Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars Review

*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.

“Where can I sign up to join the Koopa Troop?!”

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.

“Bowser reveals his artistic and sensitive side.”

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.

“How can you not love a game in which Bowser can fight a giant, evil wedding cake?”

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.

 

10

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Well, Now I HAVE to Get Kingdom Hearts 3

I may not be the biggest Kingdom Hearts fan out there. Despite some fun ideas, I find the games are bogged down by an utterly convoluted, incomprehensible plot, cliched original characters, and often monotonous gameplay. Not to mention the fact that all the spinoff titles released on a myriad of different platforms all serve as parts of the main story have made it impossible for anyone but the most diehard of fans to follow.

But by God, Kingdom Hearts 3 has a Frozen level!

Allow me to fanboy-out for a moment here. Frozen is my favorite Disney animated film, and yes, one of my favorite films, period. And yes, its presence in Kingdom Hearts 3 is enough to sell me on buying the game (again, the series isn’t horrible. If it were, I wouldn’t buy it even with the Frozen stuff).

Now, this really shouldn’t come as any sort of surprise. Seeing as Frozen is the biggest animated film in history – and is especially popular in Japan – it would be nothing short of dumbfounding to leave it out of a game filled with Disney franchises. But to actually see it in action is just…YES!

On the downside, some of the dialogue in the reveal trailer suggests that this entry may still suffer from the narrative gobbledygook of the series. But heck, I’ll push through it for Anna and Elsa.

Although I still have my skepticisms with Kingdom Hearts 3, I do admit I’m intrigued by the fact that it seems to be emphasizing modern Disney movies more than past entries of the series. Along with Frozen, Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph, Big Hero 6, and Pixar films like Toy Story and Monsters, Inc. have already been announced. I’ve made it no secret that I think Disney’s current run is their best ever (I don’t care what your nostalgia says). So while some older Disney films will be making a return (Hercules), I’m happy to see something as prominent as Kingdom Hearts is putting modern Disney in the spotlight.

Yeah, I would probably prefer Kingdom Hearts if it were just the Disney (and Final Fantasy) characters. But whatever. We get Frozen. And they even nabbed Josh Gad to voice Olaf for the game, which is pretty great.

Anyway, here’s the reveal trailer for the Frozen stuff in KH3, though be warned, some elements are clearly unfinished (pretty sure Elsa’s ice blast is supposed to have sound), which makes some parts a little awkward. Same goes for the fact that Haley Joel Osment is still the voice of Sora, despite the actor now being 30 and the character still a teenager (have we learned nothing from Goku’s ungodly Japanese voice?).

 

…I promise I’ll add meaningful content soon.

Why Kingdom Hearts Fails at Storytelling

“Meh.”

Kingdom Hearts storytelling is a disastrous mess.

With that sentence, I have made countless enemies within Kingdom Hearts’ questionably diehard fanbase, who seem to hold Kingdom Hearts storytelling capabilities on a pedestal. But I’m sorry, Kingdom Hearts is simply a failure at its narrative, which is more often than not little more than gobbledygook.

I know, Square-Enix fans often seem to be quick to deride those who criticize the studio’s storytelling of just “not understanding complicated stories,” but that’s just the thing, Kingdom Hearts’ storytelling isn’t complicated, it’s just convoluted nonsense. It seems many people within the gaming community these days believe that more story automatically equates to good storytelling, but that’s just not the case (after all, the Sonic the Hedgehog series began to go off-the-rails once it started emphasizing cheesy cutscenes over polished gameplay).

There are plenty of well-written, complicated stories in video games, just as there are great, complicated stories in movies and TV shows. But thinly-veiled insults towards the intelligence of anyone who dares question the narrative abilities of Kingdom Hearts as simply “not being able to understand something complex” just shows off a great deal of immaturity, which is perhaps not all that surprising, since Kingdom Hearts’ supposed complexity is little more than a faux-complexity.

Admittedly, Kindgom Hearts isn’t alone in this, as the Final Fantasy series began to add layers upon layers of convolution to its plots once Tetsuya Nomura got heavily involved. Seeing as Nomura is also behind the Kingdom Hearts series, well, I’m guessing its no coincidence that they share many similarities in such nonsensical storytelling.

