SUPER MARIO RPG: LEGEND OF THE SEVEN STARS (1996) – SQUARE
A while back, I published a Top Ten List featuring the best Mario games that aren’t platformers, and I ended up placing Super Mario RPG at the top of the list. I reckon there are two types of people when it comes to this game; those who aren’t even aware of its existence, and those who think that its one of the best RPG’s available on the SNES, by itself a very impressive feat. The premise really shouldn’t work, but this game demonstrates for me just what Nintendo and Squaresoft could do when they worked together, and arguably what Nintendo lost out on when Squaresoft pledged its allegiances to Sony in the fifth generation console battle.
One of the best elements that Super Mario RPG has going for it is that for the first time in a Mario game, there was a proper storyline implemented into it. Whereas past platformers had focused on Mario rescuing the ever useless Princess Peach from the evil Bowser, Super Mario RPG, what we have here is a fully developed story with a much expanded cast. Ironically then, the game starts with Mario….travelling straight to Bowser’s Castle to rescue Princess Peach. Perhaps predictably, Mario defeats Bowser and saves Peach – only to be interrupted by a giant sword falling from the sky and crashing into the castle, causing Mario, Peach and Bowser to fly off in different directions. In the nearby Mushroom Kingdom, Mario finds out that the sword belongs to the Smithy gang, who have taken residence in the castle. He also learns that the sword hit the Star Road (a location where the wishes of the world are collected and made into reality) and that seven pieces have been spread throughout the world. Mario then sets off to find the star pieces, find the useless Princess and kick Smithy back to where he came from.
Mario is not alone in his quest though, and this is where Squaresoft’s writing expertise came into use in expanding the Mario universe. On his travels Mario will meet four other characters that join his party; Mallow (a cloud boy who has been raised under the illusion that he is a tadpole), Geno (a doll brought to life by a wish to help repair the Star Road), Princess Peach, and for the first time ever Bowser becomes an ally as well. It’s also nice to see a mixture of enemies, both from the series and of original design. At various points you will be taking on Shy-Guys, Chomps, Goomba’s and Koopa’s, who are backed up by some new bosses, including the likes of Bowyer (a giant…bow that has been terrorising the community with his paralysing arrows), Booster (a child trapped inside the body of a Wario lookalike), and the excellent Axem Rangers (a mockery of the Power Rangers from TV). What I found most impressive about the story when playing through the game however was the quality of the script; in time honoured tradition (before the N64 at least), Mario does not say a word throughout the game, but the other characters get to engage in some quality dialogue, full of humour that the Mario RPG games would come to be known for. There’s quite a bit of breaking the fourth wall, and even some clever nods to other Mario franchises – for example, return to one of the towns later on in the game, and you will find Link sleeping in one of the beds. Talk to him, and it will play a little Zelda jingle. Some critics find the story to be too simple, and if you are looking for an epic on the scale of Chrono Trigger, they would be right. I find no problems with it however as keeping it simple makes it accessible for all fans of the series.
I suppose what intrigues most people when they hear about this game is how a Mario game will play out as an RPG; the answer is that it plays surprisingly well, borrowing elements from a few of Squaresoft’s SNES classics and adding a handful of new features as well. The game has two main forms; adventuring and combat, which plays out in turn based scenarios. The world is split into several different areas (all linked by a traditional Mario world map where you zoom from one place to another) which are divided into towns and routes. In the towns you will find the majority of the NPC’s in the game who you can chat with, and you can also stock up on items and equipment. You can also engage in a minigame in a few of the towns. The routes linking the towns is where Mario and the gang get to kick some Koopa arse. What makes the routes (and indeed the towns as well) different from say, Final Fantasy 6, is that they are laid out as 3D isometric platform stages, meaning that Mario can jump about and move in eight different directions. It’s an excellent gameplay mechanic, as it allows classic Mario platforming into the game, even down to punching blocks in the air for coins and other goodies. All the enemies you encounter in the game are visible on the screen, and you can choose whether to engage with them or avoid battle completely.
