Today, the idea of Mario starring in an RPG doesn't seem weird at all. He's done everything from sports games to strategy games and, yes, he's dabbled in some turn-based RPGs. Once upon a time, though, the idea of Mario taking part in a role-playing game was unheard of. In 1996, Nintendo shocked its fanbase when it announced that it was teaming up with Final Fantasy house Squaresoft (now Square Enix) to create Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars. It remains not just one of the best RPGs ever, but one of Nintendo's greatest games, period.
Earlier this year, Nintendo shocked the world again when it announced it was bringing the game back from whatever rights hell it had spent the last 27 years. The result is Super Mario RPG, which keeps most of what made the original so legendary while adding enough new content to further satisfy even older fans of the Super Nintendo classic.
A timeless tale
Super Mario RPG's story was novel for its time and remains so today. Bowser has kidnapped Peach and Mario has run off to save her. By this point, everyone has settled into a routine. The princess gets kidnapped, the hero saves her, the villain shakes his fist and runs away, then everybody prepares to do it all again. The difference in this game is that the routine is disrupted when an evil extraterrestrial force named Smithy plunges his base in the middle of Bowser's Keep and sends everybody flying across different corners of the world. Mario must now regroup to face something unlike anything he has ever seen before.
The story is a big part of what makes Super Mario RPG so charming. Mario meets an assortment of colorful characters over the course of his journey. This includes Mallow, a tadpole with the power to affect the weather; Geno, a living doll possessed by a spirit from the stars; various NPCs who are starstruck by the legend of Mario; and enemies who are ready to put his reputation to the test. While the first part of the game sees Mario party up with Mallow and Geno, he eventually reunites with Bowser and Peach and adds them to his party. While Bowser has been a reluctant ally in the past, it was Super Mario RPG where he fought alongside Mario for the first time and it's a dynamic that still works today.
Even better is the way in which Nintendo, Square, and developer ArtePiazza have managed to update the game's visual style in more ways than one. Let's get the negative out of the way first and even this isn't so much a negative as it is a nitpick. The original Super Mario RPG's visual style is beloved partly because of the magic that Nintendo and Square were able to work on the Super Nintendo hardware. What the SA-1 chipset was able to accomplish on the 16-bit system was nothing short of a miracle. Super Mario RPG's art style and graphics on the Nintendo Switch, by comparison, is par for the course. In fact, there are actually points where performance starts to stutter because of the aging Switch hardware.
With that out of the way, the updated visuals are beautiful. There are a lot of moments where new cutscenes add greatly to different story moments. Specifically, the new Geno origin is a marvel to behold, giving greater gravitas and wonder to what was already a classic scene. It's also striking how the new visual style allows for a greater sense of character expression. Many of the original Super Mario RPG's most recognizable comedy moments are made better with the new visuals.
While the story has aged well, so has Super Mario RPG's formula. There's a reason that the turn-based approach with timed hits that do greater damage and block enemy attacks still works.
The road is still full of dangers
Unlike standard Mario games, trying to jump on foes in Super Mario RPG will trigger a turn-based battle. These unfold more like classic Final Fantasy games where party members and enemies will attack one by one based on speed stats. This game still uses the timed hits formula that worked so well in the original, where players can hit a button to strike a second time or cut down incoming damage from foes. Where the 2023 version improves on this idea is that it offers visual cues on where to hit the button, which gives players a better idea of where to make the most of their button presses. Players must mainly use the "A" button for timed hits and to confirm selections, but there is an option in place for the classic control scheme.
There's also a fundamental change in how battles work and this might be a little more divisive for Super Mario RPG purists. The SNES version of the game would restrict players to Mario and two other party members. Once those selections have been made, they're locked. For the 2023 version of the game, party members other than Mario can swap in and out at any time. That opens the door for some different approaches to fights, like using Geno for his stat-buffing Geno Boost and then swapping out to Mallow for his elemental attacks. It also makes the game significantly easier. More on this in a moment.
