November 17, 2023
Back in 1996, Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars was released on SNES to audiences in Japan and the US. A strange game, it came into existence out of Shigeru Miyamoto’s dream to make an RPG using everybody’s favourite plumber, along with RPG master developer Square’s hopes to develop an RPG that could be more successful outside of Japan than their previous games. With their powers combined, a charming, turn-based take on Mario was born – but, not released down here in Australia at the time.
We got our first taste of Super Mario RPG when it hit the Wii U Virtual Console in 2015. Now, almost thirty years later, a full remake for the Switch is here, and despite a fantastic visual glow-up, it mostly remains entirely true to the original, making it a splendid remake that offers a peek into the past at one of Nintendo’s most curious collaborations.
It’sa me, hi
One thing that sets Super Mario RPG apart from other Mario adventures is that it’s not a traditional “save Princess Peach” story, which back in 1996 must have been a big swing to begin with. Initially, the game starts that way, sure, but it’s not long before a more powerful threat emerges, as the Mushroom Kingdom is overwhelmed by the Smithy Gang, complete with a giant sword that gets planted firmly in the centre of Bowser’s castle. All of a sudden, Mario, along with new allies and some loved franchise characters, have to come together and save the entire world.
The higher stakes go a long way in making the adventure more serious, but that doesn’t mean it’s lacking in the Mario charm you’d expect. Being an RPG, characters you encounter in the world are more open to having a chat with you, potentially offering a side quest or distraction. Each of the core areas that you’ll battle your way through in a quest to find seven stars has a distinct personality, with ramifications that impact your party. Two characters are introduced as key parts of the main cast but strangely, have never been seen again in other Mario-universe titles since. We have Mallow, a marshmallow-cloud-looking dude with a hidden past and Geno, an otherworldly traveller who inhabits a doll that comes to life. They’re both great additions, making sure that we aren’t just focused on the usual suspects in this rather unusual adventure.
“The physicality of Mario is goofy and cute, and his animations alone make for a memorable performance.”
Even though characters offer more dialogue than usual for a Mario game, the titular plumber himself still doesn’t have a voice. Instead, he quite adorably mimes when trying to get his point across, even temporarily shapeshifting into other characters as he does his own version of storytelling to catch other characters up. The physicality of Mario doing this is goofy and cute, and his animations alone make for a memorable performance.
The visual upgrade adds a lot to the charm, too. Environments look quite polished, from underground sewers to forest mazes, coal mines to castles and everything in between. The colour genuinely pops off the screen, with characters, enemies and battle animations all receiving the glow-up treatment. There are some neat character touches here like Bowser flinging Mario at enemies but replacing him with a small doll version of the plumber when the human one is incapacitated. Whether shooting a field of stars at a group of enemies or dropping a giant snowman on their heads, combat comes to life, with special moves getting their own summon-esque cut-scene to add to their impact. It’s a feast for the eyes and does an excellent job of bringing Super Mario RPG to the modern era.
Old school meets new school
The turn-based combat on offer here will certainly add to the nostalgia for those who played the original, but the remake of Super Mario RPG does come with some additional flourishes. As is fairly standard to the genre, you’ll have three party members battling it out with enemies using basic power attacks, special magic moves and items where required. However, every time you attack, a button press can be timed perfectly to ensure extra damage. Pressing A at the perfect moment not only makes the move more effective, but also creates a literal ripple that damages other enemies on the battlefield.
Nailing this timing can be the difference in dealing with larger groups, as you can chip away at their health even if not the primary target. On the flipside, pressing A at the right time when you’re being attacked by a foe results in a block, which negates the damage completely. With some devastating attacks able to knock you down completely, having the opportunity to defend is crucial, although some enemy attacks are simply not able to be countered at all. When you’ve done a lot of these successful presses, you’ll gain access to a Triple Move, which is different depending on who is in your party and is usually a game-changer. Special Enemies, variants of regular grunts but with more health and more offense, also require you to switch up your strategy a little bit and focus, although their larger HP pool can make these battles drag on a bit too long.
If you’re not good at timing-based skill checks, fear not; a small exclamation pops up to remind you of what the accurate time for a button press is, and only goes away once you’ve been consistently hitting your mark. This whole system means that you can’t just be passive in combat; old-school turn-based RPGs often copped criticism from detractors for just allowing you to press the same button over and over when it was your turn without applying any thought or strategy. Super Mario RPG ensures that you pay attention in battle, with extra damage and blocks really meaning something.
If it ain’t broke…
This may be a Square RPG, but it’s also still a Mario game, and that balance is made even more clear when exploring the overworld itself. Areas are relatively linear, with an old-school Mario map allowing you to move from one destination to the next. In the middle of that, you’ll find question blocks with hidden items, and other nods to Mario’s platforming roots, like a mine-cart run that has you collecting coins both in third person and side-scrolling perspectives, creating music by jumping on tadpoles, or riding a rolling barrel while avoiding obstacles.
“…a world that is joyful to explore, although some areas are a bit too confusing for their own good.”
There are some obscure side quests and puzzles littered about as well, although none of them are compulsory, they do provide better weapons and armour that are worth seeking out. Some of the situations you’ll find yourself in are certainly weird, with solutions that aren’t obvious or spelled out for you. It makes for a world that is joyful to explore, although some of the areas are a bit too confusing for their own good.
One maze involving pipes to go up and down into different areas had me doing laps of the damn thing for an embarrassing amount of time until I figured out the answer was slightly left of centre. I’d gone right past it around ten times. Super Mario RPG should be commended for being almost identical to the 1996 original in this regard; some things are just obscure for the sake of it, and while that can be annoying, it ensures that the adventure remains one-of-a-kind.
There’s also something to be said about the challenge presented; while you’ll initially find combat to be a little tricky, once you get the hang of it and upgrade your equipment, I rarely struggled with any battles, even major boss fights. Whenever I hit a new town and new shop, I had more than enough coins to simply purchase the best equipment possible for my entire party. This negates the need to grind, which makes for a pretty breezy experience, but don’t expect this 12–15 hour RPG to test you in any way other than the occasional confusing riddle.
- Utterly charming story and characters
- Visual glow-up is just gorgeous
- Clever tweaks to combat bring it to the modern era
- Some areas and puzzles are too confusing
- Linear story, kind of short, and kind of easy
Maintaining what made the original so special, Super Mario RPG provides a glow-up to an absolute classic RPG experience, with smart tweaks to combat bringing it firmly into the modern era. It’s an utterly charming experience that sucks you into its gorgeous, colourful world. Still, in sticking firmly to its roots, it just doesn’t provide the challenge or open-world gameplay to elevate it to the next level. If you’re keen on a breezy nostalgic RPG with simple yet satisfying combat, the iconic Italian in a red hat has you covered.