Though Nintendo saw some of their biggest successes throughout the '80s and '90s, one of their major shortcomings of this era could be found in their complete inability to make RPGs catch on in America as they did in Japan.
And it wasn't for lack of trying. With the help of their PR machine, the magazine Nintendo Power, the company did their best to get American fans lathered up over the concept of "RPG." After 1989's Dragon Warrior failed to catch on like wildfire, the following years saw a number of RPGs backed by heavy promotion: Final Fantasy, EarthBound, Illusion of Gaia, and a handful of others. While some releases would bring in modest sales, the returns seemingly never met Nintendo's expectations. So it only makes sense that one of Nintendo's final, pre-Pokemon attempts to turn Americans into RPG addicts featured their stable of familiar characters—and a developer that could seemingly do no wrong with the genre.
Ultimately, Super Mario RPG would be Square's final SNES release in America—the worthwhile Treasure Hunter G and Treasure of the Rudras would come later, but stay in Japan. While it's tough to find an exact timeline of events—not to mention where the development of Super Mario RPG fits in—Square wasn't on the best terms with Nintendo at the time. And while many would chalk this up to the often brash outbursts of former Nintendo President Hiroshi Yamauchi, his comments about RPG fans being "depressed gamers who like to sit alone in their dark rooms," this statement would not leave his mouth until a few years later. In actuality, Square (with the help of former President Nao Suzuki) started the tiff by convincing other publishers to leave the Nintendo fold, all while bashing their former partner in the press. And while the appeal of the CD-ROM format was much greater than that of Nintendo's cartridges, Suzuki later expressed regret for his prideful actions.
It's strange, then, to think of the chaos that must have been surrounding Super Mario RPG's development at Square: With Final Fantasy VII currently in the works, Nintendo's next attempt at making RPGs work for Americans was essentially sitting right next to the game that actually would. And, with the pending release of Super Mario 64 and the Nintendo 64, Nintendo undoubtedly had their hands full as well. This lack of oversight may explain why Super Mario RPG turned out so... weird. Though the last decade of Kingdom Hearts have made its Square-specific content seem somewhat subdued in comparison, it's still surprising to see how often Super Mario RPG chooses to go its own path rather than find a way to employ one of the hundreds of Nintendo characters in existence by 1996. Two of the five playable characters make for completely original creations, and, at times, Square suspiciously swerves away from making the perfect Mario reference—the Princess-kidnapping madman Booster, for instance, should be Wario, but somehow isn't.
But Super Mario RPG's strange atmosphere leads to some inspired choices as well. While the story first sets up Bowser as the game's antagonist—while hanging a lampshade on how many times this has happened before—he's soon dethroned by a Final Fantasy-style villain and actually joins Mario's party. And Princess Toadstool (who would officially become "Peach" in America that fall) evolves from her primary role as kidnap-bait for one of the relatively few times in Nintendo history: She's not just a valuable party member, she's one the most valuable party members, with valuable healing magic and a surprisingly strong special attack (with a frying pan, because we can't be too progressive).
Super Mario RPG's battle system also features some inspired choices, if only to extend the olive branch to players bored by the prospect of simply selecting options from a menu. "Timed attacks," which would go on to feature prominently in many RPGs, turned every attack and spell into a seconds-long mini-game in which the player has to determine when to hit the button an additional time in order to get a little extra oomph behind their attack. It's a system that would grow much more complex and interesting over time, but even in this early form, Super Mario RPG knows how to communicate the proper visual information without including explicit on-screen prompts. Even if this system feels someone inessential, it still does a great job of making you feel more engaged with the simple, turn-based battles.
Unfortunately, Super Mario RPG came about during a particularly unfortunate period of time in which Nintendo wanted to compete with the polygon-pushing power of the PlayStation, but didn't have their new console ready just yet. So, Nintendo did the next best thing: they faked it. The phenomenal success of 1994's Donkey Kong Country proved a bit of disingenuousness could move millions of games, even if the advanced CGI graphics of Silicon Graphics workstations had to be reduced to the modern-day equivalent of an animated .gif to actually function within the limitations of a Super Nintendo. Super Mario RPG didn't just use this same pre-rendered style—it also went for an isometric perspective to sell the illusion of 3D further. The natural imperfections of a CRT-TV do much to smooth over the general garishness of Super Mario RPG's visuals, but they take some getting used to in our era of flawless HD.
And Super Mario RPG's isometric nature certainly doesn't help with its overall "Mario-ness." Due to the complexity of communicating just where a character exists in 3D space with this perspective, the platforming bits—generally, what Mario is known for—are kept mercifully brief. Square actually embraces the visual confusion of this viewpoint late in the game with a puzzle that involves pushing Mario through a baffling maze of tunnels and stacked blocks, but for the most part, Super Mario RPG backs away from any serious attempts at making this isometric perspective truly work. It's solely there to assist the Super Nintendo's sleight of hand.
Super Mario RPG would later grow bigger and better with its spiritual successor—Mario & Luigi (which even featured a Geno cameo in Superstar Saga)—but, despite the many ways it's aged poorly, this weird little game still carries a lot of appeal. For one, it's a brief, economical RPG that doesn't rely on reusing content to pad out the playing time: 20 years later, and it's still tough to find a game from this genre you can put to bed in under 15 hours. And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Yoko Shimomura's wonderful score, which went beyond simple musical Mario references to really help her define her bouncy, playful style. She'd worked on plenty of games before this, mind you, but songs like "Beware the Forest's Mushrooms" and "Let's go Down the Wine River" mark the beginning of Shimomura truly finding her voice.
Granted, it might be hard to stare at Super Mario RPG for too long these days, but it still stands out as the intriguing black sheep of the Mario RPG family, which would reboot a handful of years later with 2001's Paper Mario and 2003's Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga—which carried over some of Super Mario RPG's key talent. These spin-offs would age much better and dig much deeper into the Mario-verse, but there's still nothing out there like the scrappy oddball known as Mario RPG. After all, it's not just any game that can turn a sentient wedding cake into a boss.
Images courtesy of VG Museum