My previous familiarity with Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars (1996) was very limited. I knew of its existence in my childhood but it had never really stood out to me against other RPGs because of one factor that seemed obvious to me: where was the narrative appeal in Mario’s world? It was a colourful and iconic environment that lent itself to great platforming games, a tolerable cartoon series and an unhinged live-action movie, but if JRPGs had been noted for anything back then it was for their epic, expansive stories.
Years later, I tried the game on an emulator. I wasn’t too interested in either the premise or the combat system, so I forgot about it until last year when the idea that Geno, one of the game’s characters who never reappeared in the franchise, would be a character in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate (2018) became a meme.
It is remarkable that 10 years after Super Mario Bros. this game seems one of the first to be aware of the sheer iconicity of Mario, a fictional character from the 20th century who is only matched in popularity by Superman or Mickey Mouse. While previous appearances of the character were direct sequels to his own game or cute cameos as a corporate mascot, it wasn’t until Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island (1995) that the series became truly self-referential, growing into its own mythology.
Yes, Mario was also known from the animated series The Super Mario Bros. Super Show! (1989), The Adventures of Super Mario Bros. 3 (1990) and Super Mario World (1991) but the French-American production by DIC Entertainment studios had little canonicality and more of a direct exploitation of the most significant elements of their corresponding games, which, while implanted in popular culture, did not represent the guidelines the game was taking. More influential was the Super Mario Adventures comic (1992–1993) published in Nintendo Power and therefore with greater corporate oversight.
Until the advent of SMRPG, there was nothing so profoundly postmodern in the franchise as introducing us not only to characters in this world who are familiar with Mario’s exploits as a legendary hero, but who even play with dolls representing him, the princess and Bowser. At another point, Mario passes through some curtains and appears on the other side in his 8-bit version. This self-referential sense of humour would later carry over into the games of two other franchises that would recapture some of the “soft” RPG elements of this title: Mario & Luigi (2003–2019) and Paper Mario (2000–2020).
The combat itself consists of using the four main buttons on the SNES controller to display various menus: one for conventional attack, one for special attack, a third for item use, and a fourth for defend or flee. In principle, basic turn-based combat mechanics with an interface that uses less text. Added to this are the critical attacks that we perform when, during the animation of an attack, we press the corresponding button again at the exact moment to multiply the damage they cause.
In addition to the usual use of healing items during combat, there is also the possibility of gaining certain advantages when defeating an enemy within the group we are fighting. From regaining full health to improving defence or replaying a turn, it is a way for the game to avoid grinding and have certain rewards that encourage a more linear and simple approach, although the random factor may not smile on us at the right time or do so when we least need it, for example, offering us a full healing when we have just spent an item or a magic ability (which consume their own resource in the form of flowers), leaving it without effect.
At certain points, the game has the audacity to mix platforming with the need to avoid the enemies that patrol the screen and switch us into combat mode. The idea is very good and manages to work relatively well, although its biggest detriment is the isometric perspective that prevents good control over the depth of the image and the distance between platforms at different vertical levels. Importantly, Squaresoft decided to give Mario mobility in eight directions, not very common in isometric games at the time, and the character’s distinctive jumping element here becomes not only a mechanic for certain moments (albeit much less important than in his main titles) but also a sort of communication tool with the characters he encounters, who recognise Mario by his mastery of jumping. The platforming elements may take a secondary role, but the basic idea is still of great effect: complete certain jumps to get items or objectives, or fall off those platforms to engage in combat that will drain your life and resources easily if you have to repeat it several times.
The mini-game sections are a lot of fun, despite the obvious limitations. One mine carriage section has the unintuitive mechanic of forcing us to turn at the right time despite the carriage obviously running on tracks. Perhaps the worst part comes in “Yo’ster Island” (odd translation of “Yoshi’s Island”), where, after a very fun optional platforming level known as “Pipe Vault”, we arrive at the home of Yoshi’s species to take part in a race that handles just as well as QWOP (2008).
Some of the hidden secrets in SMRPG are not limited to references and cameos (Link, Samus and Donkey Kong make small appearances) but involve paying attention to certain moments and conversations, interacting with all the NPCs to retrace our steps and unlock areas we’ve left behind, in a curious way of exploiting the exploration of maps now devoid of enemies. One of these secrets, for example, includes a complex battle in the purest Final Fantasy IV (1991) style with the original music of the saga accompanying or a small shoot’em up mini-game.
This game is also symbolic of the break-up of the close relationship between Nintendo and Squaresoft, the effects of which are felt even today, showing how two companies that were at the height of their popularity and creativity at the time decided to break up in the face of Nintendo’s refusal to adopt a more extensive format such as the CD-Rom. Squaresoft would abandon Nintendo for Sony and even convince other companies to support the new console. The rest is history. Part of the reason why characters like Geno or Booster wouldn’t get any more exposure outside of this title is because of that breakup and how Super Mario RPG 2 never materialised as such. When Nintendo released Super Mario 64 the same year its popularity and breakthrough completely buried SMRPG, now perceived more as an oddity and Mario’s last appearance on Super Nintendo. Sic transit gloria mundi.
Having played it since the present day, without being a great memory from my past, I think I can venture that it’s not a product that receives affection just because of the nostalgia it arouses. There is something in the simplicity of its proposal, in that Saturday morning cartoon adventure tone, that makes it especially comfortable and enjoyable compared to other JRPGs bent on subverting expectations and making overly complex plots. It brims with humour and affection for the characters, to a point of perhaps excessive but sincere appreciation. Everything in this game maintains a delicate and sympathetic tone. That’s what makes its most dramatic moment (Geno’s farewell) so effective: a bitter note that contrasts with the sweetness that has surrounded us.
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