Nintendo may have a conflicted relationship with its history, but if there’s one thing the company loves, it’s selling you classic games over and over again. I’ve honestly lost count of the number of platforms on which I own games like Super Metroid and Super Mario Bros. 3. That lack of attention from Nintendo is part of what makes Super Mario RPG such a curiosity — and its new remake on the Switch such a welcome sight.
In 1996, Nintendo teamed up with Final Fantasy maker Square Enix (then known as Squaresoft) to craft a roleplaying game set in the Mushroom Kingdom. Not only was this seemingly strange combination a hit, but it also spurred two separate Mario RPG franchises. Mario RPG was both beloved and influential — and yet, there are far fewer (official) ways to play it compared to its contemporaries.
So here we are, in a year bursting with remakes and rereleases, with a long-overdue freshening up of Super Mario RPG. It doesn’t add much new, aside from adorable visuals that update the original’s pseudo-3D look for the Switch. But it doesn’t need to change things: it’s still an odd little curiosity, and still one of the most charming turn-based RPGs around.
In true Mario form, Mario RPG starts out as a damsel in distress rescue mission. Bowser has kidnapped Princess Peach and, soon after, Mario heads to his castle to save her. But the story then twists: an evil, sentient sword takes control of Bowser’s keep, and the rest of the game involves Mario and friends searching out seven stars to defeat the sword’s boss and prevent an invasion of living weapons from another dimension. (The game’s original title was Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, and I’m not quite sure why Nintendo nixed the subtitle for the remake.)
To do this, Mario partners with an eclectic group, including new characters Geno (a living doll) and Mallow (a talking cloud), as well as familiar faces Peach and Bowser. The story is pretty straightforward, but what makes Mario RPG’s world fun is how downright weird it all is. With this year’s Super Mario Bros. Movie, Nintendo seemed to be cementing a canon version of the Mushroom Kingdom and its inhabitants. But back in the ‘90s, it played things much more fast and loose — I mean, the live-action Super Mario movie happened, after all.
In Mario RPG that means you’ll be talking to wise old frogs, fighting living alarm clocks, and exploring a town of misunderstood monsters. The Mushroom Kingdom is just one section of the game’s map; the rest is like a fever dream of what Mario’s whole world could look like. That sense of playful, oddball charm is just about everywhere in the game, from a screen where party members dance for each other when they level up, to the way you learn about the interior lives of stomping-fodder like Goombas and Koopa Troopas. Heck, even Bowser turns out to be a good guy, though he’d never let anyone notice.
The game also does a few things that make it unique, beyond its setting. For starters, since this is technically a Super Mario game, there’s a lot of jumping. You jump to move around, you jump in battle, you jump to get past obstacles. Sometimes you have to jump just to prove that you are indeed Mario. It adds a playful interactive element to walking around and also lets the designers have some fun. There’s a sequence where you have to leap over barrels while racing up a mountain to a wedding, and another where you have to leap over attacks while pretending to be a statue. Mostly these are fun, but sometimes the game tries a little too hard to be a platformer. It can get frustrating because the controls are simply not up to par with a regular Mario game.
Arguably the best part of the game is its combat. Mario RPG features classic Final Fantasy-style turn-based battles, but here you have to worry about timing as well. Hit a button at the right moment and you can block an incoming attack or strengthen your own. The timing changes based on the character and their weapon, which means that you basically always need to keep a close eye on what’s going on. It’s much more engaging than simply selecting things from a menu. (It’s similar to later games like FFVIII and The Legend of Dragoon.) Mario RPG also lets you swap between characters mid-battle, opening up layers of strategy, particularly in boss battles. And the game does all of this while streamlining much of the RPG experience — gear, items, and character upgrades are all very straightforward — in a way that makes it almost ideal for newcomers.
You can see notes of Mario RPG in subsequent games. The timing-based battles are a big part of Mario & Luigi, and Paper Mario has done a great job turning background enemies — like Bobby the Bob-omb in The Origami King — into fully fleshed out, memorable characters. But there’s still nothing quite like the original. Maybe it’s because Mario RPG was the first of this style of game, maybe it’s because of Square Enix’s influence. Or maybe it’s just that things were very strange in the ‘90s. Whatever it is, the game remains distinct, despite all of the follow-ups over the years.
In addition to being a big year for remakes, 2023 has also been one of the most important in Mario’s long life. The movie, the theme park, the return to classic side-scrolling games; one of the world’s most famous characters is arguably as popular as ever. So, even though it took a while, it might just be the best moment for Mario RPG to return — its second chance comes with a very big audience.
Super Mario RPG launches on the Nintendo Switch on November 17th.
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