This is no platformer: Super Mario RPG Turns 25 (Part 1)

The 25th anniversary of the boldest Mario experiment is about to begin. Shacknews begins a five-part look back at Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars.

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Nintendo is about to wrap up the Super Mario 35th Anniversary. It's a celebration of the heroic plumber's contributions to the gaming world. He's been all over the map, having taken part in nearly every genre imaginable. He's been in kart racers, sports games, party games, educational games, and he was even in an XCOM-style tactical game a few years ago. And yes, Mario has been the lead man in over a dozen role-playing games. However, that wasn't always the case.

Back in 1996, everyone knew of Mario as a portly protagonist who fought against the forces of Bowser, the King of the Koopas, to rescue Princess Toadstool (Peach) and save the Mushroom Kingdom. He was part of some of the greatest platformers ever seen in video games, all of which still hold up to this day and have inspired generations of game developers. When that year started, that's all he was. Even after taking a sidestep into a little spinoff called Super Mario Kart, Mario was mainly a platformer character.

That changed when Nintendo teamed up with Square Soft (now known as Square Enix) to take Mario into completely uncharted territory. In 1996, they released Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, Mario's first official role-playing game.

"Naturally, all of our staff has a lot of love for Mario, so there were a lot of strong opinions flying around. 'This isn’t Mario!!!' or 'Mario would never do this!' or 'It’s not Mario if we don’t have this!"

Those were the words of the head of Square Development Section #6 and the co-director of Super Mario RPG, Chihiro Fujioka, given in an October 1995 interview with Family Computer Magazine and Haou. For Fujioka, who had previously worked on the Game Boy's Final Fantasy Legend III as a producer and the Super Nintendo's Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest as a writer, this was unlike any challenge he had faced before. Square's Final Fantasy characters were beloved, but basically featured in self-contained stories.

This was different. This was Mario. He was no one-time protagonist. He was the face of Nintendo. To many, he was the most widely-recognized face in all of video games.

How did this even happen? When did the idea to take Mario from his comfort zone and branch out to this entirely new style of game first come about?

The answer shouldn't surprise too many people. The idea came from Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto, who served on Super Mario RPG as the game's producer. He went into the topic during a 1995 interview with Game-on! Magazine.

"Long before Super Mario RPG got started, I had talked with the staff at Nintendo about wanting to make an RPG that featured Mario," said Miyamoto. "One day we were talking with Square, and they revealed that they wanted to create an RPG that would have worldwide appeal, with characters that both children and adults could love. We had many meetings and discussions after that, and eventually hit upon the idea of a Square-Nintendo collaboration that would feature both our strengths. As such, I think we've managed to combine the action gameplay of Mario and the turn-based RPG system in a way no one has seen before."

It didn't take long to establish that Mario was in a whole new environment. The story started similarly to any other game in the series. Mario was having a picnic with Princess Toadstool, Bowser showed up in his Koopa Clown Car, abducted her, and Mario pursued them to Bowser's Keep. The similarities to the old Mario games started to end there. The first instinct upon seeing an enemy was to stomp them, but that would trigger a turn-based battle sequence, straight out of a JRPG. Instead of taking the fight straight to enemies, Mario would have to take turns with them. However, the battles were far less passive than the ones Final Fantasy fans were used to seeing. With Mario, Nintendo and Square wanted more player input.

"We really wanted to make an RPG where the player is always engaged with the controls," Fujioka said in his 1995 interview with Family Computer Magazine and Haou. "In RPGs, there’s usually a lot of waiting. The majority of the time is probably spent not pressing any buttons, in fact. But pressing buttons, the controls themselves... that’s a huge part of the fun. This may reveal a bit of our battle system, but... you can definitely get through Mario RPG just by applying standard RPG strategies. But for those who want to get the most out of the experience, we’ve added some elements which allow a moment of action in the gameplay: in other words, a moment of greater Mario-ness."

The "moment of greater Mario-ness" would ultimately become the Timed Hit system. When any character attacks, there's a small window where the player can hit a button and score a second, or even multiple, extra hits. It removed a lot of the normal tedium of a standard turn-based RPG and would revolutionize the genre, with future RPG developers finding different ways to build on the Timed Hit formula. For Super Mario RPG, the Timed Hit mechanic was one of many ways that the game managed to blend together the best elements of both Nintendo and Square Soft. It's hard to believe that it originally stemmed from a children's toy.

"That was very much inspired by a children’s toy that was available in Japan at the time," Super Mario RPG co-director Yoshihiko Maekawa told IGN in a 2013 interview. "It was like a large laptop with these buttons that would play music. You had to press the buttons with good timing to the music. It was that idea, having gameplay built around timing button presses, that inspired me to hybridize these two genres of game, to get a little bit of action and RPG into the same game."