By nonsense, I’m not simply writing off the more weird fantasy elements of Kingdon Hearts (if anything, those are its good points). But Kingdom Hearts is a series whose idea of storytelling depth is to simply cake on as many needless details as possible, fill it with numerous cop-outs and deus ex machinas, and make retcons whenever it’s convenient.

A good example of this can be found in the series’ primary villain, Xehanort (or Xemnas or whatever the Hell his name actually is). In the first (and most playable) entry in the series, he went by the name of Ansem, But then in Kingdom Hearts 2, we discover that Ansem is actually an entirely different character, and that the Ansem from the first game was actually Xehanort. Or at least his Heartless (more on that in a moment). But actually, that’s not even the case, as the Xehanort who was Ansem in the first game is actually the Heartless form of Terra-Xehanort, which in itself was created when the original Xehanort forced his heart into a character named Terra. Terra-Xehanort is a hybrid of two humans, and it splits its heart to create the “Nobody” Xemnas and the Heartless called Ansem from the original game.

“Yes, please explain these details to me in an obnoxiously long cutscene, only to alter/retcon these details later because reasons.”

Geez, how many retcons does that description alone reveal? That’s not “complicated storytelling,” that’s just Square-Enix pulling a bunch of details out of their ass and then rewriting them in an attempt to make things complicated. So many details about that one character are so needlessly tacked on, and the series is full of such things.

Going back to the Heartless and the Nobodies (one of the series’ better world-building elements), they are entities that are created by the splitting of one’s heart. When the heart is split from the body, the heart becomes the Heartless, and the body becomes the Nobody (you’d think it’d be the opposite, given their names). That’s all well and fine, but the series often uses this element to create duplicate characters who, frankly, only make the series more convoluted.

For example, Kingdom Hearts 2 introduced the villainous Organization XIII, a group consisting of thirteen Nobodies, some of which were established (and later to be established) characters. One of them, Roxas, even turns out to be the Nobody of the series protagonist, Sora. I don’t immediately dislike the idea of Organization XIII, but the inclusion of Roxas really just adds another unnecessary element to the series, as he’s essentially a second main character.  By that, I don’t mean he’s a deuteragonist, but an additional main character with a story of his own. That could work, if Kingdom Hearts decided to dedicate a series of off-shoots to the character, but all too often the franchise likes to keep all these different narratives going on in the same game. It lacks any shred of focus.

But wait, things don’t end there. Organization XIII itself isn’t even the real Organization XIII. Though Organization XIII served as the main antagonists for Kingdom Hearts 2, they were later retconned to being a secondary Organization XIII, and the Real Organization XIII (yes, adding the word “real” is what differentiates its title) is a group consisting of (wait for it) thirteen different incarnations of Xehanort?! 

Geez, certainly getting a lot of mileage out of that Xehanort character, aren’t they?

I haven’t even mentioned the worst aspect of this convoluted disaster yet: every Kingdom Hearts game is integral to understanding the overall story. Now, that may seem like a no-brainer in many cases, but we’re talking about a series that has released on several different platforms over the years. It would be one thing if the titles released on handhelds were some kind of spinoffs, but nope. They play into the main story as well (which makes the impending Kingdom Hearts 3 actually the twelfth game in the series, not the third).

So, in order to understanding everything that’s going on in this overbloated narrative, you’d have to play the games on PS2, GBA, DS, PSP, 3DS, the upcoming PS4 game, and an episodic mobile game! That’s asking a whole lot of players to delve time and money into all that just to have a semblance as to what’s going on.

Now, Kingdom Hearts fans try to justify this by saying you can now purchase the collections that include the various different games in the series, but that’s an incredibly poor justification, considering these bundles were released years after the fact. If anyone wanted to follow the series in all those years in between, they’d have to own all those different platforms. It’s one thing when a series gets a new entry on a subsequent console of the same brand, since you would assume you’d have the same audience moving on to the next system in that line. And it would be fine if, again, most of these entries were spinoffs. But spreading things out to so many different platforms just to get the full story is ridiculous, especially when the story is as convoluted as it is.

Kingdom Hearts (or, perhaps more accurately, Tetsuya Nomura) simply doesn’t understand how to tell a story in any coherent manner, nor does it (or him) know how to tell a story within the video game medium. It’s bad enough that most Final Fantasy titles these days feel so narratively confused, but at least they’re (mostly) self-contained. But Kingdom Hearts takes the negative aspects of modern Final Fantasy storytelling, and spreads it across an entire series, making what little it does have to tell become thinner and thinner, and then trying to add depth by adding in a bunch of fat and retcons.