The other big addition to the formula is the new Triple Move system. There's an action gauge on the bottom-left corner of the screen that gradually fills up after completing attacks or successfully blocking enemy strikes. Once filled, players can use different Triple Moves based on their party composition. These are cool-looking theatrical strikes that add to the overall presentation and don't wear out their welcome after repeated uses. There's nothing like filling up the gauge and using Mario, Mallow, and Bowser's Triple Move to wipe out an entire screen of minor foes. These can make even boss battles into quick affairs, which segues into one of Super Mario RPG's big negatives.
At any point, players can swap over to a Breezy Mode difficulty that makes the game easier, but here's the thing about that. Unless it's there for smaller children who are getting started with RPGs for the first time, there's nothing about Super Mario RPG's main story that's particularly difficult. In fact, the new additions actually make the story a lot easier because enemies aren't scaled in any way to compensate for these new mechanics. The ability to swap out between party members and use game-breaking Triple Moves make even the toughest bosses an easy romp. I was amazed and slightly disappointed by how I was able to get through bosses like Speardovich (formerly Yaridovich) and the Axem Rangers in mere minutes. These weren't the toughest battles to begin with (not to brag about my prowess in the original game), but the new moves make them almost boring in their simplicity.
Fortunately, things don't stay this easy. Those craving a challenge will find it after the credits roll.
For Super Mario RPG veterans, the biggest feature is the new post-game rematch feature. Whereas the original ended and prompted the player to reset their console, rolling credits on the 2023 remake will instead prompt players to create a new save file. Without getting into the narrative reasons of how this aspect of the game works, players will then gain access to a series of post-game rematches.
There's no easy way to put this. These fights are tough. They're really tough and will often have even the most old-school Super Mario RPG player seeing a Game Over screen. What's laudable about these matches, however, is that Nintendo and Square weren't content to scale the fights up and add some more HP.
What makes the post-game rematches so great is that they're totally and cleverly redesigned. Yes, they'll use some of the bosses' previous gimmicks, but they'll throw in different mechanics that will test the player in different ways. Simply going full bore, like in the main story, won't work. Giving these battles a more cerebral edge makes them feel like something truly worth seeking out. I've played Super Mario RPG for 27 years and these fights marked the first time since I originally picked up the old-school SNES cartridge that I felt tested, frustrated, and ultimately triumphant.
Happy adventure, delightful adventure
Super Mario RPG could have been a 1:1 remaster and could have been something truly special. Instead, Nintendo, Square, and ArtePiazza went the extra mile and added just enough to make this game fit in with today's best titles. Not every change was necessarily for the best. Does Super Mario RPG really need modern concepts like autosave and fast travel? No, not necessarily. Was I thrown off by some name changes? Yes, I tilted my head when I first heard the names "Claymorton" and "Frog Sage."
With that said, for every change that made me scratch my chin, there were several other additions, improvements, and twists that made the 2023 version so much better. It makes the 1996 original feel like a treasured time capsule. The 2023 is a fabulously modern way to introduce this tale to new audiences. This is without even mentioning the incredible soundtrack, where composer Yoko Shimomura somehow accomplishes the feat of improving upon her own unparalleled work. Of course, those who enjoyed her original 16-bit soundtrack also have the option to switch to it at any time in the pause menu.
Super Mario RPG is a beautiful reimagining of an all-time classic. For as many jumps as Mario has made in the RPG world in the decades since his Super Nintendo days, this game is proof that there's still no adventure quite like the first.
This review is based on a Nintendo Switch code provided by the publisher. Super Mario RPG will release on Nintendo Switch on Friday, November 17 for $59.99 USD. The game is rated E10+.
Super Mario RPG (2023)
- New art style adds to the presentation beautifully
- New visual cues make combat more intuitive
- Triple Moves are a fun new addition
- Story and gameplay still hold up
- Post-game rematches are cleverly designed
- New combat additions can make the story feel too easy
- Performance hitches at various points
Ozzie Mejia posted a new article, Super Mario RPG review: Wishing upon the seven stars
The OG game is a Core Memory. Practically it's own mind palace within a mind palace. Allowance money turned directly into pure joy and happiness that has lasted a lifetime.
Those changes sound cool, and hopefully there is room for future improvement with balancing. The post game stuff is also totally unexpected and very welcome!