By the mid-90s, Square was riding high on a number of JRPG hits on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System ranging from Final Fantasy 6 (Final Fantasy 3 in North America) and Chrono Trigger. In 1996, they leveraged their arsenal of expertise into bringing a particularly popular plumber from Nintendo to life in an RPG for his own laden with statistics, an inventory system, and a small party of friends alongside a former foe to save their land from a new and dastardly villain.
It was a huge first for Mario and his friends to star in an role-player rather than another action platformer, but who else better to help them make the change than the house that Final Fantasy helped to build. But it would also mark the return of Shigeru Miyamoto to the fantasy adventure mantle he dabbled with in the Zelda series, only this time, he was going to go all the way.
In an interview by Maximum (a video gaming magazine in the UK) in 1995, they spoke to Yoshio Hongo of Nintendo’s General Affairs Department who went on to answer the question of whose idea it was to put Mario in an RPG:
“Both (Square and Nintendo). Square’s RPGs sold well in Japan but not overseas. There have been calls from all ages, and from young girls, for another character to which they could become attached. Mario was the best, but had not been in an RPG. Nintendo’s director, Mr. Miyamoto also wanted to do an RPG sing Mario. There happened to be a chance for both companies to talk, which went well. Nintendo had wanted to do a Mario RPG and Square had the programming ability, so Mario could become a popular RPG character anywhere in the world.”
It featured 3D CG graphics that, on the surface, appears to use the same rendering technique as in Rare’s Donkey Kong Country (it’s actually using a different technique according to Nintendo’s Yasuhiro Minagawa according to the same Maximum interview above), an isometric playing field, visible enemies (no random encounters here), and even a few new characters created specifically for the game. Mario’s godfather, Shigeru Miyamoto, would oversee the teams working on the game at Square and Nintendo. According to the interview, the game had already been in development for two years placing the start of the project somewhere in 1993.
The story starts out typically enough — Princess Toadstool is enjoying a bit of peace in the great outdoors when Bowser swoops in on his flying pod and kidnaps her. Again. Mario takes off after the dastardly villain, chasing the kidnapped princess back to Bowser’s castle. In a duel atop chandeliers, Mario manages to trounce Bowser and reach the princess and all seems ready to end on another happy note until a giant sword comes down from the skies and smashes into the castle, sending Mario flying out.
It turns out the giant sword is just one of several villains from beyond the stars led by a being named Smithy that have come to conquer Mario’s world. The only thing that can stop them are seven stars scattered throughout the land that fell when they arrived and it’s up to Mario and his allies (including Bowser who wants his castle back) to find them and save the land.
Square did an incredible job in taking the Mario mythos and incorporating its sounds, music, sights, colors, and characters into an RPG that does justice to the series and adds an unexpected amount of depth to the franchise. If you’ve ever wondered where Mario lives or what kind of world he hangs in when he’s not platforming his way across wide open areas, the Super Mario RPG does a great job in filling out some of those details. Mario’s still a silent protagonist though, quietly miming his way through the game though everyone else has a lot to say even if the hero doesn’t.
One of the great things about the game is its solid, turn-based combat and the incorporated action elements. Mario’s signature “jump” attack is treated as a “special strike” attack (his normal attack’s a brutal right hook), for example, but you can do more damage is you time a button press just right as he’s about to land on the enemy. It’s a great technique used with many other abilities and nicely ties back to Mario’s reflex roots.
Enemies in the game consist of foes that everyone already knows along with a host of new ones from enemy goombas to koopa troopas under the control of Smithy and his gang for the time being. There are also quite a few bosses that will stand in Mario’s way from the Hammer Bros. (from whom Mario must rescue Toad) to members of Smithy’s gang and ultimately, the big baddie himself. In true Square fashion, each boss has been given a number of unique moves and attacks and if they’ve been seen before in prior Mario games, use attacks that everyone is familiar with (along with a few new ones).
Players can also swap members of their party in and out while walking around the world (non active party members still earn experience and automatically level up alongside the main party).
Including Mario, party size is restricted to only three members total and he can be joined by Princess Toadstool (she’s mainly the healer/debuffer caster) , Bowser (who has a fiery breath attack and acts as a great damage dealer), Mallow (a new character with a number of solid offensive “spells” that can hit multiple foes along with a nice healing ability), and finally, Geno (another new character who has a great number of powerful offensive attacks). It’s later learned that Geno is from the Star Road and was sent to fix things on Mario’s world when Exor (the giant sword that crashed into Bowser’s castle) crashed down from the skies shattering the road. Without the stars or the road, wishes can no longer be granted, so it’s up to Geno to do what he can to make things right.
As with many other RPGs, the game has its usual tropes — inns to rest in, shops to buy stuff from, and loot from enemies along with plenty of coins to spend. What is a bit unusual about this Square game is that the damage and experience rewards aren’t in the thousands upon thousands range. Players will be doing damage in the triple number range and earn experience in the double digits range instead which can be a bit disconcerting if you’re just coming off of another RPG like Chrono Trigger of Final Fantasy III. But it actually works really well for the system.
The learning curve is also slight enough for anyone to jump into — this isn’t the kind of RPG that has brutal encounters or terrifyingly difficult bosses as long a you don’t avoid too many fights and save up for equipment (as well as try and find a few secrets or two). Much like any Mario game, this RPG is very much a pick-up-and-play sort of experience thanks to explanations at the start and a gradual ramping up of difficulty with only a few unexpected surprises (mostly centering around the bosses). Grinding isn’t really needed in the game, either, especially since the game seems to cap characters at level 30.
If you’ve never played an RPG before on the SNES or any other console, Super Mario RPG is one of those titles that can also act as a great introduction to the genre. It still holds up even today as an old school RPG with solid mechanics, a fun quest, and a great story tying it all together, something that Nintendo reintroduced to a new generation via their Virtual Console digital service for the Wii and Wii U.
As for a sequel, there is sort of one in the form of Paper Mario in 2001. At that time, relations between Square and Nintendo were still a bit icy (Square jumped onto Sony’s PlayStation with Final Fantasy 7 and its marketing was none too kind to ‘cartridges’) but Nintendo wanted to pursue one and the result was Paper Mario. Although they’re not direct sequels to the incredible adventure unleashed on the world in 1996, the Paper Mario series of RPGs have eked out a place of their own standing atop the foundations laid by Mario’s first dungeon stomping experience.
Today, Super Mario RPG may not be quite as memorable as Square’s other works, or even other RPGs in general, but it’s still a richly imaginative take on turning an action star into a turn-based hero who hasn’t forgotten his roots.