"Depending on your sense of humor, the picture of Mario - Nintendo's mascot plumber - in an RPG can either be hysterical or terrifying, especially considering the track record of the company making it. Envision Mario delivering long, angsty monologues, or Bowser brainwashing Luigi into helping him kidnap Princess Toadstool. Perhaps, instead of dispatching enemies with the traditional bop of the head, Mario can swing a sword at thin air and watch a number pop above its head! "
Depending on your sense of humor, the picture of Mario - Nintendo's mascot plumber - in an RPG can either be hysterical or terrifying, especially considering the track record of the company making it. Envision Mario delivering long, angsty monologues, or Bowser brainwashing Luigi into helping him kidnap Princess Toadstool. Perhaps, instead of dispatching enemies with the traditional bop of the head, Mario can swing a sword at thin air and watch a number pop above its head!
Luckily, 1996's Super Mario RPG contains nothing of the sort. Managing at once to contain the elements and mechanics of your typical turn-based RPG and the simple charm of your typical Mario game, Mario RPG is a fresh stream in the often stagnant pool of SNES RPGs.
The game begins in typical Mario fashion: Bowser has once again kidnapped Princess Toadstool and taken her to his keep. This time, though, Mario's quest to save her is surprisingly concise; barely fifteen minutes after the opening cinema, he has already landed the finishing blow on his arch-nemesis. The true adventure begins, though, just as Mario is about to untie the Princess. A guarangtuan sword who calls himself Exor slices through Bowser's Keep, sending hero, villain, and hopeless victim flying in different directions. Thus Mario is confronted by his most daunting task yet - to find Toadstool, who may be anywhere in the world, and perhaps find out more about the sword, who seems to be part of an evil even greater than that of Bowser...
But I overdramatize. Mario is still the plumber he always is, and he still runs, jumps, and fights Goombas just as he always does. The first ''dungeon'' may even be mistaken for a level out of Super Mario Bros. put into an isometric perspective: the landscape is drawn of simple greens and browns, Goombas and Koopa Troopas wander aimlessly, and treasure chests hover in mid-air waiting to be bashed from below. Yes, Mario can still jump, and he can either walk or run in all eight directions allowed by the SNES D-Pad.
Run into a Goomba, though, and you'll see how radical a departure Mario RPG is. Allies line up at one end of the arena, enemies at the other. Combatants get turns according to their speed statistic, and they attack one at a time. This time-worn system is given a shiny layer of polish, though, consisting mainly of the timed-hits system: by manipulating the buttons in certain ways during an attack, you can make it far more effective. If you hit the attack button just before Mario brings his hammer down at the enemy, he will swing it twice for double damage. His fireball attacks require you to rapidly bash the button as quickly as possible to for the maximum amount of pain. Most nerve-wracking of all is his Super Jump: timing the attack (by hitting the button just before Mario lands on the enemy) will launch Mario into the air once more, and again you can attempt to time the attack, performing another jump. The margin of error shrinks with every successful timing, and there's nothing more exhilarating than chaining together dozens of Super Jumps and watching the havoc it wreaks.
Other minor tweaks to the system also show care. Potentially cumbersome menu commands are grouped into four different types that correspond to the four face buttons on the SNES controller, making the need for endless scrolling with the D-Pad minimal. Attack animations are short but effective, and even the most fearsome of spells manage to look intimidating in the space of just a few short seconds. You input the commands just before the character gets their turns, as opposed to at the beginning of the battle round. Thanks to these little details, turn-based battles have never been so swift, full of action, or effortless.
Indeed, Mario RPG delights in simplicity: labyrinthine battle and character growth systems are forgoed for a simple experience-and-levels scheme. Dizzying (and cheap!) equipment combinations are impossible, as each character is restricted to one weapon, one piece of armor, and one accessory. Complex mazes are replaced by straightforward areas with lots of platform jumping.
This devotion to the simple also shows in Mario RPG's plot, which occupies the uncomfortable threshold between the save-the-princess tradition and the full-blown RPG epic story. After the sword slams into Bowser's Keep and makes it impossible to enter, Mario finds the Mushroom Kingdom (which, strangely, is now reduced to a mere town) invaded by a huge knife. The defeat of the knife leads to the discovery of a star piece, which is a sign of just how much havoc Exor has already wreaked.
Exor has also cleaved the Star Road (nice little Super Mario World reference) into seven pieces. The Star Road fulfills wishes, and if left unrepaired no wish will ever come true again. Mario's new task is to collect all seven star pieces and fix the Star Road. All this is laid out within the game's first hour, and your journey is never derailed; every mini-quest has something to do with recovering a star piece, something the game never ceases to remind you of. It does not take a literary critic to realize that the game's plot is - let's be diplomatic here - not War and Peace.
