Super Mario RPG does that strange thing of making you question your own knowledge. The original SNES title (also known as Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars) came out back in 1996 and after playing the opening few hours, I genuinely can’t remember if I’ve played it or not, because either it was way ahead of its time, or Nintendo has really gone to town on modernising it, outside of just a visual makeover.
What I am sure of, is that even games in 2023 are heavily inspired by Super Mario RPG. Recently playing through (and adoring) Sabotage Studios’ Sea of Stars, it is clear the influence the game had on that title. While the 2023 version of RPG retains all the characteristics of the original (it’s turn-based, but includes action elements that mean you can time attacks and defensive blocks to increase/reduce damage dealt or taken), this really does feel like a new game as well.
In fact, there are parts of Nintendo’s revisit of this one that make me wonder why developers forgot to do half of the things it introduces. Here, you can swap party characters out during a battle with no penalty. It seems crazy to say it, but it’s incredibly user-friendly, and removes the punishing feel of going into a fight against enemies where you get the realisation: “Oh no, I didn’t know they were immune to this, now I have to waste a turn swapping out”. Why so many RPG creators ignore this idea, I’ll never know.
It also has lots of ideas. Whichever weapon you equip for your party members, your inputs will change. If you want to do extra damage when jumping on a head as Mario, you’ll need to time the button press accordingly. Switch to a green shell and, again, the timing is different. Special moves require hammering the A-button, yet others are timing based, or need you to rotate the stick. The fourth party member you find, Geno, you have to hold a button to charge it perfectly. Yes, exactly as Zale does in Sea of Stars for his charged Sun-based attack.
Super Mario RPG also marries its turn-based combat with isometric platforming. There’s nothing major here, but you will explore a world filled with secrets, jumping as Mario. It’s not perfect so far, and the environments feel slightly constrained by the technology of the time, and this being a remake. But then, even that is made up for by the inventive action-based mini-games that will perforate chapters of the main story. You’ll be playing a turn-based RPG, then afterwards, suddenly you’re involved in a downhill rapids mini-game, collecting coins. These sections work as transitions between areas, making the overall world feel whole, and connected. Again, this feels like a game ahead of its time when you consider it’s from 1996.
The RPG system itself feels deeper than expected, too. Your party makeup affects special moves, and you will create a bonus effect based on chained attacks and party members. There’s equipment to boost stats, and when you level up, you get to choose a bonus stat to increase, from physical, health, or magic, which can allow you to have your own unique party composition, making one party member more physical attack based, and pushing another to being a tank with lots of health.
But it isn’t just other developers that took cues from this SNES classic. The humour paved the way for Paper Mario and the Mario & Luigi titles, too. Don’t get me wrong, what I’ve played so far isn’t causing my sides to split, but it’s a cheeky feeling game. Mario and friends will act out previous parts of the story, bumping into each other and generally being buffoons. Mario himself will constantly be mis-identified until you hit the jump button, because apparently nobody else can get as high as Jump Man, and his single jump is more identifiable than his outfit, face, and moustache. It’s great fun, in that respect.
If there’s a concern so far, it’s that while the puzzles being rudimentary isn’t a major deal, the difficulty feels very much tailored towards it being a lot of people’s first RPG. Not only have I not died so far, I can’t really see a chance of that happening. Maybe I’m wrong and it’s about to ramp up, or maybe there’s some sneaky end-game content, which is often the case with any Mario-title, but it’s pretty easy so far.
But it looks nice, and although there are some reminders of it being a remake, like some repetitive music, this feels pretty much like a modern game, and a chance for a lot of people (especially outside Japan and North America) to play it for the first time. This is not a slow moving RPG by any stretch of the imagination, and feels in-keeping with Mario’s platforming escapades, like in Super Mario Bros Wonder, and I can’t wait to get deeper in, and see how the characters movesets develop, and what the rest of it has to offer.
Super Mario RPG is coming to Nintendo Switch on November 17th.