Over the past decade, RPGs have become something of a blind spot for me. What was once one of my favorite genres has fallen by the wayside due to a combination of time, short attention span, and a ghoulishly large backlog that I will die before cleaning out. I still try to make time for at least one or two a year, however. In 2020 I devoured the remaster of Xenoblade Chronicles for the Nintendo Switch, and if you’ve read my Dragon Quest post you’ll know what I spent most of 2018 playing.
There’s always been one particular RPG that I make an effort to play every few years, however. It’s a game so thoroughly lodged into my skull that I can probably just replay it in my mind now and not miss a single beat. You’ve already seen the title of this post though so there’s no suspense to be had here. Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars fully exposed me to the genre well before the first generation of Pokémon games swept through North America.
Super Mario RPG is one of those lightning-in-a-bottle weirdo ideas that executes its ideas effortlessly. What if Mario…but Final Fantasy? It’s a concept that I imagine would’ve been jarring to see back in the day when it was first revealed, but this was Nintendo and Square operating at full power, and the results were more than satisfactory. In fact I spent a solid few months begging my mom to buy it for me. My grades were good, I had some birthday money – I wanted that god damn Mario game. Fortunately, the local Toys R Us had a freshly boxed copy in stock! Unfortunately, it was priced at $70. My grades weren’t that good. Long story short, this was the trip where I ended up getting Super Castlevania IV instead. So basically you can blame Super Mario RPG being too expensive for me becoming an obsessive Castlevania fan.
Still, despite being broke and also a child, I had a cousin who was a JRPG fanatic and he happily loaned me his copy because he knew I loved anything with Mario on the cover. And of course, I loved it. In fact it’s probably my favorite Mario game period.
*This post is going to get into spoilers by the way, I have a lot I want to gush about and that means talking about some endgame stuff and a certain secret that is very cool and raw. Consider this a warning if you’re interested in checking this game out!*
One thing I’ve always loved about this game is that it still very much retains elements of Mario’s mainline adventures despite being in an RPG. There’s a greater emphasis on platforming, which could’ve been grating given the isometric view but it never feels too frustrating and Mario controls just fine. There are also plenty of other Mario-isms like hidden question blocks and invincibility stars that let you clean house on enemies without engaging in a traditional RPG battle. In fact I’d say the majority of this game takes place outside of the actual battles which is fine considering how fun exploration is.
The overworld map is more of a menu where you select different zones to go to rather than a large map that you freely explore like Final Fantasy. It’s not a huge deal to me though because each locale you explore is packed with little visual details that make each area feel special. The isometric perspective combined with the pre-rendered graphics and lighting effects make for a wholly unique vibe that has stuck with me ever since I first played it. I especially love the towns in this game. For me, a JRPG needs some good ass towns to explore and chill out in and I think this one delivers. I like Monstro Town in particular because it’s a little bit unsettling and also has two of my favorite side quests in the whole game.
***ONE FINAL SPOILER WARNING FOR A REALLY COOL OPTIONAL QUEST***
One of those side quests is one that absolutely blew my mind as a child and was further elevated after playing Final Fantasy IV. You have to acquire some fireworks to trade for a “shiny stone” (GET IT?) to use on a mysterious door in Monstro Town. Opening this let’s you fight Culex, who is basically a huge Final Fantasy homage despite being an original character created for SMRPG. His overworld sprite is comparable to Mario in terms of size and in battle he’s a big scary interdimensional motherfucker surrounded by elemental crystals that can cause all manner of harm on your party. If all that wasn’t enough, the music that plays during the fight is Battle 2 from Final Fantasy IV, which if you haven’t heard this before it fucking kicks ass. It even plays the Victory Fanfare when you win which is a nice way to top off such a fun homage.
