‘Super Mario RPG’: A Second Glance on its 20th Anniversary

Ryan Covey
Super Mario Games
Super Mario Games

Popular Culture is an impossibly large and ever-growing thing. It’s impossible to see everything and as a result, some things fall through the cracks. Maybe critics panned it, maybe it was a commercial flop, maybe it just didn’t catch on at the time. Whatever the case, these bits of pop cultural refuse are overdue for A Second Glance.

Last Time on A Second Glance: Whitewash (2013)

Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars is a turn-based RPG that hit the Super Nintendo all the way back in 1996. The game was Mario‘s first foray into the role-playing genre and was developed by genre leaders Squaresoft. Though the mechanics can be clunky by today’s standards, Super Mario RPG remains one of the best roleplayers released for the Super Nintendo thanks to Square putting all its skill into the game at the height of the company’s golden age. Thanks to the SNES featuring a murderer’s row of legendary adventures like Chrono Trigger, Secret of Mana, or Final Fantasy VI, Super Mario RPG deserves to be remembered just as fondly as those classics.

Mario RPG - 01

The Plot

Super Mario RPG starts with an average day in the life of its titular diminutive plumber, at least by Mushroom Kingdom standards. The evil Bowser kidnaps Princess Peach Toadstool and takes her to his base of operations, and Mario quickly arrives to save Peach as usual, soundly defeating Bowser. Just as Mario stands victorious, a giant sword falls from the sky and buries itself in the castle. Mario, Peach, and Bowser fly off in separate directions from the force of the blast as this menacing sword glares over the skyline.

After some adventuring, Mario finds that the sword arriving was part of the invasion by an evil alien named Smithy. Upon arrival, Smithy has damaged the mystical Star Road and scattered godlike Stars all over the world. There are “Seven Stars” (as mentioned in the title) and Mario must collect all of them to defeat Smithy and save The Mushroom Kingdom to return things to some semblance of normalcy.

Along Mario’s lengthy search for the Stars, he finds four companions, some more familiar than others. Mallow is a short cloud person who’s proficient in magic, Geno is a star sprite inhabiting the body of a Pinocchio-like wooden doll, and Princess Peach proves she’s more than a damsel in distress by joining up. Also, for the first time ever, Bowser becomes slightly good, teaming up with Mario so he can get back his castle and armies. All these characters go on funny (and surprisingly deep) character arcs across Super Mario RPG‘s seven chapters.

Mario RPG - 02

The Gameplay

The Mario license would be little more than a dumb gimmick if the gameplay couldn’t deliver. Fortunately, Square realized the appeal of Mario’s traditional sidescroller gameplay and made platforming an integral part of the game. Back in 1996, Super Mario RPG was one of the few RPGs to feature a jump button, making platforming as integral as HP/MP. Players jump on ledges, break blocks for items, or even jump on enemies in the field to gain a pre-emptive attacks.

And the twitchy, active gameplay translates to the combat as well. If you time your attacks right you do extra damage or earn bigger rewards post-battle. Super Mario RPG made skill extra important in a genre that usually sidestepped it, making for action-RPG gameplay that would inspire many games for years to come.

Unfortunately, thanks to the tech restriction of having 3D perspective on a 16-bit console, there are some issues with the control scheme. Super Mario RPG is a “3D” game in the same way as Donkey Kong Country and Sonic 3D Blast. The overhead. 3/4 perspective camera tilts at an angle to create the illusion of depth, so for Mario to walk in a straight line the player must move the character diagonally. This feature is no issue for an analog stick but the SNES only has a D-pad, so it can be a real pain.

Mario RPG - 03

Why Does it Deserve a Second Glance?

Super Mario RPG’s first and greatest strength is that it’s operating in the Mario universe. One of the key reasons that the Mario series has endured is that the characters are colorful and dynamic, and that’s all there in this game. Mario’s world is so much fun and applying that personality to a story-driven game is a recipe for success. Giving gamers the chance to stop and actually explore The Mushroom Kingdom is an irresistible concept.

There could be more characters from Mario games than there are. Koopas, Goombas, Hammer Bros., and others enemies appear but new foes take over as the game goes on. No-one mentions famous folks like Luigi or Princess Daisy, and Yoshi appears but doesn’t join the player’s party. Fortunately, the many new characters fit perfectly into the Mario canon. Mallow and Geno have interesting histories and don’t feel like odd men out amongst the classic characters. Some new bosses are forgettable but the thief Croco, weirdo Booster, and goofy Axem Rangers all add to the game’s immense charm. The locales are all fun and unique, though only some bear a resemblance to Mario levels.

Mario RPG - 04

While Paper Mario bills itself as a sequel to Super Mario RPG, it features no real connective tissue. No characters unique to Super Mario RPG turn up in later games in the Paper Mario or Mario and Luigi series, likely because Square has some level of ownership over folks like Geno and Mallow. While the other RPG games in the Mario canon are enjoyable, their aesthetic is entirely different, making the original still special when you return to it even two decades after it was new. None of its successors can quite match up to the charm and fun of Super Mario RPG, which makes it more than worth of another look on the Wii U Virtual Console.

Become a
Pop culture fans! Write what you love and have your work seen by millions.