Last time, we talked about the origins of Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars and how Nintendo and Square Soft took Mario into unfamiliar territory by taking him from his normal platforming games and putting him into an entirely different genre. There are many things that make role-playing games different from platformers, but one of the biggest differences is the scope of the worlds. The Final Fantasy series is known for taking players into larger-than-life locales, so why should Super Mario RPG be any different?
How does one get started making Mario's world bigger than ever before? For starters, Super Mario RPG changed the perspective that fans have been accustomed to for over a decade.
"I think our decision to use an isometric view—3D, in other words—really brings the world of Mario to life," Super Mario RPG co-director Chihiro Fujioka said in an October 1995 interview with Family Computer Magazine and Haou. "The usual complaint about isometric visuals is that yeah, they look pretty, but they make the controls difficult. While that’s true, the 3D isometric view allows us to show Mario’s world in a way never seen before, so I think it was the right choice."
While Square had pushed the Super Nintendo to its hardware limits with games like Final Fantasy VI (Final Fantasy III in the United States), Super Mario RPG was an even greater leap forward. The isometric 3D style would require far greater CPU power. That's why Nintendo ultimately suggested the use of the SA1 chip, which had four times the processing power of the Super Nintendo's native CPU. While each individual world had some pop to it, they wouldn't come to life in the same way without the SA1 chip to give them an extra dimension.
Beyond the perspective, Super Mario RPG is remembered for taking Mario beyond the Mushroom Kingdom. Is the Mushroom Kingdom still part of the game? It is, though it turns out to be a comparatively smaller piece of a much bigger picture. That's evidenced by the game's opening minutes when a typical battle between Mario and Bowser is interrupted by a force from beyond.
When the mysterious and powerful entity named Smithy crashed down from the skies above and shattered the Star Road on his way down, it opened Mario's world in ways unimaginable just years prior. His arrival created such a force that it blew Princess Toadstool and Bowser to parts unknown and blew the seven powerful Star Pieces to different corners of the world. Finding the Princess, finding the Star Pieces, and confronting Smithy meant having to leave the vicinity of the Mushroom Kingdom.
Super Mario RPG's supporting cast was really one of the earliest indicators that life went beyond Princess Toadstool's domain. During his first visit to the Mushroom Kingdom, Mario encountered a funny frog-looking thing named Mallow, who got robbed by a fast-talking thief named Croco. After helping Mallow, Smithy's invasion began in full force. Further along, when a villain known as Mack the Knife's hostile takeover was thwarted, it came time for Mario to explore the world in earnest.
This is where Mario's world truly opened up. The overworld map felt less like the themed lands of the Mario platformers, but more like fleshed-out landscapes filled with actual people. Rose Town was a sleepy forest town filled with Mushroom civilians, Moleville was a land of blue collar mole people, and Marrymore was a city whose entire economy relied on extravagant marriages. All of that is standard RPG fare, but the town that becomes truly mind-blowing to Mario fans is Monstro Town, which opened up the idea that Bowser's minions can live peacefully with like-minded reformed monsters. They don't renounce Bowser, necessarily, but they seek out a life that doesn't involve trying to take over the Mushroom Kingdom or trying to kill Mario. It's a wild concept, one that's taken for granted today, but one that got its start here.
The dangerous, adventure-filled areas were also unlike anything in a Mario game to that point. That's mainly because of the surprisingly three-dimension characters that inhabited them. Kero Sewers was a standard sewer stage, but stood out because of nightmare monster Belome, who loved to eat people. The Sunken Ship and its surrounding ocean could have been any average water level if not for Jonathan Jones, the scourge of the seas who fights with honor. The Barrel Volcano is a harrowing environment filled with fiery monsters and a fearsome dragon, but there's a wacky merchant named Hinopio who has somehow run a lucrative business within its depths.
The other key to opening up the Mario world is through the idea of legend. In prior games, Mario was considered a hero. In Super Mario RPG, he is a legend. When characters from outside the Mushroom Kingdom meet him, they're starstruck. They realize they're in the presence of a larger-than-life hero. Tales of his exploits have spread far beyond the Mushroom Kingdom's borders to the point that some of the game's characters don't even believe he's real. That goes a long way towards making Mario's world feel like a much bigger place and one of Super Mario RPG's coolest ideas involves having the player jump in the middle of certain conversations. What's a simple action in the old platformers is mythology come to life for many of the minor characters in Super Mario RPG.
But when we talk about opening Mario's horizons, it's hard to grasp the gravity of its significance through a silent protagonist. Since Mario never speaks, that leaves sidekick Mallow as one of the player's primary windows into what's beyond the Mushroom Kingdom. His story of trying to discover his true heritage puts him in the unique position of helping present the greater Super Mario RPG world. Like the players and like Mario, Mallow is seeing all of this for the first time, too. He's the everyman standing in contrast with the rest of the cast. He's not the legendary hero that Mario is, the reviled villain that Bowser is, the regal ruler that Toadstool is, or the celestial being that Geno is. But until the final moments of the game, nothing illustrates the size and scope of Mario's world more than the story twist that Mallow is the prince of a skyward kingdom. It's both a sign that Mario and Mallow inhabit the same world, but they both have their own kingdoms and their own stories to live out.
And while Mario has had some memorable end credit celebrations in the past, few make the Mario mythos feel bigger than the Disneyland "Main Street Electrical Parade" style celebration that comes after defeating Smithy. It's a sequence that makes every location feel significant, it makes players want to visit those places again, and it makes them want to return to them in the future. Sadly, that last part is not meant to be, but that's a story for later. Did you miss Part 1 of this adventure? Be sure to read up on the formative decisions of how Super Mario RPG came to be!
Ozzie Mejia posted a new article, Beyond the Mushroom Kingdom: Super Mario RPG Turns 25 (Part 2)
As a kid I loved the Final Fantasy games, Chrono Trigger, Earthbound etc. When I first saw Mario RPG at the rental store I was shocked. How can this be!? Boy did those multiple rentals pay off. It was magical to play with the Mario characters in an actual RPG and it will always hold a special place in my heart.