How an Unexpected Pairing Gave Super Mario RPG a 20-Year Legacy

Square and Nintendo's 1996 experiment might have seemed strange at the time, but it birthed a long line of weird and wonderful RPGs.

Retrospective by Bob Mackey, .

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

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Comments 19

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  • Avatar for nadiaoxford #1 nadiaoxford 2 years ago
    @nimzy I bought / played Super Mario RPG around the same time I managed a gaming community on my high school's BBS (yes, seriously), and one poster was SO MAD about that cake boss, and how ridiculous it was.
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  • Avatar for Vonlenska #2 Vonlenska 2 years ago
    I love the way Mario RPG looks. That's probably a fair bit of nostalgia blindness, and the Paper Marios and Marios & Luigis that follow would have much more interesting/clean aesthetics, but it's still visually unique. That mid-90s plastic figure 3D look landed right in Prime Nostalgia for me.

    I've only ever played a small portion of the game back when it was current, but I'm also glad it reaches so much for uniqueness and tropes-breaking. It could have easily done fine as a by the numbers corporate sludge, but it's always great when games aim to be more. Its "weirdness" is probably its greatest strength.
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  • Avatar for Vaporeon #3 Vaporeon 2 years ago
    Super Mario RPG is one of my favorite gaming memories, so thanks for highlighting it, Bob. I remember drafting a plot and maps for a sequel I dreamed up after finishing this in the 90s. I'd still love to see a true sequel to this game, as I felt it struck a perfect balance of quirky Mario fun, RPG mechanics (battles, world map, great environments...) and difficulty. I definitely spent a class of junior high writing out tactics for my epic battle with the Axem Rangers at the volcano.
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  • Avatar for pdubb #4 pdubb 2 years ago
    @nadiaoxford hehe, Cake Boss.

    Well I guess that dude harnessed his rage and would later go on to be a reality TV producer.
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  • Avatar for Nuclear-Vomit #5 Nuclear-Vomit 2 years ago
    @nadiaoxford Wow. Why would anyone be so uptight about their RPGs? I love this game for its Goofiness. I just love that Mario can't say anything, and that he would just emote and acts out what happens in the game.

    We need more games to take themselves less seriously.
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  • Avatar for robertchesley19 #6 robertchesley19 2 years ago
    Everytime I finish this game I want to restart it and do it again. If there is ever an RPG world I want to live in it's this one. Everything is so charming and delightful and even though you "100%" the content, you hope that there is just a little something more to the world.
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  • Avatar for nadiaoxford #7 nadiaoxford 2 years ago
    @Nuclear-Vomit We'd just come off FF VI and Chrono Trigger, so any RPG that tried to have a bit of goofy fun was panned by some. I estimate that's a big part of the reason why Earthbound failed to net an audience here at first, too.

    There were also fights about how Chrono Trigger was a big step down from FF VI ("You can't enter towns!!"). It was ridic.
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  • Avatar for Li-Bae #8 Li-Bae 2 years ago
    SMRPG was the only "Mario RPG" game that I really enjoyed. I tried a few of the Paper Mario and Mario + Luigi games, and found them tiresome. The original got everything right, and while it doesn't age as well as a few other SNES RPGs, it certainly retains its charm. Here's hoping that a proper sequel will appear one day.
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  • Avatar for Kuni-Nino #9 Kuni-Nino 2 years ago
    Man, I still think this is the best RPG of the SNES era. I don't give a damn that it's weird.

    Just what the hell was Belome supposed to be anyway?
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  • Avatar for TheeAP #10 TheeAP 2 years ago
    I'll always remember playing Super Mario RPG over at my friends' house. We worked out a system where the three of us each picked a character in the active party and chose their actions. In retrospect, this sounds really boring, but we (sloooowly) got those seven stars!

    Also, I love the musical score of this game. Maybe part of it is nostalgic, but the battle and boss music is very solid.
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  • Avatar for docexe #11 docexe 2 years ago
    I really loved this game and have fond memories of it. Despite how unusual and weird it could be at times, back then it just seemed like the perfect mix between Final Fantasy and the Mario series. I also appreciated its self-referential humor and the way it turned the tropes of the franchise on its head (fun detail: According to Bowser, he doesn’t temporarily join your party in order to fight a common enemy, you temporarily join his army in order to recover his castle from the Smithy Gang). I actually was disappointed when the first Paper Mario took a more conventional approach to the storyline compared to this game.

    Subsequent Mario RPG’s might have improved on the mechanics and concept (and used more effectively the Mario setting), but I still find this one special. I actually wish we would see Geno and Mallow again, even in minor roles.
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  • Avatar for capedconstable #12 capedconstable 2 years ago
    I have always really wanted to play that game but now I really really want to! I actually find the screenshots on this strangely beautiful. I will have to find a way to play it.
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  • Avatar for maximask #13 maximask 2 years ago
    Thank you for this great article, Bob. I totally love this game and have the largest nostalgia blinders for it, but your comments on the graphics and perspective are totally fair. I do think it's a fun and rewarding experience if new players can get past the dated graphics and isometric platforming weirdness. If someone hasn't played this game and it sounds like it may be their cup of tea, pleae give it a try!

    I have so many memories of talking about this game with friends at the time. We'd make paper claws and pretend to be Bowser or Geno during recess. Getting the Player's Guide for it is what got me to subscribe to Nintendo Power. I'd pore over it for all the secrets hidden in the nooks and crannies. It was my first experience of getting the ultimate items of the Lazy Shell and completely steamrolling over everything with reckless abandon.

    It was also my first real RPG experience as a kid. At the time, I had played Final Fantasy IV- although, not to completion- and had seen older kids play Final Fantasy VI, so things like the Culex fight were mesmerizing, but this was the first that managed to really grab me. I also loved the cameos to Metroid and the Legend of Zelda hidden inside the game.

    There's a certain fondness over weird bosses like Mack and Jonathan Jones, both of which carried way different mental images for me than what were shown on the official art! Even though I loved the game's look at the time, the crazy ways my brain would process some of these sprites seemed way different than how they were actually supposed to look.

    This really is a game that carries a special place in my heart.
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  • Avatar for boatie #14 boatie 2 years ago
    This is the kind of article I love about usgamer
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  • Avatar for SargeSmash #15 SargeSmash 2 years ago
    @nadiaoxford : That was an actual argument? Good grief. That is "ridic".
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  • Avatar for nadiaoxford #16 nadiaoxford 2 years ago
    @SargeSmash The internet was a silly place even when it was a loose collection of glorified text messages.
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  • Avatar for bobservo #17 bobservo 2 years ago
  • Avatar for Ashtrim #18 Ashtrim 2 years ago
    I made fun of my brother for playing this back in the day....after playing it years later I apologized to him.
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  • Avatar for DiscordInc #19 DiscordInc 2 years ago
    I think this was one of the first RPGs I finished when I first started exploring emulation and I was charmed by it so much I tracked down a cartridge so I could play it with an actual controller. While I do feel it is eclipsed in almost every way by its successors it still is charming in its own way.

    I think my favorite part is the credits where you get the Main Street Electrical Parade version of the game. While the M&L games are much more of a direct sequel to the game I do like how the first Paper Mario also ends with a parade.
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