Late to the Party: Super Mario RPG (1996)

Each week in Late to the Party, someone posts about an older piece of media that they’ve just experienced for the first time. Our focus this week is the classic video game developed by Square and published by Nintendo in 1996.

The Console Wars

Our story begins not with a detailed look at the history of Square or the growth of the Super Mario franchise, but with one harrowed veteran’s memory of the great Console Wars of the 1990s. Many people look back on this period as the Golden Age of Gaming, but I remember it for the arguments and constant one-upmanship that plagued sleepovers and playgrounds across my hometown. Although I had briefly owned a Nintendo Entertainment System as a young child, it was the Sega Genesis where my passion for gaming took off and the schoolyard fights began.

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I learned it from watching you, Sega!

Sega vs. Nintendo was the most common debate we had besides Marvel vs. DC, although one of those arguments has had a longer shelf life than the other. It was fun to choose sides, but that early Sega loyalty meant that I would have a lifetime of holding Nintendo at a distance in spite of loving video games. While everyone else was raving about late period SNES gems like Starfox and Yoshi’s Island, I was foolishly cleaning up on 32X games on clearance at Toys ‘R Us. That’s not to say that I never found other loves…

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Companies taking cheap shots at Nintendo transcends generations.

The Sony Playstation would then go on to define my gaming appreciation for a lifetime. For better or worse, it started to narrow my definition of what I considered a “good” game. Flashy FMVs, in-game cinematics, and deep nonsensical stories became core features of what I looked for in a video game. JRPGs in particular became my preferred genre. Although I eventually found an appreciation for the SNES through emulation, my interest mostly lied on the wealth of quality 16-bit JRPGs that I missed and not on the beloved platformers like Super Mario World. In fact, to this day I’ve only ever completed one Super Mario game (the oddball entry Super Mario Bros 2) and one Zelda game (A Link Between Worlds for 3DS). Although I’ve dipped my toe into Nintendo systems with the handhelds along with the Wii, I’ve never been that interested in the core Nintendo IPs. I could appreciate their mechanics but never felt compelled to see one all the way through, given my conditioned mindset to value narrative over gameplay – or at the very least have the two stand side by side.

For that reason, I thought it’d be interesting to play Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars as someone who loves JRPGs but doesn’t particularly like Mario games.

Historical Context

At the time of the game’s release, Square was operating at the peak of its powers as far as the quality of its output. The SNES entries of the Final Fantasy franchise had revolutionized the genre and they were about to launch their next breakout hit with Chrono Trigger. Even then, the JRPG hadn’t fully reached its commercial potential in the U.S. and Square was looking to work with some known IP. At the same time, Shigeru Miyamoto was interested in building an RPG around the Mario franchise. These circumstances led them to collaborate on this game, which Wikipedia states would become the last game Square released in America on the SNES. No one knew it at the time, but it would also be the last Square game on a Nintendo console until Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles on the Nintendo Gamecube.

Even as a Genesis kid, I was fascinated when I first heard about this game. A Mario entry that’s heavily focuses on story and features weird made-up characters that would practically never be seen again? Years later, I found out that it was also developed Square, which only further drove my curiosity. The fact that it was once one of the few SNES games that could not run on an emulator only deepened my interest. It sounded like if I was ever going to commit to completing a Mario game in full, then it should be this one.

How it Plays Today

First and foremost, I can say that it does live up to its reputation as a classic 16-bit Square JRPG. The battle system is simple yet addictive, with timed button presses that add an additional layer of engagement that I’m surprised more franchises didn’t adopt them afterwards. From a distance, I once thought that this would be a Beginners JRPG that I could play with my children one day. Instead, I found that it was often as challenging as any other old school JRPG and I had to rely on Save States to get through a surprising number of boss encounters.

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I hate these guys. Seriously almost made me rage quit and submit an incomplete column. Oh how I hate them so much.

