I’ve written before about how I’m not the biggest Mario fan. While I’ve played a handful of the mainline 2D and 3D titles, including this year’s excellent Super Mario Bros. Wonder, and I certainly admire the creativity and inventiveness of the series as a whole, I generally connect more with games with some form of narrative.
That said, I’ve often heard that the Mario RPG spin-offs have much more to offer in the way of character, so there’s always been that interest. Therefore, I was overjoyed when Nintendo announced a Switch remake of the 1996 SNES classic Super Mario RPG, the plumber’s first role-playing offshoot. It’s always been a blind spot for me as a massive Final Fantasy fan, given that it was also developed by SquareSoft (now Square Enix).
All of that is to say I went into the 2023 version of Super Mario RPG with a lot of preconceptions. Thankfully, developer ArtePiazza, the team behind several of the 3DS Dragon Quest remakes, has done a commendable job in bringing Super Mario RPG to the Switch. In so doing, I now finally understand why everyone holds so much reverence for this game and, moreover, would say it’s easily my favourite Mario to date.
That all starts with the aforementioned sense of character. Sure, the central story of Super Mario RPG is your standard “save the world” affair in which Mario and friends must retrieve the seven pieces of the Star Road to stop the villainous Smithy Gang. But it’s the little storytelling flourishes — now realized with a cutesy modern coat of paint — that really make Super Mario RPG shine and endeared me to the Mario gang like never before.
Here, Square makes clever use of Mario’s status as a predominantly silent protagonist for full comedic effect, like when the king of the Mushroom Kingdom asks what happened to the kidnapped Princess Peach and our hero gives a hilariously over-the-top re-enactment of the intro in which his character model actually transforms into Bowser. When an NPC says Mario needs all the help he can get, his allies have to physically restrain the plumber from decking him. Even smaller touches, like Mario comically falling on his face to express frustration or shock, go a long way to making him feel more like an actual character than a one-liner-spouting avatar.
Best of all, that level of slapstick charm extends to the whole cast, including original characters Mallow (a weather-controlling cloud boy) and Geno (a possessed doll). But of course, a key part of the appeal is that you can also recruit Mario mainstays Peach and Bowser, and that leads to its own good fun. A particular highlight of the game involves Bowser begrudgingly joining the party to save Peach — who he insists should only be with him — from a wealthy and slightly looney man named Booster. Making your way through Booster’s elaborate funhouse-like tower — filled with everything from Bowser telling Mario to avert his gaze from a shy Chain Chomp to a room that directly pays homage to Mario’s pixellated 2D roots — is an absolute blast, especially when it culminates with Mario and Bowser fighting over a kiss from Peach.
For me, the charm of a Mario game has typically come from the ingenious level design — and the occasional quirky sight gag like Elephant Mario — instead of the actual writing, so Super Mario RPG has been such a delight in that regard. At the same time, though, Super Mario RPG has been comfort food for me because it largely plays like a traditional RPG like Final Fantasy. That means you control a three-person party and take turns attacking, defending, using special abilities and more. For more connective tissue, Yoko Shimomura, the veteran composer of Square games like Kingdom Hearts, Final Fantasy XV and Live a Live, also contributes some wondrously catchy tunes here.
But that’s not to say Super Mario RPG doesn’t have a few tricks of its own, since it absolutely does — especially through a clever twist on turn-based combat itself that carried over to later Mario spin-offs. Here, the gimmick is that well-timed taps of the select button will make your attacks more powerful while reducing incoming damage. Plus, in a change for the remake, doing so will actually allow your attacks to hit multiple enemies. It’s a smart way to add another level of involvement to battles, especially given the different rhythms of each character’s attacks, like punches and hammers for Mario, laser beams for Geno or whip-like Chain Chomps for Bowser. The Super Mario RPG remake also adds an action gauge that fills upon successfully timed attacks and allows you to perform gorgeous CG-rendered party team-up super moves.
On the flip side, Super Mario RPG‘s mechanics are simplified in other ways. For one, the party shares Flower Points (FP, this game’s version of mana/MP), which, when coupled with only five playable characters, does feel rather limiting. In a way, this does, admittedly, force you to be a little more strategic about prioritizing who gets to expend FP, but in general, I found myself just gravitating towards area-of-effect moves like Mallow’s Thunderbolt. The levelling and gear systems are similarly fairly surface-level, with only a few options unlocked periodically. If you go into this expecting something deeper in the vein of fellow Square SNES RPGs Final Fantasy VI or Chrono Trigger, you won’t find that here (that said, the Final Fantasy-inspired super boss Culex returns in quite a fun way).
Upon consideration, though, it was ultimately a wise choice for the game to feature streamlined RPG systems given the more universal, family-friendly appeal of Mario. It gives Super Mario RPG a beautiful simplicity that’s allowed it to age gracefully, allowing those of any age to jump into it. The tight, well-paced 20-hour campaign also feels refreshing in a day and age of 60-plus-hour RPGs. That’s all undoubtedly great since a game with this much personality and creativity just begs to be experienced. Super Mario RPG is a must-play for all Switch owners, remake newcomers and SNES veterans alike.
Image credit: Nintendo