Obviously since Super Mario RPG was my first proper brush with the genre I had no idea what any of this was. I was honestly a little terrified because Culex looked unlike anything else in the game. My cousin who lent me the game also helped me find all of the optional stuff and he definitely kept this one as vague as possible. Culex is a tough bastard, harder than the final boss of the main story even (a proper RPG tradition). I remember going in completely underprepared the first time and getting wrecked. It felt like a real wake-up call that I probably shouldn’t just run past every single enemy and actually, you know, gain some levels.
***END SPOILERS FOR REALLY COOL OPTIONAL QUEST***
Thankfully, Super Mario RPG is a fairly easy game. I couldn’t have fallen into a more approachable RPG as a first experience if I tried, and it’s probably why the genre holds a special place in my heart to this day (which would later be cemented by Final Fantasy IV and Pokemon Red). There’s not a lot of grinding required and each level a character gains comes with the option to boost an additional attribute like attack/defense, HP, or magic. You can also min-max in this game because certain levels will yield bigger stat boosts depending on which one you choose. If you divide your level by three and the remainder is zero, for example, you’ll get a bigger boost if you choose “attack” (remainder of one for HP and remainder of 2 for magic). I didn’t know that until like, four years ago by the way. It’s a simple leveling system otherwise and the combat is equally as easy to get into.
Although Paper Mario would go on to iterate on it, the action commands were also featured here, and it does a lot to add some extra engagement to an otherwise simple turn-based system. And I love a simple turn-based system. At the time of writing this, I played through the entirety of the pixel remaster of Final Fantasy IV in wait mode. Needless to say I love how snappy and quick this game feels. When you land an extra jump on an enemy or a stronger variation of an attack it really feels like you’re putting a little extra sauce on it and showing them who’s boss. It makes sense why future Mario RPG games still use action commands, it just feels great. It’s also one of the many reasons why The Legend of Dragoon kicks ass SONY.
Also, this game is just really well written! Most of the dialogue is genuinely funny or weird (or both!), and I love how Mario has to pantomime major events to characters since he has not achieved full Mama Mia Mode just yet. The script in general is filled to the brim with personality and a vibe that doesn’t really feel like any other Nintendo game. There are some flat-out excellent character arcs in this game too, like Mallow’s journey from thinking he’s a tadpole to finding his real family among a city of clouds. I love Bowser begrudgingly joining your party because he wants to reclaim his castle from the Smithy Gang, and Geno is a great way of emphasizing the importance of collecting the titular Seven Stars. There’s also probably something to be said about the main antagonist, Smithy, wanting to overrun the world with mass produced weapons and destroy all wishes or something but eh whatever this is just a funny Mario game for children.
Did I mention the music in this game is fucking fire? Yoko Shimomura composed the soundtrack, and it’s one of my favorites on the SNES. She incorporates a lot of Koji Kondo’s work into her compositions and it gives the whole game a jubilant, playful vibe. Each track fits the tone of what’s happening in-game super well too, like the Forest Maze or Booster’s Tower. Shimomura referenced this game as one of the turning points of her career as a composer and I can see why; this shit is front-to-back amazing and she absolutely killed it. Her music has always lived rent-free in my head and it’s definitely this game’s fault. So I guess you can say that this game is also why I’m a Kingdom Hearts fan as well.
I was gonna say “At this point I’m just listing a bunch of things I like about this game!” but that’s what I do best so I’ll just leave it at that. Super Mario RPG influenced my tastes in a lot of ways and introduced me to an entirely new genre that I was previously oblivious to. Even though I don’t have the time to play lots of RPGs like I used to, I’ll always hold the genre close to my heart because of this game.
- If you’ve taken the time to read this, thank you so much! I actually started writing this one back in November and things got a little hectic in my personal life so it feels good to come back to this one and finish it!
- I didn’t talk about any of the other side quests in this game because I don’t want to spoil too much but I’m pretty sure I learned about do-re-mi-fa-so thanks to the Toadofsky side quest.
- Shout out to my cousin Barney for lending me this game all the way back when I was little. I think he also lent me A Link to the Past at one point too before I had my own copy of the game. That meant a lot to me and I’m forever thankful!
- Fat Yoshi