Thursday, May 5, 2022

Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars Review

Developer: SquareSoft
Publisher: Nintendo
Platforms: SNES, Wii VC, Wii U VC, SNES Classic

Before there was Paper Mario, there was Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars. It's an RPG featuring Mario. Like, a real RPG with experience points, equipment, towns full of NPCs, and turn-based battles. It wasn't made by Nintendo or Intelligent Systems; though, it’s from the makers of Final Fantasy, SquareSoft. Square and Nintendo had a very different relationship before PlayStation came around. This game first came out on the Super Famicom in March of 1996, a few months before the launch of the N64 and Super Mario 64, so it was one of the first times we saw Mario in 3D. The game didn't use polygons in-game, but it used pre-rendered sprites, just like the Donkey Kong Country games. It also used an isometric camera angle, which helped sell the 3D look.
The thing that sticks out to me playing this game all these years later is just how weird and off-brand it is for a Mario game. This version of the Mushroom Kingdom doesn't look like anything seen in Nintendo's Mario games. There's googly-eyed enemies that look like they were designed by Rare, Power Rangers, and even a reference to Bruce Lee. Not even the environments which you'd find in Mario games, like castles, pirate ships, and sewers, look like they do in Mario games. It's not quite the Super Mario Bros movie levels of doing whatever you want with the IP, but it's clearly Square's version of the Mushroom Kingdom and not Nintendo's. Why does Booster look like a bearded Wario? Where is Luigi during all this? What is Toadstool's ??? And why are the item blocks shaped like treasure chests? The world may never know.
The writing is really good, though. The dialog is funny and cute, the story is always moving things along at a good pace, and Mario, Peach… I mean Toadstool, and Bowser get to show more personality than they ever had outside of the Super Mario Bros Super Show. Mario never talks, but he does pantomime and acts out what he wants to say, which is very cute. Even though the world feels like Square's vision, the characters feel authentic. Mario's new friends, Mallow and Geno, also have pretty good stories, and quickly became fan favorites. You've probably heard them asking for Geno to be in Smash. Those characters are owned by Square, though, so we never see them in any other games. Super Mario RPG’s writing is one of its strong suits and clearly had a big influence on the Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi games.
Super Mario RPG isn't just a Mario themed Final Fantasy, there's a lot of Mario to the gameplay. It's like a platformer RPG. You hold down Y to run, you can jump, and hit blocks with your head. You know, Mario stuff. You can also see enemies on the field, like in Chrono Trigger, and there is quite a bit of platforming, so even running around an area feels very different from your usual RPG. A lot of thought obviously went into making this game feel like a Mario game. The only thing I feel is missing is jumping on enemies to get some kind of advantage at the beginning of a battle.
Yes, there is actual platforming in the game. There's floating platforms, vine climbing, and even those falling donuts from Mario 3. This game came before Mario 64; though, so there was no blueprint to follow for making a Mario platformer in a 3D space. Sonic 3D Blast wasn't out yet either. The results are pretty rough. It's hard to tell what is actually in front of Mario, you don't have a lot of control over your jumps, and you only have 8 way movement, so even running in the right direction before a jump can be a challenge. The SNES controller didn't have an analog stick. You have to hold down two directions on the d-pad to move in a certain direction. It's a little finicky and imprecise. You can't skip the platforming either, and there's quite a bit of it.
The battle system in SMRPG is a lot of fun. At the time, it was unlike anything I had seen before. You pick commands from menus, just like in other turn-based RPGs, but you also have the option to press a button at the right time to increase the power of your attacks. You can press A during a normal attack, mash Y or do circles on the d-pad during spells, and you can also hit A during enemy attacks to defend yourself. Different weapons have different timing, so it's not like you're doing the same thing throughout the whole game. It's a lot more involved than your usual turn-based battles. I feel like maybe it doesn't get the recognition it deserves. The battle systems in the Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi games were clearly inspired by SMRPG's.
I have mixed feelings about how linear the game is. SMRPG has a very Super Mario World-like map with little trails going to each area and everything. There is no overworld to explore, and the levels and dungeons themselves are a bit more straightforward than the average RPG's. Everything feels very streamlined, like it was designed to keep you moving because Mario games aren't usually about exploration. It's a weird structure for an RPG, but I guess it works for a Mario game. I kind of enjoyed the more straightforward approach to an RPG simply because it’s something different.
Super Mario RPG breaks up the action with a wide variety of minigames. They usually fit in with the story, but most of them feel like they're just there to show off what Square could do with the SNES' graphics. There’s a 3D minecart level, a sides crolling followup to the minecart level, barrel jumping up hill, barrel rolling down a river, quizzes, visual math puzzles, and all sorts of stuff. None of them are actually good and they barely have more depth than a Game & Watch game.
When this game came out, it looked amazing. It used the same style of pre-rendered sprites as Donkey Kong Country. It looked good because CG was new and trendy, but I don't think these graphics stand the test of time. SMRPG's models are nowhere near as good as Donkey Kong Country's, and Square's own RPGs using traditional 2D pixel art, like Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger, blow SMRPG out of the water. This game looks bland and generic in comparison. The models look like they were mostly made by sticking basic polygon shapes together, most sprites lack any sort of texture, and you can see the edge of the world in a lot of areas, so everything looks like it's floating in the sky. The main characters and Toads look cute, and they have cute animations, but overall, I don't think it looks very good anymore.
The soundtrack has some pretty good Mario-inspired songs, but it’s otherwise pretty terrible. A lot of these songs just sound like someone riffing on some free domain Classical music or something they heard in an old cartoon. It sounds familiar in a bad way. I'm pretty sure one of the songs is a remix of an alarm I had on a Casio digital watch when I was a kid. The battle theme is especially bad. It sounds like circus clown music, and you hear it over and over again. By far the worst part of the game.
Super Mario RPG has great writing, it does a lot of cool things with the movement and battle system, and it’s a pretty fun RPG overall, but it’s no SNES masterpiece or anything. It’s definitely not in the same league as Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger. The soundtrack is terrible, the graphics have not aged well, the platforming sucks, and the weird version of the Mushroom Kingdom makes it look like some weird non-canon thing someone outside Nintendo made. It's worth playing, but I'd rather play Paper Mario.