It was so challenging at times that I literally had to Google “Is Super Mario RPG hard???” to seek validation from other players. There were only a few who echoed my thoughts, but I eventually found that most of the game (including the final dungeon) was a complete breeze with a couple truly absurd difficulty spikes thrown in every now and then for good measure. Having recently wrapped Dragon Quest XI, where most bosses can even be defeated using Auto-Battle, I guess I just had a different idea of what is considered a casual-friendly JRPG in the year 2020.

In terms of presentation, the game still fares well as one of the most heavily powered games of the late SNES era. The music by Yoko Shimomura (Parasite Eve, Radiant Historia) was the first major standout. As far as graphics, the isometric view is the element that people likely remember most. There are moments where the combination of bouncy music and colorful sprites evoke so much charm that it practically jumps off the screen.

Unfortunately, the actual jump mechanics and platforming are the elements that have aged the worst in the last two and half decades. The isometric view is great in cut scenes, but becomes a total nightmare when you’re asked to perform elaborately timed and executed jumps during the game’s many dungeons. The fixed camera results in a control scheme that requires you to constantly be pressing in diagonal directions on a d-pad with only 4 inputs. At times, I was begging for an analog stick. Luckily none of the fail states for the jumps are ever that punishing, but it does make for a more frustrating experience than it should be.

Story and Characters

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Are we sure this is a 90s Square game? Where are all the typos?

The localization effort here went way beyond what I expected, given the Spoony Bards we saw in earlier Square games and the various incoherent translations we would later see in Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy Tactics. All the dialogue is well-written with a humorous touch that would honestly match the best efforts of a modern release. Even Mario – a character I never particularly warmed up to on a personal level – had a chance to shine as he suddenly managed to fit a mold that made sense to me: the silent JRPG protagonist. Through numerous dialogue scenes, Mario would hop maniacally across the screen, play act caricatures, and nod vigorously to convey information and personality. By the time I was a couple hours in, I already enjoyed him a lot more than Crono or any of the Dragon Quest heroes.

Your party is rounded by some delightful favorites like Bowser and Princess Toadstool along with two others. Who would you expect? Probably Toad and Luigi, right? Well too bad, because you get two original Square characters instead! The first is Mallow, who looks and acts like a proto-Cait Sith/Vivi combination with a winning personality. The second is Geno, a weird magical life-size doll that has about as much characterization as one of the Chrono Cross party members with the auto-dialogue filters. Overall it’s a fun cast and I kind of like that the latter two characters never really appear anywhere else besides the odd Smash cameo. Their inclusion just makes this game more unique.

Conclusion

Super Mario RPG is… pretty good! I wouldn’t put it anywhere near the upper echelon of 16-bit JRPGs like Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger, but I’m comfortable with it holding a spot somewhere below those games. This Square entry suffers from some pacing problems and poor platforming controls, but it mostly makes up for its deficiencies with charm. I can’t honestly say it has me primed to embrace any more core Nintendo franchises than I did before, but I would say I’m curious to see if any of the other Mario RPG spinoffs are worthwhile.

(One Last Note)

This was my second time at bat for Late to the Party and I did not expect it to be such an arduous journey. I had at least 4 months to prepare and still found myself missing the posting deadline by a day. My first choice was to unearth my PAL version of Shenmue 2 for my Sega Dreamcast with the hopes of immediately chasing that experience with the newly released Shenmue 3. What happened? I spent months trying to get that game and console working on my modern TV and kept running into obstacles and sunk costs. Super Mario RPG became my second choice after deliberating with some helpful commentators on the Weekly Games Thread.

Things seemed to go smoothly after that until the unexpected happened and a worldwide pandemic hit while I was in the middle of playing this old video game so I could write about it for a website I frequent. My family and I had to hurriedly relocate from our home in NYC and wait out this crisis outside the state. For one last bump along the way, I packed my SNES Classic only to later realize I left behind the controllers. By that point, I was close enough to the finishing line that I just made one nonessential Amazon purchase so I could get this thing done (relatively) on time.

Anyway, I just wanted to say all that to remind everyone that even though the things we do and talk about on this site can be silly, it really does help to ground us in something that makes sense during trying times. Late to the Party nearly drove me insane these past months, but it ended up serving as my anchor in the end. Thanks for reading and I’ll see you all again next round!