GameSpite Journal 10 | Super Mario RPG

Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Sars | Dev.: Square | Pub: Nintendo | Genre: RPG | Release: May 1996

Super Mario RPG is like the last family vacation your parents took with you before filing for divorce. Bad things were happening beneath the surface, and soon they’d have an ugly split. But for that final week away from home, they put on a happy face for your sake so that you’d have a wonderful memory of great times to carry you through the split-custody weekends and tearful court proceedings.

In this case, the parents were Nintendo and Square. The two companies had long worked in close association with one another: Square had made its fortune publishing on NES and Super NES (its MSX business proving to be negligible at best), and Nintendo had even taken the original Final Fantasy under its wing to make its U.S. release truly special -- and about 100,000 units more successful than its original Japanese release, according to sales figures published around the time of Final Fantasy VI’s launch. But despite a positive public face, things weren’t really all that happy in the bedroom: Square chafed at Nintendo’s harsh licensing and limited media format, having compromised its most ambitious 16-bit titles to fit within the confines of cramped cartridges once the Super NES CD-ROM evaporated. A split -- and not an amicable one -- was in the works.

But for this last outing together, everything seemed just wonderful. Square and Nintendo collaborated together, the latter giving the former use of its most precious franchise. By this point, the Big N was surely smarting from its ill-advised licensing of Mario and Zelda to CDi developers, so their surrender of Mario was a show of faith. They wanted an RPG starring their most popular hero, and they knew Square could deliver.

And Square did. Super Mario RPG was nothing at all like any game Square had previously produced; it was custom-tailored to fit the spirit, universe, and most impressively the mechanics of Super Mario Bros. For this adventure, Square blurred the line between platformer and role-playing game, retaining the essence of both genres yet making them work together brilliantly. They didn’t go the easy action-RPG route, but rather took a more innovative approach to a traditional expression of the format.

As in any RPG of the era, Mario and friends entered combat in separate turn-based battle break-outs. Rather than choosing commands through layers of menus, though, the combatants instead had a simple grid of commands to be activated with the face buttons. Well-timed button presses as combat played out allowed player actions to be enhanced or enemy attacks to be countered. Outside of combat, Mario could run and jump through an isometric world, and his actions outside combat would often affect battle conditions. It was an interesting and unconventional take on the role-playing game, but it fit perfectly.

It was also the first Mario game to feature a decent amount of text, and it played a huge role in defining the narrative style of future games. Mario was the classic silent protagonist, Luigi the wistful (but never envious) second banana, Peach the resilient monarch with tireless faith in the hero, and Bowser the greedy rival who was canny enough to recognize greater external threats. (The game also featured new characters named Mallow and Geno, but who cares about those bozos?)

Both the Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi games descended from this adventure, and both have improved on Mario RPG in nearly every way. Still, there’s something nostalgic about this last team-up between two soon-to-be-divorced greats. Maybe it’s just the memory of that last moment of innocence before everything changed forever.

By Jeremy Parish? | April 28, 2012 | Previous: Mega Man X3 | Next: Radical Dreamers