Nintendo and Square. Square and Nintendo. While these two groups currently seem to be on less than amiable terms, there was once a time when they actually worked together with surprising ease. Normally it would be Square providing the game and Nintendo providing the hardware, but just before the two companies went their separate ways, Squaresoft agreed to take a Nintendo character and RPG-ize him. In a strange and unexpected move, the world was exposed to Mario, master of Mushroom Kingdom, in RPG form. While some predicted it to be a sign of the coming apocalypse, others played it and found it to be an interesting, if overly cute, little Squaresoft production. Here's my review.
Just as the moon shall always appear in the night sky until the end of its days, and the tide shall fall and rise until a similar point is reached, so shall Princess Toadstool eternally follow the pattern of being caught by Bowser while walking out in the open only to be rescued by Mario. Needless to say, on one bright, sunny day, Peach was captured by the great lizard king and her Italian hero came to the rescue. After busting through the gates to Bowser's Keep, Mario quickly decimated the guards, found the vile turtle, and stomped him into oblivion with ease. However, this seemingly unending cycle was broken moments later.
Out of the heavens, Mario noticed that seven strange stars fell, followed by a massive sword that plunged into the castle and sent our characters flying. After a short recovery from the nasty fall, Mario returned to the reptilian retreat, only to find that the bridge was now out and that the entrance was unobtainable. Where is Princess Toadstool now? What is to be deciphered from these falling celestial beings? When did Mario learn to punch? Why doesn't Bowser just give up and leave these people alone? How long did it take him to make that cool hovercraft clown head? The answers to these questions and many more lie in Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars! (insert dramatic gong here)
Before I get into anything else, let me just mention that this game seemed mighty impressive when it first came out, showing that Squaresoft was now going for 3D games and prophesying the coming of Final Fantasy VII, the RPG that changed RPGs forever. Boasting some of the most eye-meltingly impressive graphics ever to grace the 16-bit system, Super Mario RPG is without a doubt the best looking RPG for the SNES and arguably the best looking game for it, period.
In combat or simply walking around the Mario-esque landscapes, the game is surprisingly crisp and detailed and features a healthy frame rate as well, allowing character motions that no other RPG at the time could compete with. Everything is extremely bright and colorful, not to mention laced with old Mario symbols like mushrooms, fire flowers, and stars. Depending on what equipment you have, some games make your character's appearance change. Mario RPG trumps all of them. Depending on what weapon you have, your character will perform an entirely different attack animation.
The character and monster designs are slightly less impressive though. While there are a handful of rather creative villagers and villains alike to see, others just seemed a bit unoriginal, even if they were outstandingly 3D. Special attack and spell effects suffered the same ailments, having gusto but lacking any real ingenuity. Still, the game blew my socks off when I first saw it, and it certainly outdid more than a few early PlayStation titles with ease.
Backing up this utterly awesome eye candy was a wonderful soundtrack that ranks #2 in my favorites for the SNES. Created by Yoko Shimomura (whose other works include Parasite Eve and Legend of Mana), every song is either a completely revamped remake of an old Mario classic or a surprisingly fitting original. It's all very bright and cheery with one or two exceptions, but it's far above average.
Even if the quality isn't quite your taste, the quantity makes up for it. With multiple boss tunes, a different song for almost every area of the game, and one of my favorite final battle songs ever, the only thing that could really get to you would be the mildly annoying battle music. Of course, even if you hate everything else, there are a few hidden Squaresoft classics for the attentive ear to find, giving a nice little Easter egg to any Final Fantasy fans.
As for sounds, these were surprisingly bland. There was the good old Mario jump effect, the fireball-chucking noise, a variety of sounds for special moves, and a few extras as well, but after the other impressive performances, it just seemed a little weak. Nothing is seriously wrong with these, but I was hoping for a bit more than simply the sounds of the original Super Mario games.
So far we have an awe-inspiring visual show and praiseworthy audio, but what of the gameplay? Don't worry, because Mario provides this in abundance. At first, the game seems to be nothing more than your usual RPG fare. As you move throughout the highly 3-dimensional areas, you can see the enemies before encountering them, allowing you to choose your battles for the most part.