However, a standard tour of the Mushroom Kingdom, as was the case in the previous Mario games, wouldn't be enough for a Super Mario RPG. The RPG genre, especially the Final Fantasy series that Squaresoft made famous, was all about epic adventures and the highest stakes imaginable. As great of a threat that Bowser was, for this game, Nintendo and Square had to think bigger. Come back tomorrow, as we explore how Super Mario RPG expanded Mario's world in ways never before seen.

Senior Editor

Ozzie has been playing video games since picking up his first NES controller at age 5. He has been into games ever since, only briefly stepping away during his college years. But he was pulled back in after spending years in QA circles for both THQ and Activision, mostly spending time helping to push forward the Guitar Hero series at its peak. Ozzie has become a big fan of platformers, puzzle games, shooters, and RPGs, just to name a few genres, but he’s also a huge sucker for anything with a good, compelling narrative behind it. Because what are video games if you can't enjoy a good story with a fresh Cherry Coke?

From The Chatty
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    March 8, 2021 8:00 AM

    Ozzie Mejia posted a new article, This is no platformer: Super Mario RPG Turns 25 (Part 1)

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      March 8, 2021 8:17 AM

      An absolute gem of a game from the Golden Age of 16-bit RPGs. Also the time when strategy guides were large format and full of wonderful art and cool stories and useful secrets.

      Lots of fun little pop culture references for the time, the game was genuinely challenging depending on party makeup, and the story is easily top tier Mario themed adventure. I haven't ever really gone back and revisited this one. I kind of want to just let it sit in my mind as a game I enjoyed as a kid.

      Still no idea how Mallow or Geno have not been added as playable Smash characters.

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      March 8, 2021 8:20 AM

      They should release this on that Nintendo Online thing.

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        March 8, 2021 8:24 AM

        agreed, it's weird that its on the SNES Mini and not the online service

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      March 8, 2021 8:21 AM

      A new Mario RPG game on the switch would be perfect, I hope they make one.

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        March 8, 2021 2:37 PM

        This post deserves an infinite inf

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      March 8, 2021 8:27 AM

      One of my all time favorites on the SNES. I need to do another playthrough, 25th anniversary seems like as good a time as any!

      I've always seen the Paper Mario games as the continuation of the Mario RPG series, but they've never quite hit that same note for me. I'd love to see a return to the specific series with some of the same characters -- bring back Mallow!

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      March 8, 2021 8:50 AM

      never played it. I remember distinctly talking to my friend on the school bus about it and I had never played an RPG at that point, only read about FF in magazines, and only ever played a little bit of Zelda. I think my SNES broke before I got a chance to play it and never repaired/replaced it to my dismay.

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        March 8, 2021 9:02 AM

        Oh man, if I could play it and all the other SNES RPGs for the first time again...

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      March 8, 2021 12:30 PM

      Still my favorite Mario RPG and a fantastic entry into weird Mario games & weird RPGs. It's quick too, which is fantastic this day and age. While obviously the first iteration of the timed hit system, it was a fantastic addition to the genre as a whole.

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      March 8, 2021 1:11 PM

      I absolutely adored that game. We need a remaster of this.

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      March 8, 2021 2:01 PM

      God bless you ozzie! Video Soon!

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      March 8, 2021 2:07 PM

      Never heard of it. I'll have to check it out just going off of all the praise in this thread. Looks really good for a 96 game. Nintendo had Square make a mario rpg and then lost them the next year to Playstation? Whiplash

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        March 8, 2021 2:09 PM

        Mario & Luigi was the offshoot of this. There was also Paper Mario but M&L was much more in the Super Mario RPG style.

        Mario & Luigi Superstar Saga is still a terrific game

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      March 8, 2021 2:09 PM

      Imagine being all hyped for a Super Mario platformer and popping this in

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      March 8, 2021 2:40 PM

      I only ever rented this so I never finished it. I need to get around to buying a copy.

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      March 8, 2021 3:05 PM

      Man remember find that guy with the 4 crystals in that town? He was some FF character right? I didnt recognize him and man he was TOUGh

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        March 8, 2021 6:43 PM

        I loved that battle! Took me many tries on my first playthrough to defeat him.

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        March 8, 2021 11:11 PM

        Dark. It took me forever to beat him, but it was so satisfying when I finally did! That game definitely holds a special place in my memories.

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      March 8, 2021 10:10 PM

      Amazing commercial: https://youtu.be/Th7NtTOuUbg

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