In modern times it is hard to believe that there was once an age when RPGs were an unknown and scorned genre in the United States. And while Final Fantasy VII may get the bulk of the credit for popularizing Japanese RPGs stateside, I think the real medal has to go to Mario. Before Cloud and company showed the world just how good RPGs could be, Mario embarked on a fun and accessible journey that was arguably just as important. To this day I have never played a RPG that is as much fun!
The project was a joint venture between Miyamoto’s Nintendo and SquareSoft, the studio that brought us Chrono Trigger, Secret of Mana, and the Final Fantasy series. It was also Square’s swan song for Nintendo hardware, as the arrival of the Playstation finally allowed Square to realize their dreams of making movies in game form. Still, despite the relationship collapse occurring between these companies, Mario RPG came out with a bang!
Our story begins where most of Mario’s adventures end: With a final confrontation with King Bowser. Before the battle ends, a gigantic sword plunges into the castle, throwing Mario, Peach, and Bowser to the ends of the earth, and setting the stage for our epic quest. What was yet another rescue mission turns into a grand adventure with not just the world at stake, but our dreams as well. But while the story’s heart may be serious, the soul of the game is genuinely funny! My favorite moment: A battle with two pastry chefs and their cake. As you attack the cake, the chefs get angry. The cake eventually moves under its own power causing them to flee in terror. And this cake was the first enemy to kill me! I wasn’t even upset because I was too busy laughing! I will not spoil any more so you should play it yourself and see what I am talking about! Expect constant funny jabs at the Mario Universe and fourth-wall breaking humor that can only come from a game that refuses to take itself too seriously.
Ultimately Square’s version of the Mushroom Kingdom becomes the driving force behind the player finishing the game! They do a good job of characterizing it as a place where inane things occur, often with little to no explanation available. The areas are as diverse as its inhabitants, and just about every character from Mario canon makes an appearance. But even amongst such great locales are standout experiences like the Pipe Vault. See if you don’t get nostalgic tingles of the Super Mario Bros. underground level the first time you enter. It all culminates in a journey through Star Summit that will tug at your heartstrings like few games can, traveling through the area and seeing the hopes and dreams of the Mushroom Kingdom’s various inhabitants, including your brother Luigi!
Gameplay-wise, Mario RPG is a standard-setting marvel that really goes a long way towards making turn-based RPGs palatable to people who have either never played them or just do not typically enjoy this type of game. It plays as a combination of RPG and isometric platformer. While exploring the world you can see enemies which allows you to pick and choose your battles, a great feature that does not appear in near enough games to this day. Once in a battle, you must take turns swapping attacks with your enemies. While most turn-based RPGs only allow you to choose your actions, Mario RPG allows you to use well-timed button presses to enhance your offense and bolster your defense. Not only does this keep you on your toes at all times, it also serves to keep you interested in what would otherwise turn battles into a grind. This game even throws in randomized bonuses in the way of attack increases and health recovery, making it easier on gamers new to the RPG scene.
Sidequests are also abound, featuring everything from a riverside platforming section to a harried mine cart ride. These go a long way toward giving the game a healthy dose of variety and breaking up the exploration and battle elements. You can easily burn thirty hours on your first playthrough and that is even without stumbling onto the games secrets, of which there are many. Even after all these years I still do not think I have found everything! And I have certainly not beaten that Yoshi racing mini-game. What the hell are you supposed to do there anyway?!?
Did I mention that this game looks good? The pre-rendered style brings the Mushroom Kingdom to life like never before. Vibrant, colorful and creative, it is everything you could ask a Mario game to be. The sound and music are great as well and has that wonderful ear-worm quality to it that stays in your head and never lets you go. I love how it blends that classic Mario feel with epic fantasy overtones, making it one of the most unique soundtracks on the system. I will never get that forest theme out of my head!
Even years later the impact of Super Mario RPG is still felt. It introduced players to many RPG conventions still used to this day, paving the way for a more interactive experience. I would argue that it did as much as Final Fantasy VII to make this genre mainstream. The game was accessible on a level that no other RPG at the time could match, which is why I oftentimes skip over Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest when I recommend a definitive starter role-playing game. Even my Dad loves this game, and he hates RPGs! That is about as much praise as I can give a game! I remember kids saying how dumb it was that Mario was going to have a racing game. They said the same about a Mario RPG. After the success of both, I cannot see anyone questioning anything Mario does. Proof positive that the sky is the limit when you’re a world-saving plumber.
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