Retro Game Review: Super Mario RPG
Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, box art
Final Fantasy: Mushroom Kingdom
I just finished a play-through of Super Mario RPG: Legend of the 7 Stars. This was the first in the Mario RPG series, which later went on to Spawn such Gems as the Paper Mario games, the Mario & Luigi games and a plethora of other interesting RPGs. You know, I have always been amazed at the way that, somehow, Mario has the power to span genres. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the overwhelming majority of the time, if you take an idea, and then add Mario to it, it somehow becomes better. Want to race some go-karts? Racing games, as a genre, are often repetitive and become dull quickly. They have a dedicated fan-base, but don't really sell very well outside that niche group of fans. Unless it's Mario Kart. Mario Kart has mass appeal. People who never play fighting games, who have never cared about Mortal Kombat or Street Fighter will still play Super Smash Brothers. Mario Strikers makes sports games playable. Hell, we'll even go to Mario's Parties, despite the fact that the man doesn't seem to understand that party games are supposed to be safe and fun, rather than fiery and deadly. The RPG series, as a franchise, is already one of my favorite, and like other things, is only improved by adding a few mushrooms to the mix.
Mario RPG was actually produced by SquareSoft (now I believe that they're just called “Square”), of Final Fantasy fame. At the time they had produced several other successful RPGs for Nintendo, and enjoyed an excellent working relationship. Square pretty much set the standard for turn-based JRPGs back in the 8bit era with their first Final Fantasy, and had nowhere to go but up. Each game they turned out was more exciting, with more features than the last, and Mario RPG was no exception. It began in the Mushroom Kingdom, with the tried and true “King Koopa kidnaps Princes Toadstool and Mario tracks them down to save her” formula, but sherks tradition by having the battle against Bowser as the very first boss battle. The main villain of every other Mario game is a /tutorial/ here, and that helps to set the tone for the rest of the game. This is going to have the kind of scale rarely seen in a Mario game, certainly up to that point, and will span far past the denizens of the Mushroom or Koopa kingdoms.
As a long-time player of the JRPG franchise, I would classify this as a sort of 'beginner's RPG”, however, having said that, it's the mark of a great game that it is easy to understand, yet difficult to master, and I have been trying for /2o years/ to beat the Yoshter Isle mini-game and I never have. In addition, there are gameplay elements that I missed as a child yet picked up on as an adult and if you played as a kid you may have missed them too.
The characters level-up system is rudimentary compared to other games at the time, but I don't mean that as an insult. It somehow isn't a bad thing for this game. You can easily beat the entire game by level 2o, and yet this still feels like an accomplishment. The battles are your classic turn-based battle system, yet they also have an element of the platform adventurer game that /is/ the Mario series. The attacks can be improved by timed button presses, allowing you, in some cases, to use an attack that normally just hits once to hit up to 1oo times. In addition, you can doge or partially block attacks by hitting the A button at just the right moment.
Samus and Link and Crystals 0h My!
The world map spawns huge areas, from the sewers to the skies, and a huge variety of peoples, from the mushroom people of the Mushroom Kingdom, to the mole people of Moleville, frog people, and cloud people and monsters galore. This game features enemies that you're used to seeing, like goombas and shyguys, but there are some creatures that you really don't expect from a Mario game. The elephant skeleton, in particular, kinda threw me off, because while I'm used to undead enemies in a Mario game, like boos or dry bones, this one was in a much different, more realistic style like something out of a creepypasta, and really threw me off.
There are cameos from characters that appear in other Nintendo franchises, such as The Legend of Zelda, the Meteroid series, and the Final Fantasy series. In particular, as a child, I was unfamiliar with Final Fantasy, at least less familiar than I am now, and I had no idea that the secret optional boss battle in Monstro Town was a Final Fantasy easter egg. I just thought it was another monster. That's one of the many reasons that sometimes it can be a good idea to revisit things as an adult.
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Mushroom ladies sing this song, doodah, doodah. Mushroom racetrack's five miles long, 0h the doodah day
I didn't really like this game as much as I should have when I was younger, because I was far too impatient a child for a turn-based battle system, and far too impatient for things that required waiting and rhythm, like several of the game's minigames. However, even as an adult, I am not capable of defeating Boshi, and loosening the iron grip he has on the Yoshter Isle race track. I can't understand the system that this minigame uses, and when I went on-line (a resource that I didn't have in my youth) it seems that N0 0NE D0ES except incredibly high level musicians, who advise hitting the alternating buttons in time with the 8th notes.
Now I took vocal lessons for two years. I understand music theory, and I can pass Toad's tutorial with flying colors. However, as soon as I get out on the racetrack, it all falls apart and I have no idea why. I have been trying to beat this minigame for twenty years. The game came out in 1996, and I am writing this article in 2016, and every few years I will pick this cartridge back up, and try to beat this minigame so that I can FINALLY get a 100% completion. And I will always fail. Always.
That is not to say that it is impossible. People on the internet, the same people that give the eighth notes advice, claim to not only have beaten it, but to have beaten it effortlessly. They have no idea why everyone else is having difficulty. So I suppose that there are just two kinds of people in the world, those that find this minigame impossibly difficult, and those that fly through it on the first try.
I will say that the design of Boshi himself is interesting, inasmuch as he's the only Yoshi I've ever seen who doesn't wear boots, and his sprite reviles what Yoshis' feet look like. So there's a mystery that I didn't even know needed solving, but I'll be damned if this game didn't solve it anyway.
This game also suffers from a distinct lack of Luigi, who is only in the game, as an NPC, at the tail end, leading the Mushroom Kingdom victory parade. This problem is solved in later installments in the Mario RPG series, but in this one, it was a painful absence. There is even a wishing star (at one point Mario becomes privy to the private wishes of the people who have wished upon a star during their lifetime) where Luigi laments his second-class status. Luigi has a huge fanbase who were all disappointed in this treatment of a beloved character. Especially since it isn't explained or addressed in-game at all.
Having said that, overall, my experience with this game has always been positive. The gameplay is up to the bar that Square set with it's other RPGS, and was industry leading for the time. The story is rich and far more expansive than one would expect from a Mario game, with memorable characters and situations that I would love to see return in future games in the franchise. And the more annoying aspects are really to be expected for a game that is breaking the mold and setting down on new territory, and all of them are eventually worked out as the series goes on. You have to remember that this is the first Mario RPG game, and when compared to other RPGs 0f the 90s, it surpasses expectations.