*Review based on Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars release as part of the SNES Classic*
Since its inception in 1985, the Super Mario series has proven to be the avant garde of video games, prioritizing gameplay innovation and concepts unique to the video game medium over all else. This design philosophy has not only allowed the core platformers of the Super Mario series to consistently reinvent themselves, but has also turned its titular plumber into gaming’s renaissance man, able to adapt to seemingly any genre Nintendo decides to cast him in. Of the various “spinoff” Mario titles, Mario Kart gets the most widespread recognition, as it created the ‘kart racer’ sub-genre while simultaneously producing a series that rivals the core Mario titles in popularity. But while Mario Kart might be the most famous of Mario’s detours, the most outstanding might just be the 1996 SNES classic, Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, the title that sent Mario into most unfamiliar territory.
Super Mario RPG was a bold venture. A joint effort between series’ publisher Nintendo and Final Fantasy developer Square-Enix (then Squaresoft), Super Mario RPG took the characters and world of Nintendo’s flagship franchise, and merged it with the RPG genre that Square was renowned for. Though a fan-favorite today, at the time many wondered if converting the Mario series into the narrative-heavy RPG genre could work. The fact that Super Mario RPG remains one of the most beloved Mario games should be a testament to just how successful the finished product was. Its hefty reputation is well deserved.
While Super Mario RPG is a joining together of the series and genre of its title, what makes it work so well is how it both pays homage and parody to both parties involved, and turns them on their heads.
The story here is that – just as Mario is about to defeat Bowser for another daring rescue of Princess Peach (here called Toadstool, as she was known in the west at the time) – a massive earthquake hits the scene, throwing Mario, Bowser and the Princess to different corners of the Mushroom Kingdom. The source of this quake is a giant, anthropomorphic sword that has fallen from the heavens and plunged into Bowser’s castle. The sword is called Exor, and declares Bowser’s Keep to be occupied by its master, Smithy, who plans to conquer the rest of Mario’s world.
As it turns out, Smithy is already closer to world conquest than he knows, as Exor slashed through the Star Road on its descent onto Mario’s world, shattering it into seven magical Star Pieces. The Star Road is what allows people’s wishes to come true. With its power scattered into seven fallen pieces, the wishes of the denizens of Mario’s world can no longer come to light. It then becomes a race between Mario and his companions to prevent the Smithy Gang from claiming the seven Stars, which would result in the evil Smithy’s dark desires coming to fruition.
What makes this story memorable is that it both adds a serious narrative to the Super Mario series (for the first time), while still maintaining the franchise’s whimsical lightheartedness. The premise feels like it could have been pulled out of a Disney movie, and the game takes advantage of the nature of the Mario series to add a good dose of humor into the serious RPG plot.
Mario is joined on his adventure by four companions: The aforementioned Princess Toadstool is the obvious ally, but for the first time in the series, Bowser fights alongside Mario in a quest to reclaim his castle. The remaining two members of Mario’s party were original to Super Mario RPG; Mallow, the fluffy, cloud-like black mage of the group, and Geno, an otherworldly spirit occupying an action figure for its body.
It’s a memorable cast of characters. Mario is his usual, silent self, but the Princess becomes something of the ‘tough guy’ of the party after growing tired of being rescued, while Bowser steals the show as the insecure brute with a heart of gold. Meanwhile, Mallow is the kid of the group wanting to prove himself, while Geno has connections to the Star Road and is something of the Gandalf of the team (the wise, old badass). Mallow and Geno left such an impression that – although they have yet to properly appear in another game – fans still long for their return.
No matter how iconic or likable these characters are though, it wouldn’t mean much if the game they starred in weren’t great. Luckily for them, Super Mario RPG was one of the best games of the genre’s golden era, and remains one of Mario’s timeless classics.
The battle system here at first looks like the usual turn-based affair, but with some fresh changes, such as each action in battle being mapped to specific buttons (A for regular attacks, B for defense, Y for special moves, and X for items). The biggest addition Super Mario RPG makes to RPG battles is one that’s subtle, yet game-changing: Action Commands.
During battles, players have more involvement than in other RPGs of the time. During attacks, well-timed button presses can increase damage (and timing them just right during enemy attacks can reduce damage), while special moves have their own interactive elements (repeated button-presses or timing, holding a button and releasing it, etc.). It’s such a seemingly simple twist on RPG norms, but it adds so much more fun to the proceedings than simply selecting items from menus.
There are some small quibbles in that there’s a lack of on-screen directions to inform you of when to use button-presses during many actions (directions are briefly explained before certain special attacks, but others are trickier to figure out). Still, most of the Action Commands aren’t too hard to get the hang of, so nothing’s too cryptic. But if you do manage to master them, you may find that the overall adventure is a bit on the easy side, though I suppose turn-based RPGs aren’t known for brutal difficulty anyway. Still, these hardly qualify as complaints, as they never get in the way of the enjoyment of the gameplay, story, or overall fun.
Meanwhile, wandering through the overworlds is also improved over other games in the genre, with just a dash of platforming added into the mix for – you guessed it – more interactivity than you’d find in other RPGs. The game is given all the more personality when you talk to NPCs, who often put that aforementioned humor on full display. In case that weren’t enough, Super Mario RPG features a myriad of entertaining mini-games and side quests, some of which are exceptionally well hidden.
Being released at the tail-end of the Super Nintendo’s life cycle, Super Mario RPG pushed the console’s capabilities to their limits. Super Mario RPG features highly detailed environments and an isometric perspective to give the game something of a 3D quality, with character graphics that are comparable to the Donkey Kong Country sequels (one enemy monster even resembles good ol’ DK, perhaps to emphasize this).
However, the best aesthetic qualities of Super Mario RPG are in its sounds. Composed by Yoko Shinomura – famous for her soundtracks of Street Fighter II and the Kingdom Hearts series – Super Mario RPG’s score is her masterwork, encompassing a wide range of styles and emotions, and captures that distinct Mario personality while also creating an identity unique to itself. The SNES is widely regarded for the stellar soundtracks of its games, and Super Mario RPG is second only to Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest for the title of best musical score on the platform. It’s an all-time great gaming soundtrack.
Sadly, while Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars remains one of Mario’s most memorable adventures, it seems to be the only entry in the entire franchise that was to be a one-and-done deal. It may have influenced spiritual successors in the Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi series of RPGs – which improved on a few individual elements (Paper Mario introduced on-screen button cues during attacks) – but none of them have captured the same magic of the whole experience that Super Mario RPG did, nor have they left the same kind of unique impact on the overall Mario series.
If anything, Super Mario RPG’s isolation from the rest of the Mario series has only helped it endure as one of the most beloved entries in the franchise’s peerless history (it’s even helped inspire games such as Undertale). Here’s hoping that, someday, we might see Super Mario RPG’s legacy continue in some form. For now, however, Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars can at least still claim to be among Mario’s greatest adventures, and one of the best RPGs of all time. A legend indeed.