Once in battle, combat is turn based with order decided by the characters' speed. There are the usual Fight, Special Ability, Defend, Run Away, and Item commands to choose from, but there are a few other added ideas. Timed Attacks can be deployed, allowing you to press the Attack button at a certain point in order to inflict extra damage. The same goes for receiving attacks, where proper button mashing can save you a few HP.
Special Attacks also contain some original concepts. For starters, all characters share one stockpile of FP (flower points) to use, forcing you to ask yourself which character has the most important abilities. This amount is increased through a multitude of bizarre methods, but as long as you keep your eyes open, you should manage to pick up quite a few FPs along the way.
Next, you have to realize that each character's abilities focus on a certain thing. Princess has mainly healing or status attacks, Mario focuses entirely on offense, Bowser contains a mixture of status and offensive attacks, etc. Finally, each ability usually has some sort of interactive added effect. Button mashing, timed attacks, and other actions on your part can increase the power of your attacks greatly.
Sadly, the game provides only about a half dozen special moves for each character, and the combat system suffers from battles being far too easy. Even near the end of the game I encountered enemies doing 1 point of damage. Don't expect to see the Game Over screen too often, unless you go after some of the game's side quests.
Mario RPG's biggest attraction, though, is its countless mini games. I have never seen any cartridge pack so many extras into one title, with the exception of Paper Mario. Whether its chasing beetles, Yoshi racing, treasure chest hunting, hiding from Snifits, platform hopping races, a cheesy Gameboy handheld mini-game, or an ever-popular rendition of Look the Other Way, it will take you many, many hours before you manage to find and master each of the game's little side activities. Some of these are easy, some of these are hard, and some of these are so diabolically unholy in their difficulty that you'll be tempted to smash your system in with a sledgehammer to stop the madness. When that happens, you know it's good.
However, no Mario game would be a Mario game without a few areas requiring well-performed jumps and platform navigating, and Mario RPG is no exception. A poorly executed leap can often force you to fight extra battles, miss out on items, or even make you redo portions of the level. Although it isn't quite as big an element as it was in the other non-RPG Mario titles, it still makes up a good portion of it from time to time.
Adding a slightly sour note to my review, we have the storyline. What is there to say? Well, for starters, there isn't much of one. Mario tries to rescue Princess. Evil bad guys show up and ruin this plan. Mario wanders the world for seven stars that will stop the evil bad guys. Mario kills all the evil bad guys with his friends. Everyone lives happily ever after. The end.
Now, while this may seem like a serious problem to most of you, don't judge it too harshly yet. There is a silver lining to this pitiful storm cloud, and that would be the characters. Along with Mario, Princess, and Bowser, your other allies include Mallow, the cute little frog that doesn't look like a frog, and Geno, the gun-totin' being from above who came down from heaven to blow stuff up.
Along the way you'll meet a collection of other assorted odds and ends (mostly odds), but even without those extras the cast is adorable enough to hold its own. Although they hardly develop beyond their opening stories, those little guys will be hard to forget and you can expect to chuckle once or twice along the way. It's an old and cutesy story done in that wonderful Squaresoft way that almost makes it good.
Finally, we have controls. As far as 16-bit 3D titles go, Mario RPG fares very well. The major points of such a game are met with 8-directional movement, shadows showing where objects in space are, and an easy-to-control jump. It takes a minute or two to get used to Mario leaping around, but you shouldn't have too much trouble at any point in the game. Controls are fine and dandy.
Although not one of Squaresoft's finer achievements, Mario RPG is, well, an RPG. And it is interesting; don't get me wrong. It's just that Mario is not one to be placed in an RPG under most circumstances. The game itself is brilliant though and not even the awkward story could take that away. Any Square fan that can stand a bit of cutesy would be well advised to get it, and even if you normally steer clear of such games it wouldn't be a total loss. Perhaps it's not a classic, but it is definitely a milestone in graphical technology and probably changed the way that Square thought about 3D. All in all, it's a good game for Mario fans and a worthy effort all around.