Yet despite what it reduced, what it changed, or what it cut out altogether, Mario RPG never feels dumbed down. Your goal may feel timeworn, but the colorful characters you meet do not. Mallow, a white pudgey ''tadpole'' who makes it rain whenever he cries, and Geno, a dead-serious spirit sent to repair the Star Road who is nonetheless forced to take the form of a child's toy, are the newcomers who join Mario. Bowser and Toadstool (in a strange twist of fate) also come along together, though the former wants you to believe that he only wants his castle back and that you are the one joining him. Vying for attention is Mario RPG's cast of non-playable characters, perhaps the memorable one to date. Valentina's comically oversized ambition is matched in size by both her comically oversized bosom and comically oversized henchman, Birdo. Booster, a walking totem pole, is the exact opposite - his cluelessness is only salvaged by his ever-loyal troop of Snifits. There's also Bowyer, a walking bow with a Yoda accent; Jonny Jones, a half-shark, half-man pirate; and Yaridovich, who invades a town and tortures its elder by tickling him.
With such a quirky cast of characters, it's no surprise that Mario RPG sports a sense of humor that few games do. It is a veritable quote-generating machine, with such classics as Booster's ''What is that coming out of your eyes, my dear? Are you... leaking?'' and Mallow's ''Private? PRIVATE? Everyone in a 10 mile radius could hear you!'' Plenty of physical comedy is present, too: a hilarious scene at a wedding chapel ends with Bowser accidentally kissing Booster (or maybe even Mario, depending on how you do things...) With one of the greatest translations ever seen for an SNES game, none of the comedy has to be viewed through the thin veil of awkward phrasing and corny dialogue. Mario RPG's plot may not teach us any valuable lessons about life, or leave us obsessing about its characters, but it is a fun, lighthearted tale that never weighs itself down with complacent exposition.
These traits also apply to Mario RPG's gameplay. It is very short - claims of beating it in one afternoon are not unbelievable. The battles are easy almost to the point of insulting. But for a genre often despised for tedium, its beauty is in its ease. Square did not try to mask the lack of challenge with pretentiously large HP values and obvious elemental weaknesses; instead, most battles can be won in a couple rounds of regular attacks. Battles are always over before they become repetitive or annoying, and you may find even greater pleasure in attempting to avoid the encounters - which is where you thank the gods that Mario RPG is a very forgiving game when it comes to leveling up.
The developers didn't stop at just making the battles fun to go through, either. In between the typical RPG-style adventuring are small yet endlessly intriguing tidbits of pure fun. There are action-packed sequences - one section has you go through a modified version of the Donkey Kong arcade game. There are platforming challenges - witness Sky Bridge, where you must jump your way across a series of platforms while Bullet Bills (Mario cameo!) threaten to knock you down. And there are odd little things to do that nonetheless consume your time at an alarming rate - jumping on certain enemies outside of battle will yield a coin instead of landing you in battle, and if you can bop its head ten times in a row it'll give up an ultra-rare Frog Coin - such a waste of time, yet so addictive!
Mario RPG's aesthetic aspects are consistent with the game's content. The game is nothing short of a stunning technical achievement - no SNES game manages to look and feel so three-dimensional. Everything, from Mario himself to the lowly Goombas and Spikeys to major bosses like Exor and Bowyer, are wonderfully and ingeniously animated. Bowyer can be seen nocking an arrow on himself and shooting it towards our heroes. When Bowser attacks with the Hurly Gloves weapon, he picks up Mario and throws him at the enemy - simply classic. Even the Goombas have several different versions of a basic attack.
The music is not exactly breathtaking, but does its job nevertheless. Several Mario tunes are remixed for this game, and are just as good as they were in their original games. The music for Mario's house, for instance, is the SMB3 World 1 map screen music fused with the SMB1 regular level music, with a more domestic feel. It may seem extremely weird, yet ends up sounding exactly how the music for Mario's house should sound. The originally composed music is just as good, from the happy, upbeat town themes, all completely different from one another, to the mysterious, low-keyed song you hear when a town is in trouble. Square and Nintendo's musical styles are completely different from one another, but in Mario RPG they join to form a pleasing harmony that's both fresh and familiar.
You may play Mario RPG for fifteen minutes and immediately scoff that it captures neither the Mario games nor Squaresoft's RPGs. That can't be farther from the truth. Those who love Mario games will instantly feel at home in the bold, colorful environments, and never feel uncomfortable with the simple yet addictive gameplay. Those who love RPGs will certainly be familiar with its story element and battle system, but will never be put off by the trademark Mario flourishes. The biggest winners, though, will be those who love fun games - for that, at its core, is what Mario RPG is.
Community review by lurkeratlarge (June 25, 2004)
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