Developer: Nintendo/Square Enix
Everyone has an embarrassing gaming confession (or two), so here’s one of mine: I didn’t even know Super Mario RPG – as in SNES classic Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars – existed until a few years ago. Even though I had a SNES and I was somewhat into games at the time, it’s only recently, when I started rediscovering my love for older games thanks to emulation, that I even learned of its existence. And even then, I didn’t actually play the game until this Switch remake, some 27 years after the fact.
On the one hand, I could lament the fact that I missed out on playing the game for nearly three decades. On the other hand, however, I don’t think I would’ve enjoyed Super Mario RPG all that much back in the ‘90s. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy it now. But I’m quite certain that if I went into this game and 2D Mario platformers were all I knew, I’d find it to be such a huge departure that I don’t think I’d have ever been able to get over it. Even Super Mario 64 seems like a more logical progression than having the iconic character venturing into the world of isometric RPGs.
Even now, for that matter, Super Mario RPG feels a little weird. I mean, I’ve gotten used to Mario in RPGs with all the accompanying trappings – last year’s outing in Sparks of Hope was one of my favourite games of the year – but this definitely feels like an anachronism, even if it’s been given a new coat of paint.
But it’s one heck of a new coat of paint. While I wouldn’t go as far as saying that Super Mario RPG looks like a game that would be created in 2023, it still looks as if Nintendo decided to recreate ‘90s visuals using more modern tools. The end result is odd, but in a good way: the screen is kind of cluttered, and the mixture of colours is reminiscent of the game’s birth decade, but at the same time, nothing ever feels like it’s blocked off or out of place. The visuals stand out by virtue of being unlike anything I’ve seen in recent years.
The story, too, feels very un-Mario-like. While more recent outings like the Paper Mario and Mario + Rabbids series have obviously expanded Mario’s world – in some cases far beyond the Mushroom Kingdom – this game still feels kind of like a fever dream, with characters like Mallow the tadpole(?), an alien warrior (in the body of a doll) named Geno, and an evil robot king named Smithy. A few cameos in Smash Bros. aside, these aren’t your usual Mario Bros. protagonists, and the whole thing feels like a trip into a weird alternate universe.
(To be clear, I don’t mean that critically: it’s fun to see how the game branched off from the usual Mario fare in such a dramatic way.)
As noted above, though, Super Mario RPG definitely feels like a throwback when you get into the gameplay. I mean, this should come as no surprise when you consider that the game was developed in collaboration with Square pre-Final Fantasy VII. This means that the game was built around fairly static turn-based battles: unlike later Mario RPGs, you don’t get to move around a map, looking for better positioning. You and your allies hit your enemies, then your allies hit back, and you go back and forth until one squad is all dead.
Thankfully, the good news on the gameplay front is that Super Mario RPG isn’t totally indebted to the past. This version of the game features actions like Chain moves, where you build up your power by hitting more moves in a row; a bonus for hitting your attacks perfectly in the form of damaging all your enemies; and fancy triple moves, where you and your squadmates combine to unleash a massive attack. Add in the option to face enemies in a “Breezy” difficulty mode, and you can see how the game has made concessions to more modern sensibilities.
Taken altogether, it adds up to a Mario game that doesn’t really feel like a Mario game. It’s an interesting look at a neat experiment, and it’s fun to get a chance to discover – or rediscover – a game that finds Nintendo breaking out of their comfort zone. It may not be a perfect game, but it’s an interesting one, and that’s enough to make it worth checking out.
Nintendo provided us with a Super Mario RPG Nintendo Switch code for review purposes.