This isn’t even taking into account it’s lack of emotion. Now, Kingdom Hearts makes an attempt at pulling at the heartstrings from time to time, but it fails miserably because it seems to not have any understanding of the emotions it’s trying to convey.

Again, this isn’t something that’s exclusive to Kingdom Hearts, as I’ve seen a number of other video games, as well as anime, that seem to have a computer’s understanding of human emotion. Some might say it’s a cultural thing, but considering there have been plenty of Japanese video games and anime that have touched me emotionally, I don’t think that’s it.

A few years ago, Hayao Miyazaki famously (or infamously, depending on how you like your anime) said that he believes modern anime is suffering, due to their creators having a lack of understanding of human emotion and behavior; claiming that many such creators are “otaku” who liked anime and such growing up, and try to emulate it, but without understanding that something extra that gave them meaning. I can say I agree with his sentiment, and I even think this lack of understanding of depth has found its way to video games. It isn’t strictly Japanese games, mind you, but I do feel Kingdom Hearts has become a prime example of a game trying to be deep, but without any knowledge of how to do so.

“Between all these classic Disney villains like Hades, or the cardboard personalities of Tetsuya Nomura villains, guess which ones Kingdom Hearts emphasizes?”

This makes things all the more sour for me personally, because I am a Disney fan. With all the Disney characters and worlds that appear in the Kingdom Hearts series, and being produced by one of the most acclaimed game developers in history, I really wish the series lived up to its potential. But the Disney material that is present isn’t even utilized very well, always playing second fiddle to the (pretty generic) original characters (and the Final Fantasy characters end up getting an even shorter end of the stick). The inclusions of the Disney and Final Fantasy characters almost feel entirely cosmetic, and don’t add anything meaningful to the narrative.

I can’t help but feel that Kingdom Hearts would be insurmountably better – at least narratively – if they actually got some of Disney’s people to do the stories for the games. At least that way, the narrative wouldn’t be so muddled, and it may actually be able to resonate. I would hope that Square-Enix could fix things up themselves, but seeing as the series’ narrative continues to implode in its own convolution, I don’t see things picking up for Kingdom Hearts without a little outside help.

Frankly, I don’t know how anyone but the most diehard of Kingdom Hearts fans could be looking forward to Kingdom Hearts 3 at this point (if it ever resurfaces, that is). Sure, I’m curious to see what other Disney worlds make the cut, seeing as they seem to be focusing more on recent Disney films as well as those of Pixar (instead of recycling Halloweentown for the umpteenth time). But then I think of all the baggage that’s going to come with it, and I don’t think even Arendelle could save it for me. And boy, is that saying something.

Nier: Automata Review

Patience is a virtue…

Very few games manage to transcend its predictable structure into a peculiarly constructed being that constantly shape-shifts both narratively and gameplay-wise. Those that attempt to embody this bizarrely delicious concept tend to fail, with the story layering multiple convoluted pieces that simply don’t make sense or bleed pretention, and/or its genre hopping implementation is rendered to a “jack of all trades, master of none”. Nier: Automata is the beloved exception to the rule. It is a robust experience that executes an impeccable variance of the new game plus system, a well paced and mechanically sound example of the seamless transition between different game genres, and incorporates a gripping narrative that is equally provocative as it is convoluted. While a plethora of technical issues and its underdeveloped open-world hold Nier: Automata back from being the underrated masterpiece that everyone claims it to be, it is still an exuberant experience that has the foundation for a masterpiece, simply lacking the required polish and design to reach such meteoric heights. Nier: Automata is a peculiar experience to critique as it’s constantly changing and evolving, with each new playthrough providing a sliver of reflection; my impressions of trepidation upon viewing the ending of Route A were completely different compared to my unanimous praise of Route C and its subsequent endings. It’s a fluctuating experience to say the least, but one that constantly propels the importance of the ride as opposed to the destination. It’s an arduous journey, not in terms of mechanical difficulty, but in perseverance and tenacity; the hunt for truth is a riveting force of propulsion, one that emitted a rewarding sense of satisfaction, despite my personal qualms with Automata’s certain limitations and design choices.

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