to drag Super Mario Bros. into 3-D rendered graphics on the N64 didn’t have the beauty and level of detail in Super Mario RPG. The music is hummable and drags you into the game’s world effectively, and only refers to the well-worn tunes from previous entries in the Super Mario franchise occasionally. So many Mario games had spent so much time making inside-joke references to the previous games in the series that Super Mario RPG was a novelty simply because of how much it didn’t do that.
As a game play experience, it’s effective and addictive. A simple menu system makes good use of the ocean of buttons on the SNES controller, and it quickly gets to be second nature, which is a good thing – even during the turn-based combat segments, players can affect the outcome of their battles with carefully timed control combos, keeping the turn-based fights from being a boring necessity. The non-combat majority of the game is free-flowing, nicely animated, and just plain pretty to look at. Even with the N64’s superior graphics hardware, it would be a long time before a Mario game came along to top this one.
With this gourmet recipe for greatness, it was therefore only natural that Square and Nintendo had a parting of the ways after Super Mario RPG, primarily over Square’s desire to carry its Final Fantasy franchise over to the then-new Sony Playstation. The result was that it would be five years before there was a successor to Super Mario RPG, and even then it couldn’t use the same structure, conventions and characters from the previous game. The resulting Paper Mario series has become a success in its own right, but the debate continues as to whether or not it’s ever attained the shining-moment-of-greatness that Super Mario RPG was for so many years – when this game arrived on the Wii Virtual Console, it was a Big Deal to those who remembered it so fondly.
Super Mario RPG was a singular event in the development of the Super Mario franchise, offering a fresh take on the familiar characters and settings, while introducing an entire world’s worth of new places and characters. In many ways it’s still one of the high points.