When you do enter a battle, you are taken to a battle screen where you will see your party and the enemies you have just engaged with. Battles are turned based, but have more in common with Dragon Quest than Final Fantasy as there is no time limit, so you can take as long as you like to select a command. There are four options: Attack, Skills, Items or Run, each of which is mapped to one of the four buttons on the SNES controller (so A is attack, Y is skills etc.). After your party (which is a maximum of three members and always has Mario as one of those three) has selected their moves, the battle will play out. Rather than putting your feet up and watching the battle take place however, the game encourages constant vigilance through the addition of a action command mechanic. Action commands simply consist of pressing the correct button at the right time for an enhanced effect; for example a standard attack by Mario consists of him moving forward and delivering a punch. Pressing A again just before he makes contact however expands the move into a three punch combo, increasing the damage. Likewise, by timing the A button when being attacked, you can neutralise damage from the enemy. The system applies to all moves, and can lead to some supreme damage from the more powerful allies like Bowser and Geno. Learning to time button presses soon becomes second nature, and can give you the edge in a tough battle. Upon winning a battle, you will get EXP and coins, and when you level up you can choose to boost an attribute by a few stats to become an even better fighter.
Now, they could have left it there and it would have been a fine system. But I always get the feeling that Miyamoto wants the best out of his games, and as a result there are a few more delights to be had in Super Mario RPG. As mentioned before, there a quite a few mini games to engage in if you so wish, which range from a mine cart scenario where you have to collect coins on a broken track, a quest where you must track down music for the tadpoles to play, and even Yoshi makes an appearance in a drag race game against other dinosaurs. For the hardcore, there is a super boss called Culex hidden away who will require a bit of strategy to beat. Despite all this though, Super Mario RPG sadly falls short of being a challenge. The maximum level your party can reach is 30, so it really doesn’t take that long to max out a party, and even then the bosses aren’t particularly hard – getting the Lazy Shell accessories abut halfway through the game makes it far too easy as well. Put simply, despite the novel gameplay mechanics, don’t expect this to take as much of your life up as Squaresoft’s other games.
For a game on a 16 bit system, Super Mario RPG really is quite extraordinary in the graphics department. Pseudo 3D graphics were not new on the console, as Rare’s Donkey Kong Country series had done it for over a year, but those games never quite reached the splendour this game does. The 3D areas are perfectly rendered, fully bringing the Mushroom Kingdom and other locations up to scratch. The character models and animations in the field are top notch, as are the attack animations in battle. Best of all, the world itself is well coloured and matches the personality that the story provides, not choosing to venture into dark worlds that most RPG’s visit. The fact that the game was winning awards for ‘Best Graphics’ in the same year that Super Mario 64 was released should be fully indicative of its quality.
Super Mario RPG also provided a stepping stone for perhaps the most famous woman in the game music world, Yoko Shinomura (who would later produce soundtracks for Kingdom Hearts and made Guile’s Theme for Street Fighter 2). The soundtrack heavily pays tribute to the Mario franchise, keeping many of the classic sound effects such as the jumping noise and the noise made when shooting fireballs. Otherwise the soundtrack features many arrangements of tracks by both Koji Kondo from the Mario series and Nobuo Uematsu from the Final Fantasy series, with a few originals thrown in for good measure. The music as a whole has a upbeat nature to it, and is really quite pleasant to listen to. Standout tracks include the boss battle theme, Midas River, Booster’s Theme, The Road Is Full Of Dangers and the much loved Beware The Forests Mushrooms.
What this game proves then is that even the most ridiculous sounding notions can be done in games, when handled by two of the greatest companies in gaming at their prime at least. Mario’s transition to the RPG is a great game, and should get more recognition than it deserves; only the lack of a true challenge brings the score down. If you haven’t played it before, I very much recommend getting it off the Wii’s Virtual Console and giving it a go.